Major World Religions Christianity Eastern or Greek Orthodox

About the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church denomination of Christianity, some of the history of the church, beliefs and meanings behind the Christian religious tradition.


Eastern Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox churches, or Eastern communion, came into existence as the result of a lengthy series of theological, political, and cultural differences with the Church of Rome. The Byzantine Church, the branch of the Catholic Church presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople, had disagreed strongly with the Popes on the use of icons; Rome favored the use of images in worship, while Constantinople opposed them (and still does, in the form of statues). Under Pope Nicholas I, in the 9th century, Rome asserted its claim to sovereignty over the entire Church, but the Patriarch insisted he and the heads of its other main divisions--the Patriarchs of Syria, Antioch, and Jerusalem--had jurisdiction in their own territory. But perhaps the greatest source of irritation to the Byzantines was that the Pope had crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the West in 800 while the traditional Roman Emperor still reigned in Constantinople. In the 11th century the disagreements between East and West broke out with redoubled bitterness, and Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch, Michael Caerularius, in 1054. The breach widened still further in 1204 when the Crusaders took Constantinople, sacked the Cathedral of St. Sophia, confiscated church buildings, and tried to convert the Orthodox to the Roman faith.

Eastern Orthodox churches are bound together by a belief in the Trinity, the human and divine nature of Christ, and other dogmas established by the 1st 7 councils of the Church, held between 325 A.D. and 787 A.D. However, the Eastern communion does not accept more recent Catholic dogmas such as the infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception, although it reveres Mary as the mother of Christ. In contrast to Roman Catholics, who hold that the Holy Ghost proceeds from God and Christ, the Orthodox believe it proceeds from God alone. Other Orthodox doctrines not subscribed to by Catholics are that Christ is the sole head of the Church, and that its authority resides within its members, "the totality of the people of God." Salvation is regarded as possible only through the Church, good works, and belief in Christ. Heaven and hell are considered real places.

The Eastern communion includes, besides the patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria (all of which are quite small in membership), the national churches of Greece, Russia, Romania, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Czechoslovakia. American adherents number about 4 million, the largest group being Greek Orthodox. World membership in Eastern Orthodox churches is estimated to be about 100 million.

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