Orthodox Churches

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ORTHODOX CHURCHES are among the oldest Christian groups in existence. Originating in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, they have held tenaciously to the classical theological definitions of the first seven ecumenical councils, held between a.d. 325 and 787. The major work of these councils consisted of defining the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures in Christ,

and in determining the possibility of representing Christ in an image or icon. Eastern Orthodox churches see their bishops as symbols of the unity of the church but do not recognize any single bishop as having authority over all the churches.

The eastern branch of Christianity began to separate from the western branch shortly after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. While early Western theology developed along eschatological (doctrines dealing with death, resurrection, and judgment) and moral lines, reflecting the influence of Aristotle and Augustine, the theology of the East moved in a mystical direction. The schism came during a ninth-century dispute between Pope Nicholas I and Photius, archbishop of Constantinople. Nicholas refused to recognize the election of Photius and excommunicated him (a.d. 863). After further disagreements over the interpretation of the Nicene Creed, in 1054 mutual anathemas (condemnation, excommunication) were pronounced, further deepening the split. These anathemas were rescinded (abolished) in 1965 by Pope Paul IV and Patriarch Athenagoras.

The tenth century was the great age of the expansion of Orthodoxy into Eastern Europe—for which saints Cyril and Methodius prepared the way by translating both the Orthodox scriptures and liturgical books into the Slavic language in the previous century. In 988, the spread of Orthodoxy was completed when the Russians entered the Byzantine ecclesiastical fold. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Moscow became the chief protector of the Orthodox faith. As the nations of Eastern Europe became independent in the nineteenth century, their churches also became independent national churches with full rights of self-government.

Although the first American Orthodox churches were the nineteenth-century Russian missions in Alaska, Orthodoxy in the United States grew most rapidly during the heavy immigration from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The American history of these churches has been a story of division and controversy, as Old World issues have been perpetuated. Since the mid-twentieth century, there have been signs that this period of controversy is drawing to a close. The patriarch of Moscow healed some of the schisms among the American Russian Orthodox church in 1970 and declared the American church to be autocephalous (self-governing); since then, the various Greek churches, now organized as the Orthodox Church in America, have moved toward a greater degree of unity and centralization. Many of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States have been active in the ecumenical movement and have joined both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. During the early 1980s and 1990s, the American church refocused its efforts on coping with the growth of its membership and, by the year 2000, numbered more than one million. Meanwhile, as church leaders in Constantinople, Moscow, and Serbia established new ties with the Orthodox Church in America, the concept of a global mission emerged as a central unifying theme. In the late 1990s, the church organized a number of humanitarian efforts in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus region of Russia.


Attwater, Donald. The Christian Churches of the East. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing, 1947; Tenbury Well, U.K.: Tomas Moore Books, 1961.

Bogolepov, Aleksandr A. Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Orthodox Church. New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1963; Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.

Counelis, James S. Inheritance and Change in Orthodox Christianity. Scranton, Pa.: University of Scranton Press, 1995.

Glenn T.Miller/a. r.

See alsoReligion and Religious Affiliation ; Russian and Soviet Americans .