Agrement of Romania Tourism Ministery n° 5206 / 11.12.2001
What Orthodox Christians Believe
the Orthodox Church?
Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ, the
Son of God, came to earth and founded the Church, through His Apostles and disciples,
for the salvation of man. In the years which followed, the Apostles spread the
Church and its teachings far; they founded many churches, all united in faith,
worship, and the partaking of the Mysteries (or as they are called in the West,
the Sacraments) of the Holy Church.
The churches founded by the Apostles
themselves include the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem,
and Rome. The Church of Constantinople was founded by St. Andrew, the Church of
Alexandria by St. Mark, the Church of Antioch by St. Paul, the Church of Jerusalem
by Sts. Peter and James, and the Church of Rome by by Sts. Peter and Paul. Those
founded in later years through the missionary activity of the first churches were
the Churches of Sinai, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and many others.
Each of these churches is independent in administration, but, with the
exception of the Church of Rome, which finally separated from the others in the
year 1054, all are united in faith, doctrine, Apostolic tradition, sacraments,
liturgies, and services. Together they constitute and call themselves the Orthodox
The teachings of the Church are derived from two sources: Holy
Scripture, and Sacred Tradition, within which the Scriptures came to be, and within
which they are interpreted. As written in the Gospel of St. John, "And there
are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written
every one, I suppose that even the world could not contain the books that should
be written" (John 21:20). Much teaching transmitted orally by the Apostles
has come down to us in Sacred Tradition.
The word Orthodox literally means
right teaching or right worship, being derived from two Greek words: orthos (right)
and doxa (teaching or worship). As the enroachments of false teaching and division
multiplied in early Chrstian times, threatening to obscure the identity and purity
of the Church, the term Orthodox quite logically came to be applied to it. The
Orthodox Church carefully guards the truth against all error and schism both to
protect its flock and to glorify Christ whose body the Church is.
number of religious groups today claim to be the successors of the early Church.
A yardstick for truth is needed by which to compare what the Church originally
believed and practiced with what these groups proclaim. Certainly we all have
the right to believe whatever we choose. But it is also just good sense to be
acquainted with the options before we make our final choices.
It is our
hope that this outline of our beliefs will help introduce you to the Christianity
espoused and instituted by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. This is the yardstick
of truth by which our choices in Christianity need to be measured.
GOD THE FATHER is the fountainhead of the Holy Trinity. The Scriptures
reveal the one God is Three Persons -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- eternally
sharing the one divine nature. From the Father the Son is begotten before all
ages and all time (Psalm 2:7; II Corinthians 11:31). It is from the Father that
the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds (John 15:26). God the Father created all things
through the Son, in the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1 and 2; John 1:3; Job 33:4), and
we are called to worship Him (John 4:23). The Father loves us and sent His Son
to give us everlasting life (John 3:16).
JESUS CHRIST is the Second
Person of the Holy Trinity, eternally born of the Father. He became man, and thus
He is at once fully God and fully man. His coming to earth was foretold in the
Old Testament by the prophets. Because Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christianity,
the Orthodox Church has given more attention to knowing Him than to anything or
In reciting the Nicene Creed, Orthodox Christians regularly
affirm the historic faith concerning Jesus as they say, "I believe... in
one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten, begotten of the Father
before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; of
one essence with the Father; by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and
for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius
Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according
to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the
Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose
kingdom shall have no end."
THE HOLY SPIRIT is one of the Persons
of the Holy Trinity and is one in essence with the Father. Orthodox Christians
repeatedly confess, "And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver
of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son
is worshipped and glorified..." He is called the "promise of the Father"
(Acts 1:4), given by Christ as a gift to the Church, to empower the Church for
service to God (Acts 1:8), to place God's love in our hearts (Romans 5:5), and
to impart spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:7-13) and virtues (Galatians 5:22,
23) for Christian life and witness. Orthodox Christians believe the biblical promise
that the Holy Spirit is given through chrismation (anointing) at baptism (Acts
2:38). We are to grow in our experience of the Holy Spirit for the rest of our
refers to Jesus Christ coming "in the flesh". The eternal Son of God
the Father assumed to Himself a complete human nature from the Virgin Mary. He
was (and is) one divine Person, fully possessing from God the Father the entirety
of the divine nature, and in His coming in the flesh fully possessing a human
nature from the Virgin Mary. By His Incarnation, the Son forever possesses two
natures in His one Person. The Son of God, limitless in His divine nature, voluntarily
and willingly accepted limitation in His humanity in which He experienced hunger,
thirst, fatigue -- and ultimately, death. The Incarnation is indispensable to
Christianity -- there is no Christianity without it. The Scriptures record, "...every
spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of
God" (I John 4:3). By His Incarnation, the Son of God redeemed human nature,
a redemption made accessible to all who are joined to Him in His glorified humanity.
SIN literally means to "miss the mark." As St. Paul writes,
"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
We sin when we pervert what God has given us as good, falling short of His purposes
for us. Our sins separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1, 2), leaving us spiritually
dead (Ephesians 2:1). To save us, the Son of God assumed our humanity, and being
without sin "He condemned sin in the flesh" (Romans 8:3). In His mercy,
God forgives our sins when we confess them and turn from them, giving us strength
to overcome sin in our lives. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and
just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John
SALVATION is the divine gift through which men and women are
delivered from sin and death, united to Christ, and brought into His eternal kingdom.
Those who heard St. Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost asked what they must
do to be saved. He answered, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized
in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the
gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Salvation begins with these three steps:
1) repent, 2) be baptized, and 3) receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. To repent
means to change our mind about how we have been, to turn from our sin and to commit
ourselves to Christ. To be baptized means to be born again by being joined into
union with Christ. And to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit means to receive
the Spirit Who empowers us to enter a new life in Christ, to be nurtured in the
Church, and to be conformed to God's image.
Salvation demands faith
in Jesus Christ. People cannot save themselves by their own good works. Salvation
is "faith working through love". It is an ongoing, life-long process.
Salvation is past tense in that, through the death and Resurrection of Christ,
we have been saved. It is present tense, for we are "being saved" by
our active participation through faith in our union with Christ by the power of
the Holy Spirit. Salvation is also future, for we must yet be saved at His glorious
is the way in which a person is actually united to Christ. The experience of salvation
is initiated in the waters of baptism. The Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 6: 1-6
that in baptism we experience Christ's death and resurrection. In it our sins
are truly forgiven and we are energized by our union with Christ to live a holy
life. The Orthodox Church practices baptism by full immersion.
some consider baptism to be only an "outward sign" of belief in Christ.
This innovation has no historical or biblical precedent. Others reduce it to a
mere perfunctory obedience to Christ's command (cf. Matthew 28:19, 20). Still
others, ignoring the Bible completely, reject baptism as a vital factor in salvation.
Orthodoxy maintains that these contemporary innovations rob sincere people of
the most important assurances that baptism provides -- namely that they have been
united to Christ and are part of His Church.
NEW BIRTH is receipt
of new life. It is how we gain entrance into God's kingdom and His Church. Jesus
said, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom
of God" (John 3:5). From its beginning, the Church has taught that the "water"
is the baptismal water and the "Spirit" is the Holy Spirit. The new
birth occurs in baptism where we die with Christ, are buried with Him, and are
raised with Him in the newness of His resurrection, being joined into union with
Him in His glorified humanity (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3, 4). The idea that being
"born again" is a religious experience disassociated from baptism is
a recent one and has no biblical basis whatsoever.
is a word used in the Scriptures to mean that in Christ we are forgiven and actually
made righteous in our living. Justification is not a once-for-all, instantaneous
pronouncement guaranteeing eternal salvation, regardless of how wickedly a person
might live from that point on. Neither is it merely a legal declaration that an
unrighteous person is righteous. Rather, justification is a living, dynamic, day-to-day
reality for the one who follows Christ. The Christian actively pursues a righteous
life in the grace and power of God granted to all who continue to believe in Him.
SANCTIFICATION is being set apart for God. It involves us in the
process of being cleansed and made holy by Christ in the Holy Spirit. We are called
to be saints and to grow into the likeness of God. Having been given the gift
of the Holy Spirit, we actively participate in sanctification. We cooperate with
God, we work together with Him, that we may know Him, becoming by grace what He
is by nature.
BIBLE is the divinely inspired Word of God (II Timothy 3:16), and is a crucial
part of God's self-revelation to the human race. The Old Testament tells the history
of that revelation from Creation through the Age of the Prophets. The New Testament
records the birth and life of Jesus as well as the writings of His Apostles. It
also includes some of the history of the early Church and especially sets forth
the Church's apostolic doctrine. Though these writings were read in the Churches
from the time they first appeared, the earliest listings of all the New Testament
books exactly as we know them today, is found in the 33rd Canon of a local council
held at Carthage in 318, and in a fragment of St. Athanasius of Alexandria's Festal
Letter in 367. Both sources list all of the books of the New Testament without
exception. A local council, probably held at Rome in 382, set forth a complete
list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures
are at the very heart of Orthodox worship and devotion.
WORSHIP is to render praise, glory,
and thanksgiving to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All humanity
is called to worship God. Worship is more than being in the "great-out-of-doors",
or listening to a sermon, or singing a hymn. God can be known in His creation,
but that doesn't constitute worship. And as helpful as sermons may be, they can
never offer a proper substitute for worship. Most prominent in Orthodox worship
is the corporate praise, thanksgiving, and glory given to God by the Church. This
worship is consummated in intimate communion with God at His Holy Table.
is said in the Liturgy, "To Thee is due all glory, honor, and worship, to
the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages
of ages. Amen." In that worship we touch and experience His eternal kingdom,
the age to come, and we join in adoration with the heavenly hosts. We experience
the glory of fulfillment of all things in Christ, as truly all in all.
means "thanksgiving" and early became a synonym for Holy Communion.
The Eucharist is the center of worship in the Orthodox Church. Because Jesus said
of the bread and wine at the Last Supper, "This is my body", "This
is my blood", and "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22: 19,20),
His followers believe -- and do -- nothing less. In the Eucharist, we partake
mystically of Christ's Body and Blood, which impart His life and strength to us.
The celebration of the Eucharist was a regular part of the Church's life from
its beginning. Early Christians began calling the Eucharist "the medicine
of immortality" because they recognized the great grace of God that was received
LITURGY is a term used to describe the
shape or form of the Church's corporate worship of God. The word liturgy derives
from a Greek word which means "the common work". All the biblical references
to worship in heaven involve liturgy.
In the Old Testament, God ordered
a liturgy, or specific pattern of worship. We find it described in detail in the
books of Exodus and Leviticus. In the New Testament we find the Church carrying
over the worship of the Old Testament Israel as expressed in both the synagogue
and the temple, adjusting them in keeping with their fulfillment in Christ. The
Orthodox Liturgy, which developed over many centuries, still maintains that ancient
shape of worship. The main elements in the Liturgy include hymns, the reading
and proclamation of the Gospel, prayers, and the Eucharist itself. For Orthodox
Christians, the expressions "The Liturgy" or "Divine Liturgy"
refer to the eucharistic rite instituted by Christ Himself at the Last (Mystical)
COMMUNION OF SAINTS:
When Christians depart this life, they remain a vital part of the Church, the
body of Christ. They are alive in the Lord and "registered in heaven"
(Hebrews 12:23). They worship God (Revelation 4:10) and inhabit His heavenly dwelling
places (John 14:2). In the Eucharist we come "to the city of the living God"
and join in communion with the saints in our worship of God (Hebrews 12:22). They
are that "great cloud of witnesses" which surrounds us, and we seek
to imitate them in running "the race set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).
Rejecting or ignoring the communion of saints is a denial of the fact that those
who have died in Christ are still part of his holy Church.
is the open admission of known sins before God and man. It means literally "to
agree with" God concerning our sins. St. James the Apostle admonishes us
to confess our sins to God before the elders, or priests, as they are called today
(James 5:16). We are also exhorted to confess our sins directly to God (I John
1:9). The Orthodox Church has always followed the New Testament practices of confession
before a priest as well as private confession to the Lord. Confession is one of
the most significant means of repenting, and receiving assurance that even our
worst sins are truly forgiven. It is also one of our most powerful aids to forsaking
and overcoming those sins.
DISCIPLINE may become necessary to maintain purity
and holiness in the Church and to encourage repentance in those who have not responded
to the admonition of brothers and sisters in Christ, and of the Church, to forsake
their sins. Church discipline often centers around exclusion from receiving communion
(excommunication). The New Testament records how St. Paul ordered the discipline
of excommunication for an unrepentant man involved in sexual relations with his
father's wife (I Corinthians 5:1-5). The Apostle John warned that we are not to
receive into our homes those who willfully reject the truth of Christ (II John
9,10). Throughout her history, the Orthodox Church has exercised discipline with
compassion when it is needed, always to help bring a needed change of heart and
to aid God's people to live pure and holy lives, never as a punishment.
is called Theotokos, meaning "God-bearer" or "the Mother of God",
because she bore the Son of God in her womb and from her He took His humanity.
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, recognized this reality when she called
Mary, "the Mother of my Lord" (Luke 1:43). Mary said of herself, "All
generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:48). So we, Orthodox, in our generation,
call her blessed. Mary lived a chaste and holy life, and we honor her highly as
the model of holiness, the first of the redeemed, the Mother of the new humanity
in her Son. It is bewildering to Orthodox Christians that many professing Christians
who claim to believe the Bible never call Mary blessed nor honor her who bore
and raised God the Son in His human flesh.
PRAYER TO THE SAINTS is encouraged by the Orthodox Church.
Why? Because physical death is not a defeat for a Christian. It is a glorious
passage into heaven. The Christian does not cease to be a part of the Church at
death. God forbid! Nor is he set aside, idle until the day of judgement.
True Church is composed of all who are in Christ -- in heaven and on earth. It
is not limited in membership to those presently alive. Those in heaven with Christ
are alive, in communion with God, worshipping God, doing their part in the body
of Christ. They actively pray to God for all those in the Church -- and perhaps,
indeed, for the whole world (Ephesians 6:8; Revelation 8:3). So we pray to the
saints who have departed this life, seeking their prayers, even as we ask Christian
friends on earth to pray for us.
APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION has been a watershed issue since the second century,
not as a mere dogma, but as crucial to the preservation of the faith. Certain
false teachers came on the scene insisting they were authoritative representatives
of the Christian Church. Claiming authority from God by appealing to special revelations,
some were even inventing lineages of teachers supposedly going back to Christ
or the Apostles. In response, the early Church insisted there was an authoritative
apostolic succession passed down from generation to generation. They recorded
that actual lineage, showing how its clergy were ordained by those chosen by the
successors of the Apostles chosen by Christ Himself.
is an indispensable factor in preserving Church unity. Those in the succession
are accountable to it, and are responsible to ensure all teaching and practice
in the Church is in keeping with Her apostolic foundations. Mere personal conviction
that one's teaching is correct can never be considered adequate proof of accuracy.
Today, critics of apostolic succession are those who stand outside that historic
succession and seek a self-identity with the early Church only. The burgeoning
number of denominations in the world can be accounted for in large measure by
a rejection of apostolic succession.
COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH:
A monumental conflict (recorded in Acts 15) arose in the early Church over legalism,
the keeping of Jewish laws by the Christians, as means of salvation. "So
the apostles and elders came together [in council] to consider the matter"
(Acts 15:6). This council, held in Jerusalem, set the pattern for the subsequent
calling of councils to settle problems. There have been hundreds of such councils
-- local and regional -- over the centuries of the history of the Church, and
seven councils specifically designated "Eucumenical", that is, considered
to apply to the whole Church. Aware that God has spoken through the Ecumenical
Councils, the Orthodox Church looks particularly to them for authoritative teaching
in regard to the faith and practice of the Church.
comes from the Latin credo, "I believe". From the earliest days of the
Church, creeds have been living confessions of what Christians believe and not
simply formal, academic, Church pronouncements. Such confessions of faith appear
as early as the New Testament, where, for example, St. Paul quotes a creed to
remind Timothy, "God...was revealed in the flesh..." (I Timothy 3:16).
The creeds were approved by Church councils, usually to give a concise statement
of the truth in the face of the invasion of heresy.
The most important
creed in Christendom is the Nicene Creed, the product of two Ecumenical Councils
in the fourth century. Delineated in the midst of a life-and-death controversy,
it contains the essence of New Testament teaching about the Holy Trinity, guarding
that life-giving truth against those who would change the very nature of God and
reduce Jesus Christ to a created being, rather than God in the flesh. The creeds
give us a sure interpretation of the Scriptures against those who would distort
them to support their own religious schemes. Called the "symbol of faith"
and confessed in many of the services of the Church, the Nicene Creed constantly
reminds the Orthodox Christian of what he personally believes, keeping his faith
SPIRITUAL GIFTS: When the young Church was getting under
way, God poured out His Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and their followers, giving
them spiritual gifts to build up the Church and to serve each other. Among the
specific gifts of the Spirit mentioned in the New Testament are: apostleship,
prophecy, evangelism, pastoring, teaching, healing, helps, administrations, knowledge,
wisdom, tongues, interpretation of tongues. These and other spiritual gifts are
recognized in the Orthodox Church. The need for them varies with the times. The
gifts of the Spirit are most in evidence in the liturgical and sacramental life
of the Church.
SECOND COMING: Amid the current
speculation in some corners of Christendom surrounding the Second Coming of Christ
and how it may come to pass, it is comforting to know that the beliefs of the
Orthodox Church are basic. Orthodox Christians confess with conviction that Jesus
Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead", and that
His "kingdom will have no end". Orthodox preaching does not attempt
to predict God's prophetic schedule, but to encourage Christian people to have
their lives in order so that they might be confident before Him when He comes
(I John 2:28).
HEAVEN is the place of God's throne, beyond time
and space. It is the abode of God's angels, as well as of the saints who have
passed from this life. We pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven..." Though
Christians live in this world, they belong to the kingdom of heaven, and that
kingdom is their true home. But heaven is not only for the future. Neither is
it some distant place billions of light years away in a nebulous "great beyond".
For the Orthodox, heaven is part of Christian life and worship. The very architecture
of an Orthodox Church building is designed so that the building itself participates
in the reality of heaven. The Eucharist is heavenly worship, heaven on earth.
St. Paul teaches that we are raised up with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians
2:6), "fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God"
(Ephesians 2:19). At the end of the age, a new heaven and a new earth will be
revealed (Revelation 21:1).
HELL, unpopular as it is to modern people,
is real. The Orthodox Church understands hell as a place of eternal torment for
those who willfully reject the grace of God. Our Lord once said, "If your
hand makes you sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed,
than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched
-- where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44-45).
He challenged the religious hypocrites with the question: "How can you escape
the condemnation of hell?" (Matthew 23:33). His answer is, "God did
not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through
Him might be saved" (John 3:17). There is a day of judgement coming, and
there is a place of punishment for those who have hardened their hearts against
God. It does make a difference how we will live this life. Those who of their
own free will reject the grace and mercy of God must forever bear the consequences
of that choice.
CREATION: Orthodox Christians confess God as Creator
of heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1, the Nicene Creed). Creation did not just come
into existence by itself. God made it all. "By faith we understand that the
worlds were framed by the word of God..." (Hebrews 11:3). Orthodox Christians
do not believe the Bible to be a science textbook on creation, as some mistakenly
maintain, but rather to be God's revelation of Himself and His salvation. Also,
we do not view science textbooks, helpful though they may be, as God's revelation.
The may contain both known facts and speculative theory, but they are not infallible.
Orthodox Christians refuse to build an unnecessary and artificial wall between
science and the Christian faith. Rather, they understand honest scientific investigation
as a potential encouragement to faith, for all truth is from God.
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