Eastern Orthodoxy is the eastern branch of Christianity. Catholics make up the western branch while Protestants make up the northern. One Christian in nine is Eastern Orthodox. Most Christians in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Ethiopia are Orthodox. So were the people of the Byzantine Empire.
Their ministers are called priests, their leaders bishops, and their top bishops patriarchs. Their holy book is the Bible. They believe in the Nicene Creed and follow the Ten Commandments.
The Eastern Orthodox church is very similar to the Catholic Church, especially in doctrine. Indeed, the two were one church till 1054.
They both have priests, bishops, monks, the same seven sacraments or Mysteries and the same books in their Bibles. They both pray to God, angels and saints, hold Mary in high regard and cross themselves. They both believe in the Nicene creed, infant baptism and the Real Presence: that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the real body and blood of Christ.
And, unlike everyone else, they both recognize the first seven worldwide church councils. Not even Protestants do that. Neither do the Armenians, Coptics, Nestorians or the others.
But there is a very important difference between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches: Eastern Orthodoxy does not recognize the pope.
Its highest authority is the Patriarch of Constantinople, but even he is more a first among equals rather than a ruler. Real authority rests with the council of all the top bishops. As it is, there has been no real change in doctrine since the 700s when the seventh council met.
The Catholic church has made some changes in doctrine since the seventh council. The Orthodox see these as corruptions.
The bishops may run the church, but the monks are its spiritual heart.
As with Catholics, the heart of Orthodox worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the bread and wine that the priest blesses that becomes the body and blood of Christ. Believers eat and drink it to take part in the sacrifice of Christ when he died on the cross for our sins. It is spiritual food and drink, it is the way to heaven.
The Eucharist is one of seven Mysteries (what Catholics call sacraments):
- Baptism – at birth or when you convert
- Chrismation – done right after baptism and to receive those who have already been baptized, like Protestants. Counterpart to Catholic confirmation.
- Eucharist – receive the body and blood of Christ
- Confession – confess one’s sins
- Ordination – becoming a priest
- Matrimony – marriage
- Holy Unction – given during Holy Week and to those who are sick in body or spirit. Counterpart to Catholic last rites.
Ordained priests can marry, but bishops cannot.
The Orthodox church service comes from that of St John Chrysostom of Constantinople in the 300s, which in turn comes from that of Antioch.
Icons: Just as prayer and the Mysteries take part in the divine, so do icons. These are pictures of Jesus, the angels and the saints. The Orthodox use them in their worship. To Protestants this seems too close to idol worship. Catholics see nothing wrong with it, though they rarely use icons themselves.