Eastern Orthodoxy
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“Eastern Orthodoxy,” Ensign, May 1971, 48

Eastern Orthodoxy

Another in a series of articles dealing with the religions of the world

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

“And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. …” (Acts 2:1–4.)

These descriptive words of Luke reveal to members of the Eastern Orthodox communion the historical origin of their church, for, according to these Christians, the one and only true church was originally constituted on the memorable day of Pentecost. After the apostles had gathered at Jerusalem, the Holy Ghost descended with visible power upon these resolute leaders. On that occasion, these special witnesses of Christ preached, baptized, and then organized the believers into the first Christian community. Within a few years, other bodies of saints had been gathered in all the major centers of the Roman Empire, and eventually Christianity spread from these towns into many other parts of the Old World.

Although there was only one major body of Christians in Europe and the Near East during the early Middle Ages, it was characterized by striking diversity of belief and practice. There was also a lack of central leadership in the early medieval church, for no one person or group of religious leaders was universally recognized throughout the church as the supreme head. Meanwhile, political, cultural, and economic differences emerged, dividing Europe into an eastern and a western civilization. It is not surprising, therefore, that significant religious differences developed separating the Eastern and Western Christians and that the first major schism in the medieval church occurred when Christians living in these two sections of Europe failed to harmonize their differences.

The doctrinal dispute that ignited a disruption of the church and provided the occasion for a permanent separation centered on two fundamental issues: the primacy of the pope and the procession of the Holy Ghost. Eastern Christians refused to acknowledge the western claim of the universal supremacy of the bishop of Rome, contending that all bishops have equal authority. Moreover, they held that Roman Catholics erred when they altered an ancient creed with the insertion stating that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father alone, Eastern Christians contended. The theological estrangement led to bitter debates. In 1054 a papal legate arrogantly laid on a church altar a bull of excommunication against the patriarch of Constantinople. Although this event has traditionally been labeled as the date of the “great schism” and was a bitter episode in ecclesiastical history, it was not the first nor the last event in the long process of separation.

Conscientious attempts at reconciliation were sought for generations by leaders of both churches, until finally the actions of insolent crusaders cemented the schism. During the fourth Crusade, the vengeance of embittered warriors was diverted from the Moslem enemy to Christians residing in Constantinople. In 1204 Western Christians sacked the historic city, robbed churches, and returned to their homes with what many regarded as priceless, sacred relics. The offending swords of these crusaders shattered all hope of reconciliation in that era of history, and doctrinal diversities have persisted, preventing a successful healing of the rupture.

For many centuries Orthodoxy was almost purely an Eastern religion, being confined to eastern Europe and portions of Asia. During the past two centuries, however, there has been a major dispersal of this faith. As early as 1794 Russian Orthodoxy was carried by missionaries to Alaska, and during the last half of the eighteenth century Russians commenced missionary work in Japan and Korea and established churches in the continental United States. Meanwhile, Greeks were also establishing societies in various parts of the world. Greeks organized the first permanent Orthodox church in London in 1838 and gathered the first group of Orthodox Christians in the continental United States at New Orleans in 1864.

The most significant dispersal of Orthodoxy in modern times has taken place during this century. At the turn of the century the first truly substantial immigration of Greeks to America occurred. This tidal wave was followed by a great stream of Russian immigrants who fled their native land after the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Orthodox churches followed these immigrants. Between 1906 and 1956 this religion, which grew primarily through a steady stream of the uprooted, was one of the fastest-growing faiths in the United States, increasing from an estimated membership of 130,000 to about 2,400,000 during this fifty-year period. During the decade from 1956 to 1966, the growth was from 2,400,000 to 3,172,000, or an increase of 32 percent. Since some local groups report family membership rather than enumerating every member, some historians estimate that Orthodox membership in the United States is closer to five million than the reported three million.

There is no single headquarters of this community of churches in the United States. Many of the churches, such as the Greek, Romanian, Serbian, and Syrian, are organized along national lines and are connected with their respective national churches in Europe or Asia. However, most of these churches have been Americanized in the sense that English is being used both in the worship services and in the teaching and preaching of this faith.

The great dispersal of Orthodoxy through immigration has certainly not been confined to the United States, for in recent years there has been a significant growth of this community of churches in Canada, Latin America (especially Brazil and Argentina), Australia, western Europe, and portions of Africa. Orthodoxy has, therefore, recently emerged as a worldwide movement.

While Orthodoxy has been increasing in the Western world, it has been declining rapidly in numbers and influence behind the iron curtain. A large percent (possibly 85 percent) of this communion now live under Communist rule and are subject to rather severe religious restrictions. In fact, Orthodoxy has been affected more by this political ideological revolution than any other denomination. As a result of legal limitations and the constant flood of atheistic propaganda imposed upon the masses, some Orthodox churches have almost been exterminated. But other churches have adjusted, have reorganized, or have entered a modern Christian underground. In spite of fifty years of persecution, organized religion behind the iron curtain has not withered away.

Although Greece is the only country in the world today that is still officially Orthodox, Eastern Orthodoxy has remained one of the leading (numerically speaking) religions of the world, with an estimated world membership of from 60 to 90 million practicing Orthodox Christians and from 120 to 150 million believers. Excluding Protestantism, which is a grouping of many Christian religions, Orthodoxy ranks second among Christian faiths and sixth among the world religions.

There are four historic centers of the Eastern Orthodox Church: Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the first bishop among equals and has the primacy of honor. In addition to these four ancient patriarchates with their many geographical and ecclesiastical subdivisions, there are other major autonomous societies in this community of churches, including the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Serbia, and Cyprus. Each of these societies maintains a separate and independent administrative structure and is directed by councils of bishops, called synods. While they are free in their inner life and management, they are in full communion with each other and are united in their liturgical life and by many traditional beliefs.

One of the important beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is that all bishops are theoretically successors of Peter. They generally specify that Peter was given an honorary position among the apostles as the head of the theologians. They further emphasize that while the jurisdiction of Peter and the other apostles was over the entire church, the bishop’s jurisdiction was and should perpetually remain over a specific geographical region.

To substantiate their belief in the equality of bishops, Orthodox Christians frequently turn to the writings of church fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, who declared: “Follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. … Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. … Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Without the bishop’s supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted.”1

Similar to Roman Catholics but unlike most Protestants, Eastern Christians believe that there are two sources of religious truth, the Bible and tradition. The Bible, they maintain, was not meant to be a constitution upon which God’s church should be built. Since this sacred work is not a complete description of the gospel of Christ and is susceptible to a variety of interpretations, they contend that another source, tradition, must be employed to determine religious truth. Some Orthodox Christians further conclude that tradition is the sole source of gospel truth, claiming that scripture is one of the outward forms in which tradition is expressed.

Orthodox Christians further believe that tradition includes more than the faith that Jesus conveyed to the apostles. It includes such outward forms as the Nicene Creed, the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils, definitions by local councils, letters prepared by bishops approved by the church, the liturgy, canon law, and icons. The decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils (but not others regarded as general councils by Roman Catholics) are regarded as infallible, and other expressions of faith become infallible only when approved by the whole Orthodox community.

There is an emphasis in this communion on the study of the writings of the church fathers. Some of the fathers are regarded as authoritative interpreters of the faith, but Orthodox Christians recognize that these expositors taught conflicting opinions in the areas of theological speculation, such as the fall, the atonement, and life beyond the grave. Moreover, these Christians have not universally endorsed the decrees of a council such as the Council of Trent, which defined Roman Catholic beliefs on a variety of subjects. Therefore, there is no single authoritative document describing the basic beliefs of Orthodox Christians.

There has been and currently is a major emphasis in this church on the doctrine of the Trinity. Orthodox Christians insist that God is a spirit, an immaterial being, and that he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. They further explain that God is three persons of one essence, coeternal, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the creator of all things, visible and invisible. Christ was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, becoming man for our salvation; and the Holy Ghost was sent by Christ to guide his church.

Orthodox Christians also emphasize that their theology is a negative approach to God, for they insist that God is a mystery who cannot be comprehended by man. Positive statements about God, they say, must be offset by describing what God is not. As St. John of Damascus (ca. 675–749) asserted, declarations specifying that God is “good, and just and wise … do not tell God’s nature but only the qualities of His nature.” Although “it is plain … that there is a God,” the essence and nature of Deity is “absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable.” It is evident, he concluded, that God is incorporeal, formless, intangible, invisible, infinite, incognizable, and indefinable. “It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us.”2

In addition to emphasizing the dogma of the Trinity and the incomprehensible nature of God, Eastern Orthodox Christians devote much attention to the sacraments. Recognizing the importance of the sacramental life among the membership of this church, Orthodox authors sometimes refer to their communion as “primarily a worshiping community.” As do Roman Catholics, they teach that there are seven major sacraments. They further contend that these outward, visible signs convey inward spiritual grace to recipients. While Protestants teach that grace is an attitude of God or God’s graciousness, Eastern Christians, in harmony with Roman Catholic belief, assert that grace is divine power or the saving power of God by which men receive the benefits of the atonement. This grace is stored in the church, is administered through the sacraments, and is absolutely necessary for salvation. Some Orthodox theologians also claim that there are more than seven sacraments, specifying that there are many other actions in the church that possess sacramental characteristics, such as performing services for the burial of the dead, anointing a monarch, and blessing churches, icons, homes, fields, animals, cars, and the water on the day of Epiphany (the feast celebrating Christ’s baptism).

Through baptism, Eastern Christians maintain, recipients are cleansed of their personal sins and the original sin and become members of the earthly kingdom of God. This sacrament is performed by threefold immersion. In some instances only part of the body is immersed (as in the case of infants), and water is poured over the rest of the body, once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son, and once in the name of the Holy Spirit. In infant baptism, two sponsors who are not the parents of the child confess the Orthodox faith on behalf of the infant and accept for the infant the offer of fellowship into the church.

In addition to practicing threefold immersion, there are other significant differences between the Orthodox belief and the Roman Catholic position regarding the sacraments. Whereas Roman Catholic children are not confirmed until after they reach the age of accountability, converts and infants of Orthodox parents are confirmed or chrismated (a special sacramental ordinance) immediately after baptism.

Although another difference in the two major Catholic churches is that young Orthodox children are invited to partake of holy communion, the two denominations agree that during this service Christ is crucified in an unbloody crucifixion. Christ is not only regarded as the literal victim of the sacrifice, but he is also considered the priest who invisibly performs this ceremonial act. During the liturgy (or mass, as Roman Catholics would say), Orthodox Christians teach that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. After the bread and wine have been consecrated, Orthodox members receive both the leavened bread and the wine. (Roman Catholics, however, receive a sacrament of only one kind, a wafer of unleavened bread.)

There are additional significant differences in the beliefs of members of the two Catholic communions regarding confession. In the Orthodox church the penitent stands next to a small desk during the confession and a priest stands by the side of the confessor. The priest is not regarded as a judge but as a counselor who strives to recover the spiritual health of the sinner. In most Orthodox churches, priests do not claim authority to forgive sins but petition the Lord to grant the penitent “assurance of repentance, pardon and remission of his sin, and absolve him from all his offenses, voluntary and involuntary.”3

Marriage is another visible sign in which couples receive special blessings from God. Orthodox Christians, unlike Roman Catholics, permit divorce under certain conditions and also permit remarriage. Priests are permitted to marry before their ordination and most parochial clergy are married, but bishops cannot be married, for they are taken exclusively from the monastic clergy. Marriage to a baptized Christian of another faith is permitted if the nonmember promises to baptize the children of the marriage in the Orthodox church.

The sacrament of holy unction and the last rites are different services in this communion. While the sacrament of holy unction is administered to those who are physically or mentally ill and to those seeking purification, last rites is a service reserved for dying members.

Ordination is considered another of the seven sacraments. In addition to emphasizing apostolic succession, Orthodox Christians stress lay participation in the appointment of the clergy. During the ordination service, the congregation hails the new clergyman with the word axios, signifying that the individual is worthy to be ordained. Then bishops lay their hands on the candidate’s head, ordaining him in the name of the church.

Orthodox Christians, like Roman Catholics, emphasize veneration of icons (religious pictures) and saints. They also pray to saints to ask the saints to pray for them, but they do not venerate three-dimensional statues. In every faithful Orthodox home a corner, usually in the bedroom, is dedicated for the family sanctuary. In this sanctuary are placed icons of Christ, Mary, and a patron saint, a cross, a prayer book, dried flowers of Good Friday, holy water, and other such religious objects. An icon is also placed in the eastern corner of the living room, and according to custom, Orthodox guests who enter an Orthodox home venerate the icon by making the sign of the cross and bowing. Before entering the sanctuary of their church, Orthodox members approach a wall in the nave containing pictures. The worshiper first kisses the Christ icons, then the Mary icons, and then icons of the angels and saints. He also venerates the icons by bowing and crossing himself.

Mary is held in high esteem because she is the mother of God. Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was a virgin not only when she bore Christ, but that she remained a virgin throughout her life. Although most members of this religious society further believe that the original sin was not imputed to Mary (nor in the Augustinian sense to other people), many conclude that after Mary’s death, her body was taken into heaven, being made fully spiritual.

Even though there is no dogma of the church regarding the fall, atonement, and life after death, there are beliefs regarding these subjects that are held by many members. Most Orthodox members believe that our first parents rebelled against God, and because of their transgression all men are born into a state of moral and physical (meaning we shall suffer death) corruption. They further believe that as a consequence of the original sin, man’s nature has assumed a corrupted form.

Most Orthodox Christians also speculate that through the atonement of Christ, man is able to regain the Holy Spirit. Although Christ’s sacrifice is applicable for all, men do not benefit from this act until they are baptized and reborn. God, they add, initiates the work of salvation by arousing the seeds of moral and spiritual powers remaining in man after the fall, and man plays a vital role in the salvation experience by accepting this precious gift.

When an Orthodox member considers life beyond the grave, he usually declares that death is the separation of the body and the spirit. The spirit is partially judged at death and enters a state of happiness or misery. At the time of the general judgment, the body (usually defined as a spiritual body) will be resurrected, and men will be assigned to everlasting happiness or everlasting punishment. While some Orthodox members speculate that possibly the punishment of the wicked will not continue eternally, others insist that this view of universal salvation has been condemned by the church.

In the middle of the twentieth century, members of the Orthodox church recognize that modern confrontations are producing new challenges. While many behind the iron curtain are striving to combat the debilitating influence of Communism, Orthodox Christians living in the free world are confronted with other problems. Theories advanced by biblical critics and modern scientists sometimes conflict with beliefs that have been popular for generations. The new ecumenical spirit is also creating tensions in the church. While some Orthodox members are striving to advance a program designed to create Christian unity, others insist that in order to enthusiastically and effectively support such a program, the Orthodox Christian will be forced to compromise on basic traditional beliefs and practices. The problem of Orthodox immigrants’ adjusting to a new life in a new nation has also beset many families, but a great many have adjusted admirably to this challenge and have become respected, productive workers and loyal leaders in the lands that have given them new hope and opportunities.

Although the modern history of Orthodoxy contains sorrowful notes of religious persecution and economic oppression, these years of unparalleled change have not altered the major religious emphasis of this community of churches. The traditional emphasis on veneration of icons, daily worship, and the importance of the sacrament has not been lessened. Eastern Orthodoxy has remained “primarily a worshiping community.”


  1. Ignatius to the Smyraeans, quoted in C. C. Richardson, ed. and trans., Early Christian Fathers, ”Library of Christian Classics” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), vol. 1, p. 115.

  2. John of Damascus, “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (2nd series, New York, 1899), vol. 9, pp. 1–4.

  3. Nicholas Zernov, Eastern Christendom (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961), pp. 251–53, 268.
    Basic Reference: Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1967).

  • Dr. Backman, a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, is the author of two books, American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism and Joseph Smith’s First Vision, published in 1971. A former missionary to South Africa, he has also filled two stake missions and is now second counselor in the Edgemont First Ward bishopric, Edgemont Stake, in Provo.

St. Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the most famous of Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. (Photo by LaMar Berrett.)

This mosaic is part of the interior of St. Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by LaMar Berrett.)

Icons play an important role in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox faith. The top photo is a shrine along a country road in Greece. The icons are shown in the interior of the shrine in the bottom photo. (Photos by LaMar Berrett.)