Frequently Asked Questions
Are you “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox”?
The Orthodox Church is One Church. Currently, however, Church organization in North America is divided among several different “jurisdictions,” or governing bodies of varying national origin within the One Church.
The doctrine and worship of each jurisdiction and parish is the same, though in some, languages other than English continue to be used in the services. Russian, Greek, Serbian, Antiochian – it is all in reality one and the same Orthodox Church.Our particular parish is part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which historically emerged from the Russian Orthodox Church.
I only know of two kinds of Christians, Protestant and Catholic. How can you claim you are neither?
From the Orthodox point of view, Roman Catholicism is an early medieval modification of the original Orthodoxy of the Church in Western Europe, and Protestantism is a later attempt to return to the original Faith. To our way of thinking, however, the Reformation did not go far enough.
We respectfully differ with Roman Catholicism on the questions of papal authority, the nature of the Church, the approach to salvation, and a number of other consequent issues. Historically, the Orthodox Church is both “pre-Protestant” and “pre-Roman Catholic” in the sense that many modern Roman Catholic teachings were developed much later in Christian history.
The word catholic is a Greek word meaning “having the fulness.” We do consider ourselves “Catholic” in that sense of the word, that is, as proclaiming and practicing “the Whole Faith.” In fact, we proclaim our Church to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”
Protestants can often relate to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a personal experience of faith and on the Holy Scriptures. Roman Catholics easily identify with Orthodoxy’s rich liturgical worship and sacramental life. Roman Catholic visitors often comment, “in lots of ways your Liturgy reminds me of how our old High Mass used to be.”
Many of the “polarities” between Protestants and the Roman Communion (i.e., “Word versus Sacrament,” “Faith versus Works” or “Symbol versus Reality”) have never arisen in the Orthodox Church.
Why do you call yourselves “Orthodox”?**
The word Orthodox was coined by the ancient Christian Fathers of the Church, the name traditionally given to the Christian writers in the first centuries of Christian history. Orthodox is a combination of two Greek words, orthos and doxa.
Orthos means “straight” or “correct.” Doxa means at one and the same time “glory,” “worship” and “doctrine.” So the word orthodox signifies both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine.”
The Orthodox Church today is the same as the undivided Church in ancient times. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that he believed the pure Faith of primitive Christianity is to be found in the Orthodox Church.
Are you Conservative or Liberal?
In current usage, the words “conservative” and “liberal” indicate a variety of often-conflicting viewpoints. Usually we don’t really fit either category very well, as the Orthodox Faith is a lot older than the American “culture war.”
On seven major occasions during the first millenium of Christianity, the leaders of the worldwide Church; from Britain to Ethiopia, from Spain and Italy to Arabia and Asia, met to settle crucial issues of Faith. The Orthodox Church is highly “conservative” in the sense that we have not added to or subtracted from any of the teachings of those Ecumenical Councils. But that very “conservatism” often makes us “liberal” in certain questions of civil liberties, social justice and peace. We are very conservative, or rather traditional, in our liturgical worship.
Do you follow the Bible or Tradition?
A good short answer to this question is “Yes!” The question implies precisely a kind of polarity (i.e., “Bible versus Tradition”) which is not part of the Orthodox Christian worldview.
“Tradition,” or in Greek paradosis, is used very often in the New Testament both as a verb and a noun. (See I Corinthians 11:23, where literally translating the original Greek, Paul says “for I received of the Lord that which I also have traditioned to you …” See also I Corinthians 11:2, and II Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6.)
Tradition means “that which is handed over.” The New Testament carefully distinguishes between “traditions of men” and Holy Tradition, which is the Faith handed over to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit. That same Faith was believed and practiced several decades before the New Testament Scriptures were set down in writing and given canonical (i.e., official) status. We experience the Tradition as timeless and ever timely, ancient and ever new.
We distinguish between Holy Tradition (“with a capital T”) which is the Faith/Practice of the Undivided Church, and traditions (“with a little t”) which are local or national customs. Due to changing circumstances, sometimes cherished customs must be altered or respectfully laid aside for the sake of Holy Tradition.
The New Testament Scriptures are the primary written witness to Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians therefore believe that the Bible, as the inspired Holy Scriptures, is the heart of the Tradition. In the New Testament all basic Orthodox doctrine and sacramental practice is either specifically set forth, or alluded to as already a practice of the Church in the first century A.D.
Holy Tradition is also witnessed to by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Nicene Creed, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, by the liturgical worship and iconography of the Church, and in the lives of the Saints.
Are you saying that your elaborate worship is based on the Bible? I’d like to know where.
The Christian Church learned to worship in the Jewish Temple and in the Synagogues. Again and again the New Testament tells us that Jesus, Paul and the others worshipped regularly in Jewish houses of worship. (See for instance Luke 4:16; Acts 3:1; Acts 17:1-2.) We know from archaeology, and from modern Jewish practice, that Synagogue worship was and is highly liturgical, i.e., communal, organized, ceremonial, and done decently and in order (I Corinthians 14:40).
Many Biblical scholars have shown, very convincingly, that when John describes heavenly worship in the book of Revelation, he is following the Hebrew custom of portraying Heaven’s worship in terms of earthly liturgy. The writers of the Bible thought of earthly worship as a “shadow” or “type” of Heaven’s liturgy. (SeeIsaiah 6, Hebrews 8:4-6.) In other words, a biblical passage such as the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Revelation gives us an accurate picture of a very early Christian worship service. That service very much resembles traditional Orthodox worship.
Orthodox worship is also very Scriptural in the sense that it is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of Scriptural quotations, paraphrases, references, and allusions. It is, quite literally, “to pray the Bible!”
Apart from the fact that we worship in English, and sometimes use modern harmonies with our ancient melodies, our services are basically identical to those of the early Christian Church. For that reason our worship sometimes seems a bit “strange” to Protestant and Roman Catholic visitors. We often hear, “Your services are just beautiful, and the music is outstanding, but they feel somewhat different.”
If you are interested in knowing more about the historical origin of Orthodox worship, look here.
It sounds as if you are rigidly bound by your Tradition. You mean it can’t change?
Holy Tradition as a set of basic principles outlining our worldview is a constant. Its very constancy, however, sometimes will even demand change. As a simple instance of this, by Tradition our worship is to be celebrated in a language understood by the worshipping congregation. This means that Tradition, not infrequently, requires a change in liturgical language. As another instance, the Tradition also requires constant change inourselves as, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we grow spiritually and respond ever more fully to the call of God in Jesus Christ.
Holy Tradition has been defined as “the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.” As such it is dynamic and adapting, while at the same time always remaining the same Divine life. The life of the Church does not change to satisfy our whims and personal preferences. It is there to change us, and to bring healing to our tarnished soul.
Do you have the Virgin Mary, Saints, prayer for the dead, and confession “like the Catholics?”
There are points of contact between Orthodox and Roman Catholic belief on these issues, and modern Roman Catholic practice. After all, we shared more or less a thousand years of history. But there are also significant differences. To discuss them in depth is beyond the scope of this short summary. The following is a brief statement of the Orthodox point of view.
- We venerate the Virgin Mary as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim” because she is the woman who gave birth to Jesus Christ, Who is the Word of God, Who is God. Therefore we often refer to her as Theotokos, which is Greek for “birth-giver of God.” We call her blessed and think of her as the greatest of missionaries, for her unique mission was to deliver the Word of God to the world. We do not see her as an exception of the human race, but as an example for all of us to follow. (See Luke 1:43, 48: John 1:1, 14; Galatians 4:4.)
- We likewise honor the other great men and women in the life and history of the Church – patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors and ascetics – who committed their lives so completely to the Lord, as models of what it means to be fully and deeply Christian. These men and women are called “saints”; a word deriving from the ancient Latin word meaning “holy.” For example, we believe that men like the apostle Paul – in their devotion to Christ – led holy lives and that we are indeed to be imitators of him, as he was of Christ.
- We also believe that in the risen Christ, prayer transcends the barrier between life and death and that those who have gone before us pray for us, as we remember them in our prayers. In Christ, we are one family. (See Hebrews 12:1; II Timothy 1:16-18.)
- As indicated in John 20:21-23, and James 5:14-16, we practice sacramental confession and absolution of sins. The presbyter (priest) is the sacramental agent of Christ (as were the Apostles) and the witness of the confession. The priest sacramentally conveys Christ’s forgiveness, not his own.
Why do you not practice “Open Communion?”
In the strictest sense the Communion of the Orthodox Church is open to all repentant believers. That means we are glad to receive new members in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox concept of “Communion” is totally holistic, and radically different from that of most other Christian groups. We do not separate the idea of “Holy Communion” from “Being in Communion,” “Full Communion,” “Inter-Communion” and total “Communion in the Faith.”
In the Orthodox Church therefore, to receive Holy Communion, or any other Sacrament (Mystery), is taken to be a declaration of total commitment to the Orthodox Faith. While we warmly welcome visitors to our services, it is understood that only those communicant members of the Orthodox Church who are prepared by recent confession, prayer and fasting will approach the Holy Mysteries.
Why do you have all those paintings in your church?
Icons are not paintings in the sense of naturalistic representations. They are rather stylized and symbolic expressions of deified humanity. (See II Peter 1:4; I John 3:2.) For the Orthodox, icons are sacramental signs of God’s “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We do not worship icons. Rather, we experience icons as Windows into Heaven. Like the Bible, icons are earthly points of contact with transcendent Reality.
In the original Greek of the New Testament, Christ is frequently called the icon (image) of God the Father. (SeeII Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3.) Man himself was originally created to be the icon of God (Genesis 1:27). You can read more about the use of icons in the Church here.
Don’t you think your old-fashioned doctrine and worship a bit irrelevant to modern American life?
We believe that God quite literally does exist. He is not a figment of pious fiction or wishful thinking. God and His will is therefore our “top priority.” We believe that the Word of God literally became Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. We believe the Lord Jesus literally rose from the dead in a real though transfigured and glorified physical body. We also believe that life apart from God is hollow and meaningless. Being “relevant” should not be our concern – being holy should be.
However, it is our experience that our sacred Liturgy, the ancient Christian teaching about God and the meaning of human life, are just as relevant today as yesterday. These define our basic values. We know the whole ancient Christian Faith as that which makes more sense than anything else in this world of constant change, confusion and conflict. And we know from the experience of the Saints that the services and the mystical life of the Church brings healing to the depth of the human soul.
We believe that the purpose of human life is for man to become partakers of the divine nature through the grace of the Holy Spirit; in prayer (both at home and in Church), sacrament, reading the Scriptures, fasting, self-discipline, and active love for others. All other human projects and purposes, however noble and important, remain secondary to that which gives ultimate meaning to our human existence.
Why do the church prayers say that God is "Condescending" toward us?
When we use this word about God, it has a very positive meaning. It’s a way of describing His incredibly gracious humility. God, our Creator, is willing to come among His creatures, and be one with us.
In church we say "Lord have mercey" 3, 13, or 40 times. Is that like the "heaping up empty phrases or "vain repetitions" that Matthew 6:7 warns us against?
Repeating “Lord have mercy” reminds us that God is merciful. We fill our hearts and minds with the truth of the phrase by saying it again and again. The repetition helps us “slow down” and realize how true it is. We are always in need of God’s mercy, so we are also asking Him for mercy by repeating this phrase as a request. Someone once said that a drowning person doesn’t yell “Help!” just once. We also should ask God for His mercy not just once, but many times, with sincerity, confidence and deep respect. The numbers 3, 12 and 40 have significance in Scripture, which is why they appear many times in our worship and in the physical appearance of our churches.
Speaking of the physical appearance of orthodox churches, why are they so "grand" and full of color?
The Book of Exodus gives God’s specific instructions for the materials and construction the Hebrew people were to use in creating their place of worship. For example, see Exodus 30:34-38 on incense, Exodus 28 on priestly vestments, and Exodus 25:31-37 on the lampstand, tabernacle and curtain. Then in Hebrews 8:5 we read: They [the priests] offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent [of meeting] was warned, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” And Wisdom of Solomon 9: 8 tells us: You [God] have given a command to build a temple on Your holy mountain, and an altar in the city of Your habitation, a copy of the holy tent that You prepared from the beginning. God calls us to worship Him with the best and most beautiful things we have, doing so with humble and sincere hearts. At the same time, of course, He absolutely requires us to care for each other and provide for those in need. Department of Christian Education Orthodox Church in America
In many orthodox prayers we hear the words, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us." Are we ascribing to Mary, a mortal human being, the power to save us?
Only Jesus Christ can save us. We ask Mary to intercede for us. We believe, as some prayers state, that ”the entreaty of a mother has great power to win the favor of the Master.” A Biblical basis for this is the wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11) when Mary interceded for the host who had no wine, and Jesus responded by providing it.
Some church prayers refer to God as "unapproachable." but aren't we supposed to approach God in prayer?
That word “unapproachable” is a way of describing God, by emphasizing that nobody and nothing comes close to God’s eternal and ultimate power, beauty, goodness and mercy. We can and should approach God in prayer, always with confidence but never casually.
"Uncircumscribed" is another word we use for God. What does it mean?
To circumscribe something means to put limits or boundaries on it. God has no limits, no boundaries on His authority or His mercy. (Be careful not to confuse this word with the name of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, which celebrates His fulfillment of the Old Testament Law.)
"Ineffable" is another of the not so common words the Orthodox Church uses to describe God. How are the meaning of this one?
Orthodox theology teaches that God is so far beyond human words that sometimes the only way to describe Him is to say what He is not. “Ineffable” is one example. It means that something is impossible to express or describe in words. Two other words we’ve talked about— “uncircumscribed” and “unapproachable”—also describe God by saying what He is not.
Are orthodox worship services related to the bible?
Not just related to the Bible, but completely based on it in language and in imagery. The words are often directly from the Bible—the Psalms, for example, are chanted in full or in part during every service. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are liberally quoted. Lamentations 3:41 gives us the words “Let us lift up our hearts”—these are said by the priest as part of the Anaphora. In Philippians 2:5-7 we read that Christ, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” Saint Basil’s Liturgy uses these words, sometimes translated a little differently, in the Prayer of Commemoration. As we’ve seen, Exodus describes the form and manner of worship in Old Testament times. The Book of Revelation describes that form and manner in the Kingdom of God. Orthodox worship is solidly based on these descriptions. We remember and honor the worship of our Old Testament ancestors. We anticipate taking part in the worship of the Kingdom. Department of Christian Education Orthodox Church in America
Both the priest and the congregation, in orthodox services, refer to themselves as "unworthy". Are we so worthless in God's eyes?
It’s really important to remember that we are infinitely precious in God’s eyes—He sent His Son to die for us, and His Son did so willingly! To be unworthy is completely different from being “worthless.” Calling ourselves unworthy is a way of saying that we have received a gift we have no way of earning—the gift of eternal life. Since we can’t earn it, it’s truly a gift, and God loves us so much that He deems us worthy of it. He’s the only One who can do so.
Stand, sit, kneel, bow to the ground. When do we do what during an orthodox service?
Standing in God’s presence, especially during the Divine Liturgy, is always a more appropriate sign of respect than casually sitting. But anyone who needs to sit at any time should feel free to do so. Because Sunday is the day of Resurrection, we don’t normally kneel on that day, but kneeling is proper during some parts of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the “kneeling prayers” of Pentecost, and the Lord’s Prayer during weekday Liturgies. Following the practice of the local church, or reviewing the parish’s practices with the priest, can answer the questions of what-to-dowhen. There are times when Orthodox worshippers might bow to the ground, especially during the penitential prayers of Great Lent. Marva Dawn, a pastoral theologian who is not Orthodox, wrote in her book A Royal “Waste” of Time (Eerdmans, 1999): “With all the amazing sights and sounds in our cyberspace world, many of us no longer recognize that if we but catch a glimpse of God—the imperial Lord of the cosmos, the almighty King of the universe—we will be compelled to fall on our faces.” Orthodox worship, we might say, is giving us some practice!
When we use the word "Immortal" in conversation, it usually means someone or something peopole will always remember, as in "The immortal words of Abraham Lincoln." Does it mean something more when we apply it to Jesus Christ?
When we call Jesus Christ “immortal” we are saying much more: that He has no beginning or end. There has never been a time when He did not exist, nor will there be a time when His existence ends. There has never been a time when He was not God’s divine Son, and there will never be a time when He is not. This is the classic Christian teaching. It’s so fundamental that those who do not share it—Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists among others—cannot be said to believe in the same God and Savior that Christians do. Jesus Christ is our immortal Savior forever; He calls us to Him at all times. We are invited to “taste the fountain of immortality” every time we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Spelling and pronunciation of the word “immortality” are important—the sixth letter, the first “t”, mustn’t be overlooked. Department of Christian Education Orthodox Church in America
Two works that look ans sound almost the same are "exalt" and "exult". Meanings?
We “exalt” God by praising Him and thanking Him. Psalm 34 reads, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.” (The word “magnify” has a similar meaning.) In Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1), God is the One who has “exalted those of low degree.” God exalts or lifts up those who are disdained and ignored by the world. To “exult” means to rejoice greatly. In that same Magnificat, Mary is exulting. The Paschal hymn The Angel Cried is full of this rejoicing: “Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion.” Whenever we think of God’s freely-given love and mercy, we can exult!
This brief outline of Orthodox Faith necessarily only touches upon a number of more involved issues. If you would like to find out more, we would welcome your inquiries. Please contact our priest, Fr. Jason.
Some Facts about Orthodoxy
- There are some 250 million Orthodox Christians in the world.
- Most Christians in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, Russia and Ukraine are Orthodox.
- Three million Americans are Orthodox Christians
- According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the number of Orthodox Christians in the United States grew by 5.8% a year from 1990-1995, making Orthodoxy proportionally the fastest growing faith in America. In the years 2005-2010 the attendance growth in Orthodox churches increased by 18%!
- The heaviest concentrations of Orthodox in America are in Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.
- Organized Orthodox Church life first came to America in 1794 with missionaries from Russia who came to Alaska.
- Centuries of vigorous Orthodox missionary activity across 12 times zones in northern Europe and Asia was halted by the Communists after the Soviet Revolution in 1917.
- Orthodox missions are increasingly active worldwide, notably in Central Africa, Japan, Korea and many other parts of the world.
The text above is an adaptation from Fr. Steven Tsichlis at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church and from Notes on Orthodox Worship from the Orthodox Church of America.