Frequently Asked Questions About The Orthodox Faith.
1. When Did the Orthodox Christian Church Begin?
Christ founded His Church on Pentecost, 33 A.D., described in Acts, Chapter 2, when the Apostle Peter first preached the Gospel of Jesus, and 3,000 people were baptized. The Orthodox Church traces its leadership and practices back to the apostles and their teachings. The head of the Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians I :22-23). While the Church has leadership in its Bishops, there is no single person who is an “earthly head” of the Church.
The Orthodox Church is the most ancient Christian Church on earth; thus, it has 2,000 years of unbroken continuity in its spiritual teaching and thought. This is not a church founded on one person’s interpretation of Scripture, or founded because of a division over doctrine or personalities. In Orthodoxy, truth is not negotiable, so the Church does not uncritically accept every new teaching, fad, or movement that comes up. The spiritual guidance of the Church for individuals has been worked out over 20 centuries through men and women spending their lives in dedication to living in the will of God, and even dying for their faith. The Orthodox way of life has been tested and proven, from the time of Christ and the Apostles, to be the cure for our human failings and the path to true knowledge and union with God. Some people often equate the terms “orthodox” and “truth” with a rigid and unforgiving attitude. This is not the case in the Orthodox Church because both “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Thus, here you will find simultaneously obedience and freedom, love and accountability, and discipline and mercy. The Orthodox Church has walked the tightrope, balancing these things (and more) for centuries.
All Orthodox Churches share the identical faith and doctrine, a common tradition (passed down from the teachings of the Apostles), and the same basic form of worship. Individual Orthodox communities, especially those that are made up of members from a particular country of origin, may use their own language for parts of the services and may have some of their own ethnic customs.
2. Does the Orthodox Church Place Tradition Above or Equal to Scripture?
The Orthodox Church sees the Scriptures as inspired and authoritative Holy Tradition: the Word of God. It is crucial to understand how the word “tradition” is used in the New Testament, which condemns the tradition of men (see Mark 7:6-16, and Colossians 2:8), but calls us to follow Apostolic or Holy Traditions (see 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6).
There are five basic sources of the Orthodox Tradition that have been passed on from one generation of the faithful to the next, from Christ and the Apostles, even to the present time: the Holy Scriptures; the Liturgy; the Councils of the Church that put forth the creeds and canons; the lives of the Saints, to include the teachings of the Church Fathers; and finally, the Church art.
It is the Church’s understanding that all of these sources of Tradition hold together in unity. One is never used in isolation from the others. It will not work for example, for a person to say, “Well, I can find all that I need to know by staying at home and reading the Bible by myself, and I don’t have to go to Church.” Nor would it work for a person to say, “Well, all I have to do is go to Church and look at the icons and I don’t have to know anything about the Holy Scriptures.” In both cases, something is being taken outside the context, outside the boundaries, in which it works. When you take something outside of the boundaries in which it functions, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work.
The Orthodox Church is not Bible only. The Orthodox Church is not liturgy only. The Orthodox Church is not creed, council, and canons only. Rather, everything works together in unity, and when all of these sources of Tradition are accepted as the common fountain of the self-revelation of God, it is our faith that they will bring us to the life to which God has invited His creation.
3. What Do Orthodox Christians Believe About 'Liturgy'?
Biblically and historically true worship has consistently been liturgical. “Spontaneous” worship is an innovation of the last century or so.
Liturgical worship, written prayers (the Psalms), and feast days were the norm throughout the history of Israel (see Exodus~~ 23:14-19; 24:1, 2). The worship of heaven is liturgical (Isaiah 6:1-9; Hebrews 8:1-3; Revelation 4). The believers of Acts 13:2, about A.D. 49, were seen in a liturgical service to the Lord: “As they ministered [Greek: Ieitourgouaton the root word for “liturgy”] to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said . ...“ Note, too, in this passage that the Holy Spirit speaks to us during liturgical worship. Thus praise to God must never become dead form, but rather living worship, “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24).
The key to Comprehending liturgy in the New Testament is to understand the work of the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, who inaugurates the New Covenant. Christ is “a priest forever” (Hebrews 7:17, 21). It is unthinkable that Christ would be a Spriest but not serve liturgically: “forever” suggests He serves Continually, Without ceasing, in the heavenly tabernacle. Further, He is called not only a priest but a liturgist: “a Minister (Greek: ‘liturgist’) of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected” (Hebrews 8:2). Christian worship on earth, to be fully Christian, must mirror the worship of Christ in heaven.
Moreover, Christ is “Mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6). What is that covenant? In the words of the Lord, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Just as the blood of bulls and goats in the Old Covenant prefigured Christ’s sacrifice to come, so the Eucharist~ Feast brings to us the fullness of His New Covenant offering, completed at the Cross and fulfilled in His Resurrection This once-for-all offering of Himself (Hebrews 7:27) which He as high Priest presents at the heavenly altar, is an offering in which we participate through the Divine Liturg1 in the Church. This is the worship of the New Testament Church!
4. How Does the Orthodox Church View the Sacraments?
Sacrament literally means, a “mystery.” A sacrament is a way in which God imparts grace to His people. Orthodox Christians frequently speak of seven sacraments, but God’s gift of grace is not limited only to these seven - the entire life of the Church is mystical and sacramental. The sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself (John 1:16, 17). The seven mysteries, their scriptural origin, and a brief description of each, follows.
Baptism (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 6:4; Galatians 3:27): (from Greek baptizo, “to be plunged”) The sacrament whereby one is born again, buried with Christ, resurrected with Him and united with Him. In baptism, one becomes a Christian and is joined to the Church. In Christ’s baptism, water was set apart unto God as the means by which the Holy Spirit would bring to us new life and entrance into the heavenly Kingdom.
Chrismation (Acts 8:15-17; 1 John 2:27): The sacrament completing baptism, whereby one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with the Chrism, a specially prepared oil which must be consecrated by a bishop. On several occasions in Acts, a baptized Christian received the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands of the Apostle (see Acts 8:14-17; 19:6). Chrismation is a continuation of that ancient practice in the Church.
The Holy Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:30-58; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-31): Taken from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving,” Eucharist designates Holy Communion, the central act of Christian worship. At the Last Supper, Christ gave thanks, and embodied in the communion service is our own thanksgiving. The word came into use very early, as exemplified by its use in the writings of the apostles (“Now concerning the Eucharist... Didache 9:1) and the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ign Phil. 4:1, about A.D. 107).
Confession (John 20:22, 23; 1 John 1:8, 9): (1) The avowal or verbal witness of faith in Christ, leading to salvation (Romans 9:10). (2) The sacrament of the forgiveness of sins, whereby the repentant sinner confesses his sins to Christ in the presence of the priest, who pronounces God’s absolution of those.
Ordination (Mark 3:14; Acts 1:15-26; 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 4:14): The sacramental act setting a man apart for the ministry of the Church by the laying on of hands of a bishop. The original meaning of ordination includes both ‘election’ and ‘imposing of hands’.
Marriage (Genesis 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:22-33): The Bible and human history begin and end with weddings. Adam and Eve come together in marital union in Paradise, before the Fall, revealing marriage as a part of God’s eternal purpose for humanity in the midst of creation (Genesis 2:22-25). History closes with the marriage of the Bride to the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9), earthly marriage being fulfilled in the heavenly, showing the eternal nature of the sacrament - being holy, blessed, and everlasting in the sight of God and His Church. Within the bonds of marriage, husband and wife experience a union with one another in love, and hopefully the fruit of children and one day the joy of grandchildren. And within the bonds of marriage there is both a fullness of equality between husband and wife, and a clarity of order with the husband as the icon of Christ, and the wife as the icon of the Church.
Healing or Unction (Luke 9:1-6; James 5:14, 15): Anointing of the sick with blessed oil, for the healing of body and soul. The gift of healing is bestowed by the Holy Spirit through the anointing, t9ether with the prayers of the Unction service.
5. How Does the Orthodox Church View Communion (Holy Eucharist)?
Some teach that Communion or the Lord’s Supper (which Orthodox call "the Eucharist”) is only a sign or symbol. Most of Christendom, however, believes it is far more. The Orthodox Church has always believed that we, in a mystery, receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
The benefit experienced by the recipient is succinctly expressed in a prayer segment from an anonymous author that is included in one of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy Hymnals under the heading of, ‘Prayers of Thanksgiving Following Holy Communion.’ The prayer segment says, ‘0 loving Master, who died and rose for our sake, and granted to us these awesome and life-giving mysteries for the well-being and sanctification or our souls and bodies, let these gifts be for healing of my own soul and body, the averting of every evil, the illumination of the eyes of my heart, the peace of my spiritual powers, a faith unashamed, a love unfeigned, the fulfilling of wisdom, the observing of Your commandments, the receiving of Your divine grace, and the inheritance of Your kingdom’.
What do the Holy Scriptures teach concerning Communion?
In John 653 we read, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most Assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” The Church receives this passage at face value - nothing added, nothing taken away. In Communion we become partakers of the Body and Blood of Christ. Just as the new birth (John 3) gives us life through water and the Holy Spirit, so the Body and Blood of Christ sustain His life in us.
There is also the fact (Hebrews 9:11, 12) that Christ our High Priest enters the heavenly Sanctuary with His own Blood, and that it is in this heavenly Sanctuary that we worship (Hebrews 10:19-25). There is only one Eucharist, the one in heaven, and we join in that one feast.
We must neither add to nor subtract from the Word of God. Therefore we confess with Holy Scripture that the consecrated bread and wine is the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a mystery: we do not pretend to know how or why. As always, we come to Christ in childlike faith, receive His gifts, and offer Him praise that He has called us to His heavenly banquet.
6. Can Roman Catholics or Protestants Receive Communion in an Orthodox Church?
Prior to receiving Communion, one must be Baptized and/or received into the Orthodox Church through the Sacrament of Chrismation.
In love, we are united and able to confess One God in Three Persons as community in fellowship. True and Right Belief are fundamental and indispensable for the Orthodox Christian. We are in communion with those who rightly believe. Communion is the manifestation, the symbol, and the witness of our unity-not a means to unity.
The Doors! The Doors!
In the early Church, the deacons would cry this out, just prior to the reciting of the Nicene Creed (our confession of Faith) by the parishioners in preparation for receiving the Holy Eurcharist, for the doors to be secured by the doorkeepers to ensure that only the faithful remained and that no uninitiated persons may enter. This call is a vestige and reminder of the venerable practices of the ancient Church.
7. Why Does the Orthodox Church Emphasize the Role of Mary?
Let us turn to the New Testament to learn what God says about Mary. A key passage is Luke 1 26-49 “The Archangel Gabriel calls the Virgin May “highly favored” with God and the most “blessed” of all women (Luke 1:28). The Church can never do less.” In Luke 1:42, 43, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, also calls Mary “blessed,” and “the mother of my Lord.” Can we not make the same confession? For centuries the Church with one voice has called Mary the mother of God. If God was not in her womb, we are dead in our sins. By calling her “mother of God” we do not mean, of course, that she is mother of the Holy trinity. She is mother of the eternal Son of God in His humanity. Thus we call her Theotokos or God-bearer. Not only does Elizabeth call her blessed, but Mary herself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, predicts, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). This biblical prophecy explains the Orthodox hymn, “It is truly right to bless you, 0 Theotokos, the Mother of our God.” One cannot believe the Bible and ignore Mary. Orthodox Christians bless her in obedience to God, fulfilling these holy words. We do not worship Mary. Worship is reserved only for God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We honor or venerate her, as the Scriptures teach. It is important to secure Mary’s identity as the mother of God in order to protect the identity of her holy Son, “the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32), God in the flesh. Jesus assumed His human flesh from her! Mary’s role is essential in understanding that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
Saint John of Kronstadt also speaks in similar terms of the exalted position of the Theotokos, writing: “Our Lady, the Mother of God, is the most beautifully adorned temple of the Holy Trinity. She is, after God, the treasury of all blessing, of purity, holiness, of all true wisdom, the source of spiritual power and constancy.”
Also, Elder Ephraim, a disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, writes: Let us fall down before the heavenly Queen, the immaculate Theotokos, the Maiden quick-to-hear, that she may help us, for “no one who runs to thee is turned away ashamed, but he asks for a favor and receives the gift from thee, to the profit of his request.” After God, only she is able to help us. Let us trust in her, and we shall not be put to shame.
Saint John of Damascus comments upon the victory she has obtained for us. “Through her, our reconciliation with God has been consecrated, and peace and grace have been bestowed;... she has won for us all good things.”
8. Do the Icons of Orthodoxy Border on Idolatry?
In Orthodox Christianity, icons are never worshipped, but they are honored or venerated. The second Commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness or anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4, 5). The warning here is (1) that we are not to image things which are limited to heaven and therefore unseen, and (2) we never bow down to or worship created, earthly things such as the golden calf. Does this condemn all imagery in worship? The Bible speaks for itself, and the answer is no.
Just five chapters after the giving of the Ten Commandments, God, as recorded in Exodus 25, gives His divine blueprint, if you will, for the tabernacle. Specifically in verses 19 and 20, he commands images of cherubim to be placed above the mercy seat. Also, God promises to meet and speak with us through this imagery! (Exodus 25:22). It is not true imagery which is condemned in Scripture, but false imagery.
In Exodus 26:1, Israel was commanded in no uncertain terms to weave “artistic designs of cherubim” into the tabernacle curtains. Are these images? Absolutely! In fact, they could well be called Old Testament icons. And they are images which God commanded to be made.
From the beginning, the Church has made images of heavenly things brought to earth: Christ Himself, the Cross (Galatians 6:14), and the saints of God (Hebrews 11; 12). Worship is reserved for the Holy Trinity alone. But we honor the great men and women of the Faith by remembering them in the Orthodox Church via visual aids, called icons or “windows to heaven.”
9. Why Do Orthodox Christians Honor the Saints?
Once someone is officially canonized, the Church in her worship services no longer prays for the well-being of his or her soul, but publicly asks for the saint’s prayers. Icons are made of the saint, hymns are written honoring and remembering good deeds done, and at least one day of the year is designate as a feast-day for that saint, when his or her icons are displayed, and hymns written to the saint are sung.
The hymns, the icons, the feast-days are all important aspects of the veneration of the saint, indicating profound respect and love for the person, but in no. way do these things mean that the person is being worshipped. Worship, of course, is due only to God. And indeed, all the veneration expressed to a saint is entirely based upon that person’s closeness to Christ. Every saint has become holy only through the mercy and grace of God; it is He who is glorified when we honor His holy ones.
10. What Do Orthodox Christians Believe About Faith and Works?
How can one get from the one kingdom to the other? By the unity of grace, faith, and works. Not that these are equal, for grace is uncreated and infinite, our faith is limited and can grow, and good works flow out of authentic faith. Works cannot earn us this great treasure - it is a pure gift - but those who receive this 9ift do good. We are not saved by good works, but for good works.
This is seen in Holy Scriptures in Ephesians 2:8-10, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.’
St. Maximos the Confessor, writing in the seventh century, states clearly the view of the Church concerning dead works: Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done. For example, fasting, vigils, prayer, psalmody [the singing of hymns], acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good. But when performed for the sake of self-esteem [vainglory, self-glorification] they are not good. In everything we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive.. .quite clearly He bestows blessings only when something is done for the right purpose. For God’s judgment looks not at the actions, but at the purpose behind them.
The faith that saves is a complete faith: not just the mind believing and the tongue confessing, but the whole man trusting in the living God. ‘Faith alone’, static faith, does not save. We must nurture our faith in God and our love for Him through our works.
This is understood in James 2:14-20, 26, ‘What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I wilt show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe and tremble! But do you want to know, 0 foolish man, that faith without works is dead? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.’
Thus, the Christian actively cultivates a habit of doing good works for the glory of God, and as a way of life.
11. How Does the Orthodox Church Explain the Continued Virginity of Mary After Giving Birth to Jesus Christ?
Concerning the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prophet lsaias spoke thus, “Before she that travailed brought forth, before the travail-pain came on, she escaped it and brought forth a male” [Isaiah 66:7]. Saint John of Damascus adds to this saying that “After the normal nine-month gestational period, Christ was born at the beginning of the tenth, in accordance with the law of gestation. It was a birth that surpassed the established order of birthgiving, as it was without pain; for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow. And just as at His conception He had kept her who conceived Him virgin, so also at His birth did He maintain her virginity intact, because He alone passed through her and kept her shut.”
Saint Ambrose in his Synodal Letter 44 writes: “Why is it hard to believe that Mary gave birth in a way contrary to the law of natural birth and remained a virgin, when contrary to the law of nature the sea looked at Him and fled, and the waters of the Jordan returned to their source [Psalms 113:31? Is it past belief that a virgin gave birth when we read that a rock issued water [Exodus 17:6], and the waves of the sea were made solid as a wall [Exodus 14:22]? Is it past belief that a Man came from a virgin when a rock bubbled forth a flowing stream [Exodus 20:11], iron floated on water [4 Kings 6:61, a Man walked upon the waters [Matthew 14:26]?”
Saint Ambrose also writes in another letter that “A virgin carried Him Whom this world cannot contain or support. And when He was born of Mary’s womb, He yet preserved the enclosure of her modesty, and the inviolate seal of her virginity.”
Concerning the mystery of the incarnation, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote the following: “When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, or was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother’s virginity.”
12. What Does the Orthodox Church Teach Regarding the ‘Brothers and Sisters’ of Jesus?
There was at that time, the aged Joseph of Nazareth, then eighty years old, of the tribe of Judah and of the royal house of David. After forty years of marriage, he was a recent widower of about one year. His first wife, a pious and God-fearing woman, Salome, had borne him seven children: James, Jude, Simon and Joses; and three daughters. The names of the daughters are Salome (she being the future mother of the Apostles James and John the Theologian), Esther, and a third girl whose name has been recorded with several appellations.
Supporting the apocryphal account, as did other Eastern Fathers, St. Epiphanios of Cyprus (c.315-403) gave the opinion that Joseph had been formerly married and had children, both Sons and daughters. Saint Cyril of Alexandria (+444) considered the “brothers of the Lord” to be children of an earlier marriage of the eider Joseph. in the West, St. Hilary of Poitiers (c.315-367) defended the opinion of Joseph being formerly married.
The footnote for Matthew 12:46-50 states: Jesus’ relatives have not yet understood His identity and mission. He points to a spiritual family based on obedience to “the will of My Father” (verse 50). In Jewish usage “brother” may also signify a stepbrother or other relative. Abram called his nephew Lot “brother” (Genesis 14:14); Boaz spoke of his relative Elimelech as his “brother” (Ruth 4:3); and Joab called Amasa, his first cousin (2 Samuel 17:25), “brother” just before he killed him (2 Samuel 20:9). Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus had relatives, not blood brothers. Indeed, at the Cross, Jesus commits His mother to the care of His disciple John, which would have been a crime against tradition had she had another child to care for her.
13. What Does the Orthodox Church Believe About Hell and Purgatory?
Purgatory, a Roman Catholic practice, defines an “intermediate state” between heaven and hell in which some souls must spend time before entering heaven. Even after a sinful action is forgiven, there still remains a “temporal punishment” due to that sin which must be expiated. The idea of purgatory is based on an obviously legalistic notion that the soul must “pay what it owes” before being admitted to the full joys of heaven.
Orthodoxy believes in a state of existence between the time of death and the dawning of the Last Day, but it is a place of rest quite different from the purgatory doctrine. There is an intermediate state of the soul between death and the final day of judgment, during which souls benefit from the prayers of the faithful. The Orthodox Church gives no mechanistic explanation of how these prayers benefit the departed. It simply affirms the ancient Christian teaching that such prayers are efficacious in preparing the souls of the departed for the final judgment.
Orthodoxy avoids understanding salvation in legalistic terms. Because Christ made a complete sacrifice for our sins, once we are forgiven, we are forgiven. Thereis no need to provide expiation for some “residual” debt which remains after one is forgiven. Thus, Orthodoxy rejects the whole idea of temporal punishment due to sin.
Orthodoxy teaches there is no experiencing the “full joy” of heaven (which a soul supposedly would experience, according to the Roman Catholic understanding, once it has undergone sufficient purgation) until the Last Day.
The “intermediate state”, in the Orthodox view, is therefore not a state between heaven and hell in which some souls must spend time before entering heaven. It is, rather, a state of repose where all souls rest in anticipation of the Last Day (see I Thessalonians 4:13-17). In that repose they have a fore-taste of their eternal reward or punishment, which will be fixed on the Last Day.
14. What do Orthodox Christians Believe About Deification?
Deification is the ancient theological word used to describe the process by which a Christian becomes more like God. St. Peter speaks of this process when he writes, “As His divine power had given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.., you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3, 4).
Deification means we are to become more like God through His grace or divine energies. In creation, humans were made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) according to human nature.
When the Son of God assumed our humanity in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, the process of our being renewed in God’s image and likeness was begun. Thus, those who are joined to Christ through faith in Holy Baptism begin a re-creation process, being renewed in God’s image and likeness. We become, as St. Peter writes, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
By application, the divine energies interpenetrate the human nature of Christ. Being joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, we partake of the grace of God - His strength, His righteousness, His love - and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.
Courtesy of Orthodox Christian Outreach A Sub-Committee of the Arizona Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches.