What is the Orthodox Church (and Why Did We Join It)?

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The Coatneys at Pascha 2017.

I’m writing today’s post in response to a handful of inquiries from friends who have expressed a desire to come alongside us in support of our work, but aren’t sure what it means for us to have joined the Orthodox Church. In some cases, friends (understandably) want to know where we (and the Orthodox Church) stand in terms of our Christian faith before they can make the decision as to whether to support us.

This is much too large a topic to cover adequately in a (relatively) brief blog post. I’ve decided to cover this in two posts; in this post, my goal is to explain how I (John) learned about the Orthodox Church, why it appealed to me, and how Kristen came on board, after some hesitation. Next week I’ll discuss what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as some of the things that members of other traditions identify as being unique to the Orthodox tradition.

Again, my purpose here is to introduce the Orthodox Church to our (potential) supporters. Thus it is a contextual introduction, written from our unique experience of the Orthodox Church, to those in their own contexts, which tend to be evangelical and/or Church of Christ, or agnostic/atheist/none. It is not an encyclopedic, comprehensive introduction, nor is it meant to disparage other Christian traditions. I will provide links at the end of the post to resources for those interested in learning more.

How We Discovered the Orthodox Church

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Charlie at our home’s prayer corner.

When I was in Iraq in 2008-09, I would attend Sunday worship services based on my schedule, the location of the service, and how I was feeling. On a whim, I decided to attend the Orthodox Liturgy. It was led by Fr. Stephan, an Air Force Chaplain, with three Iraqi women who worked on base as translators and one service member (besides me) in attendance. Even in its simplicity (e.g., a folding table and two chairs on which sat two small icons), two things struck me: the beauty of the service, and the Scriptural foundation of the prayers. I was intrigued, and Fr. Stephan was gracious enough to spend the next few months teaching me about the Orthodox Church.

I learned that the Orthodox Church claims apostolic succession, as do the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (the Orthodox and Roman churches split in 1054 for reasons I’ll discuss next time). This means that the bishops of the church were ordained (by the laying on of hands) by earlier bishops that go all the way back to the laying on of hands by the Apostles in the first century. The claim is also meant to affirm that these bishops have consistently maintained the same faith held by the apostles (I will discuss what that means in the subsequent post).

I also learned that the Orthodox Church is conciliar; i.e., decisions are made by groups of bishops in council, and then approved or rejected by the entire Church following these councils. Because decisions are preferably made at the most local level, the Church has developed along ethnic and linguistic lines, such that the Greek Church, the Russian Church, the Antiochian (e.g., Syrian and Lebanese) Church, etc., come together to make up the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. In the U.S. and other countries in which the Orthodox Church is not native, the situation is further complicated: as Orthodox Christians have immigrated to these areas, they have brought their own priests and bishops who speak their own native language and are accustomed to their native traditions (which are not necessarily part of the greater Orthodox Tradition).

Thus in the U.S., for example, we might have Greek, Serbian, and Romanian churches under the jurisdiction of three different bishops in the same city. Efforts are being made to determine how the Orthodox Church might be unified in these areas, so that there might one day be an American Orthodox Church, an Australian Orthodox Church, etc. However, this is likely still a very long way from being realized.

Now, I had learned about the Roman Catholic Church in a similar manner when I lived in Vicenza, Italy, and while that had given me a much greater and more nuanced appreciation for Catholicism, I had not been compelled to consider membership in the Catholic Church. Like many people, I sort of (mis)understood the Orthodox Church to be the eastern version of the Roman Catholic Church, so I was quite surprised when I found certain Orthodox practices appealing, especially as I struggled with being in Iraq, and being away from my wife during our first year of marriage. I began to adopt some Orthodox practices, such as praying from an Orthodox prayer book (and primarily from the book of Psalms), incorporating icons into my prayers, and routine fasting.

I felt a profound connection to Christians throughout history, and learned a great deal about Christians who had been killed as a result of their faith (something particularly compelling as I met a number of Iraqi Christians who had friends and family members in this group). I began to realize that being part of this body would likely have profound effects in terms of knowing Christ better and becoming more like Him.

Unfortunately, Kristen was back in Chicago, hearing me talk about what I was learning and experiencing, but unable to relate to what I was going through, and especially how Orthodox worship and practices were helping me cope. When I got back to Chicago, we began to attend All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church. Kristen was (understandably) uncomfortable with many of the unique aspects of the Orthodox Church (to be discussed in next week’s post), and was hesitant about joining. After about two years of observing these practices, and getting to know many who observe them, she acknowledged that these people loved Jesus and worshipped God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. At this point, she recognized, along with me, that the Orthodox Church offered the most compelling means by which we could follow Christ, and become increasingly more like Him. As I had already joined the Church on September 14, 2010, she followed on Pascha (Easter), 2012.

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Charles Maximus (the screaming one) and two others being presented following their baptisms. (Photo by Steve Kellar)

Again, I’ll discuss my understanding of similarities and differences between the Orthodox Church and other churches in our next post; in the meantime, here are some potentially helpful resources for those interested:

Additional References

Be the Bee

This is a fantastic series of 5-10 minute videos, put out by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries, about how Orthodox Christians are to live out our faith. There is also a playlist of selected videos specifically curated to act as an introduction to the Orthodox Church.

If you’re going to watch just one of these videos, watch this one.

Books

Welcome to the Orthodox Church, by Frederica Mathewes-Green

My favorite introduction, but perhaps a little long. There is another that is a little shorter, and considered the classic introduction.

A Journey of Fear and Joy, by Oswin Craton

Written by a former member of the Restoration movement, this does a very good job of showing where the Orthodox Church is similar, and where it differs from the churches of Christ. It is written from the perspective of someone who has decided that the Orthodox Church fulfills many of the goals that the Restoration movement sought to achieve, so it’s worded somewhat strongly in some places.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (also a podcast)

This book is intended to show similarities and differences (from an Orthodox perspective) between the Orthodox Church and other traditions (both Christian and non-Christian).

Podcasts, Etc.

Ancient Faith Radio

Part of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, there are a plethora of great (free) resources here.

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