What is the Orthodox Church?

What is the Orthodox Church?

Properly speaking, there is no such thing as “the Orthodox Church.”

This is used by convention to refer to a body of fourteen autonomous, local churches, united by a common faith, worship, and Eucharistic fellowship. Each of these local churches together comprise the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

In recent memory, the Church has been called a number of different things, including the Catholic Church, the Greco-Roman Apostolic Church, the Oriental Catholic Church, the Greek Church, and the Eastern Church. We now use the name “Orthodox Church” in order to distinguish the Church from both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as the “Oriental” or non-Chalcedonian churches.

“Orthodox” is a combination of two Greek words: orthos, meaning straight or correct, and doxa, meaning both glory and doctrine. “Orthodox Christians,” then, are those who proclaim correct doctrine, and who properly worship God.

While the Church is comprised of several different, local churches, they all use largely the same liturgies and prayers, all venerate the same Saints and Fathers of the Church, and all celebrate the same Great Feasts—especially Pascha (passover) or “Easter”—with only local, cultural, and linguistic differences. All Orthodox churches are rightly termed “sister churches,” and are all in communion with one another. However, Orthodox churches do not practice “open communion” with other Christian bodies. This is based on a belief in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, which is truly the Body of Christ—and just as Christ, the Church is a body that is both indivisibly united and ever the same.

While the historical origins of other Christian communions are (in some way) derivative of the Orthodox Church, the foundation of the Orthodox Church goes back to the apostles of the first century and the prophets of the Old Testament, with Christ the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19–21). As just one example, the Orthodox church of Antioch was established in A.D. 34 by the apostles Paul and Peter.

The Church as a body is herself eternal; that is to say, the Church was not “born” on Pentecost, but more fully revealed both in that event and in the subsequent ministries of the apostles and their successors. On the eternal nature of the Church, the first century bishop of Rome, St. Clement writes (2 Ep. Cor. 14:1–2):

[I]f we do the will of our Father, God, we will belong to the first Church, the spiritual one, which was created before the sun and moon . . . So then, therefore, let us choose to belong to the Church of life that we may be saved. And I do not suppose you to be ignorant that the living Church is the Body of Christ. For the scripture says, ‘God made humankind male and female.’ The male is Christ, the female is the Church. And in addition, the books and the apostles say the church does not belong to the present, but has been from the beginning.

St. Epiphanius of Salamis adds (PG 42:640):

The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.

Of its progressive revelation (not “birth”) to the days of the apostles, St. Gregory the Theologian writes (PG 35:589):

The Prophets established the Church, the Apostles conjoined it, and the Evangelists set it in order.

And finally, St. John of Damascus (PG 96:1357):

The Holy Catholic Church of God, therefore, is the assembly of the holy Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Evangelists, and Martyrs who have been from the very beginning, to whom were added all the nations who believed with one accord.

Through the first generation of apostles, the Christian faith was spread throughout the ecumene; that is, the entirety of the Roman Empire. The apostles Peter and Andrew, the first-called, brought the Gospel as far as both Rome and Russia, while Peter’s disciple Mark brought the faith to Egypt. Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas, ministered to Ethiopia and Armenia. Simeon the Zealot went all the way to Britain, martyred there for preaching the good news of Jesus. Paul’s miraculous calling on the road to Damascus led to a radical new outreach to non-Jewish peoples, and the writing of fourteen epistles that helped the churches of the first century remain steadfast in their Christian faith. Most of the apostles died as martyrs, and some even by crucifixion. Caring for the Mother of God in Ephesus until her repose, the apostle John—the beloved disciple and Theologian—was the last living apostle.

Each local Orthodox church is led by a synod or assembly of bishops (ordained in succession from an apostle), just as we see in the first-century, apostolic Church (Acts 15). In all local churches, one bishop leads as the first among equals (an Archbishop or Patriarch, depending on the antiquity, prominence, and size of the church), but no bishop has authority or jurisdiction outside of his locality. As St. Ignatius wrote of the chief bishop in the church of Rome in the early-second century, these first among equals “preside in love” among their fellow shepherds.

While other churches—including both Rome and the Anglican Communion—claim an apostolic succession for their bishops, in the Orthodox Church alone has both the apostolic faith and charism been preserved without change or interruption. It is not enough to be merely ordained in succession from an apostle; one must also maintain and proclaim the apostolic faith. Through our bishops and the faithful gathering of God’s people, the Holy Spirit breathes and gives life to the Church. As the hymns for Pentecost teach, it is the Grace of the Holy Spirit that makes fisherman into apostles—not education, wealth, or social status. This applies equally to our faithful bishops and teachers today.

When Orthodox Christians gather for worship, they confess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (ca. A.D. 381), an essential litmus test of basic, Christian orthodoxy. In that Creed, the faithful profess a belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” But what do these words mean?

The Church is one in that there is only one, true Church. This is so because Jesus Christ, the God-man and Head of the Church, is both one and indivisible in his person. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone of the Church, built on a foundation of the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:19–21), and so she can never be divided (Matt. 16:16–18).

The Church is holy because she is sanctified or “set apart” by the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost, on their successors through ordination, and on all Orthodox Christians through holy mysteries (first through Baptism and Chrismation as the “initiatory rites”). The Spirit unites, sanctifies, and deifies the Church, preserving her as a spotless Bride.

The Church is catholic because she is whole, complete, and lacking nothing—the Body of Christ with Jesus as her Head. In Slavonic, the word catholic became “sobornost,” a word that simultaneously means conciliar and complete. To be “catholic” is more than universal in a geographical sense, or even doctrinally (according to some lowest common denominator of the faith). Rather, catholic speaks to the totality of truth that lives in the Body of Christ, as she is the pleroma or “fullness” of God. Everything that is good and true can be found within her.

Finally, the Church is apostolic in that she is founded on the apostles—a foundation of their doctrine and worship and ordained succession from them among the deacons, presbyters (priests), and bishops of the Orthodox Church.

For several centuries, the Church was organized around five, primary Sees: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Each of these churches has an apostolic foundation: Peter, Andrew, Peter (via Mark), both Paul and Peter, and James, respectively. In the world today, the majority of Orthodox Christians are in Russia and Eastern Europe, with a substantial, persecuted minority in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, occupied Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Turkey. Beyond this, and largely due to immigration and the missionary work of Russians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there is a growing Orthodox “diaspora” around the world, especially in Great Britain, Australia, and both North and South America.

The fourteen local, canonical Orthodox churches are:

  1. Constantinople or New Rome
  2. Alexandria and All Africa
  3. Antioch and All the East
  4. The Holy City of Jerusalem
  5. Moscow and All Russia
  6. Georgia
  7. Serbia
  8. Romania
  9. Bulgaria
  10. New Justiniana and All Cyprus
  11. Athens and All Greece
  12. Tirana and All Albania
  13. Warsaw and All Poland
  14. The Czech Lands and Slovakia

As mentioned already, the Church was not “born” on Pentecost, but rather more fully revealed through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. The Church is the true Israel of God (Gal. 6), a fulfillment and completion of the people brought out of Egypt by the power of God, spoken to by the prophets in multiple exiles and occupations, and finally given their true Messiah and Savior in the Lord Jesus Christ: the true Joshua, the new Moses, the true Temple, the ultimate sacrifice, and the final and true Adam.

Following the apostolic era, the Church was faced with numerous persecutions and heresies, and especially during the time of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils (A.D. 325–787). Importantly, the history of the Church is not a history of doctrinal development, but rather a history of the refutation of heresy and error.

By the eighth century, the See of Rome and the rest of the Orthodox-Catholic Church began to drift apart. The reasons were both political and doctrinal, but the Frankish usurpation of the church of Rome and the establishment of a rival Empire in Europe led eventually to a major confrontation between Pope Nicholas I and St. Photios the Great at the end of the ninth century. In the eleventh century, the churches of the East no longer commemorated the Pope of Rome in their diptychs.

Over the years, the doctrinal divides became more significant, and a controversy over prayer and spirituality (between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria, two Athonite monks) was one of the most significant since the days of Photios. Latin crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, and a  “reunion” synod at Lyons was both attempted and failed after the city was recaptured by the Greeks (A.D. 1275). In 1285, a synod at Blachernae excommunicated anyone who confessed the Creed with the “Filioque clause” included (a phrase in Latin that means “and the Son,” changing the Creed to say the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son).

The last attempts to unite Rome with the Orthodox Church began in the earlier part of the fifteenth century, and culminated at a council in Florence (A.D. 1431–1449). While a temporary agreement was reached, it did not last long. This was largely due to its rejection by the monks and laity, and the blessed stubbornness of a solitary Greek bishop: St. Mark of Ephesus. St. Mark is commemorated as a “Pillar of Orthodoxy” for his rejection of this false union, and his disciple Gennadios Scholarios became the first Patriarch of Constantinople under Ottoman rule (A.D. 1454). This appointment, and the new political reality for Orthodox Christians in the East, meant that any future attempts at union were impossible.

Ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, both the Orthodox Church and Rome have worked towards emotional healing and fruitful dialogue, but there are centuries’ worth of doctrinal development in the West, not to mention pastoral and practical concerns (varied commemorations of Saints, political confrontations in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, etc.), yet to be overcome. Faithful Orthodox Christians today still believe that there is one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, despite everything that has taken place since the first millennium.

And for all faithful, Orthodox believers, the hope for Christians throughout the world—scattered across various confessions, faiths, denominations, and nations—is not found in a compromise of Orthodoxy, but in the unadulterated proclamation of the Gospel. Through Christ and his holy Church alone can humanity discover what it is to be truly human: transformed according to the true image and likeness of Jesus Christ.


  1. M. Woerl says

    St Mark of Ephesus-“stubborn?” No! One of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, along with St Gregory Palamas and St Photios the Great. We need more Pillars of Orthodoxy today, instead of stubborn ecumenists intent on worldly acclaim and influence in order to achieve political goals …

  2. Maximus says

    Timely and very well-written. This site has a good and straightforward confession, which is apparently a luxury in these times.

  3. Marc Trolinger says

    Gabe, I like what you said about the Church being revealed rather than born on Pentecost. If the Church and Israel are one, was the Church on the earth born with Abraham or Jacob? Also as the family of God, did the angels constitute the Church in heaven before the creation of mankind? Since the Ascension and Pentecost in AD. 33, the Church in heaven and on the earth continues to grow and remain in communion.

    • says

      The OCA is obviously a part of the Orthodox Church, but their recognition as an autonomous, autocephalous church is limited enough to keep them off our list here.

  4. Deborah Andrews says

    I have been OCA Orthodox since 2007 and took no offense at us not being on the list since we actually were granted our “autonomy” by the Russian Orthodox Church. I believe the church would have more power if they would unite more and bring the Roman Catholic Church home. That is probably not possible, but I always hope for unity and peace if possible.