Eastern Orthodoxy, from an Evangelical Perspective
January 23, 2018 version
Many Protestants and Roman Catholics are only a dimly aware of eastern orthodoxy, with its 200 million members, including 5 million in the U.S. It is not just the identical twin of Roman Catholicism; things are more complicated than that. Also, just like there are some Catholic evangelicals, there are some Orthodox evangelicals too. They remain in their tradition, but where they see their tradition conflict with what God said in the Bible, choose the Bible over their tradition.
What is called eastern orthodoxy is a collection of similar groups based on the original country. They are Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Georgian (said to be founded by the apostle Andrew), Alexandria/Africa, Antiochian, Italian, Czech/Slovak, Albanian, Philippines, Italian, and even Korean, and Japanese. They are all in communion with each other, though they have different top leadership. Polish orthodox are very few today because most were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. But for all of the orthodox let's dive into what they believe in common.
Positive Aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy in Common with Evangelicals
While religious groups can have many cultural differences, the most important questions to ask are: what are their views on: scripture, God, Jesus, and salvation? Before showing the problems of eastern orthodoxy, here are some of the positive aspects.
Scripture study is a key part of their tradition. (See 2 Timothy 3:16; Psalm 119; 2 Peter 1:20-21)
God: They have a correct view of God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ being divine and the same substance as God the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin birth. They correctly teach the Holy Spirit being a distinct personage of the Triune Godhead. They teach that God is love, but is just and has wrath too. They believe God has done miracles. - like evangelicals and the Roman Catholics, and unlike some "liberal Christians". (See John 1:1-3; 5:23; 2 Timothy 3:5)
Jesus: They have a correct view of Jesus atoning for our sins by dying on the cross, Jesus physically rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, and future return. They correctly teach on Jesus having two natures (human and divine) and only one will. - like evangelicals and Roman Catholics, and unlike some "liberal Christians". (See 1 Corinthians 15:1-1-5)
Worship: They do not believe they should worship any except the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. - like other churches too. (See Rom 1:25; 2 Cor 11:2-4)
Top leadership: They don't have a concept of a pope. They can believe their human leader can be officially wrong and has been. - like evangelicals and unlike many Roman Catholics. (See 1 Peter 5:3)
Fewer extra doctrines: unlike Roman Catholics they do not believe in purgatory, Mary being a co-redeemer or co-mediator, or Mary's immaculate conception. (See Proverbs 30:5-6)
Married priests: Orthodox priests can marry, but only once. (See 1 Timothy 4:3; 2:3; Titus 1:6)
Godly living: Among other things they believe in marital faithfulness, pro-life, no homosexuality, and emphasize prayer and fasting. (See Heb 13:4; 1 Cor 6:9-20; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Thess 5:25; James 5:13-18; Acts 13:2-3.)
Distinctives of Eastern Orthodoxy
While some of these things below can be serious errors, a person can be wrong about these and still be a genuine Christian.
Scripture canon: In addition to the Jewish/Protestant Old Testament, Roman Catholics have 8 apocryphal books and 4 additions. Eastern orthodox accepts these plus additional apocryphal works: 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, Prayer of Manasses, Psalm 151, and 4 Maccabees (Greek Orthodox only). Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.) and Alexandrinus (c.450 A.D.) also have these. Athanasius and many pre-Nicene Christians accepted at least some of the apocrypha, but others did not say, and Meleto of Sardis rejected all of it. (But see Proverbs 30:5 vs. the easy-to-prove errors in the apocryphal book of Judith.)
Traducianism is the teaching that God creates a person's soul from their biological parents' souls. Hence children are guilty for the sins of their parents and all of their ancestors. Many Lutherans and a few other Protestants are Traducian too. (But see Ezek 18)
Amillennialist view of the future: Orthodox churches are typically amillennialists, meaning that the 1,000 year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:1-6 is going on right now in heaven, before Satan starts rebelling in Revelation 20:7. Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics usually are amillennialist too.
Baptism: they baptize babies and adults by thrice immersion, (except in emergencies). The Russian Orthodox Church also baptizes other things, like cars.
Membership: You don't just join a church, such as at an altar call. You go through a catechumen class first. In the early church in Alexandria, the class could take two years. (-but see Acts 8:36-39; 17:12)
Festivals: They have many festivals to various saints. Easter has been a big Christian celebration ever since 170 A.D. Dec 29, 2016 they commemorate as a feast the 14,000 infants (Holy Innocents) slain by Herod in Bethlehem. They celebrate Christmas in January. (The Bible does not give the day Jesus was born.)
Monks and nuns: Many women have withdrawn not only from marriage, but from the world to spend their lives contemplating God. In the fourth century a man was praised for leaving his wife (against her will) to become a monk. (John Cassian: First Conference of the Abbot Theonas ch.9 p.506-507) They have a lot of chants. The Russian, Japanese, Bulgarian, and Romanian orthodox churches have the office of deaconess; but then some evangelical churches do too.
The Lord's Supper: they believe the bread and wine are transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus. Some orthodox say it is simply a mystery, and others orthodox say it is similar to Roman Catholic transubstantiation. The Orthodox reject the Roman Catholic idea that Christ suffers for us in every mass.
Mary: The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) excommunicated Nestorius in part for not calling Marry "mother/bearer of God". Also like Roman Catholics they say that Mary was "ever-virgin" and pray to her. The orthodox John of Damascus (706-749 A.D.) as well as the Protestant Heinrich Bullinger in 1539 A.D. believed that Mary ascended to heaven.
Division: The Council of Ephesus pronounced people anathema, cursed of God, if they do not pronounce as anathema those who won't call Mary "the mother of God" (Theotokos), which is not a scriptural term. While both Roman Catholics and evangelicals generally accept the Copts of Egypt as Christians, Eastern Orthodox do not (except for Albanian Orthodox). One reason the orthodox separated from the Roman Catholic Church is because the original creed said the Holy Spirit came from the Father, and the Roman Catholic church added "and the Son". They are not allowed to take communion with Protestants. While AWANA is in Coptic as well as evangelical churches, it is not in Orthodox ones because Bible verses they teach are "too Protestant".
Crucial Problems in Eastern Orthodoxy
Authority of seven ecumenical Church Councils over Scripture. Though Exodus 20:4-5 says no graven images, and an alleged "unwritten tradition" says have icons (pictures of people), they go with the unwritten tradition.
Salvation by grace plus works. They reject salvation by grace through faith, not works in Ephesians 2:8-10. They believe we have it in our own power to come to salvation. While orthodox councils rejected Pelagians such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, they venerate John Cassian, a father of semi-Pelagianism and western monasticism.
Venerating saints, not just devotion to God. See 2 Corinthians 11:2-3 about our pure devotion to Christ. They also venerate relics of the saints.
Praying to saints for help and prayer. In Luke 1:47, Mary needed Jesus as her Savior too. If two million people pray to Mary at the same time, I hope that Mary, a gloried mortal, grew enough ears or hearing aids to listen to all of them simultaneously!
Theosis: sharing in God's divinity and godhead and becoming sinless. They do not believe they will become separate gods (like Mormons do), but that they will join the Godhead.
Venerating Icons, which are in eastern orthodox pictures (not statues) to "pray through" when they pray to a saint or Jesus. They have taught that these are essential to worship on salvation. We will look more at venerating pictures of people next.
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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.