Eastern Orthodox Christianity (or "Eastern Orthodoxy") refers primarily to Christian traditions descending from the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium.
The "Eastern" churches with the largest number of adherents, according to the primary and narrow sense of "Eastern Orthodox", are the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox. As English-speakers in the West sometimes use the term, however, "Eastern Orthodoxy" is meant to include the "Oriental Orthodox" churches.
The formal division of the Church into separate Eastern and Western churches is regarded as having occurred in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism. Both churches claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and reject the other's claim to this title. The designation "Orthodox" reflects the additional claim of the Eastern church to have retained unchanged the original church traditions of teaching and worship. "Catholic" meanwhile reflects the claim by church leaders who are in communion with Rome to an all encompassing authority on Christian matters. Some claim that the church of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church, represents the "Western tradition" while others are of the opinion that Rome has fallen away from Tradition.
The various distinct branches were established many centuries prior to the Great Schism and in fundamental aspects are as dissimilar from the narrowly defined "Eastern Orthodox" churches as they are from the Roman Catholic Church. Oriental Orthodox churches include the (arguably) "monophysite" Coptic Church. The "Nestorian" Assyrian also often is included among this group, though it does not belong to the Oriental Orthodox Communion.
Eastern Orthodoxy traces continuous apostolic succession back to the five major centers of Christianity in the early church: Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.
The primary causes of their differences with Rome include the Filioque clause, papal claims to complete authority over all Christians, and other doctrinal and liturgic innovations of Rome. Catholics introduced other dogmas later that Eastern Orthodoxy also considers heretical, among them papal infallibility, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and purgatory. Catholics consider the Eastern Orthodox to be schismatics; the Eastern Orthodox consider Catholics to be both schismatics and heretics.
The various churches of the Eastern Orthodox Communion are not wholly independent but exist in full communion with one another. The Oriental Orthodox Churches are not members of this communion, nor are groups such as the Old Believers or the Greek Old Calendarists (Paleoimerologites).
From its founding the church spread quickly throughout most of the Roman Empire, despite much official opposition. Widespread, organized persecution finally stopped in 311 when Emperor Constantine I so ordered it in the Edict of Milan. From that time forward, the Byzantine emperor exerted various degrees of influence in the church. Sometimes this was seen as positive, as in the calling of the Ecumenical Councils to resolve disputes and establish church dogma on which the entire church would agree. Sometimes this was seen as negative, as when Patriarchs (usually of Constantinople) were deposed by the emperor, or when the emperor sided with the iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The Church within the Empire
There were several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards. Some of them led to the calling of Ecumenical councils to try to resolve them. The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), owing to a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ. Eventually this led to each group having its own Pope. Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs were called "Melkites" (the king's men, because Constantinople was the city of the emperors), and are today known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Petros VII, while those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon are today known as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Shenouda III. There was a similar split in Syria. Those who disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon are sometimes called "Oriental Orthodox" to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox, who accepted the Council of Chalcedon. The Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "monophysites" or "non-Chalcedonians", although today the Coptic Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term "miaphysite", to denote the "joined" nature of Christ.
An important symbol for the eastern Orthodoxy and its spread north to the Slavic peoples was the construction in the 530s of Hagia Sophia, a most impressive church building in Constantinople, under emperor Justinian I.
Muslim conquest and Iconoclasm
In the seventh century the areas administered by the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were conquered by Muslim Arabs, and the native Christians were treated as second-class citizens. Westerners tend to think of Christianity as dominant in society for a long period of history, but this has definitely not been the case for Christians in three of the five ancient churches, who have been in Muslim-dominated societies for 13 centuries. It was the Muslims who first opposed the Christian use of icons, though many Christians swiftly came to the same conclusion. The use of icons was defended and upheld at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The end of that council is still celebrated as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" in Orthodox churches today, and icons remain a central part of Orthodox faith and practice.
Conversion of the Slavs
In the ninth and tenth centuries, Orthodoxy made great inroads into Eastern Europe and Russia. This work was made possible by the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible and many of the prayer books into Slavonic. They found themselves competing with missionaries from the Roman diocese in places like Great Moravia and Bulgaria. After being driven out of Great Moravia, they were later welcomed in Bulgaria, in part because they prayed in the people's native language rather than in Latin, as the Roman priests did. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of 70 years of persecution under the atheistic government of the USSR, is the largest of the Orthodox Churches.
Divisions from the West
In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, to become distinct from the Churches of the East, although, in practice, contacts were maintained informally for many years. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Pope involved in the split, but they were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences (Greek East and Latin West).
The final breach is often considered to have arisen as a result of the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. This Fourth Crusade had the Latin Church directly involved in a military assault against the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, and the Orthodox Patriarchate thereof. The sacking of the Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancor to the present day.
In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks. By this time Egypt was also under Muslim control, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia; and so Moscow, coined the Third Rome, became the new center of the church at that time.
Orthodoxy and the Reformation
Orthodoxy did not undergo the Reformation, and attitudes of the Protestant churches have been ambiguous since the beginning. Lutheran Bishops led by Melanchthon sent delegates to the Patriarch of Constantinople to explore ecumenical possibilities, but the discussions went nowhere. Both sides remained cordial and brotherly, but fundamental doctrinal differences came to light, specifically regarding Holy Tradition, The Procession of the Holy Spirit, free will; Divine predestination, justification, The number of sacraments, Baptism by immersion (Orthodox) vs. sprinkling or pouring (Lutheran), and the immediate performance of Chrismation and the giving of the Eucharist to those baptized (Orthodox), the meaning of the change in the Eucharist, and the use of unleavened bread, infallibility of the Church and of the Ecumenical Councils, veneration, feasts, and invocation of saints and their icons and relics, fasts and other ecclesiastical traditions. Ultimately, the dialogue was broken off .
Structure / organization
Bishops, priests, and deacons
Since its founding, the Church spread to different places, and the leaders of the Church in each place came to be known as episkopi (overseer), which became "bishop" in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (elder), which became "prester" and then "priest" in English, and diakonis (servant), which became "deacon" in English (see also subdeacon). The bishop of the most important city of a region (Metropolis) was sometimes called a "Metropolitan", and smaller local churches looked to those in large cities for leadership. The East (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern-rite Catholic churches) has always allowed married priests and deacons, provided the marriage takes place before their ordination. If divorced or widowed, priests and deacons are not allowed to remarry unless they also cease being priests or deacons. Bishops are always celibate as they are selected from the ranks of monks (who take a vow of celibacy). Bishops, priests, and deacons have always been men. There was an office of deaconess; these were women that assisted other women in the Christian community. However, they did not receive ordination in the sense that deacons do, nor did they exercise jurisdiction.
The different Orthodox churches can generally be said to be united in faith and in liturgy, but not in polity. There is no single Pope or similar office that corresponds to the Roman Catholic Pope, nor is there a standing synod of bishops or patriarchs. In general, the church is organized along national and regional lines in hierarchical fashion, with the "top" hierarchs or patriarchs recognizing and remaining in communion with the other patriarchs. From about the fourth century the most important churches were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria had the title "Pope", while those of the other three cities were called "Patriarchs". Today there are approximately 15 separate autocephalous jurisdictions who remain in communion with Constantinople and each other; these are the "canonical" Orthodox Churches. Churches which call themselves Orthodox but are not in communion with these are termed "non-canonical" Orthodox Churches. A separate article is devoted to the topic of Eastern Orthodox Church organization.
Orthodox Christians believe that they have preserved apostolic succession from the first Apostles. While Rome traces its papacy back to the Apostle Peter, Alexandria, for example, traces its papacy back to Mark the Evangelist, who founded the church in Alexandria in AD 40. (In Alexandria, two primates call themselves "Pope" and claim to be the successor of the apostle Mark: the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, also called the "Pope of Africa", and the Coptic Pope. Those two lines of succession separated from each other in a schism in AD 451. Roman Catholics also have a high-ranking bishop called the "Patriarch of Alexandria" in that city, but he does not claim the title of "Pope".)
Orthodoxy in North America
The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska beginning in the 18th century. Among the first was St. Herman of Alaska. This established missionary precedence for the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas, and Eastern Orthodox Christians were under the omophor (Church authority and protection) of The Patriarch of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. One side effect was the flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada and Europe. Among those who came were Orthodox lay people, deacons, priests and bishops. In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that Orthodox Christians under his leadership but outside of Russia should seek refuge with whatever Orthodox jurisdiction that would shield them from Communist control. The various national Orthodox communities thus were permitted as an emergency measure to look towards their immigrant homelands for ecclesiastic leadership rather than be tied to Russia. Some of the Russian Orthodox formed an independent synod that became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Some of the Russian Orthodox remained in communion with Moscow and were granted autocephaly in 1970 as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). However, recognition of this autocephalic status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America ) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with the OCA.
Today there are many Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada that are still bound to the Greek, Antiochian, or other overseas jurisdiction; in some cases these different overseas jurisdictions will have churches in the same U.S. city. However, there are also many "panorthodox" activities and organizations, both formal and informal, among Orthdox believers of all jurisdictions. One such organization is SCOBA, the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America, which is comprised of North American Orthodox bishops from nearly all jurisdictions. (See List of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.)
There is a general acknowledgment that the situation should not continue as it is indefinitely, and that at some point all the Orthodox churches in the U.S. will need to be united under a single Metropolitan or Patriarch. There is also a general acknowledgment that this can be taken care of slowly over time. In June of 2002, the Antiochian Orthodox Church granted autonomy to the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. Some observers see this as a step towards greater organizational unity in North America. (Note that this future American Orthodox Church will be a church of Americans, for people who consider themselves Americans and speak primarily or only the English or Spanish languages; people who retain their original nationality and/or whose primary language is not English will most likely remain members of their churches, and their churches' activities will continue).
General flavor and phronema
In general, the Eastern Orthdox approach to scriptural interpretation and theology is patristic. That means that every effort is made to continue believing and practicing the same theology that Christ gave to the Apostles and that the Apostles gave to the early Church Fathers. Theological innovation is always met with suspicion; if an idea is truly different than what the Church has always believed and taught, it is likely heretical. It is acceptable to elaborate and more fully explain traditional theology, however. The last major theological milestone took place in the 14th century at the Hesychast Councils. There, St. Gregory Palamas explained how God can be both utterly transcendent, yet make himself known to men.
Phronema refers to how something "smells" or "feels". The Western church (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) generally has a legal flavor to much of its theology. Sin is understood primarily as a legal violation, and salvation is legal forgiveness for the legal offenses. Also, the West tends to first look at God in his unity, then in his three persons. The Eastern church generally has a much more relational flavor. Sin leads to relational separation from God, and repentance involves restoring the relationships between the penitent and God, and between the penitent and humanity. God is viewed first as three persons in perfect relationship with each other, then as a unity sharing a single divine essence. The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for most if not all of Eastern Orthodox theology.
It should perhaps also be mentioned that the Western churches have been especially influenced by Augustine and, to a lesser extent, Tertullian. Although Augustine was an early church father, writing in the fourth century, he had very little influence in the East. First of all, he wrote in Latin rather than Greek. At the time, Latin was commonly spoken in the West, but Greek was the main language of the Byzantine Empire. His writings weren't translated to Greek until the fourteenth century. Consequently, Western doctrines that are based on Augustine's views are typically not shared by the East. Eastern theologians tended to rely more on Greek philosophers than did the west, often borrowing their categories and vocabulary to explain Christian doctrine. In the first few centuries after the fall of Rome, knowledge of Greek in the West dropped considerably, and so the Western church was generally less aware of the Greek philosophers. These gradual differences contributed to the growing gap between the Eastern and Western churches.
Asceticism and Theosis
Asceticism is the set of disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation, and further the believer's repentance. Ultimately, it is believed, salvation comes only by the grace of God, but God's grace and right belief are expected to produce changes in behaviour. Changes in behaviour can also influence beliefs. Asceticism can include anything from taking part in prayers with the church, fasting, almsgiving, or even working hard not to lose one's temper or similar acts of restraint and self-control. Corporate prayers are generally prayed as a "liturgy", which literally means a "work of the people." One prayer that is very widely used and is the subject of much discussion of spirituality is the Jesus Prayer.
Theosis, or divinization, is the process of becoming more like God and more united with God. It is the goal of the Christian life. It means becoming all that people were originally created to be. It is not something to wait for passively, but something to be taken by force, by hard work done in one's soul.
The four chief activities of the believer are:
Mystery of Repentance
In the earliest days of the Church, Christians confessed their sins to each other publicly, and publicly forgave each other, announcing God's forgiveness. This was possible in part because only believers were meeting together, and they were close-knit communities in which everyone trusted each other. As time went on, and more people came into the Church, some people attending were seekers or catechumens rather than faithful members, and believers began to feel uncomfortable confessing in public. Then the practice developed of members quietly confessing to God (typically in front of an icon of Christ blessing the icon's beholder) in the presence of an elder or priest, who would offer counsel and confirm God's forgiveness. This would take place in the context of a series of prayers said by the priest and penitent together, often including Psalm 51 and other scriptures and prayers. Repentance is essential preparation for receiving the Eucharist.
Mystery of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is at the center of Eastern Orthodoxy. In practice, it is partaking of the bread and wine in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to be the genuine Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have in the West. The doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated after the Great Schism took place, and the Eastern church has never formally affirmed or denied it, preferring to state simply that it is a mystery and sacrament. Believers are encouraged to partake regularly, and once a year at the very least. One recent book describing the role of the Eucharist in Eastern Orthodoxy is For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
The practice of fasting is one of many Jewish practices the earliest Christians kept, and which Orthodox Christians continue to keep to this day. Fasting typically involves abstaining from meat, dairy, and wine rather than abstaining from all food. Seafood and oils are permitted on certain days and weeks of the fast. Thus, on the harshest of days the fasting guidelines resemble vegan vegetarianism with all frying/cooking done simply with water (no oil), and most vegetarian recipes are appropriate during fasts. Monastaries typically have stricter fasting rules. The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians living within a particular jurisdiction; the times of fasting are part of the ecclesial calendar. In this way, the whole church fasts together, and the whole church feasts together (when the fast is broken). Young children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with other medical needs are often encouraged not to follow the usual fasting guidelines, but to work out alternatives with their priest or spiritual elder. Also, if someone wishes to follow a stricter fast, they are generally encouraged to do so only under the guidance of their priest or spiritual elder.
The major fasting periods are Great Lent (40+ days leading up to Pascha (Easter), the Feast of the Resurrection); Winter Lent (also known as Philip's Fast or Nativity Fast, 40+ days leading up to Christmas or the Feast of the Nativity); about 15 days leading up to the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary) on August 15; the Apostle's Fast, leading up to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Prime Apostles; a few other shorter fasts; and on Wednesdays and Fridays during most of the rest of the year. Wednesday fasts are in remembrance of Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus Christ and of the prostitute who anointed Jesus with ointment, and Friday fasts are in remembrance of Christ's crucifixion and death. There is also a complete fast (all food and drink) from the beginning of Sunday (traditionally this is Saturday sundown following Jewish custom, though many parishes observe the beginning of the day at midnight) until after reception of the Holy Eucharist on the same day, and similar fasting before receiving the Eucharist on other days. The exact number of fasting days often varies from year to year, as the dates of various feasts change, but usually more than half of the days in a year are spent in some form of fast. See the Eastern Orthodox section of the liturgical year article.
Fasting without prayer was often called the "fast of demons" by the Church fathers, since the demons neither eat nor pray. Therefore, fasting should always be accompanied by prayer. Also, fasting is connected with almsgiving, since avoiding meat is intended partly to free up money that can then be used to feed the poor and provide for other charitable causes.
"Almsgiving" refers to any charitable giving of material resources to those in need. Like fasting, it is a practice carried over from Judaism and reinforced by Christ, the authors of the New Testament, and has remained a prominent teaching. It is often coupled with fasting (see above), as consuming less food and less expensive food should free up more resources that can be given. It is also connected to the Eucharist, in which thanks is given for all things, and it is acknowledged that all things ultimately belong to God. Almsgiving is one of the most practical Orthodox Christian practices.
Eastern Orthodox churches
Churches with ambiguous status
Churches that have voluntarily "walled themselves off"
These Churches do not practice Communion with any other Orthodox jurisdictions nor do they tend to recognize each other, either.