An introduction to ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Christianity

An introduction to ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Christianity


When most Americans think of Christians, Catholics and Protestants immediately come to mind. With a little more thought, they add the Eastern Orthodox, whose beautiful churches were built by Greek, Russian and other immigrants.

Catholicism seems quite easily defined. It is led by the pope in Rome, has over a billion communicants, is divided into dioceses headed by bishops, and its doctrines, traditions and organization are laid out in its catechism. There is some variation in language and liturgy as in the Melkite, Maronite and other Eastern rite communities that acknowledge papal authority.

Protestantism is far too complex to sum up in a few sentences. It ranges from such liturgical churches as Anglican and Lutheran to the biblical literalism of evangelicals. the free-spirited worship of Pentecostalism, and the total lack of liturgy of the Quakers. Add to this an array of theologies, from rigid fundamentalism to congregations that welcome individual interpretation of scripture.

Over the centuries there has been a major split among Orthodox Christians. Many are not aware that in addition to the 300 million or so Greeks, Russians and others there are about 70 million in what usually are called “Oriental Orthodox” churches. This separate family of denominations includes Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, Eritreans, and East Indians. Many of them have lived for centuries in present-day Syria, Iraq and other areas which have been suffering from today’s Mideast violence.

The separation of these groups from the rest of Christianity followed the Council of Chalcedon held in 451 in what now is Turkey. The issue causing the division was the nature of Christ. The Council of Nicaea in 325 had declared Christ to be God. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that Jesus, though divine as well as human, is only one being. Chalcedon reaffirmed this but went on to to declare that this one person existed “in two complete natures,” one human, the other divine. The dissenters objected, arguing that Christ had only one nature that was both human and divine. Each faction bitterly accused the other of heresy.

I’ve always been inclined toward the opinion, held by many historians, that such controversies through the centuries were likely influenced by other issues, often hidden, from power struggles and political allegiances to charismatic personalities and individual egos.

Early Christianity, rather than united, soon became splintered by rampant sectarianism. Prominent theologians, many to be declared heretics, were men who could have become respected church fathers had their opinions prevailed. Among them were Arius, Marcion, Nestorius. Sabellius, Pelagius, Apollinaris. and Eutyches.

In seminary we read writings of several accepted church fathers as well as from works of at least two prominent “heretics.” One was Origen, who was excommunicated, charged with several major heresies, among them the belief that the son Jesus was inferior to the Father and that some scriptural passages, like references to hell fire, were allegorical. The other was Tertullian. Among his assertions, citing Matthew 1:25, was that the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were his actual brothers, children of Mary and Joseph. This opinion, of course, ran contrary to the dogma that Mary remained a lifelong virgin.

I once was a zealous fan of St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval church father still immensely influential today, a diligent, brilliant and systematic theologian, author of the amazing five-volume Summa Theologica. My admiration for him came to an abrupt halt one day when I ran across his attitude toward heretics. The church, he wrote, should not kill them because killing is such dirty business. Instead, the church should turn heretics over to the state which should execute them. Why? Their heresies may be contagious, leading other souls to eternal damnation.

Back to the Oriental Orthodox Christians. What is their situation today? Many of them, especially in Syria and Iraq, have faced persecution, some death, inflicted upon them by radical jihadists of ISIS. Others are refugees who have fled the ravages of war to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Europe and elsewhere. Regular news reports from Egypt tell of how Copts there, numbering about 8 million, continue to confront discrimination and violence.

Three other Oriental Orthodox groups wrestle with less serious problems.

The Armenian Apostolic Church is split between those who look to the Catholicos in the Armenian city of Etchmiadzin as their spiritual and administrative leader and the Catholicos in Antelias, Lebanon — a division going back to the era of Soviet control of Armenia.

Oriental Orthodoxy in India is divided, with several overlapping ecclesiastical jurisdictions bearing similar names and easily confused with one another. Tradition traces the introduction of Christianity to India to the evangelistic outreach of St. Thomas the Apostle.

In 1992 some bishops in the United States declared their independence from the Ethiopian hierarchy centered in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. As many as 35 million Oriental Orthodox faithful worldwide are Ethiopian. Except for Addis Ababa, the metropolitan area with the highest concentration is Washington, D.C., with as many as 200,000 communicants. One interesting but controversial claim of the Ethiopian church is that it possesses the original Ark of the Covenant.

Among the Oriental Orthodox and others today many feel that the original separation and hostility may have stemmed more from differences in culture and language than from a genuine doctrinal issue. The Oriental Orthodox are affiliated with the World Council of Churches, which includes 348 denominations ranging from Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans to Baptists and Waldensians.

This diversity within Christianity and other religions can be mind-boggling, which should be no surprise when we consider the magnitude and mysteries of this mammoth universe. What the world needs now is less religious arrogance and more appreciation and respect for different faiths.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: ralphlroy@aol,com.

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