Monday, June 13, 2016

What is the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church?

With the approaching Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church our “Ask Father” series speaks on the differences, or in this case similarities, between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. Defending the truth about God and the Church has never been an easy or simple task. The Holy Fathers of the Church debated rigorously and sometimes succumbed to name-calling. After 1,500 years of debate and disagreement the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox remain divided, but with hope of a future healing of the ancient schism that divides us. We ask all our fans to fervently pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Church gathers. Though some Churches have indicated they will not attend the coming council, we here at Be Transfigured remain hopeful that, if nothing else, understanding the real history of the long-lasting debates in the Church will help to explain that protecting the truth of Orthodoxy requires patience and prayer. DISCLAIMER: This episode of Be Transfigured in not meant to be a complete discussion of the theological or ecclesiological issues that exist between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church, but is meant to be a general discussion to assist in our general understanding of how the Church functions. 

Hello. My name is Father Athanasios Haros, and I'm the Pastor here at the Transfiguration of Our Savior Greek Orthodox Church in Florence, South Carolina and I'm your Host for Be Transfigured Ministries. Here at Be Transfigured, as we say, “We invite you to live a new life in Christ.” We feature our sermons and our Bible studies and other special events in the life of the Church. We do it to inspire you to join us living a new life in Christ. I hope you’ll join us. I’ll be back in a moment after this video to share some information about our ministry.

This week the eyes of the Orthodox world are open wide because if you’ve been paying attention either in our Sunday bulletin or my announcements or on the internet or inside of the Orthodox blogs and news services, this week in Crete, we are supposed to be having what is being called the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. It is a historic moment that we are witnessing with our eyes, and it is beautifully appropriate that this morning we are commemorating the Fathers that gathered at the First Ecumenical Council in the year 325.

As part of our Ask Father series, the past few weeks, I have been talking about what members of the Orthodox Church can do, what non-members of the Church can do, and so I received a question this week which is wonderfully timely. I was asked to give a little clarification of the differences of the Orthodox Churches. I want to begin by apologizing to everyone who grew up in the Church because real Church history is not as simple as you were taught in Sunday school.

When we are children, we learned the very simple basic realities of our history, and we grew up knowing that there were these things called the Seven Ecumenical Councils and that the Church gathered in these councils and through what we call consensus, all the bishops who were gathered agreed on the theology of the Church and we teach that to our children in Sunday school. We learned it in Sunday school growing up, but the reality is, my brothers and sisters, it was never quite that clean. It was never quite that easy.

In understanding our Church history, we have to realize that if the truth is worth something and it is, it is also worth fighting for. I don’t mean with guns and swords, but I mean with good energetic debate. We are very blessed that we actually have not the full list of what they call the acts meaning the, you could say, the minutes of these council meetings, but we have many of them that are still in existence today and we can actually revisit those discussions and hear the debates and the arguments of the Fathers of the Church on some very important issues.

How wonderful that today, just a few days before this Council is gathering in Crete of the Orthodox Church, how wonderful that we are remembering the first council which got together, the First Ecumenical Council in 325, but it was not the very first council. The first council was by the Apostles in Jerusalem. We can read about that in the book of Acts, chapter 15, and so there’s this question, “Who is the Orthodox Church?” We say that we are the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and the word Orthodox means correct belief, but that belief came at a deep, deep cost sometimes. In the 400s, specifically I’m thinking for today’s example, there was a raging debate, and when I say raging debate, it was the talk of the world.

We use the word Theotokos. It’s an everyday word for us. Theotokos - we translate it “the Mother of God” but it really is “the one who gave birth to God,” Theotokos, “the bearer of God.” But in the 400s, there were Christians and some of them were bishops who refused to use the word Theotokos. There were bishops of the Church who said, “There is no possible way that a woman can give birth to the eternal God,” and so the debate was raging in the Church.

Some wanted to call her Christotokos, “the one who gave birth to God,” [sic] [should be the one who gave birth to Christ] and gathering together around the most notable bishop who was arguing for this, his name was Nestor. He said that Jesus Christ could not have been completely man and completely God, and so therefore the Panagia could not have given birth to God only to Christ. In the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431, the Church gathered to hear this debate, and it was resolved that we should call her Theotokos, that Jesus Christ is completely man and completely God, and that put that end to rest for all time.

It wasn’t but 20 years later, another controversy comes up. “If He’s God and man, then what about His nature? Is He a human nature or is He a divine nature or is there some kind of dual personalities going on,” and another debate rages on. In 451, the Fourth Ecumenical Council was called, and in this council, it was determined that God is two natures in one person, not partnering with each other, not two individual people sharing the body of Christ, but that Jesus Christ who was fully God and fully man, and we know Him as the Son of God Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and that seemed to put everything to rest, except that there was this other group of bishops who said, “No, God has only one nature if He’s one person,” and there was a schism in the Church.

See, many of us grew up in Sunday school thinking that the First Schism was in 1054, but it was really in 451, when those Churches who refused to accept the two natures of Christ, left the Church. Today, they are called the Oriental Orthodox Church. We are called the Greek Orthodox Church, also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, and that Church still exists today. The Oriental Orthodox Church, we know them today as the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Eritrean Church, the Malankara Church in India, the Syriac Church in Iraq. You’ve been hearing all the new- the stories about the Christians in Iraq. This is the Syriac Orthodox Church and finally, a Church called the British Orthodox Church.

These Churches stayed together since 451, and they’re called the Oriental Orthodox Church, but they’re not with us, the Greek Orthodox Church. We really don’t notice it so much here in America because we’re so focused on being Greeks and Russians and Arabs, it makes sense that the Egyptians have their Church and that the Indians have their Church, we don’t pay attention to the fact that they are two separate Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church about 350 million across the world, and the Oriental Orthodox Church. I was looking up yesterday about 85 million throughout the world.

Who’s going to be at this council? Not the Oriental Church, but the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church, I put in your bulletins, but I’ll read it just so you can hear it, there are 14 Eastern Orthodox Churches, individual Churches united across the world.

There is the Church of Constantinople, the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Antioch, the Church of Jerusalem. Those are the ancient patriarchs. Then we have the Church of Russia, the Church of Serbia, the Church of Romania, the Church of Bulgaria, the Church of Georgia, the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, the Church of Poland, the Church of Albania, and the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. 14 independent Orthodox Christian Churches united in Communion. We can take Communion in any one of those 14 Churches, but we cannot as I said a couple of weeks ago, we cannot take Communion in the Coptic Church, or in the Armenian Church, or the Malankara Church, or the Syriac Church. We are not in communion with each other, but there’s hope.

1500 years we’ve been divided, but since the 1970s, there’s been a discussion going on between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. Their best theologians and our best theologians have been getting into the same room and having discussions, and for the most part, it has come, we have come to understand that we have been saying the same thing for 1500 years, that our theology really isn’t different, that we really do believe in the same Jesus Christ and in the same Holy Trinity that we said we believed in in 451.

This international committee has sent an official recommendation to all the patriarchs on our side and all the patriarchs on their side saying “We should reunify, we should get together, we’re really saying the same things for 1500 years. Our theology is the same.” That’s the brightest on both sides, but we are a human Church as well, and we cannot ignore the fact that for 1500 years, they have been condemning our saints, and we have been condemning their saints.

It is not as if we can just hit a light switch and unremember and forget 1500 years of division, and this, if you remember what I’ve been talking about, I mentioned this last year when I was discussing what it means to be Greek Orthodox versus Russian Orthodox and etcetera and I was reminding you that our orthodoxy is a lived experience within history.

We cannot ignore the historic realities that we treated each other very poorly for 1500 years calling each other names. How, all of a sudden, do we expect to say to the Church across the street, “Come receive Communion even though just yesterday I called you a heretic. Just yesterday, I refused to even acknowledge that you were a Christian. How can I do that?” It’s going to take time, and so the monastics, the bishops, the theologians all over the world continue to have this discussion about getting together with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church, but they will not be present this week in Crete because we’re not yet together.

Now, why is this important for us here in Florence, South Carolina in 2016? What I want you to understand, my brothers and sisters, is that being part of a global Church is not just a political reality. We are part of the second largest Church in the entire world, 350 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. The only Christian Church larger is the Church of Rome. They have a billion. We are not just benefitting though from that national, international reality.

In our faith, what we believe affects how we live, and so what I want you to understand is that for us as Christians, the nuances of how we talk about God are important, how we understand the person of Jesus Christ, do we understand that He is fully God and fully man? There are some Christians today who don’t believe that. There are some Christians today who believe that Jesus Christ was just a really nice guy, and there are other Christians today that believe that Jesus Christ wasn’t a man at all, and that He was just God who walked the earth for a few years and then, poof, disappeared.

There are other Christians who believe that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, the man-Jesus, the God-Jesus came in and kicked the man-Jesus out for a little while, took over His body for 33 years, and then conveniently right before He died on the cross, the God-Jesus disappeared and, all of a sudden, let the man-Jesus take over the body again.

We don’t believe in those things, so for us as Orthodox Christians, it’s an important discussion on the nuances of how we understand the person of Jesus Christ and it’s a mystery. God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ the Savior, and you can hear in any Church in town, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, you name it, you’re going to hear it today, it’s all about Jesus. In a way, it is, but who is Jesus?

The Oriental Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been arguing over that question for 1500 years. No surprise. I challenge anyone of us in this Church today to fully understand how God can become a human being and not stop being God but live 33 years and then die. I’ll be honest. I can’t wrap my mind around that. I cannot fully understand how God did what He did, so I’m not at all surprised that these two Churches have been arguing for 1500 years.

What’s gathering this week in Crete, and we all need to pray for this Council meeting because there are some Churches who are now refusing to attend. There are some of the Orthodox Churches, for example, the Church of Bulgaria, who says, “We’re not coming to the meeting” because they don’t like one sentence here or one sentence there. It’s bigger than that obviously, but so we are witnessing the same kind of Christian history, this week, that we read about in the history books.

When I was going through, just making sure I had all of my ducks in a row for this sermon this morning, I was reading from the minutes of the Fourth Council. It’s beautiful. You can really see – and this bishop said this, and they quote him down there, and one of the bishops says, “If he’s allowed to sit down, that’s it. I’m leaving. I’m going back to my city,” witnessing the exact same kind of discussions that are taking place today, so pray for our Church. We’re going to have Divine Liturgy, Wednesday evening at 6 o’clock to pray for the beginning of the Council, and we’re going to have Paraklesis each night while the Council is in session to pray for our bishops, to pray for our theologians and those who are in Crete that the Holy Spirit truly will guide the Church.

These are not trivial things. These are historic things that are getting together. Imagine how much more effort it will take. You know, we are the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the Russian Orthodox Church in America, we’ve got some things that we’ve got to get in order here, too, in our Churches here in America.

Going back to question of the Oriental Orthodox Church versus the Greek Orthodox Church, imagine a Church right across the street, same icons, same vestments, pretty much the same liturgy, but we were not allowed to cross the street to receive Holy Communion and they were not allowed to come here for 1500 years, and then, all of a sudden, imagine getting a phone call from the patriarch, “Okay, everything is good now, you can go cross the street.” We’d be a little cautious, wouldn’t we? They’ve called us so many bad names. We weren’t nice to them either, so pray for our Church. Pray that these historic days are truly guided by the Holy Spirit as we have believed for over 2,000 years. Glory to God for all things.

Well, I’m back, and I hope this video was an inspiration to you. I hope it helps you live a new life in Christ. Please share our message of hope with your friends and family, and invite others to live a new life in Christ. Find more information about Be Transfigured Ministries by joining us on our website at You can also find many of our videos on the Orthodox Christian Network, our partners at As we say at Be Transfigured, until next week, God bless you and don’t forget to live a new life in Christ.

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