The Orthodox Church is the one Church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles, begun at the day of Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit in the year 33 A.D. It is also known (especially in the contemporary West) as the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Greek Orthodox Church. It may also be called the Orthodox Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian Church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, or simply the Church.
As with its Apostolic succession, the faith held by the Church is that which was handed by Christ to the apostles. Nothing is added to or subtracted from that deposit of faith which was “handed once for all to the saints” (Jude 3). Throughout history, various heresies have afflicted the Church, and at those times the Church makes dogmatic pronouncements (especially at ecumenical councils) delineating in new language what has always been believed by the Church, thus preventing the spread of heresy and calling to repentance those who rend asunder the Body of Christ. Its primary statement of faith is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth and founded the Church, through His Apostles and disciples, for the salvation of man. In the years which followed, the Apostles spread the Church and its teachings and founded many churches, all united in faith, worship, and the partaking of the Mysteries (or as they are called in the West, the Sacraments) of the Holy Church. The churches founded by the Apostles themselves include the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome and Constantinople. The Church of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark, the Church of Antioch by St Paul, the Church of Jerusalem by Ss. Peter and James, the Church of Rome by Ss. Peter and Paul, and Church of Constantinople by St Andrew. Those founded in later years through the missionary activity of the first churches were the Churches of Sinai, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and many others.
Each church has always had independent administration, but, with the exception of the Church of Rome, which finally separated from the others in the year 1054, are united in faith, doctrine, Apostolic tradition, sacraments, liturgies, and services. Together they constitute what is called the “Orthodox Church”, literally meaning “right teaching” or “right worship”, derived from two Greek words: orthos, “right,” and doxa, “teaching” or “worship.”
The Orthodox Church historically stands in direct continuity with the earliest Christian communities founded in regions of the Eastern Mediterranean by the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The destiny of Christianity in those areas was shaped by the transfer in 320 AD of the imperial capital from (Old) Rome to (New “Rome”) Constantinople by Constantine I. As a consequence, during the first Eight Centuries of Church history, most major cultural, intellectual, and social developments in the Christian church also took place in that region; for instance, all ecumenical councils of that period met either in, or near Constantinople.
Missionaries, coming from Constantinople, converted the Slavs and other peoples of Eastern Europe to Christianity (Bulgaria, 864; Russia, 988) and translated Scripture and liturgical texts into the vernacular languages used in the various regions. Thus, the liturgy, traditions, and practices of the church of Constantinople were adopted by all and still provide the basic patterns of contemporary Orthodoxy. Developments were not always consistent with the evolution of Western Christianity, where the bishop of Rome, or pope, came to be considered the successor of the apostle Peter and head of the universal church by divine appointment. Eastern Christians were willing to accept the pope only as first among patriarchs. This difference explains the various incidents that grew into a serious estrangement. One of the most vehement disputes concerned the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, which the Western church added unilaterally to the original text.
The schism came slowly. The first major breach came in the Ninth century when the Pope refused to recognize the election of Photius as patriarch of Constantinople. Photius in turn challenged the right of the papacy to rule on the matter and denounced the filioque clause as a Western innovation.
The growing disputes between East and West reached another peak in 1054 AD, when mutual anathemas were exchanged. The sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade (1204 AD) intensified Eastern hostility toward the West.
Attempts at reconciliation at the councils of Lyon (1274 AD) and Florence (1438-39 AD) were unsuccessful. When the papacy defined itself as infallible (First Vatican Council, 1870 AD), the gulf between East and West grew wider. Only since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has the movement reversed, talks are bringing serious attempts at mutual understanding.
The Orthodox Church recognizes as authoritative the decisions of the seven ecumenical councils that met between 325 AD and 787 AD and defined the basic doctrines on the Trinity and the Incarnation. In later centuries Orthodox councils also made doctrinal definitions on Grace (1341 AD, 1351 AD) and took a stand in reference to Western teachings.
The Church keeps the early traditions of Christianity, infants receive the Eucharist and confirmation, and the episcopate and the priesthood are understood in the light of Apostolic succession. (Apostolic Succession is understood to be the passing on of the Holy Tradition by right-believing Bishops). Both married men and monks may become priests, but priests, bishops, and monks may not marry. The veneration of Mary, as Theotokos (Mother of God) is central to Orthodox Incarnational Theology, and the intercession of saints is also emphasized in the Orthodox Holy Tradition.
After an early controversy on the subject, the Icons, of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are now seen as visible witnesses to the fact that God has taken human flesh in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Liturgy used by the Orthodox Church has been translated from Greek into many languages. It is always sung, not just spoken. The faithful receive Holy Communion on a spoon. They are given both the consecrated bread (NIKA), and the sanctified wine from the gifts offered and sanctified at the given Divine Liturgy. Holy Communion is never taken from any “reserve.”
Monasticism, which had its origins in the Christian East (Egypt, Syria, Cappadocia), has since been considered in the Orthodox Church as a prophetic ministry of men and women, showing through their mode of life the action of the Holy Spirit. The monastic republic of Mount ATHOS, Greece, is still viewed among Orthodox Christians as a center of spiritual vitality.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches of today consist of a family of fourteen or fifteen autocephalous churches and five autonomous churches, sometimes referred to as jurisdictions. The number of autocephalous churches has varied in history. Autocephalous churches are fully self-governing in all they do, while autonomous churches must have their primates confirmed by one of the autocephalous churches, usually its mother church. All the Orthodox churches remain in full communion with one another, sharing the same faith and praxis. There have been occasional breaks in communion due to various problems throughout history, but they generally remain brief and not developing into full schism. It is hoped that the Great Schism, with the Church of Rome, will someday be mended too.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople is also the Ecumenical Patriarchate and has the status of “first among equals” among the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Church is not a centralized organization headed by a pontiff, but an organic community guided by the Holy Spirit in the world. The unity of the Church is visible in, and held together with, common faith and communion in the sacraments. No one but Christ himself is the real head of the Orthodox Church.