Many people divide Christendom into three major branches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Catholic, and Protestantism. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the third largest branch. It is the second largest denomination in the world. There are nearly 260 million Orthodox members around the world (Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century, November 8, 2017, pewforum.org). “Its adherents live mainly in the Balkans, the Middle East, and former Soviet Countries” (Eastern Orthodox by John Meyendorff, britannica.com). Membership in America is estimated at nearly 6 million (Orthodox Church in America, britannica.com). The highest percentage by U.S. state is Alaska, where 5% of the population are members of the Orthodox Church (U.S. States by Orthodox Christian Population, worldatlas.com).
1. Development of 5 Patriarch
The early church had a simple organizational structure. It was congregational. It was organized with elders (presbyters) or bishops (overseers), and deacons (Philippians 1:1; Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17 cf. 20:28; Titus 1:5 cf. 1:7). Elders were told “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2 cf. “among you” Acts 6:1-3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-11; 5:1-2, 13; 6:5; Ephesians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Charles M. Jacobs, a Methodist, writes, “Originally there had been two offices in every congregation, that of ‘elder,’ or ‘presbyter,’ and that of ‘deacon’ (Charles M. Jacobs, The Story of the Church, p. 19). Again, “In the middle of the second century there was no general organization of the church. In each community where there were Christians there was a congregation, but the congregations were not united with other congregations in any formal way” (Jacobs, p. 32).
However, by 381 A.D., five ‘archbishops’ or ‘patriarchs’ were ruling over territories. These five were the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (Jacobs, p. 37). It is important to understand that not all accepted their rule (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 293).
Two patriarch emerged as especially powerful. They were: the bishop of Rome in the west, and the bishop of Constantinople in the east.
Conflicts arose over time. First, there was the issue of power. Beginning with Boniface III (606-607 A.D.), and onward, the bishops of Rome claimed to be universal bishops. The Eastern Orthodox Church believed that the church should be overseen by five patriarchs of equal authority.
Second, there were doctrinal issues. (a) The Filioque-controversy. The Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) read “we believe… in the Holy Ghost.” The Nicero-Constantinople creed (381), “We believe… in the Holy Ghost… who proceedeth from the Father” (Schaff, Vol. 3, p. 667-ff). Latin churches met in the sixth century and changed the wording. The Third Council of Toledo (589 A.D.) inserted the word “filioque” (Latin, “and from the son”). The Eastern churches did not accept this change. There were doctrinal objections. They also felt left out. Philip Schaff writes, “The Latin church had no right to alter an ecumenical creed without the knowledge and consent of the Greek church…” (Schaff, Vol. 4, p. 481). In the ninth century, Photius, the bishop of Constantinople, and Nicholas I, the bishop of Rome, excommunicated each other, in part over this.
(b) There were other doctrinal differences. (1) The Roman Catholic Church allowed sprinkling for baptism. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not. It practiced triune immersion. (2) The Roman Catholic Church allowed images or icons in worship. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not. However, it did allow flat surfaced pictures. (3) The Roman Catholic Church started using mechanical instruments of music in worship. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not use mechanical instruments of music in worship. (4) The Roman Catholic Church used unleavened bread in communion. The Eastern Orthodox Church used leavened bread. (5) The Roman Catholic Church did not allow infant communion. The Eastern Orthodox Church practiced infant communion. (6) The Roman Catholic Church required celibacy of all “clergy.” The Eastern Orthodox Church permitted the “clergy” to marry, with the exception of bishops, archbishops and patriarchs (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, pp. 205-206; Schaff, Vol. 3, pp. 516-517; Schaff, Vol. 4, pp. 306-308).
Third, there was turf dispute. King Bogoris (or Boris I) of Bulgaria was converted by a missionary from Constantinople (c. 863 A.D.). The bishop of Constantinople expected that the church in Bulgaria would be under the oversight of Constantinople. Boris renewed diplomatic contact with the west. The Pope sent missionaries to Bulgaria. “The Roman clergy’s stay (866-870 soon became a sore point in the acute rivalry between Rome and Constantinople” (Boris I, King of Bulgaria, britannica.com). The eighth ecumenical council in Constantinople (869-870 A.D.) formally placed the Bulgarian church under the Patriarch of Constantine (Schaff, Vol. 4, pp. 134-135, 312-313).
3. The Great Schism
The Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine IX (1042-1055 A.D.), needed help in his conflict with the Normans. He appealed to Leo IX, bishop of Rome for help (note: the Pope has had an army since the 8th century). The Emperor was ready to recognize the bishop of Rome as Universal Bishop of the church, in exchange for help. Cerularius, bishop of Constantinople, closed all Latin churches and monasteries in Constantinople. On July 16, 1054 the bishop of Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople. Shortly after, the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated the bishop of Rome (Mattox, p. 205; ed. David Brown, Roman Catholicism, Houston College of the Bible Lectureship, p. 33). It was not until 1965 that Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenogoras I lifted the mutual excommunication (July 16, 1054 CE: Great Schism, nationalgeographic.org).
This (1054) is the date usually given for a distinct Orthodox Church. In reality, it is much older. The word “orthodox” means “right” (orthos) “thinking” or “belief” (doxa).
4. The Fourth Crusade
There was trouble in Constantinople. The Emperor Isaac Angeius was imprisoned and blinded by a usurper, Alexius III, his own brother.
The Emperor’s son, Alexius, appealed to Rome for help. He promised payment.
Help came. Isaac was restored to his throne. Alexius III fled.
More trouble came. Another coup occurred. Payment did not come as promised. The crusaders attacked the city. It fell April 12, 1204. Unrestrained riot and pillage followed (Schaff, Vol. 5, p. 274).
This hardened the relations even farther. “In the minds of most orthodox, a decisive moment was the sack of Constantinople in 1204… This has never been forgotten” (Eastern Orthodox Church, bbc.co.uk).
5. Fall of Constantinople
Islam became a serious threat to Constantinople and the Byzantine empire. “An agreement was reached in 1439 which placed the Pope at the head of all Christendom and granted the Patriarch the second place in a united church. But the agreement was only on paper. The Western princes were busy with their own affairs and did not send the armies that had been expected. The Easterners angrily repudiated the terms which their representatives had made” (Jacob, p. 162).
The Islamic threat did not go away. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire fell to Muslim forces led by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. Constantinople is today known as Istanbul. The Orthodox church would continue under Ottoman rule. However, “with Constantinople’s fall, orthodox Christianity became a minority faith under Islamic rule. Moscow’s Orthodox church became the most powerful Eastern Christian Church on sovereign territory” (Why a Centuries-old Religious Dispute Over Ukraine’s Orthodox Church Matters Today by Victoria Smolkin, February 19, 2019, theconversation.com).