I was recently asked if I could write an article giving the distinctive elements of the Eastern Orthodox Church which cause it to stand out when compared with Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the various Protestant faiths. This is a tall order and no doubt difficult to cover even in a multiple volume work. That said, I would highly recommend a book by Fr. Andrew Damick entitled, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” which attempts to accomplish this feat with surprising fluency and depth. For one wanting to see how Orthodoxy stacks up against these other traditions and more, I can’t think of a single book which contains a more succinct yet thorough treatment of the subject.
Now that the burden of supplying fine-tuned comparisons has been lifted from me and thrown onto Fr. Damick, I shall turn to some of the elements which were the most profound in my own conversion to Orthodoxy from the charismatic Evangelical movement.
What I love about the Orthodox Church is how in many respects it can be experienced only by way of paradox (if one will allow me latitude in my usage of the word, as nothing I am about to describe is technically paradoxical). Here are some examples of what I mean:
(a) Alone, yet never separate
One of the claims of Orthodoxy is that all Orthodox believers are mystically united with one another as they are united with Christ and cannot, in fact, accomplish anything of eternal value without one another. Orthodox ecclesiology is fiercely comprehensive in that it cannot be wrestled from other theological aspects of the faith; one cannot separate Orthodox ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) from, say, its soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Thus, for the Orthodox believer, ones relationship with God is weaved into the fabric of Christ’s body—the Church—in such a way that they are inseparable from one another. However, Orthodoxy does not allow the individual to be swallowed up in the whole, nor does it allow the whole to be swallowed up in the individual. The balance is struck mystically.
By way of illustration, one must “strive to enter through the narrow gate” unto the kingdom of God by way of love, humility, and practice of the virtues – both hearing and doing the will of God. This striving is made, largely, by the individual believer. Take humility for example, either the individual practices humility or he doesn’t. No group can practice it for him; humility is not a team sport. However, a Christian cannot become humble without mystical participation with the Church (whether wittingly or unwittingly).
If time would allow, great elaboration on this point could be made, but suffice it to say that Orthodoxy presents a vision of the individual abhorrent to the common Western veneration of individualism, and at the same time a vision of communion abhorrent to popular ideologies of collectivism.
(b) Never changing, yet always new
The Orthodox Church has observed the same liturgical life for nearly 20 centuries. The constancy is unmistakable. Visit any Orthodox Church anywhere in the world and at any time in history and one will discover the same rhythmic liturgy. The same words and the same kaleidoscope of vestments and icons are experienced today as they were experienced by the saints of old in their own times. But although the “show” is unchanging, the experience is never the same. My priest, Fr. George Eber, describes the Orthodox service in a way I’ve never heard. Paraphrasing, he says, “Don’t ask yourself ‘should I go to church today,’ rather ask yourself ‘should I go and partake of God together with the congregation of the Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and saints in the great communion feast of Christ?” An Orthodox Church service reflects the very nature of God: never changing, yet eternally new. It is the constancy of God which raptures the ever-changing thoughts and passions of a man’s soul and grounds him in his eternal makeup.
(c) The scholar’s mountain and the child’s playground
A similar, but slightly off topic, observation is that Orthodoxy from the outside appears incredibly complex in both its exterior trappings and doctrines, yet it is likewise curiously simple. It is the playground of scholars and children alike. The layers of history and doctrine can keep the intellect occupied for a lifetime turning over its every leaf of thought and reason, yet the Church in all its brilliance of artistic expression is nothing short of the very thing a child might design: paintings of loved ones teeming with color, robes (dress-up), candles (kids love fire), incense, singing, and a mysterious absence of chairs (who ever put rows of chairs in a playroom?). In short, regardless of where believers are in their wrestling with the intellectual “technicalities” of the faith, there is nothing preventing them from losing themselves completely in its worshipful liturgical life (though it seems in many respects that the mystical life of the Church favors those who are not constantly burdened with the entrapment of scholarly curiosity).
In the words of what’s her face from the Sound of Music, “These are a few of my favorite things.”
Thanks for reading!
8 thoughts on “Orthodoxy, a few of my favorite things”
On one hand I see the importance of Orthodox liturgy in the Temple worship in ancient Israel. However this was worship under the law and there was very strict ordinances necessary for this period to access God`s presence and mercy. I fail to see the necessity or virtue of liturgy in the church age considering that there is very little, if any, formality of doing church`given to us by the Apostles. Liturgy and formality seem to stem from the corruption of the church by being tied so closely to Pagan Rome through Constantine. In fact the entire priesthood of the liturgical church is unbiblical.
Hello again R. Fowler, it’s a pleasure to have you back.
Your reply brings up many subjects, I’ll try to respond to the ones I think are most central to understanding the place of liturgy and priesthood.
First this: “there is very little, if any, formality of doing church`given to us by the Apostles.”
I must ask what you mean by “given to us by the Apostles.” The Apostles gave us the Apostolic Tradition. Some (Protestants) would argue that they gave us Scripture and little else, but the canon of the New Testament was not brought together until sometime in the 4th century, whereas the liturgy predates this compilation by centuries. In fact, the Apostle Paul gives direct expression from the liturgy already practiced in the 1st century (1Cor 11:23-30), as well as Creedal evidence (1Cor 15:3-5). St. James’, St. Basil’s, and St. John Chrysostom’s liturgies (all abridgments of one another) were all in circulation in the 4th century, which were formal writings based on more ancient liturgies passed down, as the Tradition claims, by the Apostles themselves. Even older than these are the baptismal rites and psalms/hymns of the early Church. To say that the Apostles did not give us a “formal” way of doing Church is just historically incorrect.
Then this: “Liturgy and formality seem to stem from the corruption of the church by being tied so closely to Pagan Rome through Constantine.”
This is a common charge but highly problematic. If the Church was corrupted as a result of Christianity’s link with Constantine (early 4th century), then everything following this would likewise be corrupted. This includes the Councils of the Church, which calls into question nearly every orthodox Christian doctrine (i.e. the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the Nicene Creed, etc.), not to mention folks like St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Athanasius, and a host of others. It also contradicts Christ’s very words that He would build His Church and the gates of hell would never prevail against it. It also makes a mockery of Paul’s belief that the Church is the “ground and pillar of truth” (1Tim 3:15). And don’t forget, it would also call into question our New Testament canon, since it was in fact the bishops of the Church during this period that compiled it.
Lastly: “In fact the entire priesthood of the liturgical church is unbiblical.”
We’ve already dealt with the Biblical and historic legitimacy of the liturgy, but this part about the priesthood is a much easier issue. There can be no disagreement to the fact that the Apostles ordained bishops throughout the known world through ceremony and laying on of hands. Bishops (episkopoi) and Elders (presbuterois) are both used indiscriminately in Scripture (for example see: Acts 20:17 & 28; and Tit 1:5 & 7) and thus referring to the same thing. These bishop/elders are found throughout the New Testament and early Church history (there are far too many verses to note). There was in fact never a time in Church history that bishops/elders were not overseers who presided over the Church assemblies. Perhaps the hang up for you comes from the word “priest.” If it helps any, the formal position of a priest was to be somewhat of a “sub-bishop” when the Church expanded early on. They are essentially pastors with Apostolic ordination.
Now for my questions: My pushback for you is to apply your rubric of “non-priesthood, and anti-liturgy” to your own theological and church tradition. Does your church have ordained pastors? By what authority are they ordained? Does your church follow an order of service? From what historic example is this order based on?
These are not questions that you need to answer here, but rather to ponder in relation to how they stack up against Orthodoxy. It is an interesting experiment of thought.
Thanks for your post, I always look forward to them. 🙂
BRAVO!!! You caught what it is to be an Orthodox Christian in a few hundred words. BRAVO!!!
Thank you, mirkinfirkin.
I am just curious to know what you and your wife’s attitude to the Theotokos is. I ask because you said that you both came from a very charasmatic bible-based church and they believe that Mary was just the mother of Jesus. It must have been a difficult change in perspective.
Yah, Mary has very little presence in your typical evangelical, charismatic church except on Christmas and if she just so happens to come up through a Bible verse or something. I think the emphasis on Mary in the Orthodox Church is a hurdle for any convert like us.
That it is….
Reblogged this on shulamiteladyofthenite and commented:
Very Awesome …. very awesome …. The entrance thru GRACE … thru the Eastern Gate … Once you enter … you never look for the exit sign … “find a Dome … enter thru the Doors … meet the Living Christ … BE TRANSFORMED” … OR … COME AND SEE … The Teacher’s invitation ….