Top Ten Things Every Protestant Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy

Photo by Jürg Vollmer (via Wikimedia Commons)
Photo by Jürg Vollmer (via Wikimedia Commons)

The other day a pastor-friend asked me to help him prep for a Sunday School lesson by writing a list of the top ten things every Protestant should know about Eastern Orthodoxy. I thought I would share the list here:

1. We are not “basically Catholic.” We do not have a pope, and our theology is rather different from both Catholicism and Protestantism.

2. We are quasi-democratic. The bishops make decisions, but the people have to agree to those decisions. We call that conciliarity. It can be messy, but it more or less works.

3. Our various archdiocese are independent from each other, aligned with historic sees, but we all basically get along (except when we sometimes break communion with each other over various theological or jurisdictional differences; see #2).

4. The Eucharist? We call that Jesus. We believe it is actually the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but we do not believe in transubstantiation. That is a Catholic thing. We believe it is a mystery. In other words, “It’s the body of Christ. Now stop asking so many stupid questions, and open your mouth!” (see below).

5. We take communion from a common cup with squishy bread – I mean Jesus – thrown into it. The priest puts it on our tongue with a special spoon. I know, “gross,” but the priests have to eat the leftovers, and they are not dead.

6. We kiss icons – images of the saints – to honor them as exemplars in the faith. This seems to some people like idolatry, but imagine a widower kissing a picture of his deceased wife. Is that idolatry? All are alive in Christ Jesus.

7. We pray to the Mother of God, the Theotokos, who died and was taken bodily into heaven (incidentally, we are in the Dormition fast right now). We honor her. We do not worship her. After all, how would you want your mother to be treated?

8. We fast a lot, probably about half the year: Every Wednesday and Friday (to commemorate the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus), two Lents (one before Christmas and one before Easter), the Apostles Fast after Pentecost, the Dormition Fast (now), and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting about. We avoid meat products and alcohol during fasts, but we try not to be legalistic about it.

9. It is very easy to be legalistic about stuff if you are Orthodox.

10. Our services appeal to the whole body. We stand, bow, cross ourselves, chant, smell incense, and taste communion because we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our worship is long, but if you think it’s boring, you’re doing it wrong.

This list went through a few editions. What would you add/take away?

57 thoughts on “Top Ten Things Every Protestant Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy”

  1. #4, 6, and 7 were intolerable beliefs to Orpha. As a Methodist, she was appalled that communion was considered the body and blood. They drank shots of grape juice each Sunday and thought we should do the same.

  2. Then the correct term should be "EASTERN Orthodox"; both Catholics and Protestants believe that their churches hold the correct ("orthodox") faith and until the late 19th century, most Orthodox lived to the east of most Catholics/Protestants.

  3. Don't worry about it, Marie. Sounds like you have bigger concerns than syntax to stress about! But incidentally, legalism is what helped drive me away from Orthodoxy. That and culturalism.

  4. No, I meant that legalism is a spiritual danger to new converts and not part of the Orthodox ethos. If you haven't got over legalism, you haven't really become Orthodox. Normal people do not remain legalistic within Orthodoxy, but some new converts mistakenly apply a very western sort of legalism to theiri new faith. Perhaps its just my chemo-brain at work, but I can't imagine how you so completely misconstrued my response.

  5. You implied it, Marie! You said that new converts will "get over" the legalism of the Orthodox Church unless there is an "underlying psychopathology". It seems from your response that you meant otherwise.

  6. I can see in hindsight that I was drawn to Orthodoxy in part because it IS legalistic, which in some environments helps to establish a sense of belonging – and, indeed, exclusion – but I left when I no longer needed those man-made controls. That is not to say that I didn't learn some good lessons there, and I am still a practicing Christian – although not according to some Orthodox!

  7. That is the oddest explanation of Orthodoxy I have ever read. This could have been an informative article.Thumbs down!

  8. I don't think it should be easy to be legalistic as an Orthodox Christian. I think if we rely on legalism we need to be examining our faith.

  9. It might be more accurate to say Roman Catholic, but given the context that the list is for protestants, the popular meaning of 'Catholic' is Roman. Getting more accurate would be a good place to start the next lesson.

  10. I think Fr. Sergei Bulgakov does a good job of describing conciliatory in The Orthodox Church (a book even his detractors appreciate). In the history of the church, conciliar decisions have been nullified by popular refusal. There were clergy involved in that resistance, but the laity played key roles. A council needs the amen of the people, otherwise it is not a true council.

  11. Since BOTH Latins and Protestants have wrong theology I do not present what Orthodox believe in relationship to what any of those heterodox believe. Orthodoxy must be presented as to what it IS not what it isn't. In approaching the unchurched, one cannot assume they even know what either the Latins or the Protestants actually teach; in fact, most of the Latins and Protestants that I have encountered don't know what they teach and cannot articulate what they believe. How does saying the Orthodox do not believe in transubstantiation, if the one to whom you are speaking has no idea what transubstantiation is, teach anything about the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist and that it is the true and most-holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ? The tone of that list is not serious.

  12. So, I think this is a pretty good list except I am not legalistic and see the church as having a way of guiding us to make us better and more disciplined in our faith. I find it very hard to regulate myself when it comes to things that are good for me. I get lazy and justify it by saying that God knows how busy I am. I should make time for my spiritual life and I think holding us accountable for this is why the Orthodox church sets a standard that we can strive to attain. And let me just say Thank God for His Grace because I have a lot to work on. But the point is that I have something to strive towards. I don't have to steer myself. I am to busy denying myself.

  13. What do you mean by quasi-democratic? I thought that conciliarity applied to the relationships among several different Orthodox sees, not to the relationship between the hierarchy and the laity. I don't think that the laity have that much say concerning matters of doctrine and worship? Thank you.

  14. 'You' probably did. ha I don't know why I found this humorous. How many books (and which ones)? My guess is, it is the same as the Catholics .

  15. All Orthodox believers are in the Dormition fast now until 15th of August. And it's not just meat we do not eat now, but also eggs, milk, cheese and any animal product. We eat only vegetables.

  16. I think I would add that our main focus is the Resurrection of Christ. That every liturgy, every sermon, every prayer, is meant to focus on the fact that our redemption is the found in the Resurrection.
    Also that we do not believe in a "salvation date" as most protestants do. We cannot look back and say, "That is the day I was 'saved.'" We look at our lives as a process…and that Reconciliation was something we benefited from on a hill in 33 AD.

  17. Joe Varghese , I see your point on #5. I knew that was pushing it just a bit. I must confess that I am not sure I would write it differently if I had to do it over again, considering the audience I was writing for. "Squishy bread" seems to be the most accurate way to describe the physical attributes of that which we receive (thanks for the reminder, May). But I remain conflicted, and I'm glad for the rebuke. It's healthy for me. (-:

  18. RD Hawk, I can't tell if you are referring to me or not. I have said the same thing in other posts. I am much more interested in being orthodox than "Orthodox" if the latter means some kind of sectarian identity marker. I am not a fan of obnoxious Orthodoxy. So, amen to everything you said.

  19. Steve Robinson, I'm with you. As a general rule, I try to focus more on what we share than how we differ. I am not a fan of sectarian-minded Orthodoxy, a faith that is more interested in showing others how wrong they are than in working together in fellowship and love. Thanks for your thoughts.

  20. Hm. A little too "flip" and "we're not that" as an introductory "Top Ten". The last thing I am is humorless, but it kinda left me cold. I don't know how I'd tweak or change them, but just an initial gut reaction.

  21. Very cool. I'm from a protestant tradition, so this was very enlightening. It was amusingly chalk full of irreverence for religious pomp and circumstance, but I saw no disrespect toward the sacred and divine. Maybe we wouldn't joke about these things if we understood them better, but I feel like we don't exactly act very joyous, Christianity as a whole. Aren't we supposed to be the children, the saved, the blessed, the inheritors? With all the fear and legalism and infighting and condemnation and hatred we seem more like an army of the disposed.

  22. I would specify catholic as 'roman-catholic'. We are catholic in the truest sense of the word but we are not roman-catholic. That is something that most people don't understand and #1 can come across we are not catholic what is a false statement.

  23. I have to agree to the comments on that one – I think I know what you try to achieve – to pick up the people where they are – but if we want to teach someone reverence it doesn't work in my opinion by using un-reverend words for the greatest miracle on earth.

  24. Excellent write-up .. but agree #5 should have been worded better to reflect our belief. It's not "squishy bread", and not a joking matter as sadly there is enough jokes out there about the Body and Blood

  25. unintentionally or intentionally ignorant. sadly though, often times Protestant converts to Orthodoxy bring their fundamentalist or evangelical "must convert all to our side" along with them and throw it right back at their brothers and sisters of their past affiliation questioning their salvation. we must all be careful

  26. I would go into greater details with point 2 and 3 or leave them off it makes us seem a little flighty and that we are not one church with minor small tradional differences mostly cultural.

  27. This is very helpful. I once taught a series of Sunday School classes, "Why I am not Catholic" and "Why I am not Christian Reformed" but I couldn't teach one on Orthodoxy. In the other series, I had Catholic and CRC friends who I ran everything past to confirm that it was indeed a fair representation of what they believed. But I couldn't think of any big-Oh Orthodox friends to do this with.

  28. This is very helpful. I once taught a series of Sunday School classes, "Why I am not Catholic" and "Why I am not Christian Reformed" but I couldn't teach one on Orthodoxy. In the other series, I had Catholic and CRC friends who I ran everything past to confirm that it was indeed a fair representation of what they believed. But I couldn't think of any big-Oh Orthodox friends to do this with.

  29. I would further explain why we refer to the Theotokos as Mother of God. That has been a hard one for my extended Protestant family.

  30. As ridiculous as it sounds, I might add that we are Christian group and that we do in fact believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I'm always surprised by how many of my evangelical friends aren't sure if we are true believers.

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