for Evangelical Protestants
A number of our families here came from Evangelical, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopalian, Charismatic, and Pentecostal Christian backgrounds. The thing many of us shared was a longing for a deeper sense of wonder in worship and faith. Many of us longed to discover the faith of the early Church and discovered it in the Holy Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church (“the original Christian Church”). Following are some facts that may help you on your visit.
What is the “The Orthodox Church”?
The Eastern Orthodox Church is also referred to as The Orthodox Church. It is the second-largest Christian group in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, unless you consolidate all 20,000 + Protestant denominations and non-denominational groups. Estimates of the number of worldwide Orthodox Christians range from 250 million to 350 million. Estimates of American members are over one million and the Orthodox Church is one of the fastest – growing Christian churches in America, drawing a rising numbers of converts from Evangelical and other Christian faith traditions.
Holy Ascension Orthodox Church is a local parish within the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The North American Antiochian Archdiocese is currently comprised of over 300 parishes in the U.S. and Canada, with our Archbishop in the New York City area. It is historically and spiritually connected to the ancient See of Antioch, one of the five historical centers of ancient Christendom (along with Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria). You may recall the text in Acts 11:26, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The Antiochian Patriarchate traces its historic roots all the way back to this pre-New Testament church founded by St. Paul himself. In fact, the Patriarchate still sits on a “street called Straight” (Acts: 9:11).
Where did the Orthodox Church originate?
Jesus Christ founded His Church through the Apostles. By the grace received from God at Pentecost, the Apostles established the Church throughout the ancient world. St. Paul founded the Church of Antioch; St. Peter and St. James, the Church of Jerusalem; St. Andrew the Church of Constantinople; St. Mark, the Church of Alexandria; St. Peter and St. Paul, the Church of Rome. For one thousand years the Church was one, unbroken and undivided. After the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. when the Latin church tragically separated from eastern Christendom (at Constantinople), the eastern, non-Oriental churches became known as the “Eastern Orthodox Church” to distinguish them from what subsequently became known as the “Roman Catholic Church”.
Isn’t the “historic Church” Roman Catholic the original Christian Church?
The “headquarters” of the ancient Christian faith was in fact not Rome but in the Eastern world. The apostles founded forty – four Local Churches in the East (and only two in the West). It was from the East (not from Rome) that the apostles and Paul were sent out with the Gospel. The West was not a center of the early Christian movement – it was the “mission field”. For over 1,000 years, with the exception of Rome, all the major centers of Christian belief were found in the East – in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.
All the fundamental dogmas regarding the faith were formulated and defended in the East – essential dogmas like Christ being “of the same essence” with the Father; that Christ is fully God and fully human; that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person; and the nature of the Trinity.
The first schools of Biblical interpretation, Antioch and Alexandria, were in the East. Their perspectives of interpretation still influence much of our understanding of the Scriptures today.
The Eastern Roman Empire was the site for all the Ecumenical Church Councils (that is, the first seven from 325 to 787 A.D.) which formulated doctrines which Christians of all traditions accept as normative. The overwhelming majority of the bishops present at those councils were Eastern as well.
Do Orthodox Christians have a “Pope”?
The Roman Catholic Church tragically broke from the Eastern churches in 1054 A.D. largely over the issue of the encroaching authority of the Roman Pope by the western church. The eastern churches consistently rejected this encroachment for 1,000 years of Christian history. The Orthodox Church does not have a single leader. It is organized into “jurisdictions” following national and historic lines, based on the early Church model of conciliar church leadership (meeting in councils or synods) seen in the Book of Acts. Each group is governed by synods (councils of bishops) who have equal authority and who do not interfere in one another’s affairs. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the “Ecumenical” (or universal) Patriarch, and since the schism has enjoyed a position of special honor among the Orthodox communities. But, he does not have the right, for example, to interfere in the internal affairs of other Churches. His position resembles that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
What is Orthodox Christian hope based on?
Our entire hope is Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul says: “…by the commandment of God our Savior, and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope,” (1 Tim. 1:1). We receive and will receive everything through him. Our Lord Himself teaches: “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13) We recognize here the sovereign grace of God, since it was given through Christ, as Scripture says: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Our hope is based on this grace. But we also have our part to play! First, there is the following of God’s will, that is, the commandments. Christ himself tells us: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14: 21) Second, through the communion of the holy mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, through which Christ the Lord abides. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6: 56) And third through persevering prayer, as the Apostle Paul teaches: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”[Jude: 20-21)
How does the Orthodox Church understand “salvation”?
Eastern Orthodox find that Western Christian doctrines of sin and salvation have been overly dominated by legal, juridical and forensic language and categories. By this we mean the West’s almost exclusive use of terms of divine law and justice to describe salvation; ideas that are perhaps taken from the context of Roman civil law. While we affirm the legal metaphors used by Saint Paul, we contend legal concepts should not be allowed to dominate as they have in the West, but should be balanced among the many other biblical metaphors used to describe the redemptive work of Christ. An example of how far removed the Christian East and West are in this area is the fact that the doctrine of justification by faith (how guilty people can stand before a just God or Judge), so prevalent in the West, is almost entirely absent in the East. Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt, as on mortality (ie. death) as the main problem of humanity. We tend to see the work of Christ more in therapeutic, healing, renewal or rescue terms than on juridical, legal terms.
Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘You are gods’; you are all sons of the Most High’” 2 Peter 1:4, says, “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that though them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria commenting on 2 Peter 1: 4 tells us that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become God – like, “by participation”. This process of transformation or renewal into God’s image and likeness (“by participation”) is how Orthodox Christians understand the full meaning of salvation. A person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, salvation therefore is not seen primarily as an adherence to certain dogmas, or not merely an external imitation of Christ through moral efforts, but union with the living God, the total transformation of the human person by divine grace and glory – what the Greek fathers termed “deification” or “divinization”.
Orthodox Christianity and the Bible
Orthodox Holy Tradition, theology, Liturgy and the Holy Scriptures are intertwined. They all speak of the same Orthodox Christian life and faith. They come from the same apostolic and patristic sources of the early Church. Frankly, it is barely possible to fully understand the Bible without understanding the historic, ecclesiastic, liturgical and theological context of the early Church. For example it was on the basis of a common knowledge of “authentic” Church Tradition that the church fathers of the pre-Reformation Church were able to agree on the content that became the New Testament biblical canon we have today. The canon was compiled from myriad ancient text sources, many of which were spurious or even heretical. As we affirm, the Bible was given to the historic Church. Orthodox services are saturated with the Holy Scriptures. The daily liturgical cycle of prayers of the church (“the hours”), beginning at evening Vespers through morning Matins, are primarily readings from the Psalms. The Divine Liturgy includes text and readings from the Epistles and the Gospel. Individual Orthodox devotion includes scripture reading, study and meditation.
Is Orthodox “Tradition” considered equal to or above the Bible?
The Orthodox Church sees the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative. However, Saint Paul in Thessalonians (2:15) wrote, “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” A Bible-only (Sola Scriptura) criteria, is ironically in conflict with the Scriptures. The Orthodox Church affirms that authentic Apostolic Tradition comes from the Holy Spirit in the Church. This is the same Spirit who inspired the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, whether oral or written.
What Are The Sources Of Orthodox “Tradition”?
There are five sources of what Orthodox call “Holy Tradition”. The first is Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The second source is the Liturgy, which includes the entire body of the Church’s common and public worship (including the sacraments of the Church). The third are the councils of the Church, the first one recounted in the Book of Acts (Acts 15), and their subsequent creeds and canons. The fourth are the Saints of the Church, especially the writings of a particular group of saints called the “church Fathers”. The fifth source of Church Tradition is Church art. Saint John of Damascus said that words written in books are “images”, as are material images like icons. Art is the use of the material to express the intangible and the revelation of God. These five basic sources are what comprise “Orthodox Tradition”, passed down from one generation to the next, from Christ to the Apostles, in written and unwritten forms.
How ancient are the Orthodox liturgical services?
Eastern Orthodox services trace their beginnings back to the Old Testament liturgical rites and services of the Hebrews. They are a treasury of Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and canons composed by the Saints and pious Christians throughout the ages. Like our Jewish predecessors, Orthodox services are liturgical, sacramental, and ceremonial. Many of the hymns you hear come from the Psalms. Most of them are sung or chanted, as has been the tradition since the days of Jewish – Christian practice. Some of the ancient document sources of the Orthodox liturgical order of service go back to the second (Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150) and third centuries (Hippolytus, c. 215 A.D.). Eastern liturgies went through development in the fourth and fifth centuries. They became stabilized in the sixth century, and by the eight century were so fixed that they have not changed even today.
Why is there so much emphasis on repentance in the Orthodox Church?
Some of the first words that Jesus spoke are recorded to be, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark: 1:15). Many Christians today seem to focus exclusively on “believe”, without remembering that Our Lord says first we must “repent”. Just as His command to “believe” is not understood by Orthodox Christians to be a one-time act, in the same way Orthodox Christians understand repentance to be a continuing command as well. The Orthodox attitude towards spirituality, its very “ethos”, reflects the attitude of the tax – collector, the sinner, as extolled by Christ Himself (Luke 18:10-14).
What do candles represent?
You will see candles burning before the icons and on the altar, signifying the light of truth given by the Lord, illuminating the world with spiritual radiance. Candles also represent the non-created light of the Holy Trinity, for the Lord dwells in an unapproachable light. They also represent the fire of Divinity which destroys our ungodliness and sins. Candles also symbolize our soul’s burning love of God and the spiritual joy and triumph of the Church. The candles before the icon of Christ signify that He is the True Light which lights every man that comes into the world.
Do you worship icons (graven images)?
Wall icons and artwork appeared in Jewish temples early in ancient history (note: Duros Europos Temple destroyed in the mid 200’s) even before their use in Christian churches. Because the Son of God took on human flesh and became incarnate as man in Jesus Christ, the Church decreed (not without much debate!) it was appropriate to portray the glory of God incarnate visually through icons. Icons are not idols or graven images (which depicted images of false gods), and their place in Christian worship and piety was clearly articulated, defended and approved at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church in the 8TH Century. Byzantine icon style may seem austere and strange at first. They are not meant to depict the natural beauty of the material world, but rather the spiritual beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven and its inhabitants (Saints). Icons are venerated, but not worshipped, by Orthodox Christians. This is a misunderstanding by some in modern Christendom, especially those who have been influenced by Puritan and Anabaptist traditions, and the Muslim tradition, which rejects any and all images.
Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos) and the Saints
In our services and in our piety we praise those who were with Christ on earth and whom we know to be “alive” in Christ’s presence now, although departed from the body (the saints)! Hebrews 12:1 writes, “…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” In God and His Church there is no division between the living and the departed. As we pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so we ask the faithful departed to pray for us and we continue to pray for them out of love.
After the Holy Trinity, we especially praise the Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek), the Blessed Virgin Mary. This veneration has a biblical basis (Luke 1: 28; 42-43; 48) and is due her because of her unique role as the “birth-giver” of God and the “bridge” (by giving Our Lord his physical birth and nature) between this world and the Kingdom of God. By giving honor to the Mother of God we honor the Son whom she bore. We never forget that Our Lord was truly incarnate, that He truly had a human Mother, and a real family history. As Saint Basil taught, we reject any notion that Mary was simply some sort of pipe or conduit through which water passes, which could be discarded after being used. Mary the birth-giver of God was specifically chosen by God before all time to bring forth, nurture and raise the Son of God. She is with Him now in the Kingdom of God. However, having said all that Orthodox Christians do not blur the line between God and the Mother of God, and worship is offered only to God.
Why do Orthodox faithful kiss the right hand of the priest?
This is done out of reverence and respect for the Holy Eucharist, not for the man. Saint John Chrysostom (one of Christianity’s greatest Church Fathers) wrote if one were to meet an Orthodox Priest walking along with an Angel, he should greet the Priest first and kiss his hand, since that hand has touched the Body and Blood of the Lord.
Why do you call the priest “Father” when the Bible says not to call any man “father”?
Orthodox interpret the “call no man father” passage (Matthew 23:9) specifically in the context of our Lord contending with certain rabbis of His day who were using these honorific titles to accomplish their own selfish, prideful and hypocritical ends. Had these same apostate rabbis been using other titles, like “reverend” and “pastor,” Jesus might as easily have said, “Call no man reverend or pastor.” His condemnation was not of the use of “father” (or any specific title) but of the hypocrisy and pride of the Pharisees and rabbis in their use of it. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:15. “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers…” St. Paul seems to claim to be the ‘Spiritual Father’ of the Corinthians, “begotten…through the gospel” St. Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus obviously did not interpret our Lord’s words to mean that only our Heavenly Father can be called “father”. In Luke 16:24 Jesus also tells us that the rich man cries out “Father Abraham, have mercy on me…” Abraham did not correct or criticize the rich man by saying, “call no man father”! Are we saying that the Apostle ignored Jesus? Are we saying our Lord Jesus Christ contradicted Himself and violated his own statements? We think not. Rather the passage must be understood in its specific context of condemning hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement and pride, rather than a universal condemnation of the use of “father”. Otherwise, if we took this verse literally, we would not call our earthly fathers “father”.
Is Orthodox Christianity ‘faith’ – based or ‘works’ – based?
The faith-works divide in the Protestant west reflects a decisive change in Christian theology that was largely a reaction against the use of “indulgences” by the Roman Catholic Church and their proper rejection by Martin Luther and the Reformers. The Orthodox Church believes the Reformers’ theology went too far however by driving a wedge between faith and works. The faith-works dichotomy does not exist biblically, or in the eastern Christian spiritual tradition. We are clearly called to have faith in God: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). But we are also exhorted to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And we are finally reminded that “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Perhaps the most sobering warning comes from Saint Paul who warns us of “the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2: 5-6). Orthodox theology and spirituality therefore emphasize a balance between faith and works.
What comes first – faith or works?
Since “…without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6), a Christian who wants to please God and be assured his works will be accepted by God, must first have faith in God and then form his life and activity accordingly. It is on the basis of our faith and our works that we will be judged!
What must the Orthodox Christian do to gain eternal life?
Have right faith and good works! Whoever has these two has certain hope of eternal salvation. As Scripture says: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) A little later in the same place: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.”(James 2:26) Elsewhere St. Paul says the same thing: “…having faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck.” (1 Tim. 1: 19)
What are the Holy Mysteries?
The early Church called the Sacraments of the Church, Holy Mysteries. Mystery is the reality through which the invisible grace of God is effected in or conferred upon the souls of the faithful under a perceptible form (sanctified matter). It was established by Christ as the means through which the faithful appropriate the grace of God.
What is the purpose of the Holy Mysteries?
That we might have remedies for removing our sins.
How many Mysteries or Sacraments does the Orthodox Church recognize?
Baptism. Anointing with Chrism. The Holy Eucharist. The Priesthood (both spiritual and sacramental). Penance-confession. Holy Matrimony. Healing consecration with oil.
What is the view of the Orthodox Church towards non-Orthodox Christians?
Saint Irenaeus said where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church. We believe there is only one earthly Church (“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” – the Nicene Creed). We know where the earthly Church is, but we cannot know for assurance where the Spirit of God may be outside of His Church. Orthodox Christians must not therefore presume to pass judgment on non-Orthodox Christians or their communities, think or speak triumphalistically about the Orthodox Church; but rather strive to live out their faith without compromise.
What does Orthodoxy teach about “free will”?
Free will is man’s unrestricted ability to decide from reason, which leads to doing good and evil. This reason was complete in its perfection during the state of man’s innocence (before the Fall), but became damaged on account of sin. However, although the will remained inclined to evil (after the Fall) it is still nevertheless able to choose to do good. St. Basil the Great: “From one’s intention and free will anyone can be holy or the opposite.” And in the Gospel of St John: “’But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God…”‘ (John 1:12). If this were not the case (use of free will) it would not be possible for St Paul to write of “the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds.’” (Rom. 2: 5-6).
Does the Orthodox Church teach a “pre-tribulation rapture”?
The Nicene Creed states that Jesus Christ, “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” Orthodox Christianity and the early Church teaches that the Lord will come once and for all (Matthew 25: 31). On that day everyone will receive eternal and perfect payment for their deeds. There is no-pre-tribulation “rapture” or a one thousand year reign in the Holy Scriptures, or taught by any church father, east or west. These heterodox teachings supposedly came through a dream someone had in the 18TH century and was subsequently promulgated by the Scofield Bible translators and adopted by certain Evangelical groups later.
Are the souls of the blessed in equal rank after death?
Just as souls depart from the world clearly unequal in grace (with some greater and some lesser), so too they are not found to be in the same rank after their departure from the world, in accord with the teaching of Christ: “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2). And elsewhere: “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” (Luke 7:47).
Do Orthodox teach an intermediate purgatory?
No Scripture makes mention of the fact that there is a temporal punishment that cleanses souls after death. In fact, the opinion of Origen was condemned because of this by the Church at the second Council of Constantinople. The soul can receive no sacraments after death; and if it were to make satisfaction for its sins, it would have to perform a part of the sacrament of holy Penance, which would be contrary to the orthodox teaching.
Why do Orthodox Christians pray for the departed?
Orthodox believe from the teaching of Sacred Scripture that we are obliged to pray to God on behalf of the departed out of love, to offer the Holy Eucharist for them in remembrance and to give alms on their behalf, since they cannot do this for themselves. We leave the results – or whether there is efficacy in prayer for the departed – up to God and His mercy.
Blessed Theophylact speaks about this in explaining the words of the Lord:
For the sinners who die are not cast into hell (until the Final Judgment); but it rests in the power of God such that he may even pardon them. But I say this because of the sacrifices and almsgiving made for the sake of the dead, which works are of no small benefit even for those who have died in grave sins. It is not so certain, therefore, that God sends to hell one who has killed, but rather that he does have the power to send him. And so let us not cease working hard through almsgiving and prayers to win over him, who has indeed the power of sending, so that he may not use this power fully but be able to pardon.
Can non-Orthodox Christians receive the Holy Eucharist?
Orthodox priests may only serve the Holy Eucharist to baptized members in good standing of the canonical Orthodox Church, who have recently confessed, and fasted before partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This is the ancient tradition of the Holy Church for the 2,000 years of its history. The Orthodox Church understands the Holy Eucharist as a mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, not simply as a memorial, or merely in a spiritual sense, as many other non-Orthodox Christians do. Rather than trying to accommodate to often varying “interpretations” or revisions of this and other doctrines of the ancient faith, we simply ask that you respect the ancient, apostolic tradition and join us in receiving the Fellowship bread at the veneration of the cross, at the end of the Divine Liturgy.
Why would the Orthodox Church appeal to Americans?
The Orthodox Church is the original and historical church established by Jesus and His Apostles. Many Americans are looking for a sense of living continuity with the Church of ancient times. A stable faith rooted in apostolic tradition, apostolic succession, and the Bible! In fact this Church, which Jesus Christ Himself said would “prevail against the gates of Hades”, has in fact continued in unbroken succession, through the transmission of her faith and the succession of her bishops, from the day of Pentecost to the present. The Orthodox Church has survived steadfastly despite persecution and martyrdom and has never accepted any kind of change or innovation which contradicts earlier established doctrine, reached in consensus with the universal Church and led by the Holy Spirit. Her doctrines were clarified (and consequently, certain heresies were defined) at seven ecumenical councils held between the 4th and the 8th centuries. If you are looking for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, you found her! It is the Orthodox Church!