North Americans are familiar with Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and other modern Christian sects, but most are unfamiliar with Orthodoxy. A comprehensive study of the undivided Church of the first 1000 years of Christianity and what caused the changes and separations in the second 1000 years is necessary to understand this ancient faith. The following is only a brief overview.
An abbreviated history of Christianity
Jesus Christ established the beginnings of the Church and gave the apostles authority to represent Him and to build up His Church. The Apostles extended the authority of Jesus to others that succeeded them in teaching, worship and leadership. Their successors were called bishops. They have continued in direct apostolic inheritance to this day.The Church was persecuted initially, yet it still flourished. From Jerusalem it spread throughout the Roman Empire and into Asia and Africa.In the Roman Empire, all religious persecution had ended by 309. Soon after, Christianity became its favored religion. To keep the growing Church organized, so it could protect the truth, five primary churches were eventually set apart. Four were in the Empire’s eastern cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem and one was in its western city of Rome. Each had exclusive territories, which together covered all of Christendom. Each was called a “Patriarchate.” Each Patriarchate had a paternal bishop. All other churches were led by other bishops or their priests and were a part of one of the five Patriarchates. No bishop was permitted to interfere in matters outside of his own jurisdiction, unless his advice was requested. The Patriarchates, which were independently governed, were completely united as Christ’s One Church, but no “one” person was its absolute leader. When a major dogmatic controversy arose, bishops and others from all the Patriarchates assembled to clarify and defend the truth. The correct belief and worship was known as Orthodoxy.For the first thousand years, truth-believing Christians carefully guarded the Faith. Unfortunately, a complex series of events disrupted their unity and culminated with the take over of the Church of Rome by the domineering Western European Franks in 1009.In 1054, the bishop of Rome, who was called “pope”, insisted that an altered Western European concept of the Trinity, which did not conform to Christ’s Word, be a part of the Faith. He expected all Christians to accept this change without consulting the other Patriarchates. This pope, who was a Frank, no longer recognized the united bishops’ decision-making process when defining the Faith. He wanted everyone in Christendom to submit to his supreme authority as the Western Europeans had done. These unprecedented innovations, which had actually been repudiated by previous popes of Roman heritage, were rejected in the East. According to Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, Christ’s doctrines were not to be altered. Furthermore, all bishops were equal in spiritual matters. There was no universal head apart from Jesus Christ Himself.Because the Eastern Christians would not yield to the pope’s unprecedented demands, the undivided Church of the first 1000 years became separated. Sadly, Christianity has not been united since that time.After the Schism of 1054, Western Europeans followed an ever-changing Franco-Latin form of Christianity. The Christians in the East, as well as those in the British Isles and Ireland, continued to worship within the unblemished Apostolic Faith. The English were eventually compelled to give their allegiance to Rome after the papal-supported conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. Bishops loyal to Rome replaced bishops in England who had always worshiped and taught in the original, pure way. In 1171, the converted English crossed the Irish Sea and took control of Ireland. These two actions detached British and Celtic Christians from the original, unadulterated Faith.
Another Latin Christian aggression with staggering consequences would happen in the East during the 4th Crusade. In 1204, a Western Christian army would violate Eastern Christians and plunder their magnificent holy city of Constantinople. Muslim Turks would eventually overthrow the weakened city. It would never again regain its former Christian glory. The Pope of Rome recently asked Orthodox Eastern Christians forgiveness of this and other violations.
In the 16th century, a movement rapidly spread throughout Western Europe. Many Latin Catholics began to question the corruptible, excessive authority of the Papacy and its clergy. These protesters were either excommunicated or willingly broke away from papal control. This movement was called The Reformation. It ultimately led its followers to freedom from the Church of Rome. The intention of the early Reformers was to bring the medieval Church of Rome “back to its original apostolic beliefs.” Instead, the movement eventually developed and splintered into a number of groups with a variety of beliefs and became known as Protestantism.
From the 16th century to the present, the Church of Rome has continued with a changing faith. Other “Western Christians,” Protestants and additional modern Christian sects, directly or indirectly, inherited their faith from Rome. In their zeal to reject Rome’s authority and many of its innovations, they unknowingly pass over some of Christianity’s original foundations. Since the 16th century, Roman Catholic, Protestant and other newer Christian expressions have dominated Western Europe and the New World. During much of this period, Eastern Christians were overcome by oppressive non-Christian or atheistic regimes, yet they continued to worship within the unaltered Faith. The Orthodox Faith has always been the principal Christian faith of Eastern European and Eastern Mediterranean.
What exactly is the Orthodox Church?
It is many self-governing churches, including the four ancient Eastern Patriarchates, which are united by the original, unchanged Faith. These churches can trace their origin and conformity to the Faith, in unbroken continuity, to one of Christ’s Apostles or to a Church established by one of the direct-line of apostolic communities. Orthodoxy places the Scriptures at the forefront of its faith, but it adheres to the interpretation of the “Greek Scriptures”, by the consensus of the Fathers of the early Church, as the true “Word of God.” The Orthodox Church, which is fluent in the Greek language of the early Church, believes that an organization that teaches any deviation from the original Faith is a disconnected arm of the One Church of Christ. However, it also believes that an individual who is unfamiliar with the unaltered Faith and the One Church, could, by the way of their life and the mercy and love of God, be a part of the “Body of Christ.”
Why is the Orthodox Church important?
It is the Church that is the unblemished continuation of the Church established by Jesus Christ to provide the medicine necessary to heal mankind of its “spiritual illness.” It is the Church of the apostles and their successors who have handed down the truth; spoken, active and written. It is the Church of the Early Fathers who wrote about the beliefs and worshipping practices of the first Christians before the New Testament Scriptures were formulated. It is the Church that brought the New Testament Scriptures to mankind in their originality. It is the Church wh
ose bishops, in the late 4th century, approved the Scriptures that had been selected to make up the New Testament Bible. It is the Church that can properly understand and interpret the Scriptures it produced, in its original language, with God’s inspiration and Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition is understood as the foundation for Scripture, not as an independent source of religious truth. It is the Church, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit to deal with and clarify challenges to the original, authentic Faith and the original Scriptures through the consensus of the “Holy Fathers” and the defining decisions of the “Great Councils.” It is the Church whose apostolic clergy are responsible to the truth of Christ and are servants to His people, not a special privileged class. It is the Church that has been extremely careful not to blur the definition of the “original” Faith or the good order of Christ’s “One” Church. What is Orthodoxy’s mission?
The mission of Orthodoxy is not to assail the goodness and sincerity of non-Orthodox Christians and to seek the kind of triumphalism that has sharply divided Christianity in the past. Its mission is to call all mankind, through the spirit of love and concern, to the “knowledge” of the Faith before any additions or subtractions were made.
Why is Orthodoxy so unknown in North America?
The vast majority of the early colonists who came to make their homes in the New World were from Western Europe. They wanted to be free to live and worship in their own way without fear or threat of recrimination from either political or religious dictums. Still they came with the convictions of the religious environment of the Western Europe that they left.
In 1794AD, Russian missionaries brought Orthodox Christianity to the indigenous people of Alaska. However, Orthodoxy was not established in the U.S. or Canada until Orthodox latecomers from Eastern European and Eastern Mediterranean countries finally arrived. They were often ignored as a foreign minority. Rather than mingle with the established culture religiously, Orthodox Christians tended to maintain their Old World ethnic identity even to the point of retaining their native languages in their worship. People who visited their churches were often unable to understand what was said or done. Even so, many of them commented on the beauty and spirituality of the services.
The Orthodox Church in today’s Christianity
Almost 2000 years ago, Christ came into the world to free mankind from death and sin. He provided “The Way” to draw us back into communion with God. For 1000 years, the undivided apostolic churches, Christ’s New Testament Church, worshiped within His doctrines. Although heresies attempted to invade His Church, the truth of Christ prevailed. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the second millennium, changes developed in Western Europe and eventually also in the New World that caused divisions in Christianity. Because of the discrepancies in Christianity today, a number of present-day Christians have felt the need to investigate its history and the worshiping practices of the early Christians in order to discern when and why differences have occurred. Usually, their focus has been to determine if these differences should be an issue as long as submission to Christ and the main points of Christianity are followed. However, many of these researchers unearthed some interesting information. They discovered writings by Early Church Fathers that describe an Apostolic Faith unlike most of today’s Christianity. They encountered innovations to the early Faith that have been variously accepted in the West from the 11th century to the present. Many of these innovations have been founded upon mistranslation of the Greek Scriptures and also upon misinterpretations.
Contrary to the belief of many modern Christians, the Church that produced the New Testament is not dead. Christ’s ancient Church, which worshiped God before the New Testament Scriptures were written, still exists today as His contemporary, unchanged Church. Although this Church does not believe that membership in it or any other visible church organization guarantees salvation, it does believe the surest way to stay in communion with God is to forever strive for “selfless love” through the pure, active “Faith of His Apostles.” The ancient Church, which has struggled with persecution, heresy, schism and political oppression, yet has never altered the “doctrines of Christ or the beliefs and worshipping practices of His Apostles,” is the historic Orthodox Church.
With renewed vision, the Church that brought Orthodoxy to North America is now bringing North America to Orthodoxy. Constantly, people are being introduced to the Orthodox Church. New “English language” churches are beginning in cities and towns from coast to coast and established churches are making the transition to English services. Orthodoxy has also been discovered through recent interest and research into early Christianity by non-Orthodox churches, colleges and universities.
In the first 1000 years of Christianity, almost all Christians observed the Orthodox Faith, yet it eventually became unknown to the West. It can be understandably difficult and unusual for first time visitors. However, many people who have come to understand early Christianity as a mystical journey to holiness have turned to the ancient Faith. A number of Roman Catholics, Protestants, Non-Denominationalists and others, including many of their clergy, have recently come to Orthodoxy.
These new converts, who could not find Christ’s “One” unchanged Church or His unaltered Faith theologically, philosophically or through mistranslated and misinterpreted Scripture, discovered His unchanged Church could only be found “historically” and then His pure Faith was found “experientially” with the restorative activities of “His Holy Church.” After experiencing the worshiping practices of the ancient Church, with its “spiritual mysticism” for the healing of the soul, they have concluded that much of Christianity today has a variety of “mankind’s changes.” Therefore, by finding Christ’s uncorrupted Church, the converts believe they have found the “unadulterated way” to worship God within the “fullness” of His uncorrupted Faith. Maybe these are the reasons why the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1995, found the Orthodox Church to be the “fastest growing Christian Church in North America.”
You are cordially invited to come and learn about the “distinctive” Orthodox Faith that has been deeply felt by its adherents throughout the ages. Experience the spiritual beauty of its worshiping services and the rich heritage that echoes from the walls of its churches.