What is the Orthodox Church?
The Orthodox Church is the original Church, founded by Jesus Christ and gathered together by the Holy Spirit, continuing down the centuries to our times without addition or subtraction, as our Lord promised.
The word “Orthodox” means undeviating belief and glory. In the Orthodox understanding, the Church is not a mere human organization or set of ideas. It is the Body of Christ, as the New Testament teaches. Because of this, we do not separate Christ from His Church. Further, because the Church is the Body of Christ, it is, like Christ, both earthly and heavenly. The Church is the house of healing, or salvation, for our damaged world. It is the place where the communion of heaven and earth, and of man and the world with God, are restored.
This belief may amaze some people. Perhaps it seems too good to be true. Others may say, How can this be possible? So many centuries have passed! And, look, there are so many different churches, with good and sincere members, each one differing from the other in its beliefs and worship, each one thinking it is right… As a result we may feel tempted to think that it really doesn’t matter. But if we feel any urgency about our salvation, we know it does matter. If what the Orthodox say is true, it is going to be more important than anything else. It means that as human beings we are loved and have a value. Further, if we are Christians we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lover of mankind and Savior of the world, and that His word cannot fail. Indeed, the Lord warned us that false christs would come to lead many astray (Mt. 24: 24). The Holy Apostle Paul tells us that men will make up new and false doctrines to suit themselves(2 Tim. 4: 3-4), and he puts us on our guard not to believe a new “gospel,” even if it were revealed by an angel (Gal. 1:9).
In the face of these warnings, our Lord promised that His Church would be founded on a rock, and that even the whole power of evil could not overcome it (Mt. 16:18). Further, He promised that He would not leave us to ourselves (Jn. 14:18), but that he would abide in us and send us the Holy Spirit, Who would lead us into all truth (Jn. 6:13). He commissioned His disciples to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:18-20). This teaching for all nations is the message of salvation. It is from God and not from man. It is unchanging and not merely something we make up to suit ourselves; on the contrary, it sets us free from ourselves. It is not a matter of our own human works and opinions.
Do we really believe this? If not—if, for example, we say that Christ’s Church, His Body, went astray almost from the beginning, or from the time of Constantine in the fourth century, when Christianity was embraced by the Roman Empire, or perhaps later—are we not saying that our Lord’s promise has failed? If we say, as some do, that the Church was under darkness for century upon century, are we not admitting that human sin and the gates of hell did, in fact, prevail? How can that be? And, further, even if one were to think that were possible, how would we know that our present situation is any better than that of the Christians who lived in those times?
It is clear, then, that this authentic Church where the true Gospel is experienced, must still be alive and present among us now—just as it must have been present without interruption for two thousand years, since the time of Christ and His apostles, making His salvation possible in every generation. The question is: how do we find this treasure? Well, we know that the Church has spread throughout the world since the day of Pentecost by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is clear, then, that this Church is not something that started up recently, or even a few centuries ago. It cannot be the product of some individual’s opinions. It will proclaim unchanged today the same faith as that held by the apostles and their immediate successors. It will make available the same experience of the things of God as was present among them. Now, as then, it will be a house of healing for all nations, a place where human beings can be cured and are given access to the Kingdom of Heaven, and where they are equipped to undertake spiritual warfare against the demons (Rev. 3:21).
Let us look at what the New Testament Church was like. We read of the Church in Corinth, the Church in Thessalonica, the Church in Ephesus, in Philippi, and in the great city of Rome. When the Holy Apostle Paul wrote to these New testament Churches, he assumed that, though many, they were one, sharing the same belief and all belonging to the one Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). Likewise, they all acknowledged him and received his letters, and preserved them with reverence. Paul took for granted that he could admonish them when needed and encourage them, speaking to them about Christ and their common faith and life in Him. He stated that they were united in one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph. 4:4-6). In the Book of Revelation we read of the Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. These cities were important places in the ancient world, each with its own culture and economy, and the Churches there all had their own characteristics and problems. Thus we see that in the New Testament, people of many languages were gathered by the same Holy Spirit, as on the day of Pentecost, in each place according to their own tongue and culture.
That is exactly how the Orthodox Church exists today. For example, there is the Church in Greece and the Church in Russia and the Slavic lands, and the Church in many other countries, including here in America. The Orthodox Church exists throughout the world, the Church in each region being led by its own shepherds, the bishops. Each one is distinct; but the teaching and life in Christ of these Churches is the same.
The Church is not a vague term, covering a multitude of groups, each of which believes something different from the others. On the other hand, the Church is not united by virtue of some international organization, held together by a central authority which compels allegiance and imposes uniformity. What is the secret of its unity? Orthodox can only answer that it is the invisible action of the Holy Spirit. At times, in fact, the Church seems woefully lacking in visible organization! The miracle of Orthodox unity—and the fact that the Church has remained Orthodox in different times and places, often under extreme persecution, as for four centuries in Greece and, more recently, in twentieth century Russia—continues in spite of the sins and shortcomings of its members and the inroads of the world. It is the same Body of Christ today as in the time of Saint Paul.
From the Orthodox perspective, the Roman Church gradually brought in a number of additions, which eventually led to its departure a thousand years ago from communion with the rest of the Church. At the Reformation, five centuries later, many new and unheard of churches started to spring up in defiance of Rome. They are thus the offspring of Rome. From the Orthodox perspective, these Protestant churches, and their modern successors in America today, subtracted vital elements from the original Gospel and faith in Christ when they reacted against Roman Catholic innovations. They and the Roman Catholic Church can thus be seen as two sides of the same coin, disagreeing sometimes violently and then, as at the present time, finding that they really have a great deal in common. Meanwhile the Orthodox Church continues as it always did.
This is the way the Orthodox Church understands itself. Yet there is no suggestion here that Christians who are not Orthodox cannot be saved. There is no judging of others. God, according to Orthodoxy, is good and loves mankind. He is not angry and needing to be appeased. He rejects no one, and all are invited to His Banquet. The true Orthodox Christian occupies a place of humility before everyone, conscious of his unworthiness and seeing the image of God in each person.
The best way to learn about Holy Orthodoxy is actually to visit an Orthodox church and attend a service. Vespers on Saturday evening is a good place to start. It is enough to be open to the experience and ask for God’s guidance.