The Christian Orthodox Church is often a mystery to the “man on the street.” Trying to understand it through the lens of Roman Catholicism or Protestantism can be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Misconceptions abound. Therefore this article will address what the Orthodox Church is NOT.
1. We are not “Greek”
Of course there are Orthodox Christians who are Greek … especially in Greece! And the phrase “Greek Orthodox” is sometimes used by scholars since, even before the time of Christ, the universal language of the Roman Empire was Greek.
However, Orthodox missionary activity has always encompassed a multitude of ethnicities, and our official policy is to use the indigenous language of the people. This was the case, for instance, when Orthodox monks from Russia were the first to bring the gospel to the native Alaskan people in 1794. Today, the Orthodox Church has a growing presence around the world including England and Western Europe, South America, Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, China, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
The membership of Three Hierarchs Orthodox Church in Wenatchee consists overwhelmingly of American-born converts to the faith. (My ancestors came from Lebanon in the early 190’s. I don’t speak Greek!). English is used in all services and gatherings.
2. We are not a divided group of ethnic denominations
The Orthodox Church is a worldwide communion of united, regional churches sharing the same doctrine, worship and spirituality. Just as in biblical times, the churches of Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica were all one church under the common faith and administration of the apostles, so the Orthodox churches, whether in Jerusalem, Germany or Japan, form one church.
In America, Orthodox immigrants attached the name of their country of origin to their church name (e.g. “Greek Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox”), a confusing and misleading practice. Some held tightly to their ethnicity. In spite of this, all the Orthodox churches in America share “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).
3. We are not “Roman Catholic”
In the year 1054 AD, a fracture occurred between the churches of the western Roman Empire under the bishop (“Pope”) of Rome, and the eastern churches, represented by the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Eastern churches could not accept the pope’s novel assertion of universal authority over the entire church. This “Great Schism” eventually led to two distinct Christian communions. Five hundred years later, in the West, the Reformation led to an ever-increasing number of separate denominations.
The Orthodox Church does not have a pope and has never believed in purgatory, indulgences or the immaculate conception of Mary. The underlying theological differences, however, are even more profound. Suffice it to say that in some important ways (e.g. original sin, satisfaction atonement, etc.), Catholics and Protestants share more in common than do the Orthodox with either.
4. We do not “worship” icons
Icons (holy images) came to play an integral part in the life of the historical church. While in the Old Testament God forbade “graven images,” he commanded that holy images be made and used in his temple. God even ordained that Moses speak with him “face to face” between two carved images of Cherubim.
In the New Testament, Jesus is called “the icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Since “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), the early Christians believed it was right and useful to depict him as a testimony to his presence in their midst. Thus, the word of God was not only heard with the ears but also seen with the eyes. The events of the Bible are also depicted in icons along with the great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) throughout the centuries.
When Orthodox Christians show reverence to icons, they do so to show honor to the one depicted. When you kiss your spouse, you are not worshipping him or her as God. When you hold a picture of your relative to your heart in love, you are not making them an idol. Similarly, Orthodox Christians show their love for Christ (whom they worship as God) and his true followers (whom they revere as bearers of Christ) through their veneration of icons.
5. We are not “ritualistic”
Orthodox Christian worship involves the whole person, including the body and senses. It is filled with a vitality and profundity that can only be expressed through a liturgical form of worship in accord with the earliest Christian spirit and practice. Those who give it proper time find that it touches the deepest place of the heart and creates an extraordinary bond with other worshippers. This may not be initially apparent for those unaccustomed to it.
It is popular to hold that liturgical worship is “dead.” But liturgy is not dead. If that were the case, Jesus and the apostles would not have participated in the liturgical worship of the temple and synagogue.
Nor would it be taking place in heaven (see Isaiah 6, Rev. 4-5 as examples). Rather people may be spiritually dead.
The Orthodox Church has its share of spiritually dead people, but it is by no means a system of “ritual” designed to assuage a distant god; it is union with God in Christ. Orthodoxy does not see sin as a problem of guilt in need of punishment, but as an illness in need of medicine. The church is the “spiritual hospital.” God provides medicine through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. The human part is to open the heart to this medicine through repentance and faith. The Orthodox Christian way of life is simply a means to the healing and transformation of the human person through the medicine of God’s grace in the spiritual hospital of the church.
Rev. Michael Shanbour is pastor of the Three Hierarchs Orthodox Christian Church in Wenatchee.