Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy

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Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy

FOUNDED: 325 c.e.


Along with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the three major branches of Christianity. It exists as a fellowship of 18 independent or semi-independent church bodies, each headed by a bishop (sometimes called a patriarch). The largest are the Russian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church. The honorary head of Eastern Orthodoxy is the patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey), who holds no jurisdiction over the church as a whole. Today most Eastern Orthodox Christians live in Russia, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

In Greek the word "orthodoxy" (orth and doxa) means "correct praise" or "correct teaching." The first use of the word "orthodox" by Greek theologians occurred in the fourth century c.e., when what came to be known as "Orthodox Catholic" Christianity confronted "erroneous" teaching. The essential tenets of Orthodox theology were confirmed over the course of seven ecumenical councils, held between 325 and 787 c.e. Constantinople, the historical center of Eastern Christianity, separated from Rome in a schism that began in 1054. This breach widened to include all of Eastern Orthodoxy and was made permanent by the destruction of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.

Orthodox Christianity emphasizes the mystical activity of God in his creation. God's presence is located primarily, but not exclusively, in the sacraments (or mysteries). Central among the sacraments is the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Orthodox Christians refer to icons—representations of Christ, his mother, and the saints—as the "painted Word." They do not regard icons primarily as "art" but as another way in which the Scriptures teach.


Christianity was officially prohibited in the Roman Empire until 313 c.e., when Emperor Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, extending religious toleration to Christians throughout the realm. Thereafter Orthodox Catholic Christianity emerged in the eastern, Greek-speaking half of the empire, which included present-day Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. In 330 c.e. Constantine founded Constantinople (formerly the Greek city of Byzantium), establishing it as the new capital city of the Christian empire of Byzantium.

Seeking to define its "correct teaching," Orthodoxy emphasized the primacy of tradition and the necessity of conciliar consensus (as opposed to papal decree) concerning Scripture. Further, according to "correct teaching," it was imperative that Orthodox doctrine articulate both that Christ is God (equal to God and in perfect communion with God and the Holy Spirit) and that Christ was truly human (the Incarnation). Beginning with the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey) in 325 c.e., seven ecumenical councils were held to establish universal standards of doctrine and practice for the Orthodox faith.

By the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (now Kadiköy, Turkey) in 451 c.e., church leadership was structured as a "pentarchy," based on the Roman imperial model. At the top level of the hierarchy were five bishops, specially designated as "patriarchs" according to the historical and political significance of their cities. Originally Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were named because of the many Christians martyred in those cities. Constantinople (recognized as the "New Rome") and Jerusalem (revered as the place of Christ's death and resurrection) were later added. At the second tier of the hierarchy were archbishops, or metropolitans, who governed large church territories within the empire.

Although tensions between the pope (patriarch) of Rome and the other patriarchs surfaced as early as the 400s, Orthodoxy in the eastern half of the empire was able to maintain communion with Rome for another 800 years. During this time the East was troubled by Persian invasions into its territories, the rise of Islam in the 700s, and the loss of Christian areas in Syria, Persia, Armenia, and India to bishops who rejected the teachings of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Relations between East and West were also strained by the attack on icons led by a series of Christian emperors, but Rome stood with Eastern defenders of the icons in condemning these attacks, and a vindication of icons was formally issued at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of in 787c.e.

Just 13 years later, however, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as "Emperor of the Romans" at Rome on Christmas Day, the dominions of pope and Roman emperor became strategically linked, thus further marginalizing the Byzantine emperor and the eastern patriarchs. Thereafter Orthodoxy began increasingly to recognize the East as the sole province of "right worship" and "right teaching".

The eastern patriarchs' distrust of the Roman papacy was longstanding. They were wary of the papacy's claim to primacy and infallibility and to Rome as the "mother of all churches." They took further exception to the western church's addition of the words "and from the Son" to the Christian Creed (Nicene Creed), which was written at the first two ecumenical councils (in 325 and 381). The decision by Rome to amend the creed unilaterally, without the consent of an ecumenical council, proved a significant blow to the overall unity of the Church.

Acrimony between East and West continued to grow. In 988 the eastern church began a vigorous expansion, Christianizing Bulgaria, Moravia, Serbia, Romania, and Kieven Russia. In 1054 Cardinal Humbert of Rome excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, precipitating what became known as the Great Schism between East and West. Although Cerularius in turn excommunicated the Roman pope, some patriarchs—notably Peter of Antioch—continued to commemorate the pope in his liturgy.

The decisive break came in 1204, when western Crusaders invaded and sacked Constantinople. With the violent establishment of a Latin kingdom in the heart of the Greek-speaking Orthodox East, the rift between East and West became irreparable. The Byzantines retook Constantinople in 1261 and went on to close the Latin monastery of Saint Mary on Mount Athos (a critical holy sight for eastern monasticism) in 1287. Weakened by decades of plunder, however, the city was vulnerable to invasion by the Ottoman Turks. Indeed, Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, further embittering the "eastern" Orthodox against western Christians.

Under the Ottoman Turks all Orthodox Christians were organized as the Rum millet (Roman nation). Greek, Arabic, Egyptian, Romanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian Orthodox peoples became subject to the political jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople and his appointees, known as the "Phanariot Greeks" (named for the Phanar, the Christian area in Istanbul). Russia was the only Orthodox country that remained free from Muslim domination throughout the Ottoman centuries. With the Mongol destruction of Kievan Orthodoxy in 1237, Moscow (formerly an insignificant outpost Christianized by Kievan missionaries) emerged as the new center of Orthodoxy. The capitol city declared its autocephaly (complete independence) from the patriarchate of Constantinople in 1589 and came to regard itself as the "Third Rome."

In the centuries that followed, the autonomy of the Moscow patriarchate was repeatedly restricted. In 1721 the patriarchate was abolished altogether by Peter the Great, and the Orthodox Church was consigned to function as an arm of the Tsarist government under the authority of the Holy Synod. The Synod, or council, continued to curtail the independence of the church's activities until it, too, was abolished on the precipice of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Moscow patriarchate thus enjoyed a short-lived return to independence, only to be crushed by the strenuous repression of the new Communist regime, which culminated in the widespread massacre of Orthodox clergy, monastics, and laity. The Orthodox Church was further fragmented by the 1927 declaration of support for the Soviet regime by Patriarch Sergius, a statement that divided Orthodox opinion at home and abroad and devastated Russian missionary efforts from Asia to North America.

The composition of the Orthodox Church has undergone various other shifts during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Following a protracted decline in the influence of the patriarch of Constantinople, an independent Greek Church reemerged in 1833. Constantinople regained a position of prominence, however, in the aftermath of World War I and the devastation of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate under Soviet Communism. Orthodoxy has continued to decline in all parts of the Middle East and Egypt, with the exception of modern Syria, where it maintains a stable presence. Since 1945 missionary efforts and indigenous interest have led to the spread of Orthodoxy in Africa, Latin America, Australia, and Asia. In North America ethnic Orthodox groups have been united under the autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church in America (1970) and the self-governing Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (2004). Significantly, too, Orthodoxy has experienced a resurgence in Russia and eastern Europe since the fall of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.


The concept of theosis (English: "deification') is central to Orthodox doctrine. Some-what analogous to the Western Christian concept of sanctification, it teaches that the mission, or journey, of humanity is to become as holy, free of sin, and united with God as possible. Theosis does not suggest that man may transcend his own created being to become equal with God (a blasphemy) but rather that he should seek communion with God and other beings, receiving the omnipresent energies of God in order to restore his own human nature to its original purpose. The doctrine of theosis also influences Orthodox interpretations of sin and redemption.

Theosis involves the participation in several sacraments, known as mysteries: the initiation (baptism); Chrismation (anointing with holy oil), reception of Holy Communion; anointment of the sick for restoration of bodily and spiritual health (unction); confession of sins committed after baptism (penance); and holy matrimony, the mystery in which men and women find salvation through mutual sacrifice on behalf of each other. Indeed, Orthodoxy considers marriage as an ordination and even an entrance into martyrdom because of the extreme commitment it entails. Ordination to the ranks of deacon, priest, and bishop (the taking of holy orders) is also regarded as one of the mysteries, although ordination is not necessarily permanent, as clerics can be deposed, or reduced, from their office for grave offenses. Monastic life offers another path on the journey of theosis. Monks and nuns, whether as solitaries or in communities (the latter is more common), are bound by rules first taught by Antony of Egypt and Pachomius, who emphasized cycles of communal and private prayer, rigorous fasting, and the conquest of human passion through the virtue of humility. Unlike ordained clergy, such as deacons and priests, who may marry under Orthodoxy, monks and nuns devote themselves to a life of celibacy.

The Orthodox deny that physical death is a barrier to communion and pray that a person's journey of theosis may continue after death, despite his or her earthly sins and offenses. Mary, the "God bearer" (Theotokos), represents an ideal in this regard, as one whose faith and obedience resulted in a theosis that included bodily translation from the grave. Thus, Mary holds a special place of honor as a unique model and foretaste of the destiny of the saved.


Bound by a general awareness that humans possess the capacity for both good and evil, Orthodox Christians accept the moral code of the Ten Commandments. Still, Orthodox place the highest importance on the aspiration to selfless love, as personified by Christ and reflected in the faith and obedience of his own mother, the Apostles, the martyrs, and saintly men and women throughout history. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the regular participation in the mysteries are considered essential components of a spiritual life.


By the early fourth century Eastern Orthodox Christians had named and accepted as sacred 27 books of the New Testament. Today their scriptural canon also includes 50 books of the Old Testament. Orthodoxy uses the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, including several books often referred to as the Apocrypha (or "hidden" writings) but more commonly called a "second canon" (deuterocanonical) by the Orthodox. Originally translated from Hebrew in Alexandria, Egypt, in about 300 B.C., this was the first vernacular version of the Bible. Orthodoxy also accepts the Greek New Testament because this is the oldest surviving version of Christian scripture written by the Holy Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude. These books include the Gospels, the apostolic letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation.

Subordinate but also critical to the Orthodox "right interpretation" of Scripture are the writings of the church Fathers, including both clerical and lay reflections and teachings on Scripture and Christian life. These works also encompass hymns and sayings recorded by desert monastics, both male and female. Lastly, in certain parts of the Orthodox world, local and regional synods or meetings of bishops can issue decrees or rulings that eventually find acceptance among all the Orthodox.


The central sacred symbol of Eastern Orthodoxy is the cross. In church services the processional cross signifies to worshipers the entrance of Christ to the Sanctuary. The priest carries a hand cross as a symbol of his role as a teacher and sanctifier of worshipers. Orthodox Christians also normally wear crosses around their necks as a way of publicly confessing their faith. When making the sign of the cross, the fingers of the right hand are held in a particular way to convey "right teaching and right praise." The thumb and first two fingers are joined to represent the One God in Three Persons, while the last two fingers are joined together and held against the palm of the hand to represent the Divine and human natures of Christ.


Flavia Iulia Helena (248–329 c.e.)—mother of Constantine, also known as Saint Helena and Helena of Constantinople—was responsible for building many of the shrines at significant Christian sites in Palestine. The Emperor Justinian I (527–565 c.e.) briefly reunited the eastern and western parts of the empire; his codification of Roman law (Corpus Juris Civilis) profoundly influenced church law. Theodore Abu Qurrah (750–824 c.e.) was notable among Arabic Orthodox Christians as the author of a detailed response to Islam defending the Orthodox veneration of icons. Significant emperors include John Tzimiskes (969–76) and Basil II (976–1025), both credited with restoring the Byzantine Empire; and Theophilus (829–42), who revived the University of Constantinople. Mark, archbishop of Ephesus, single-handedly defended Orthodoxy against a proposed union with Roman Catholicism at the Council of Florence (1438–39).

Defining leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church include Patriarch Nikon (1605–81), who initiated reforms in Russian liturgical customs designed to align the Russian church more closely with Greek Orthodox churches; and Avvakum Petrovich (1620–82), a Russian archpriest who led a faction called the Old Believers in opposing the reforms and who was ultimately burned at the stake. The missionary vision of Orthodox Russia is best represented by John Veniaminov (1797–1879), later known as Saint Innocent of Alaska.

Twentieth-century figures include Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), a Russian Orthodox nun who gave safe haven to Jews in Paris during the Nazi occupation and who was killed in a concentration camp; and metropolitans Stefan of Sofia, Kiril of Plovdiv, and Neofit of Vidin, all of whom conspired to protect Bulgaria's Jews from the Nazis. Athenagoras, patriarch of Constantinople (1948–72), was responsible for strengthening ties among Orthodox churches and opening dialogues with Roman Catholics. Archbishop Makarios III (1950–77) devoted his civil and church career to resolving tensions between Greeks and Turks on the island of Cyprus. The reemergence of Orthodoxy in the post-Communist Balkans has benefited from the remarkable leadership of Archbishop Annastasios Yannoulatos of Tirana and Albania. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, an Alsatian-born convert to Orthodoxy, has been influential in raising questions about the status of women in Orthodoxy. The late Ugandan bishop Rauben Sebanja Mukasa Spartas (1890–1982) was largely responsible for the spread of Orthodoxy in modern Africa. Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch IV (1979–) has initiated ecumenical dialogues with Roman Catholic and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (also known as Oriental Orthodox, who reject the provisions of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon) and encouraged consideration of a universal date for the celebration of Pascha (Easter) among Christians.

Finally, the Russian Saint Silouan (1866–1938), a monk of Mt. Athos, and Father Amphilochios (1888–1970), abbot of the Monastery of St. John on the Island of Patmos, are revered among the most important Orthodox spiritual leaders of the twentieth century.


Saint Basil the Great (329–379 c.e.) was a brilliant thinker and defender of the Orthodox faith, as well as a principal founder of the monastic life in the East. Born in 329 in Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, he studied at universities in Constantinople and Greece and went on to become bishop of Caesarea. A prolific writer on theology and canonical law, he devoted considerable attention to issues relating to the Holy Spirit and its relationship in the Holy Trinity. Basil also composed a set of rules for monasticism still practiced today by most Eastern Orthodox monks. Along with his contemporaries, Saint Gregory Nazianzus and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, he belonged to a trio known as the Cappadocian doctors of the church. Saint John Chrysostom (347–407 c.e.) is also regarded as a "doctor" of Orthodoxy, whose extensive writings were seminal to the foundation of official church doctrine. Born John of Antioch, he became Archbishop of Constantinople. After his death he was given the title "Chrysostom" ("golden-mouthed") because of his exceptional oratory skills. Other founding Orthodox theologians include Saint Maximus the Confessor (sixth–seventh century), Saint John of Damascus (seventh–eighth century), Saint Photius the Great (ninth century), Saint Symeon the New Theologian (tenth century), and Saint Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century).

Compilers and editors of The Philokalia, (monastic reflections on asceticism and mysticism) include eighteenth-to twentieth-century saints Macarius and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (among the Greeks) and Paissy Velichkovsky and Father Dumitru Staniloae (among Russians and Romanians). Nineteenth-century Russian theology was transformed by Alexis Khomiakov (1804–60), who sought to establish a revitalized Orthodox tradition unfettered by western scholastic theological terms and categories. Important twentieth-century theologians include Saint John of Kronstadt, author of the classic My Life in Christ; Panagiotis Nellas and John Zizioulas, the Greek revitalizers of mystical theology; and Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, Paul Evdokimov, and Alexander Schmemann, all of whom were Russian exiles. Interpreters of Orthodoxy in English who converted to the faith include British-born Bishop Kallistos Ware and Americans Father Peter Gillquist and Francis Schaeffer.


The Orthodox Church is structured as a fellowship of independent or semi-independent churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople is honored above all officials, but his primacy is merely symbolic, as his actual authority does not extend beyond his own patriarchate. Patriarchs of Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (now in Syria), and Jerusalem retain ultimate independence in the governance of their own patriarchates. In addition, the Monastery of Mount Sinai and nine other nationally-based autocephalous churches (including Russia, Romania, Serbia, and Greece) are completely self-governing. At a lesser level of independence are autonomous national churches (e.g. Finland, China, and Japan) that exercise the right to elect their own metropolitans (archbishops), subject to the approval of the synod, or council, of the patriarchate. Each national church is governed by its own Holy Synod, or council of bishops, which is the deciding body in matters of doctrine and administration. Finally, there are provinces scattered throughout traditionally non-Orthodox areas of the world that are still subject to one of the autocephalous churches—for example, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. The clergy of each church also includes priests and deacons, who are subject to the authority of the bishops.


The foundation of an Orthodox temple requires the blessing of a bishop, adherence to specific requirements in construction, and a ritual of formal consecration when the building is complete. Within each parish church a chair is reserved for the bishop, even in his absence, to signify that the church and its worshipers are his responsibility. The Orthodox altar always faces east toward the sunrise, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world. Traditionally, Orthodox temples do not have pews, since standing is the normal posture for Orthodox prayer. In Western countries and some Mediterranean nations, however, pews and occasionally organs may be incorporated into the temple.

The most prominent and distinctive feature of an Orthodox church is the iconostasis ("wall of icons"), a screen that separates the central prayer area ("nave") from the altar area ("sanctuary"), representing a gateway into the latter Holy Place. The iconostasis bears three entrances (usually doors) to the altar: the Royal Doors stand at center, with Deacon's doors on either side. Only bishops, priests, and deacons may pass through the Royal Doors in performing their duties. An icon of Christ always occupies the place of honor to the right of the Royal Doors, while an icon of the Theotokos (Mary, the "God bearer") always occupies the place to the left. The rest of the screen is filled with icons of the angels, apostles, or saints that reflect the regional traditions of that church.

Monasteries are also regarded by the Orthodox as holy places. Dedicated to God for prayer and penitence, they are not open to visitors except as permitted by the ruling abbot or abbess. The Orthodox make pilgrimages to these and other sites where saints lived or were martyred.


Because of his love and mercy, the holiness of God extends to his entire creation. Humans can choose to be sinful, but the victory of Christ over death has transformed the entire cosmos. Orthodox Christians believe that no part of the world is evil or lacking in holiness. Because of their emphasis on theosis, Orthodox believe that God's holiness is always present, is especially intense in the mysteries of the church, and is at work in the lives of believers as well.

Humans who achieve a high degree of deification in this world are venerated as saints. No formal process exists to recognize saints. Rather, such extraordinary holiness may be manifested by an individual's reputation before death, his or her association with miraculous cures or answers to prayers, or the inexplicable incorruption of his or her body after death. Among the most widely venerated of Orthodox saints is Nicholas, the archbishop of Myra in Lycia (present-day Turkey) during the fourth century, who was severely persecuted for his faith under the Emperor Diocletian and renowned for his compassionate humility. Nicholas is popularly known as the "wonder-worker" for the miracles he is believed to have performed during his lifetime and after-ward.


The cycle of time in Orthodoxy revolves around Pascha, or Easter, the day of the resurrection of Christ. While Easter is the most important holiday in the Orthodox calendar, every Sunday is also regarded as a "little Pascha." In all there are 12 major festivals or feasts in Orthodoxy, marking special days in honor of Christ, the Theotokos (Mary), the apostles and saints, and significant events in the history of the church. Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost also hold special importance, as they celebrate the incarnation and baptism of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.

Periods of fast precede the celebration of major holidays: the Great Fast (Lent) before Pascha; the Nativity Fast before Christmas and Epiphany; the Fast of the Apostles before the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June); and the Dormition Fast before the Dormition of the Theotokos (15 August). The custom of these fasts derives from the tradition of church members fasting and praying with candidates preparing to be baptized on Pascha, Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost.


Orthodoxy does not impose particular requirements on everyday dress. Laymen and lay-women are expected to dress modestly. In some places women wear a veil or head covering in church, but this is no longer a universal custom.

The vestments worn by the clergy during public worship are evolved from the dress of Roman imperial officials. Outside of worship, bishops, priests, and deacons wear black cassocks or, in Western countries, black suits with clerical collars. Monks and nuns wear a black habit including a veiled hat (for monks) or a veil (for nuns).


Orthodoxy influences the daily diet of its believers through its demand for regular fasting, although a completely vegan diet is not permitted lest one be tempted to spiritual pride and lack of gratitude to God for the goodness of creation (which includes the primacy of humans over other created life).

Orthodox Christians observe four major periods of fasting (mentioned above in HOLIDAYS/FESTIVALS), during which they limit themselves to one meal per day and refrain from meat, dairy, wine, and oil. In addition, they fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year (except Bright Week, the week following Pascha, the week following Pentecost, and the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany). Some churches now refrain from fasting during the entire Paschal season (between Easter and Pentecost).


Orthodox Christian worship invokes all the senses. Rituals include the burning of incense and candles or oil lamps. Common gestures include making the sign of the cross, bowing, and prostrating. Nearly all parts of worship services include a capella singing.

The ecclesiastical day begins at sunset, as indicated by Moses, whose description of God's creation of the world began with evening. Evening prayer service is called vespers. Private evening prayer, called compline, is often recited before the family altar (located in an east corner of the home), which normally holds icons, a lamp or candle, and a copy of the Holy Scripture. Morning prayer, called Orthros, precedes the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Throughout the rest of the day monastics and some laity pray at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hour. Specific rituals accompany each of the mysteries. The Great Blessing of Waters occurs on the Feast of Epiphany in honor of the baptism of Christ; another common ritual involves the commemoration of a deceased on the anniversary of his or her death.


Forty days after birth Orthodox infants are baptized and chrismated. Baptism is enacted by full, triple immersion (for both infants and adults), once for each person of the Trinity. Chrismation (analogous to the Roman Catholic rite of confirmation, although confirmation in the West since about the year 1000 is normally conferred upon adolescents) is the sacrament of anointing the recipient with holy oil, or chrism, which has been consecrated by the bishop. Immediately after the recipient has been baptized and chrismated, he or she receives the Eucharist.

Betrothal and holy matrimony mark the entrance into the married estate. As Orthodoxy emphasizes the spiritual rather than the legal bond of marriage, participation in the sacrament does not include the taking of vows. The rite does include the exchange of rings and is completed by placing "crowns of glory and honor" upon the heads of the couple to signify roles as "king" and "queen" of their own family under God. The crowns also signify the martyrdom of marriage, as an act of sacrifice and unwavering devotion.

Ritual prayers are said for children beginning a school year. Priests anoint the sick upon request and all worshipers on the Wednesday of Holy Week (preceding Pascha). Ritual prayers are said for the dying, as well as at the time of death. Specific rites also exist for the conversion of new adherents to Orthodoxy and for the restoration to communion of those who have been excommunicated.


Anyone baptized, chrismated, and communed is a full member of the Orthodox Church. Non-Christian converts are received by baptism and Chrismation, while Christians converts (who have already received a valid Trinitarian baptism) may be received by Chrismation alone. Excommunication is incurred by those who, in spite of admonition from their priest, willingly and knowingly violate the teachings of the Church as laid down by the councils or regularly ignore the canons or "measures" of the church that seek to guide the implementation of council teachings in everyday life.


Orthodoxy extends tolerance to Christians thought to be "in error," as well as non-Christians, even while it claims itself to be the one true church. Such tolerance is based on Orthodoxy's basic principle of freedom of conscience, as well as the understanding that it cannot know the exact boundaries of God's mercy and must reserve judgment on the spiritual condition of those not in communion with the church. Still, in Russia and other historically Orthodox nations, restrictive measures toward non-Orthodox citizens or preferential treatment for the Orthodox have led to tensions and calls for freedom of religion.


Orthodoxy has always called for the giving of alms and relief of human suffering as essential components of Christian life. In the Byzantine and the Russian empires, imperial support was extended for church relief efforts. Today Orthodox churches in developed nations support international relief efforts and issue declarations that condemn ethnic or racial warfare and economic injustice and advocate an equitable share of the world's resources for all humans.


Orthodox ethics reflect the aspiration to theosis—God's "image and likeness"—in each human, which is the Holy Trinity's gift. Murder, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are impermissible as violations of Orthodox theological and social vision.

Marriage is normally to be entered into once and is considered an eternal sacrament. The Orthodox church, however, takes a compassionate view of divorce when all avenues of reconciliation have failed. Remarriage is permitted (up to three times), although the ceremony for a second marriage includes prayers of repentance for the previous divorce and is not celebrated to the same degree as the first marriage. The church considers procreation to be one of the fundamental purposes and duties of marriage and therefore regards it as sinful to use contraception to avoid completely the birth of any children. On the other hand, for married couples seeking to limit family size, some church authorities sanction the use of contraception, arguing that regular sexual relations (as opposed to abstinence) are fundamental to preserving the health and sanctity of the marriage, as well as being one of its privileges and obligations for mutual theosis.


Orthodoxy remains divided between the most traditional monastics and countries that remain on the Julian, or "old," calendar and those who have adopted a limited use of the Western, or Gregorian, calendar. The dispute between Orthodoxy and the Christian West over a common date for Pascha (Easter) remains volatile and ongoing. Similarly charged are Orthodoxy's attempts at reconciliation with non-Chalcedonian Christians (e.g., the Coptic and Ethiopian churches and the Syrian Orthodox) and Roman Catholics. Also, the continued decline of Christianity in the Middle East has provoked tension among Orthodox Christians who feel concerned by a resurgent and some-times violent Islam in Egypt and Palestine, a lack of sympathy in Israel, and the perceived indifference of Western nations.

After the Russian patriarchate was attacked in Soviet Russia, a major Pan-Orthodox Congress was held in Constantinople from 10 May to 8 June 1923, and plans were begun for an ecumenical council. Despite subsequent preparatory committee reports and repeated urgings from various patriarchs and bishops over the next decades, such a council, or even the creation of a pan-Orthodox Synod to resolve urgent contemporary issues in dispute, remained an unfulfilled dream. Some Orthodox leaders have called for an international forum, perhaps held through the Internet, as a more realistic way of moving forward a discussion of issues.


The cultural impact of Orthodoxy, beginning in the Byzantine Empire, has been immense. The history of Greece, Russia, the Balkans, and eastern Europe cannot be understood without appreciating the role Orthodox Christianity has played in shaping the cultures of these regions. Even in Syria, Palestine, Israel, and Egypt, the presence of Orthodoxy has contributed to literary, scientific, artistic, and musical expression.

In the realm of music, many scholars believe that all forms of Christian chant, east or west, may have derived from the Syrian chant tones that can be documented from the fourth century c.e. Equally influential, artists such as the Cretan Domenikos Theotocopoulos (1541-1614)—commonly called "El Greco" (the Greek)—developed his painting style in Spain on the basis of his earlier work in Byzantine iconography. Romanesque architecture, including the stunning church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, reflects the Orthodox understanding of sacred space, as do two German structures—the chapel at Aachen and the Benedictine monastery in Fulda—both of which attempted to replicate the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. One can hardly imagine Russian literature apart from the massive influence Russian Orthodoxy worked on the imagination of its major authors, including Fodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Similarly, the criticisms of Western society leveled by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (b. 1919) cannot be understood apart from the writer's Russian Orthodox perspective. Not even those who were bitterly critical of the Church—such as the Lebanese-born Khalil Gibran (1833–1931)—could avoid Orthodoxy as a subject and cultural context for their work. The same must be said for the Greek writer Níkos Kazantzákis (1885–1957).


One of the most distinctive aspects of Orthodox Christianity is the significance it gives to icons. Icons are representations of Christ, his mother, the Apostles, and scenes from Scripture and the life of the church. They may also depict stories from Holy Scripture as taught in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Icons have existed throughout the entire known history of Orthodoxy, as revealed by wall paintings in Roman catacombs, as well as a few examples that survive in Syria and Asia Minor. In the contemporary church the most common icons are those of Christ and his mother displayed to the right and left, respectively, of the central entrance to the altar.

In the 720s c.e. the Roman emperor Leo III launched an attack on icons, charging that their veneration was tantamount to idolatry. Those who sought to condemn and destroy icons were called iconoclasts. The defenders of icons—members of both the western and eastern churches—were called iconophiles (or iconodules). The iconophiles argued that icons were not idols but symbols, which were not intended to be divine in themselves but dynamic human expressions of the divine.

A. Gregg Roeber

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity


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Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy

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