Orthodox Christianity: Beliefs, Branches, Followers, Numbers

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Orthodoxy is one of the main branches of Christianity, with a lineage that is derived from the first-century apostolic churches. Historically it has been centered in Constantinople (Istanbul) and includes a number of autonomous national churches

The Orthodox church is the modern name of the Byzantine church. It came into existence after a long series of theological, political and cultural disputes with the Roman Catholic Church of Rome. It is regarded as the form of Christianity most closely linked to the original Christian doctrines, which is why the term Orthodox is used to describe it. Catholicism and Protestantism are regard as more closely related to each other than the Orthodox church.

In the West “Orthodoxy” means “correct doctrine.” In Slavic languages the word "Pravoslavie", is used to describe the church. It means “right praise” and links teaching and worship and implies that only those who pray and practice a religious life have access to the religion.

According to the BBC: “The Orthodox Church is one of the three main Christian groups (the others being Roman Catholic and Protestant). Around 200 million people follow the Orthodox tradition. It is made up of a number of self-governing Churches which are either 'autocephalous' (meaning having their own head) or 'autonomous' (meaning self-governing). The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle-Eastern, Russian and Slav culture. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

The word 'Orthodox' takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos ('right') and doxa ('belief'). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking. The Orthodox tradition developed from the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire and was shaped by the pressures, politics and peoples of that geographical area. Since the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire was Byzantium, this style of Christianity is sometimes called 'Byzantine Christianity'.” |::|

Websites and Resources Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Orthodox Christian bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom

Book: "Orthodox Church" by T. Ware (1963)

Different Orthodox Churches

Eastern Orthodox tradition is the dominant religion in Bulgaria, Belarus, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and the Ukraine and is also found in Albania, China, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the United States. Each Church has its own geographical (rather than a national) title that usually reflects the cultural traditions of its believers.

There are 17 independent Eastern Orthodox churches. The main denominations are the Greek, Russian, Coptic, Ukrainian, Ethiopian and American. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest. There is also churches in Romania, Cyprus, Serbia, Croatia. and the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Slovakia.

Cathedral of Sfanta Treime din Baia Mare in Romania

According to the BBC: “Not all Orthodox Churches are 'Eastern Orthodox'. The 'Oriental Orthodox Churches' have theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox and form a separate group, while a few Orthodox Churches are not 'in communion' with the others. Not all Churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox — Eastern Churches that are not included in the Orthodox group include the Eastern Catholic Churches. The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

There are 15 'autocephalous Churches', listed in order of precedence. Churches 1-9 are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans: 1) Church of Constantinople (ancient); 2) Church of Alexandria (ancient); 3) Church of Antioch (ancient); 4) Church of Jerusalem (ancient); 5) Church of Russia (established in 1589); 6) Church of Serbia (1219); 7) Church of Romania (1925); 8) Church of Bulgaria (927); 9) Church of Georgia (466); 10) Church of Cyprus (434); 11) Church of Greece (1850); 12) Church of Poland (1924); 13) Church of Albania (1937); 14) Church of Czech and Slovak lands (1951); and 15) The Orthodox Church in America (1970)

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:In the Orthodox world regions originally under the jurisdiction of the patriarch, or bishop, of Constantinople broke away to become autocephalous (self-governing) national churches. Moscow became an independent patriarchate in 1589. In 1833 the patriarch of Constantinople acknowledged the independence of the Greek Orthodox Church, followed by churches in Bulgaria (1870), Serbia (1879), and Romania (1885). Peter the Great removed the patriarch as head of the Russian Church in 1721 and established the Holy Synod, which included laypersons. This situation, an anomaly in Orthodoxy, remained until the Revolution of 1917, when the Moscow Patriarchate was reestablished. During the twentieth century Communist governments in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe persecuted Orthodox churches, and the documented cases of martyrdom run into the tens of millions. Because of opposition from Islam and Communism, Orthodoxy has a historical experience of persecution and martyrdom that sets it apart from the churches of western Europe and North America. Yet Orthodoxy has experienced a resurgence in its historic heartland during the post-Communist generation. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Orthodox Christian Followers

Among the main Christian groups, the Orthodox church ranks third behind Catholicism and Protestantism in terms of the numbers of followers. It is regarded as very conservative and as a rule hostile to science and modernity. There are an estimated 225 to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Most of them in Greece, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Serbia, Bulgaria, Estonia, the Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Russia and other places in Eastern Europe.

The Russian Orthodox church is the largest and most influential branch of the Orthodox faith. Including Ukrainian followers, it represents a third to half of the world’s Orthodox believers, dwarfing the 17 other official Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Orthodox church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, claims to have about 80 million followers, or more than half the population of Russia. This number is regarded as an overestimate. The true figure is thought to be around 40 million, with about 4.4 million to 7.4 million being practicing worshipers. Numbers are dropping in part because the overall population is declining. Orthodox church:

Number of Orthodox Christians

Christian denomination percentages worldwide

Orthodox Christianity is the third largest Christian denomination. A Pew Forum study in 2012 study estimated Christianity was the largest faith in the world with 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population, with Roman Catholics making up 48 percent of that total, Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox, which members of Greek and Russian Orthodox church,,at 12 percent. [Source: AFP, December 20, 2011; Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012; Wikipedia, 2024]

About 11.9 percent of of all Christians are Orthodox Christians, while 36.7 percent are Protestant, according to the Pew study. The report's findings, posted on the Pew Research Center's website (www.pewforum.org) were primarily based on a country-by-country analysis of about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and population surveys. In a report at the start of this year, the center estimated the world's Muslim population at 1.6 billion — a figure it said was projected to grow by about 35 percent to 2.2 billion by 2030.”

According to Pew, In many cases however, censuses and surveys do not contain detailed information on denominational and religious movement affiliations. Christian organizations remain in many cases the only source of information on the size of global movements within Christianity

Orthodox Christian Beliefs

Orthodox belief holds that the Orthodox Church is Christianity's true, holy, and apostolic church, tracing its origin directly to the institution established by Jesus Christ. Orthodox beliefs are based on the Bible and on tradition as defined by seven ecumenical councils held by church authorities between A.D. 325 and 787. Orthodox teachings include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the inseparable but distinguishable union of the two natures of Jesus Christ--one divine, the other human. Among saints, Mary has a special place as the Mother of God. Russian Orthodox services, noted for their pageantry, involve the congregation directly by using only the vernacular form of the liturgy. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Orthodox and Catholic church differences

Eastern Orthodox churches are linked together by their belief in he Trinity, the human and divine nature of Christ and dogmas established by the first seven council of the Church, between A.D. 325 and A.D. 787. Beliefs have been promoted through ritual, saintly example and legal innovations. The faith of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the Nicene Creed— the assertion that the denial of Christ’s divinity was a heresy—and doctrinal definitions defined by the first seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451,Constantinople 533 and 680 and Nicaea 787)

Among, Orthodox Christians, there is less emphasis on suffering and sacrifice than there is in the Catholic Church. Unlike Western Christians who regard salvation as the culmination of an act of forgiveness by Christ’s death at the cross, Orthodox Christians see salvation as a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit that is a consequence of Christ’s victory over evil as represented by his Resurrection. This view is symbolized by Orthodox preference for the empty Cross as opposed to the crucifix favored by Catholics and the emphasis on triumph rather than suffering in Good Friday celebrations.

Orthodox Christianity is regarded as strict and full of prohibitions. Orthodox Christians place greater emphasis on the material elements of rituals. This is because the material and spiritual worlds are regarded as closely unified. They are regarded as more separate entities in western Christianity. According to the BBC: “Eastern Christianity stresses a way of life and belief that is expressed particularly through worship. By maintaining the correct form of worshipping God, passed on from the very beginnings of Christianity. Eastern Christians believe that they confess the true doctrine of God in the right (orthodox) way. The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church is central to the Orthodox way of life as today's inheritors of the "true faith and Church" passed on in its purest form. By maintaining the purity of the inherited teachings of the Apostles, believers are made more aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit being present both in history and at the present day. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008]

See Sacraments Below.

Differences Between the Orthodox and Western Churches

Orthodox Bible

According to the BBC: “The Orthodox Church shares much with the other Christian Churches in the belief that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection. The Orthodox Church differs substantially in the way of life and worship, and in certain aspects of theology. The Holy Spirit is seen as present in and as the guide to the Church working through the whole body of the Church, as well as through priests and bishops. The Bible of the Orthodox Church is the same as that of most Western Churches, except that its Old Testament is based not on the Hebrew, but on the ancient Jewish translation into Greek called the Septuagint.” [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008]

Whereas the Orthodox church starts first with the community and sees the individual as a member of this community Catholics and Protestants starts first with the individual and see the community as a collection of individuals. Moreover, the Orthodox church sees spirit and matter as interdependent while the Western church see them as separate and even opposed. While Catholics believe that the Holy Ghost comes from God and Christ, Orthodox believed it comes from God alone. Orthodox Christians put emphasis on the resurrection rather the crucifixion.

The Orthodox and Catholic churches have different interpretations of authority, of the Church, of the sacraments and even salvation. The Orthodox Church does not accept Catholic dogmas such as the infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception although it reveres the Virgin Mary as the mother of Christ.

Orthodox doctrines not ascribed by Catholics include the belief that Christ is the sole head of the Church (not the Pope), and that is authority comes from its members ("the totality of the people of God"). For Orthodox Christians Heaven and Hell are considered real places and salvation is achieved through the Church, good works and belief in Christ.

Orthodox Christian Texts and Saints

Russian Orthodox Sunday Communion

The Gospels are the most important part of the Bible for Orthodox Christians. The Septuagint remains the authoritative Old Testament of the Orthodox Church. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Old Church Slavonic in the 9th century. Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century.

Commemorating Saints is an important aspect of Orthodox prayer life. Relics of the Saints are greatly venerated. The Catholic and Orthodox churches both hold saints in high esteem. Some Protestant sects do too but generally saints are held in lower esteem.

The Virgin Mary is greatly honored by Orthodox Christians. She is regarded as the Mother of the Incarnate Word, above all the saints. She is "Theotokos" (Gobbear or the Mother of God) and her name is frequently invoked in private and public prayers.

The role of the saints is to help members of the Church separate the message from the Holy Spirt from other message they pick up in their daily lives. The Saints are regarded as representing a divine truth that has been universally recognized by faithful of the church.

Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments) of Orthodox Christianity

The most important Orthodox Christian Christian rituals are the seven scared mysteries (sacrament)s: 1) baptism; 2) Eucharist (communion); 3) confirmation; 4) penance and confession; 5) marriage; 6) unction (anointing the sick); and 7) holy orders (by which laymen are raised for the priesthood). These sacraments are still recognized by the Catholic Church (and mostly by the Orthodox church) but have been rejected, with the exception of baptism and communion, by the Protestant church. There are other sacraments in the Orthodox church but these are not regarded as important as the seven previously mentioned ones.

All the sacraments are carried out so they ascribe to the concept of an individual as being part of a community rather than something onto himself or herself. The church itself is regarded as a source of sanctification and blessing for all aspects of life

A great effort has been made to preserve the material elements of the sacraments. Orthodox Christians look down on attempts by the Catholic church to minimize the material side of the sacraments such as pouring water rather than using immersion in baptism and using unleavened rather than leavened bread in the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christian Liturgy

The Orthodox Christian liturgy includes multiple elaborate systems of symbols meant to convey the content of the faith to believers. Many liturgical forms remain from the earliest days of Orthodoxy. The liturgy is the essence of Orthodoxy. The living and the dead are regarded as single congregation The liturgical action and prayers sanctify both their soul and their bodies.

Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century.

The focal point of the Orthodox Christian liturgy is the Eucharist (Communion, taking of bread and wine) According to the BBC: “Both parts of the Liturgy contain a procession. At the Little Entrance, the Book of the Gospels is solemnly carried into the sanctuary and at the Great Entrance the bread and wine are carried to the altar for the Prayer of Consecration and Holy Communion. The prayer of consecration is always preceded by the proclamation of the Nicene Creed, frequently by the whole congregation. The Orthodox Church lays particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the Prayer of Consecration calls on the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to effect the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“There are four different liturgies used throughout the year: 1 ) The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (used on Sundays and weekdays); 2) The Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used 10 times a year); 3) The Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (sometimes used on St James' Day); 4) The Liturgy of the Presanctified (used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week) |::|

Orthodox Christian Morality

The Orthodox church has traditionally promoted such values as the cardinal importance of life, respect associated with parents, obligation to give alms and abhorrence of suicide. Orthodox Christianity is regarded as strict, tolerant, full of prohibitions and traditionally has had very little social activism.

The religious scholar Nicolas Zernov wrote that the purpose of a church is to promote spiritual growth and increase the power of love among the faithful. “Christian love is interpreted as a desire for perfect unity among independent persons. Only where freedom is unimpaired is it considered that love can grow into its fullness. The Orthodox church therefore lays great emphasis on freedom as an indispensable condition for the proper functioning of the Church organism.

Holy Unction is the sacrament of healing. The sick are anointed with oil. It is a kind of faith healing that is used to treat people with physical, mental and spiritual problems or who need purification. On the ceiling of some churches hang small silver, gold or wax votive offering of arms, hands, torso, ears—representing afflicted body parts that people want to be healed—and even boats and trucks.

Orthodox Christian Views on Miracles and Death

There is also a strong belief in miracles. In 1996, thousands of pilgrims flocked to the Greek Orthodox Church on Kykko Mountain in Cyprus (60 miles southwest of Nicosia) to pray before an icon of the Virgin Mary and child Jesus that reportedly had begun to weep. The pilgrims began arriving after monks at the 11th century monastery reported seeing tears forming in the eyes of the icon and slowly flowing down.

Burial in a consecrated ground has traditionally been important to Orthodox Christians. Cremation has traditionally been forbidden by the Orthodox Church, which sees the human body as a temple for the soul and burying intact ensures that a person is in one piece when the resurrection comes. Any meddling with the body is regarded as a desecration and an offence against god.

Death is viewed not as the destruction of matter and the body but rather as transformation into matter that is obedient to the Holy Spirit. The dead are still regarded as part of the congregation. Remembering departed loved ones is an important aspect of Orthodox prayer life. Prayers are said to the dead and requests are made for them with the belief that the power of love is stronger than the power of death. Orthodox Christians do not define the status of the dead and do not claim to know what effect their prayers might have on them.

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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