What is the Orthodox Faith? Are there branches within the Orthodox faith?

Article ID: DE177 | By: Paul Negrut
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The following is an excerpt of article DE177 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be downloaded by clicking the link below the excerpt.


In Becoming Orthodox, Peter Gillquist asserts, “The Orthodox church…miraculously carries today the same faith and life of the Church of the New Testament.”6 The presupposition behind this statement is that the Orthodox church is a unified body that speaks with one voice. In fact, Orthodoxy is not a monolithic bloc that shares a unified tradition and church life. The phrase “Eastern Orthodoxy,” commonly used to describe the Orthodox faith, actually refers to the dominant churches of Eastern Europe. In a broad sense, the Eastern tradition comprises all the Christian churches that separated at an early stage from the Western tradition (Rome) in order to follow one of the ancient patriarchies (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople).

During the twentieth century, these churches not only have spread throughout all continents, but also have penetrated many cultures that have not been traditionally associated with the Eastern tradition. Generally speaking, these churches can be grouped into one of the following:

1.The Orthodox churches in the Middle East. These belong to the most ancient oriental ecclesiastical units, and they include the Patriarchies of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria and Lebanon), Jerusalem (Jordan and the occupied territories), the Armenian Catholicossates of Etchmiadzin (former Soviet Republic) and Cilicia (Lebanon), the Coptic Orthodox church (Egypt), and the Syrian Orthodox church (Syria, Beirut, and India).7

2.The Orthodox Churches in Central and Eastern Europe. Both culturally and theologically, these churches follow closely the Byzantine (Constantinopolitan) tradition. Generally known as “Eastern Orthodoxy,” they include the autonomous churches of Russia, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Albania, and Sinai.8

3.The Orthodox Diaspora. Organized outside the traditional Orthodox countries, these ecclesiastical communities are found in Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, Japan, China, and Australia.

These churches have significant theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural differences among themselves. For example, the fifth-century Monophysite controversy over whether Christ has two natures or one separated the Byzantine church from the ancient Eastern churches. Furthermore, the Eastern churches disagree on the date for Easter and the legitimacy of church hierarchy and sacraments. As a result of such differences, the Eastern churches have parallel ecclesiastical structures not only in the same country but even in the same city, thus disregarding the rule of one bishop in one city.

Culturally, in addition to differing local liturgical traditions, the link between church and nation that became characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy led to the founding of churches on ethnic principles. Most of the churches understand themselves as the real protector of their individual nations, people, and cultures. Despite political benefits, the church-nation relationship raises questions regarding the universality and the unity of the church, particularly in times of political or military tension between nations supported by sister Orthodox churches.

Despite triumphalistic claims of Orthodox apologists that they embody the true apostolic faith, in reality there is a cluster of conflicting traditions, theologies, and ecclesiastical structures. Protestant evangelicals in America who were eager to embrace the Orthodox faith soon discovered that Orthodox churches in America are divided. In fact, their liturgies are spoken in their national languages and they are hesitant to welcome outsiders.9 For example, Frank Schaeffer, a passionate promoter of Orthodoxy, concluded that one side of the Orthodox church in America is a “sort of social-ethnic club,” infected with nominalism, materialism, ethnic pride, exclusivism, and indifference to the sacraments.10