|The Orthodox Church is the first Christian Church, the Church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ and described in the pages of the New Testament. Her history can be traced in unbroken continuity all the way back to Christ and His Twelve Apostles.Incredible as it seems, for nineteen and a half centuries she has continued in her undiminished and unaltered faith and practice. Today, her apostolic doctrine, worship, and structure remain intact. The Orthodox Church maintains that the Church is the living Body of Jesus Christ.
Many of us are surprised to learn that for the first 1000 years of Christian history there was just one Church. It was in the eleventh Century that a disastrous split occurred, resulting in the Western Church, under the pope, separating itself from the Orthodox Church. The papacy sought to establish itself over all of Christendom and finally succeeded in the West. But the rest of the Church rejected this innovation, knowing no so-called “universal head” apart from Jesus Christ himself.
The Real Difference
One writer has compared Orthodoxy to the faith of Rome and Protestantism in this basic fashion: Orthodoxy has maintained the New Testament tradition, whereas Rome has often added to it and Protestantism subtracted from it.
For example, Rome added to the ancient Creed of the Church, while numerous Protestant Churches rarely study or recite it. Rome has layers of ecclesiastical authority; much of Protestantism is anti-hierarchical or even “independent” in polity. Rome introduced indulgences and purgatory; in reaction, Protestantism shies away from good works and discipline.
In these and other matters, the Orthodox Church has steadfastly maintained the Apostolic Faith. She has avoided the excesses of papal rule and of congregational independence. She has maintained the Faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” She understands the clergy as servants of Christ and His people and not as a special privileged class. She preserved the Apostles’ doctrine of the return of Christ at the end of the age, of the last judgment and eternal life, and continues to encourage her people to grow in Christ through union with Him. In a word, Orthodox Christianity simply does not change!
It was from the religious and political Western world that the vast majority of early colonists came to make their homes in the New World. Here they could be free to live without fear or threat of recrimination from either Roman Catholic or Protestant dictums. But with them also came the religious environment and convictions of the Western Europe they left.
When the Orthodox “latecomers” finally arrived in North America, they were often ignored as a “foreign” minority. The religious and cultural climate of the New World was already deeply entrenched. Thus, rather than mingle with the 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.
But times are changing. The Orthodox Church today is being taken seriously in this hemisphere. People devoted to Christ, but distressed and frustrated by the directions being taken in both Roman Catholic and Protestant circles, and desiring a more full worship and spiritual life, are turning to the changeless Orthodox Church. It only makes sense that the Church from which the Bible came would be the Church where the faith described in the Bible could be lived out and preserved.
The Church, which brought Orthodoxy to North America, is now bringing North America to Orthodoxy. Constantly, people are being introduced to the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church. New churches are beginning in cities and towns from coast to coast. With renewed vision, many established churches have made the transition to English language services. Not surprisingly, there is also a breadth of interest in Orthodoxy being expressed on college and university campuses in the U.S. and Canada. Students are discovering Orthodoxy as a place where the search for spiritual reality finds fulfillment.
Scholars estimate there are over 26,000 groups today who lay claim to being the Church, or at least the direct descendants of the Church described in the New Testament. Repeat: 26,000! But for the first thousand years of her history, the Church was essentially one. Five historic Patriarchal centers – Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople – formed a cohesive whole and were in full communion with each other. There were occasional heretical or schismatic groups going their own way, to be sure, but the Church was unified until the 11th Century. Then, in events culminating in A.D. 1054, the Roman Patriarch pulled away from the other four, pursuing his long-developing claim of universal headship of the Church.
Today, nearly a thousand years later, the other four Patriarchates remain intact, in full communion, maintaining that Orthodox apostolic faith of the inspired New Testament record. The Orthodox Church and her history is described below, from Pentecost to the present day.