Saturday, February 8, 2014

Going to see the oldest Christian church, the Eastern Orthodox Church

I hear two questions coming out of your mouth:
  1. Isn't the Catholic Church the oldest Christian church out there?
  2. Didn't you say you were going to go to the Greek Orthodox Church, not the Eastern Orthodox Church?
The answer to both of those is, yes.

1. The Catholic Church is the oldest continuously practiced Christian church. But so is the Eastern Orthodox Church, as is a collection of churches known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches. You see, these three bodies were originally one Church when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and elevated the previously underground Christian Church to the level of a state religion. In 451 the Oriental Orthodox split from the main body of Christians. I could go into that topic, but there are no Oriental Orthodox Churches in Utah, so sadly, I'm not going to address them here.

However, the Christian Church continued as a unified body throughout the East and West of the Roman Empire. The two parts of the Empire developed different traditions, the West was Latin in language and culture, the East was Greek in language and culture.

The power in this church was vested in bishops. Five bishops were given a special title of "patriarch." These five patriarchs were, in order of importance, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. All were merely bishops with added titles due to their historic importance and a larger sphere of influence politically over matters of church and state.

In the West, the Bishop of Rome, commonly known as the Pope, was also the Patriarch of Rome. Over time he consolidated power in the West and became the most important political and religious figure claiming he was the successor to Peter the Apostle, therefore the most important bishop of all of them. The patriarchs in the East disagreed with this completely.

In 1054, the cultural and political differences between the two parts of the Church became too much for either side to handle and they excommunicated each other. Since that time, they have been two separate and distinct churches with differences in doctrine, practice, and governance. Neither is older than the other, nor did they start new churches, simply split an already existing church into two factions.

2. The Greek Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church is a union of national churches divided over cultural and national differences, but united in doctrine and discipline. These churches include, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, the Latvian Orthodox Church, etc. Members of these churches use different languages and have different cultural traditions in their services, but they are all considered members of the same Church. A person who is Russian Orthodox can attend and fully participate at a Greek Orthodox church and vice versa with no issue.

So, here are some unique things about the Eastern Orthodox Church:

Differences between them and Catholics:
  • No single head of the Church, all bishops are seen as equal spiritually though some have more honorific titles and power.
  • They do not believe in Purgatory.
  • They do not believe in Original Sin (the belief that all mankind bears the original guilt of Adam) instead they believe that Adam's fall caused mankind to be inclined to a sinful nature, but that we aren't guilty of sin from the moment of our birth.
  • They believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from the Father and the Son. This probably means nothing to anyone reading this blog. Nonetheless, this was one of the big reasons the two churches split. Silly isn't it?
  • Their priests may be married and have families as may their deacons. Their bishops; however, are celibate.
  • They ordinarily baptize by immersion (this includes babies), though if the need arises, they will baptize by pouring water on the head like Catholics ordinarily do.
  • They use leavened bread and red wine in their liturgy. Catholics use unleavened bread and the wine used can be red or white as long as it is grape wine.
  • They don't use three dimensional art, instead they use two dimensional icons in their worship and this is a rich tradition with them.
  • Their Church and doctrine is far more mystical where the Catholic Church and doctrine are legalistic.
  • There are many other minor differences. Most of them are cultural. Their liturgy is very similar to and also quite different from a Catholic Mass.
Differences between them and mainstream Protestants/Evangelical Christians:
  • Like the Catholics, they believe in a priesthood that has been passed down to them from the Twelve Apostles. They believe this priesthood is necessary to carry out the functions of the Church.
  • Salvation for them is not through faith alone. Salvation for them is a divine mystery alive in sacraments, the Grace of God, and good works. They do not attempt to explain how man is saved but rather focus on communing with God.
  • They have a very complex liturgy with lots of historical tradition built up over many centuries and eschew innovation, whereas many Protestant services are simple often with modern music.
  • Like Catholics, they have monks and nuns.
  • They do not see the use of icons in their services and worship as idolatry as they are not worshiping the image, but honoring the one the image represents.
  • Additionally, they believe in the intercession of saints, which is asking saints to pray to God for you as they believe the Church does not end at death and that the dead can still benefit from our prayers and pray for us.
  • Like Catholics, they believe that the bread and wine at communion become the literal body and blood of Christ, though they offer no explanation for this, instead they say that it is a divine mystery mankind cannot explain.
  • Only members of their church may participate in Communion.
  • Like Catholics and Protestants, they have sacraments called the Great Mysteries. Unlike Catholics and Protestants, they do not number them to 7 or 2 but instead say the whole life of the Church is the Mysteries. Therefore they practice, among other things, baptism, confirmation, communion, confession of sin to a priest, anointing the sick, ordaining clergy, and marriage.
  • For them, Christ's main purpose was not to atone for mankind's sins. Christ's death on the cross did free man from sin and death they teach, but they also teach that Christ became man not to repay a vengeful God hellbent on punishing mankind, but so that mankind might become God. Not in the sense that mankind will become God himself or gods, but that they will be united within God forever.
I'm kind of excited to go back to this one. I used to attend this church many years ago. This Church was my first stop on the way out of Mormonism. I was never officially a member, and ended up Catholic instead before I lost faith in religion entirely.

I learned a lot about this religion and a lot about Greek culture from attending the church. I was and am still friends with the daughters of a Greek Orthodox priest and lived in their house temporarily while I was having issues with my family. I still consider their family to be a second family to mine, though they have since moved out of state and I don't talk to them as much as I would like.

This one is going to be nostalgic for me, but not in the way the Catholic Church was, and I don't think it will play with my head the same way. I'm very much looking forward to it. Tune in to see if it was as good of an adventure as I hoped.

Until then, peace be with you.


  1. The theme of your blog is really neat! I have enjoyed reading your experiences as you visit different churches each week.

    I am a former Independent Fundamental Baptist (skirt-wearing, door-knocking, KJB only--don't call the King James Bible a "version" or you're anathema, lol ;-)), former Catholic (preferring the Tridentine Latin Mass and Eastern Catholic Rites), now Eastern Orthodox Christian and an American expat living in the Middle East. I have friends from all different faiths and walks of life and love seeing life through their eyes.

    I just wanted to clarify one thing you said about Eastern Orthodoxy You wrote:

    "The Eastern Orthodox Church is a union of national churches divided over cultural and national differences, but united in doctrine and discipline."

    Hmm. Not exactly. I'm an Antiochian Orthodox Christian. I didn't know Antioch was a country. ;-)

    Actually, the Eastern Orthodox Church is a united collection of autocephalous and autonomous churches (not "national churches") whose offspring originally descended from the apostolic patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria.

    A subtle and probably boring distinction for you and most of your readers, but an important one for accuracy nevertheless.

    Blessings! :-)

  2. Thanks for your words, and I'm happy to hear that you're in a place you love now! I actually do know about the autocephalous churches. It was just easier to explain it to lay people as a union of national churches as many break along those lines. Basically, I didn't want to explain autocephaly and autonomy to readers.

    On a different note, I'd like to hear about your religious journey and what led you to where you are today. Let me know if you'd like to talk about that.