1. The Bible
They claim high regard for the Bible. Orthodox Church in America states, “The Bible is central in the life of the church and gives both form and content to the church’s liturgical and sacramental worship, just as to its theology and spiritual life. Nothing in the Orthodox Church can be opposed to what is revealed in the Bible. Everything in the church must be biblical” (Bible, oca.org).
They also claim tradition as a source of authority. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America states, “The Orthodox Christian should know the content of his religion as taught by the church. He should be guided in studying that the church has in its written (Bible) and unwritten (sacred tradition) teaching… The Church approves of each member reading alone and in general talking about his religion. But it discourages conclusions based on the individual’s personal interpretation (The Basic Sources of the Teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church Rev. George Mastrantonis, Edited by Fr. George C. Papademetriou and Dr. David C. Ford, goarch.org). Christianity Today writes, “The Bible itself needs interpretation, and this interpretation occurs through the action of the Holy Spirit working through the entire believing community” (What is Eastern Orthodoxy Anyway? By Alexander Melnyk, Christianitytoday.com).
They say, “The main sources of orthodox teaching are the Bible and Sacred Tradition. The third source is the writings of the so called Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. The fourth source is the decisions of the canonical synods, local and ecumenical, and their utterances of faith, especially the symbol of faith (Nicene Creed) and some of their canons pertaining to faith. The fifth source is the discourses written at the time of disputes and schisms, especially the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western parts of the undivided church (1054). The sixth source is a variety of discourses written after the Protestant Reformation; these documents critique the various errors of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism” (The Basic Sources of the Teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church by Rev. George Mastrantonis, edited by Fr. George C. Papademetriou and Dr. David C. Ford, goarch.org.
They recognize seven ecumenical councils. These include: (1) The Council of Nicea, 325 A.D.. (2) The Council of Constantinople, 381 A.D. (3) The Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D. (4) The Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D. (5) The Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D. (6) The Third Council of Constantinople, 680 – 681 A.D. (7) The Second Council of Nicea, 787 A.D. [Roman Catholics recognize an eighth council before the Great Schism, the Fourth Council of Constantinople, 869 – 870 A.D. They also recognize 13 later councils as ecumenical (Council, Christianity, britannica.com)].
Beliefs and Practices
1. Original Sin
“Orthodoxy believes that, while everyone bears the consequences of the first sin, the foremost of which is death, only Adam and Eve are guilty of that sin. Roman Catholicism teaches that everyone bears not only the consequences, but also the guilt of that sin” (original sin, oca.org).
2. Seven Sacraments
They define the term sacrament. “Sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which means ‘a consecrated thing or act,’ i.e. ‘something holy’” (Holy Sacraments In The Orthodox Church, saintjohnchurch.org). The Orthodox Church does not restrict the number to seven. It says, “any action designed to bring us closer to the presence of God and done through the church has some degree of sacramentality about it.” (The Mysteries, orthodoxfaith.co.uk). However seven are generally recognized (Seven Sacraments, oca.org). These include: (1) Baptism. Baptism “brings us into the church… As the priest submerges us into the waters three times (in the name of the Trinity) …our sins are forgiven, and we are born again to a new life in Christ. Following the custom of the early church, we encourage the baptism of infants because we believe baptism bears witness to God’s action of choosing a child to become part of His people’ (Holy Sacraments in the Orthodox Church, saintjohnchurch.org). (2) Chrismation. “Chrismation (called confirmation in Roman Catholic tradition) immediately follows baptism… It is through this mystery that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit through the church. In Chrismation, the priest anoints various parts of the body of the newly-baptized with Holy oil. The oil is a sign of strength and consecration to God… After baptism and Chrismation, the newly baptized usually receives Holy Communion, especially infants. There is never a time when the young are not part of God’s people” (ibid). (3) Eucharist. “We partake of the Eucharist during every Divine Liturgy” (ibid, This is each first day of the week, and special feast days, The Divine Liturgy, oca.org). “Unlike most other Christians, we believe the bread and wine used in this sacrament become the literal body and blood of Christ” (Holy Sacraments in the Orthodox Church, saintjohnchurch.org). “Communion is given in a spoon containing both the bread and the wine and is received standing” (Eastern Orthodox Church, bbc.co.uk). (4) Confession/Penance. “All orthodox churches use the mystery of penance or confession, but in Greek speaking churches only priests who have been blessed by the Bishop as ‘Spiritual Fathers’ are allowed to hear confession (Eastern Orthodox church, bbc.co.uk). “the Church often reserves confession for periods of fasting, especially Great Lent. At a minimum, Orthodox Christians should confess at least once a year…” (Holy Sacraments in the Orthodox Church, saintjohnchurch.org). (5) Holy Unction. “It reminds us that when we are in pain, Christ is present with us through the ministry of His church… As with Chrismation, clergy uses oil in this sacrament as a sign of God’s presence, strength, and forgiveness. Those near death, and those with any physical or mental illnesses typically receive this sacrament” (ibid). (6) Marriage. “Through the sacrament of holy matrimony in the orthodox church, God (through the priest) joins a man and a woman as husband and wife” (ibid). (7) Holy orders. “Following the custom of the Apostolic Church, there are four major orders of the church’s ministry… Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Laity. The bishop is a successor of the Apostles… only a bishop may ordain others to the Deaconate or the Priesthood. The Orthodox Church ordains only men to become deacons, priests, or bishops. She permits men to marry before they enter the Holy orders, but not after. This practice goes back to the earliest period in the history of the church” (ibid).
While the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have much in common, here are a few of the most obvious differences: (1) Organization. The Eastern Orthodox Church has Patriarchs or Bishops presiding over a geographic territory. They work closely together, almost as an oligarchy. The Roman Catholic Church has a universal Bishop, over all. (2) Involvement of small children. Orthodox children participate in communion from a very young age. Roman Catholic children are confirmed later, usually after the age of seven. (3) After-life. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not have purgatory. The Roman Catholic Church does have purgatory. (4) Modern changes. The Roman Catholic Church has made many changes since the 1960’s. The Eastern Orthodox Church has not. “What was the normal Catholic life prior to the 1960’s is no longer the normal Catholic life, after this period. For the Orthodox Christians there’s very, very little difference… what you’re experiencing in day to day life, as a Catholic, changed significantly in terms of what you are expected to eat or not to eat. Whereas for the Orthodox, we’ve never really had that big changes” (5 Differences Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, theorthodoxfaith.com).
There are currently 16 autocephalous (self-headed) churches in Eastern Orthodoxy. These are the church of: (1) Constantinople; (2) Alexandria; (3) Antioch; (4) Jerusalem; (5) Russia; (6) Serbia; (7) Romania; (8) Bulgaria; (9) Georgia; (10) Cypress; (11) Greece; (12) Poland; (13) Albania; (14) Czech and Slovak land; (15) America; (16) Ukraine. The first nine are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans (Eastern Orthodox church, bbc.co.uk). In addition there are a number of autonomous churches in Orthodox communion. These include the church of: (1) Sinai; (2) Finland; (3) Estonia; (4) Japan; (5) China; and (6) Ohrid (ibid). Autocephalous churches are fully self-governing. Autonomous churches are self-governing to a certain degree, but their head is appointed by an autocephalous church.