The Orthodox Church
The official stance of the Orthodox Church is that they are the one true church. The word “orthodox” means “true” or “right”. Does that mean that they think that other believers in Christ who are not Orthodox are not going to heaven? Members of the Orthodox church make up the second largest number of Christians after the Roman Catholics. Most of the orthodox Christians are in the east, with the largest number being in Russia.
Eastern and Western Christians have some cultural differences in the way they approach our faith and worship. Western Christians are perhaps more intellectual about their Christian faith and tend to see the good news of Christ in more concrete terms. We attend Bible studies, bring in special speakers and sometimes conduct theological debates. But Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to make greater allowances for mystery and tradition and for experiencing God.
Women are not ordained in the Orthodox Church. And the divinely inspired Fathers of the Orthodox Church are the only ones who can interpret the Scriptures. Their authority cannot be challenged or ignored or questioned! Orthodox Christians believe that the holy Spirit was guiding the early church and that the writings of early Christians during the first five centuries are all important. They repeat a favorite story of Polycarp, an early Christian martyr, who was burned at the stake because he refused to renounced his Christian faith. Polycarp’s body did not burn in the flames and he was finally stabbed to death.
The Orthodox have many more stories of early Christian martyrs and writings of early Christian leaders that hold a central place in their faith practices. Most Protestant Christians are not eve n familiar with these stories that inspire Orthodox Christians so deeply. The Orthodox Christians have created icons of many of these early martyrs – icons which they look to for inspiration and icons to which they can pray to and ask for strength to carry out their own Christian pilgrimage. These icons are all over the walls in their churches.
One of the main teachings of the Orthodox church is their teaching concerning what is real. Orthodox doctrine emphasize that real life is found in participating in the kingdom of God. The real world is not what they are doing for a few short years here on earth. The real world is heaven, God’s eternal kingdom and we are just pilgrims and aliens here on earth. Orthodox Christians dwell on the fact that there is a heavenly realm that we can =not see but that it is all around us. Orthodoxy challenges their members to live with the certainty of this kingdom of God.
An Orthodox church is built to help the worshipers “see” or experience the mystery of the kingdom of God. The ceiling represents heaven. And the dome on the top of the church gives the worshiper a sense of being encompassed within the realm of heaven where often a mosaic of Jesus is on the dome or ceiling looking down on the congregation. This is a reminder that Jesus is looking down on us. During Orthodox worship and praise, thick sweet incense rises to the ceiling, reminding the orthodox worshipper that the prayers of the saints are going up to God.
The walls inside the Orthodox place of worship are covered with icons and an icon screen containing painted images of Jesus and Mary and the apostles is placed in front of the worshippers. The icons are not worshipped but they are venerated and held up as good examples to follow. These icons are reminders that the saints are all around the throne of God praying for the worshippers. And behind the icon wall is the altar, representing the holy place where the spirit of God resides.
The orthodox Christian is encouraged to live in the mystery of the kingdom of heaven and run the race here on earth as faithful followers of Christ, always remembering that those saints or Christians who went before them are cheering them on. The emphasis seems to partially come from chapter eleven in the book of Hebrews, the “faith” chapter, that describes the faith of many of the saints in the Bible. Let’s listen to some of the passages of this “faith” chapter.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance: and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God…
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God: indeed, for He has prepared a city for them.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10, 13-16: 12:1-2)
Orthodoxy challenges us to live our lives remembering that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and it is reality. We are to travel lightly here on earth, remembering that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in tents and never put down roots. They confessed that they were “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Hebrews 11:9) “desiring a better country with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)
The icons in the Orthodox church are visible reminders that the saints are around the throne of God today and that these saints who came before us are praying for us and encouraging us to keep focusing on Jesus and to run the race set before us. The orthodox liturgy is meant to replicate on earth the kind of worship that is taking place in heaven. The chanting, prayers, incense, Scripture reading, praise, thanksgiving, are all used to transport the worshiper to the heavenly realms. And worshipers mystically join in with the angels singing their praises.
This is the essence of faith: remembering what is true and real even though we cannot see it. This is the gift the Orthodox give us. We might learn something from our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Even though the Orthodox Church may still believe that they are the one true church and wonder whether we are going to make it to heaven or not; we believe that they are going to make it there. We are all sheep in God’s pasture and like sheep, we all seem to stray. We wander off track in one direction and our brother and sister in another direction. All of us have sinned. None of us are “Orthodox” or “true”. We are all lost until the good Shepherd goes out in the dark cold night and searches until He finds us and brings us back to the fold. Only through Him (Jesus Christ0 are we truly “Orthodox”. We are not saved by a church! We are saved by a Savior! Praise God!
The Orthodox Church is a large branch of Christianity’s family tree. We all have so much in common. All the churches we will study including the Orthodox Church, share the trunk of the tree which is Jesus Christ. All of us, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants have believed in Him as our Savior and Lord. We are all baptized into Christ’s body by one Spirit (the Holy Spirit) We all share His body and blood in the Eucharist or communion. We all believe in the Holy Scriptures, the New and Old Testaments of the Bible. And we all share a common creed, the Nicene Creed. Indeed, even though we have each strayed in different directions and we still argue and disagree on some issues, we Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians are still truly part of Christianity’ magnificent Family Tree.
This blog was taken from chapter 1 “Orthodoxy” of Adam Hamilton’s book “Christianity’s Family Tree”