Byzantine details: How are the Orthodox Christian churches organized, and why?



Most of us in the U.S. are aware of Orthodox Christians but don’t really understand their organization. Can you expand on their split around the world?


Our previous Q and A about Islam’s founding Sunni-Shi’a split mentioned divisions within Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy, which means “correct teaching,” sees itself as preserving Christianity’s earliest and most authentic form. This faith is in the spotlight what with (1) history’s first meeting between a Catholic pope and a patriarch of Russia’s massive Orthodox church, and (2) the June 16-27 “Holy and Great Council” of all bishops in Crete, potentially (if it is held) Eastern Orthodoxy’s most consequential event in more than 12 centuries.

Writing online Feb. 10, sociologist Peter Berger (a Lutheran) said through recent centuries this faith has existed mostly in three contexts: as a state religion, as a “persecuted or barely tolerated” church under Islamic or Communist rule or in the diaspora outside its heartland (e.g. in the United States) where separate and competing churches under foreign hierarchies generate “ethnic cacophony.”

The ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy -- Orthodoxy dates its birth at Pentecost -- are organized into three branches that stem from the 5th Century debate on how to define the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.

Caution: This gets technical. The Assyrian Church of the East, with 200,000 followers at most, is centered on dangerous turf in Iraq and Syria. Assyrians are called “Nestorians,” a disputed term taken from Patriarch Nestorius, who was deposed by the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) because his party rejected as heresy the Virgin Mary’s title “Mother of God” and prayed instead to “the Mother of Christ our God.”

Nestorians were further accused -- they said wrongly -- of believing Jesus Christ exists as two separate persons, not one person of two natures, divine and human. In 1994 Pope John Paul II and Assyrian Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV deemed this a misunderstanding in a “common Christological declaration” that the Savior’s “divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”

A second branch, “Oriental Orthodoxy,” claims tens of millions of believers among the 283 million Orthodox of all types counted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. This is no unified body but a category of separated bodies with a shared doctrine of Christ, chiefly the Armenian (Christendom’s first national church), millions of Ethiopians and Egyptian Copts, Syria’s “Jacobites,” and a “Malabar” segment in India.

This branch emerged when the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 451) further defined Christ’s two natures, divine and human. Those who affirmed only one nature are called “monophysites,” a term Oriental Orthodoxy dislikes. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (which guided this entire answer) says such theology “covers a variety of positions, some capable of orthodox interpretation.” Much progress has been made in addressing this ancient split in recent years, including in discussions inside Orthodoxy.

Also, in 1973 the Catholic Pope Paul VI and Coptic Pope Shenouda III jointly issued the “common declaration” that in Jesus Christ “are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of the humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.” Click here for the full text.

The third branch, what we call “Eastern Orthodoxy,” upheld the doctrines of Chalcedon and the six other ecumenical councils through A.D. 787, alongside Catholicism. But the Eastern churches and western Catholicism drifted apart and excommunicated each other in 1054 over the Roman papacy’s authority claims and rewording of the Nicene Creed (the filioque clause controversy). As mentioned earlier, Eastern Orthodoxy’s 2016 Council could join Catholicism in seeking closer relations with Oriental Orthodoxy, already improved in certain situations.

Eastern Orthodoxy consists of 14 national churches that are “autocephalous” (with their own “heads,” that is, self-governing) with honorary leadership of the hierarchy’s “first among equals,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (i.e. Istanbul). He has no pope-like authority over the others (and Oriental Orthodoxy lacks any such presiding figure).

Continue reading "How are the Orthodox Christian churches organized, and why?", by Richard Ostling.

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