What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Starting this Sunday, April 3, with the Orthodox Church, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
The Orthodox Church
We begin our study of the Christian family by looking at the church that claims to be the oldest child — the Orthodox church. Christianity, of course, began within Judaism, making the Jewish people an important part of our family. Christian scriptures, worship patterns, and organizational structures were in large part shaped by Judaism. Then, as Christianity began to develop and incorporate more and more outsiders, it became increasingly distinct from Judaism. At this stage, in the first centuries of the Christian faith, Jesus’ followers were not Orthodox or Roman Catholic. They were known as Nazarenes, or followers of Jesus of Nazareth; as followers of “the Way”; or simply as “Christians,” followers of Jesus Christ.
In the ensuing centuries, arguments over theology and practice led to great conflict within the church, whose leaders called together bishops from throughout the world to hash out the essentials of the faith we share. That meeting took place in AD 325 in the city of Nicaea, and the resulting statement of faith is called the Nicene Creed. Despite this unity of belief, there were great differences between Christians in the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. These differences, more cultural, philosophical, and political than theological, were in fact tearing the empire apart.
Christians in the Latin-speaking West tended to see the gospel in concrete terms, with the juridicial models of sin and justice as keys to its understanding. Those in the East made greater allowance for mystery, for experiencing God, and for an understanding of salvation rooted in our experience of death and resurrection.
Through the centuries, as contact between the halves of the old empire lessened, the gulf between East and West widened. Questions about the relationship of the four major leaders of the Christian churches in the East (known as patriarchs) with the prince among leaders in the Western church (the pope) were particularly thorny. While the patriarchs recognized the pope’s status as first among equals, they did not believe he had authority over their churches. Conflicts over papal authority and liturgy continued for centuries; and then in 1054, Pope Leo X and Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other and all the other’s followers from the church, creating a breach that has lasted until the present.
Today, Eastern Orthodox Christianity makes up the second-largest body of Christians after Roman Catholics. Its members continue to be located largely in the East, with the single largest number of Orthodox Christians being found in Russia. Within Eastern Orthodoxy, the divisions are largely ethnic. There are Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and a host of others; but they all are part of the one Orthodox church. It is difficult to ascertain the total number of practicing Orthodox “adherents,” and estimates range from 95 million to as many as 300 million.