The Orthodox Church is a communion of fourteen regional Churches* that recognize one other as the keepers of all the Christian teachings and traditions passed down from Jesus Christ and his original followers—the Apostles.
When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection, he promised to be with his followers always. Ten days later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered the twelve Apostles, and at that moment God gave us the Church—his living, physical presence on earth. Thousands of conversions to Christianity took place in the following weeks, and the Twelve ordained seventy more Apostles to fulfill Jesus Christ’s command to “go into all the world”.
During the period from around A.D. 45 to 100, the books and letters that would eventually become the New Testament were written. Additional books, known as the Apostolic Fathers, were written from about 60-150. All of these books are witnesses to the teachings of the original Church, which the Orthodox Church has faithfully preserved through the millennia to today.
Christianity was a largely underground religion, facing brutal and bloody persecution until A.D. 313, when it was made legal in the Roman Empire. In 381, Christianity became the Empire’s official religion. Missionary work greatly expanded, and there was a strong Christian presence spanning Eurasia from western Europe to India.
The Seven Councils
In that same time period, some priests and bishops began to teach incorrect things about the nature of God and Jesus Christ, ignoring what the Church always taught and instead relying on their own logic and reason and personal interpretation of Scripture.
Over the next 500 years, the Church responded by holding the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils, meetings open to all the bishops of the Church. At these Councils, the Holy Spirit led the bishops to write down and preserve the historic teachings. One of the greatest accomplishments of these councils is the Nicene Creed, the universal Christian statement of belief.
Unfortunately, not all of the bishops were willing to submit to the Holy Spirit and the consensus of the Church, and the Churches that became the modern Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodox Church cut themselves off from the lifeblood of the Orthodox Church. (It is hoped by many that the Oriental Orthodox may soon return to the Church after fifteen centuries of schism.)
Missionary work expanded into the Slavic lands, and Christianity became the official religion of Kievan Rus’ (Russia) around A.D. 1000.
The Great Schism
After the Seventh Council, many factors, both political and theological, led to a growing estrangement between the eastern Churches and the western Church of Rome. In the year 1014, the Pope of Rome changed the Nicene Creed without consulting the other bishops. Finally, in 1054, Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I of Constantinople excommunicated each other and Church of Rome officially left the Orthodox Church.
The Church Today
Contact with the West was minimal until the capital city of Constantinople was sacked in the Crusades in 1202. Sadly, this weakened the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Constantinople fell to the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Ottoman persecution continued until that empire’s dissolution in 1923, and continues even today under the government of Turkey.
Russian missionaries first arrived in the Americas in 1794, led by Saint Herman of Alaska, bringing Orthodox Christianity to the natives of Russian Alaska.
The overthrow of the Russian government and the rise of communism there was a difficult period for the Orthodox Church. The millions of new martyrs in the 20th century total more than all prior Christian martyrs combined. Yet the Church in Russia is strengthening once again, for Jesus Christ promised that “the gates of hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Today there are between 225 and 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, with around seven million in the United States. The Church is growing in the West, where there is a disillusionment with the status quo and a hunger for the ancient Christian faith.
The Structure of the Local Church
The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical body. The three main orders are bishops, priests, and deacons, which are spoken of in the New Testament and in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers from the first and second centuries. This hierarchy was considered key to the integrity of the Church from the days of the Apostles. Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and disciple of the Apostle John, said of the Church hierarchy:
Let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters [priests] as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church.
—Letter of Saint Ignatius to the Trallians (ca. A.D. 105)
The office of Bishop (Greek: episkopos) is discussed in the New Testament. Sometimes referred to as elders or overseers, the first bishops were the Apostles themselves. The Apostles ordained new Apostles, and the system of apostolic succession was established to ensure that authentic and unchanged Christian teaching is passed to each generation.
In many ways, the office of Bishop is the key to the whole Church. Jesus Christ gave his Apostles, and therefore all bishops in the Orthodox Church, the authority to act on his own behalf, similar in concept to power of attorney. Because of this authority from Christ, and his promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13), Orthodox Christians are assured that the Church’s faithful bishops will not err.
Each diocese (the collection of parishes in under a given bishop) is considered to be the fullness of the Orthodox Church within itself. The Orthodox Church has no Pope figure, no universal bishop; the Church is defined by the bishops in communion with each other as equals.
At first, there was only one Church in each city; the bishop would preside over the congregations and the role of the Priest (Greek: presbyter) was less well-defined. By the end of the first century, the Church grew and new parishes (local congregations) were needed. Priests were given the unique authority to act on behalf of the bishop to administer the Holy Mysteries (sacraments) and to teach the Christian faith.
Outside the divine services, the Priest supports his parish in prayer and, with the Deacon, ministers to the community.
The office of Deacon (Greek: diakonos) was originally established to distribute food to the poor and widows. Today the Deacon’s role is expanded along those lines, by visiting and helping the poor and the sick, and serving as the main touchpoint between the Church hierarchy and the people. In the divine services, the Deacon’s role is similar: he leads the congregation in prayer, proclaims the Gospel, and assists the Priest in his duties.
The Church originally ordained female Deacons (Deaconesses), but the practice fell into decline around the seventh century and disappeared by the eleventh century. There are several Deaconess saints, such as Saint Phoebe, who is mentioned in Romans 16.
Each of these offices have various subcategories and rankings within them, such as Patriarchs (the head bishop of a local Church), Archpriests, and Protodeacons. These are only administrative and honorific titles. Ecclesiastically all bishops are equal, from the Patriarch of Constantinople to our own local bishop. Similarly, all priests are equal and all deacons are equal.
* The fourteen Churches in the Orthodox communion are that of (in order of seniority) Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Lands. There is a fifteenth—the Orthodox Church in America—but its independence (autocephaly) is not presently recognized by all of the others. It is, however, a canonical Church and in communion with all of the others.