History of the Orthodox Church

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Orthodox icon of Constantine and his mother St Helena

Initially all the Christian churches were unified. One by one different sects broke away. In the early years of Christianity there was the Armenian Church, the Byzantine church and several smaller factions. During this period the Byzantine church and the Catholic church were one and the same. The first sects to break from away from Byzantine control were the Egyptian Copts, Syrian Maronites and Nestorians.

Early Christian communities gathered in a private homes and huts to sing hymns, listen to readings of the scriptures, conduct all night prayer sessions and commemorate events like the Last Supper. There was often a lot of noise and animals walking around. Early congregations had an urban and plebeian character.

The building of churches was largely forbidden until Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. The first churches were rather plain. They were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. The were no columns or friezes like Greek and Roman temples, the main object it seems was to create a space large enough for worship.

After Constantine recognized Christianity in 313, the power and the wealth of he church grew quickly with the help of faithful Christians who donated their land and other possessions. Bishops were as powerful as feudal lords and they grew wealthy by trading commodities in their bishopdoms.

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

Early Christian Councils

There were three major schisms: 1) the one in the 5th century that split eastern Christendom in two; 2) the one the 11th century that divided the Latin church and the Byzantine church; and 3) the Reformation in the 16th century in which Protestantism arose and split from the Roman Catholic church.

The 5th century schism and the Reformation were similar in character. They were sudden and dramatic and split groups that had shared similar teachings and types of worship. The second was more complex and took longer to unfold.

In the early years of Christianity a great deal of debate, intellectual energy and soul searching went into resolving the questions of how God and Jesus could both be divine if God was one as Jesus himself said and the fact that Jesus must be both human and divine for him to take the place of human kind and die for their sins. The resolution of these questions shaped how Christianity evolved and defined itself.

Ecumenical Councils

Ecumenical Councils were called to settle theological issues. Constantine inaugurated the ecumenical movement. He called first general ecumenical council, in Nicaea in A.D. 325 to settle questions of doctrine, combat heresy and work out disputes between different sects. The six Ecumenical Councils that followed---Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451, Constantinople 553, Toledo 598, Constantinople 680 and Nicaea 787---further defined the doctrines of the church.

At the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 several sects were forced to split from the Christian church. At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 it was declared that God alone could be worshiped and saints were given respect and veneration. At the council in 1054, the Catholic and Orthodox churches split.

According to the BBC: “The doctrine of the Christian Church was established over the centuries at Councils dating from as early as 325CE where the leaders from all the Christian communities were represented. The Eastern Church recognizes the authority of the Councils of Nicea 325 CE, Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431) Chalcedon (451) Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680) and Nicaea II (787). [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Although initially the Eastern and Western Christians shared the same faith, the two traditions began to divide after the seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 CE and is commonly believed to have finally split over the conflict with Rome in the so called Great Schism in 1054. In particular this happened over the papal claim to supreme authority and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The break became final with the failure of the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century. |::|

Book: "History of Christianity" by Owen Chadwick; The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan

Armenian Church

In the early years of Christianity there was the Armenian Church, the Byzantine church and several smaller factions. Armenians call their church the Armenian Apostolic Church.

St Gregory the Illuminator, founder of the Armenian Church

Armenians are said to be the first people to collectively adopt Christianity and Armenia is described as the first Christian kingdom. According to legend the first Christian Armenian church was founded by the saints Bartholomew and Thadaeus on the first century. The Armenian Church has been in Jerusalem since the A.D. forth century. It has been one of the oldest continuous presences in Jerusalem yet never wielded much political power.

The Armenian adopted Christianity, the story goes, after King Tiridates III was converted by the missionary Saint Gregory the Illuminator. According to legend, Saint Gregory was imprisoned by King Tiridates III, who was a pagan before his conversion. In A.D. 301 the king was turned into a pig by demons. After being asked by king's sister to help, Gregory cast out the demons. Thankful to be a human being again, Tiridates converted himself and the people in his kingdom to Christianity. Many Armenians think this is based on real event that took palce between A.D. 301 and 330

King Tiridates made Christianity the state religion and took measures to stamp out folk religion and Zoroastrianism. In the decades that followed the Bible was translated into the Armenian language and written down with Armenia script.

The Armenian church was originally subordinate to the Byzantines in Constantinople but it broke away at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 to follow the Monophysite doctrine. In A.D. 451 the Armenian church became a sanctioned church with its headquarters near present-day Yerevan.

First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325

In A.D., 325, the Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea (present-day Iznik In Turkey), inaugurating the ecumenical movement. Called by Constantine to combat heresy and settle questions of doctrine, it attracted thousands of priests, 318 bishops, two papal lieutenants and the Roman Emperor Constantine himself. The attendees discussed the Holy trinity and the eventual linkage of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, argued whether Jesus was truly divine or just a prophet (he was judged divine), and decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The early councils were shaped largely by Christian scholars from Alexandria and their views were in line with modern Coptic doctrine that the God and Christ are of the same essence and that Christ's divinity and humanity are unified.

Constantine made a grand entrance at the council. According to one witness he “proceeded through the midst of the assembly” and acted like a Pope. The greatest debate was between Arius, a priest from Alexandria, who argued that Christ was not the equal of God but was created by him, and Athanasius, the leader of the bishops to the west, who claimed that the Father and Son, where distinct, but hatched from the same substances and thus were equal. Arus's argument was rejected in part because it opened to the door to polytheism and a doctrine was codified that stated Christ was “begotten not made” and that God and Christ were “of the same stuff."

The Council of Nicaea gave us the Roman version of Christianity rather the Nestorian. The most important decision was the rejection of Arius's arguments and the adoption of Nicene creed: the assertions that Christ's divinity, the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity were truths and the denial of Christ's divinity was a heresy. This became the basis of all church doctrine from that time forward. Anyone who departed from the creed was branded a heretic.

Council of Nicaea

Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Nestorians

The Council of Ephesus in 431 was called in part to address the policies of the Nestorians and address the issue of whether Christ was dualist (human and divine) or singular (two in one). Nestorian beliefs lost out.

At the Council of Ephesus several sects were forced to split from the Christian church. Afterwards the Nestorians were persecuted and exiled. Nestorius was banished to Egypt, where he died in exile. The Nestorians were formally removed from the Orthodox-Catholic church after the Muslim conquests in the 7th century.

Some say the Nestorians were the first people to adopt Christianity. It is said they did so after St. Thomas visited Assyria within a few years after Christ’s death. There is no real historical evidence to back up this claim.

Nestorian Christianity is named after Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 428 to 431. Of Persian origin, he became a monk and lived in a monastery in Euprepius near Antioch. His skill as a speaker earned him an appointing to bishop. He was an activist bishop who launched campaigns against heretics and promulgated beliefs that later became associated with Nestorian Christianity. His effort won him the scorn of other powerful bishops who declared Nestorious a heretic. Bishops that and excluded his followers from the

The person who really defined Nestorian Christianity was Theodore (died 431, bishop of Mopsuestia in Colicia and a pupil of Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus. Theodore emphasized the humanity of Jesus and argued that he acquired his state of sinlessness by uniting with the Person of the Divine Word. which he received as an award for attaining a state of sinlessness. The Word, he insisted, dwelt in the man Christ. Nestorians thus rejected the union of God and man and Mary was considered the mother of a man not a god.

Theodore’s doctrines were influenced by 4th century Christian scholars from Antioch, who emphasized Christ’s humanity and its inherent imperfections. It was not until Nestorius came to Constantinople that Theodore’s teachings became popular and thus was named after Nestorious. At the Council of Constantinople in 553 Theodore’s doctrine was formally condemned.

Council of Chalcedon in 451

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the second person of the Trinity, the son, was defined by Orthodox Christians as having two natures, divine and human. The Armenians, Egyptian Christians (Copts), Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Jacobites) disagreed and believed that Christ has a single nature, consisting of two natures, with his humanity absorbed into his deity, a concept known as Monophysitism. The Nestorians supported the Monophysite view but believed in sharper distinctions between the two natures and emphasized Christ's humanity. The schism that resulted at Chalcedon stimulated the use of Syriac as an ecclesiastical language.

By this time Christian scholars from Alexandria were in the minority and the conservative Greco-Roman Orthodox views prevailed. Gaining strength was a mechanism that would remain a central theme in Christianity: the use of that accusations of heresy to dismiss members or sects with unpopular views.

In 518 Monophysitism was declared heretical by Justin I at the Synod of Constantinople. The Greek-speaking Orthodox churches excommunicated the Copts and Syrians because they didn't accept the Orthodox belief that Jesus was a true God and perfect man. The decision was later overturned by Emperor Justinian on the urging of his wife Empress Theodora.

Monophysites of Syria became known as Jacobites. Early Maronites were strong supporters of the Chalcedon view. Jacobite and Maronite monks battled one another, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the destruction of many monasteries.


defaced image

In the A.D. 8th century there was a split within the Byzantine church split over whether or not worshipping icons constituted idolatry. At one point all icons were destroyed in accordance with an imperial decree, and as a result four centuries of beautiful icons were lost and we now have the word "iconoclast," or icon smasher."

To support their claim the iconoclasts brandished the second of the Ten Commandments (Thou shall not make graven images.".and bow down to them or serve them) and blamed volcanic eruptions and deaths from the plague on the worship of idols. Their opponents, know as "wooden worshippers," responded by pointing that the Ten Commandments were made 1000 years before Christ was born and therefore did not apply to Christ, Mary and the saints, who were all born after the commandments were made."

Iconoclasm was in full force in Constantinople from 726 to 842. Worshiping images of Christ, Mary and the saints was forbidden. At the height of the iconoclastic frenzy priests were lynched by mobs on the mere suspicion of being idol worshippers and the property of nuns was seized by the government. The Iconoclasts were eventually put down by Emperor Constantine VI, who was crowned at tho age of nine and dominated by his power-hungry mother. Constantine hosted a religious conference where it was decided that idol worshipping was an acceptable form of religious expression, but sculptures and bas-reliefs were "graven images" that were not to be tolerated."

Friction Between Catholic and Orthodox Church

Over time divisions grew between what became the Constantinople-based the Eastern (Byzantine, Orthodox) church and the Rome-based Western (Catholic) church. The division grew gradually over a long period of time and was primarily over the issue of authority.

In the 7th century Byzantines and Catholics disagreed on the roll of images and icons in the church. Rome favored them as objects of worship while the Patriarch in Constantinople was against them (and still is in the form of statues). Constantinople was also very upset when Charlemagne was crowned head of Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century instead of a Byzantine emperor.

Great Schism of 1054

The rivalry between Catholic and Orthodox Christian became more formalized in 9th century when Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (858-86) drew up a list of heresies practiced by the Western church in Rome that included irregularities in the way it practiced Lent, the celibacy of the clergy and the way they said the Byzantine creed. According to a Time magazine article, “The Eastern and Western churches quibbled about such inconsequential minutiae as the rings worn by bishops, whether or not priests should shave their beards and whether or not music should be allowed in the church, with the assumption that the Orthodox church was acting in accordance with the doctrine of the church and the Latins were committing heresies."

Split Between Catholic and Orthodox Church

The Byzantine (Orthodox) church and Catholic church formally split in 1054 when the Pope excommunicated the Byzantine patriarch and the Byzantine patriarch excommunicated the Pope. The churches broke over the claim that the Pope was universal authority for all Christians and also fought over which day Easter should be celebrated on, whether purgatory was a valid concept, whether leavened bread or unleavened bread should be offered as communion and eaten on holy days and the status of the Holy Ghost. The Catholics added "and the son" to the end of the Byzantine creed "the Holy Spirit proceeded from Father." The Byzantines believed that the Holy Ghost came from God alone, while the Catholics believed the Holy Ghost came from God and Christ.

The dispute over the Byzantine creed was significant not so much as a doctrinal issue but over the political issue of whether the Pope had the right to change the creed. Accusation of heresy gave both the East and the West excuses to take military action and seize territory form their rivals. The schism in 1054 was triggered by a trivial dispute over the use of unleavened bread in communion was not taken seriously at the time and it was assumed that the two sides would quickly make but political problems (namely the presence of the Normans in the Mediterranean) cut of communication between Rome and Constantinople and the dispute was never cleared up.

According to the BBC: “However, in the minds of most Orthodox, a decisive moment was the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the (Western Christian) Fourth Crusade. The sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders eventually led to the loss of this Byzantine capital to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. This has never been forgotten. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“The divisions between the East and Western Churches happened gradually over the centuries as the Roman Empire fragmented. Eventually, while the Eastern Churches maintained the principle that the Church should keep to the local language of the community, Latin became the language of the Western Church. |::|

“Until the schism the five great patriarchal sees were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. After the break with Rome Orthodoxy became 'Eastern' and the dominant expression of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, much of Asia Minor, Russian and Balkans.” |::|

The break up between the Eastern church and Western church was not a simple, definite break that the 1054 split implies. It was a drawn-out complicated affair that began in earnest in the 9th century and was not finished until the 15th century. Exactly what happened, the motivations behind it and the role of key players is still not completely understood.

The split was not cordial. Rather than regard themselves as partners with the same covenant the two churches regarded themselves as rivals and fought over who was the single legitimate voice of the entire religion. Some have said the split over the doctrinal issues mentioned above was just a manifestation and cover from what was really a political dispute between the Byzantine Empire and Rome-centered western Europe.

Later Disputes Between Orthodox Church and Catholic Church

The Orthodox were also not pleased when the Vatican-based Crusaders sacked Constantinople, where the Orthodox church was based, in 1204. Before that time the two churches feuded but they continued to recognize each other. The 1204 attack caused the dispute between East and West became irreconcilable. The churches from then on regarded each other as members of separate communities. The division was so deep that the Turks were regarded by the Byzantines as a lesser evil than submission to the Papacy.

The Russians who had no part in the original conflict destroyed one attempt at a reunion between the Eastern and Western churches when the Muscovite Prince Basil II repudiated the terms of an agreement made in Florence to bring the churches together. Later the Orthodox Christians were angered by Catholics declarations of the immaculate conception. They were also not pleased by the first Vatican Council (1869-70), which declared that the pope was infallible.

Other factors that played a role in schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches were the failure of the Crusades, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, animosity between Christians and Muslims, the increased power of the Papacy, the Reformation and rivalry between Western Europe and Russia. Some historians have argued that the Napoleonic campaign in 1812, the Crimean War in 1853-1955, the Balkan Wars in 1878 and 1912 and World War I had the schism between the western and eastern churches at their roots because one of the chief aims of all these conflicts was to gain control over Constantinople.

Spread of Orthodox Church

Orthodox Church of St John at Kanei Ohrid, Macedonia

The Catholic and Orthodox church competed for several centuries when five equal patriarchs shared power. Of the five, four later fell under Muslim rule.

After the 1054 schism, a number of national churches grew up within the Orthodox church. From Constantinople, Orthodox Christianity spread to Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Armenia and then to the Ukraine, Georgia and parts of present-day Russia.

The people in eastern Europe adopted the Eastern Orthodox faith of the Byzantine Empire mainly through the efforts of the Byzantine missionaries St. Cyril and St. Methodius. The later translated the entire Bible into Old Church Slavonic. Their disciples, St. Kliment and St. Naum, established a seat of higher leaning in Ohrid, present-day Macedonia in 896 and created the Cyrillic alphabet used by Russians, Macedonians and Bulgarians.

A renewed sense of mysticism took hold of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the 12th century. Pre-Christian paganism was absorbed into the Orthodox religion. Some churches, for example, show Christ situated in the center of eight elongated trapezoids, each with a saint, that radiate outward. The symbolism suggest the rays of the sun God.

Orthodox Church and States

The Orthodox churches of Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria have existed for centuries as governing entities united by common practices and beliefs. There was never a battle analogous to that of the Popes versus the Emperors in the states where the Orthodox church was strong. The Orthodox church and states where it existed worked together as partners rather than as rivals with neither viewing the other as superior or inferior.

The role of the Christian state was perceived as maintaining order and justice. The job of the Orthodox church was helping it members find salvation. The state and the church respected each other’s autonomy and independence. After the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the czars of Russia became the leaders of the Orthodox church, with Moscow described as the Third Rome.

Prince Vladimir

The Orthodox church is given credit for performing its mission under changing, sometimes, chaotic conditions. It has managed to remain intact and virtually unchanged through the invasion of Russia by the Mongols, the fall of Constantinople, the conquest of the Christian Balkans by the Turks and the Communist subjugation in the 20th century. In the meantime the Western church went through great upheavals and changes: the Reformation, the Count-Reformation, Liberalism and modernism,.

Prince Vladimir Chooses among the Great Religions in Russia

Prince Vladimir I (ruled 980-1015) is regarded as the father of Russia. His greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus', a process that began in 988. He built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus', the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev. Vladimir's conversion to the Byzantine (Orthodox) Christian faith in 988 is generally regarded as the moment when Russia was founded. They 1,000th anniversary of the event, 1988, was celebrated with great fanfare on the Soviet Union. Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 largely for the political and economic advantages it offered. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, December 1983]

The Rus were initially pagans. Byzantines referred to Rus as "ax-bearing barbarians." Prince Vladimir reportedly gave great thought to choosing which religion was right for his people. He welcomed envoys from the great religions of the time—Judaism, Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity— and listened to their arguments. A devoted womanizer, he liked the Muslim promise after death of fulfillment of carnal desires but he didn't like the Jewish and Muslim required circumcision and prohibition on alcohol and the eating of pork.

According to "Tales of Bygone Years", compiled two centuries after Vladimir in the 1180s, Vladimir listened to the Muslims, "for he was fond of women and indulgence...But circumcision and abstinence from pork, and wine were disagreeable to him. 'Drinking,' he said, 'is a joy to the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure."

Prince Vladimir was also greatly impressed the churches and clergy in Constantinople. After visiting the monuments and treasures in the Byzantine capital his emissaries reported back, "[we] knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor...We only know that God dwells there among men..."

Historian often dismiss this interpretation of events and argue that Vladimir most likely converted to Orthodox Christianity to unify the loose confederation of pagan tribes he ruled over, to strengthen his trade links Constantinople and to form an alliance against the Muslims who penetrated the Volga region.

Prince Vladimir Converts to Orthodox Christianity

Prince Vladimir chooses Orthodox Christianity over Catholicism

Prince Vladimir was baptized and converted to Orthodox Christianity. He was later canonized for converting Kievian Rus to Christianity. The choice of Orthodoxy created a distance between Russia and largely Catholic Europe but linked it the Byzantium Empire, based in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Vladimir's grandmother Princess Olga, the first Rus royal to be baptized, took the plunge on a visit to Constantinople in 957. Describing her Nestor wrote, "Olga was the precursor of the Christian land, even as the dayspring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and he was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire."

Prince Vladimir gave the people of Russia and the Ukraine two choices: either they could be baptized too or loose their heads. He led his subjects en masse into the Dnieper in 988. They followed a route now occupied by Kreshchatic (Christening Street), Kiev's main thoroughfare. The baptized throw out their pagan idols and were baptized in the Orthodox faith.

Vladimir's choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev's most vital commercial route, the Dnepr River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greek that had been produced for the South Slavs. The existence of this literature facilitated the East Slavs' conversion to Christianity and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Because the East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin, they were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the European cultures of their neighbors to the west. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Orthodox Christianity Develops in Russia

Vladimir married the sister of one of the Byzantine co-emperors and initiated a program to transplant the culture, art, alphabet, and architecture of Constantinople to Kiev, which he described as "a city glistening with the light of holy icons, fragrant with incense, ringing with praise and holy, heavenly songs."

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The Kiev empire provided be a fertile ground for Orthodox Christianity to take root. Unlike the Slavic kingdoms in The Balkans, it was far beyond the reached of the old Roman empire. "Christianity in the old Russian empire was the frontier faith of a colonizing people," wrote Russian historian James Billington in Smithsonian magazine. "The rugged new converts sought to beatify their churches and worship services rather than to discuss the fine points of dogma. So they developed a 'theology in pictures' in pictures rather in words—filling their churches with frescoes, icons and candle, embellishing them in the northern climate with new, snow-shedding onion domes and tent roofs that differed from the hemispheric domes of the Mediterranean world."

The adoption of the Orthodox Church by the Russians proved to be crucial in the geopolitical development of Europe. Russia developed into a strong, militant Christian state that believed it possessed a special historical mission. Vladimir successors spread the faith to the Arctic Ocean and the forests of Siberia.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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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