Frequently Asked Questions
-So you are “Eastern Orthodox”?
-Are you “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox”?
-I only know of two kinds of Christians, Protestant and Catholic. How can you claim you are neither? Why do you call yourselves “Orthodox”?
-Are you Conservative or Liberal?
-Do you follow the Bible or Tradition?
-Are you saying that your elaborate worship is based on the Bible? I’d like to know where.
-It sounds as if you are rigidly bound by your Tradition. You mean it can’t change?
-Do you have the Virgin Mary, Saints, prayer for the dead, and confession “like the Catholics?”
-Why do you not practice “Open Communion?”
-Why do you have all those pictures in your church?
-Don’t you think your old-fashioned doctrine and worship a bit irrelevant to modern American life?
-Why do you use the Greek language at the Services? Do you have to?
So you are “Eastern Orthodox”?
Yes, except that we as predominantly Americans are quite “Western.” Ironically it was actually from the West that the “Eastern Orthodox Church” came to these shores some two hundred years ago – through Alaska and California. Since that time Orthodox Christianity has been flourishing in the Americas. Also worth noting is that original Christianity was not a “Western religion” at all, but emerged from the near East – Palestine and Asia Minor.
Are you “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox”?
The Orthodox Church is One Church. Currently, however, Church organization in North America is divided among several different “jurisdictions,” or governing bodies of varying national origin within the One Church.
The doctrine and worship of each jurisdiction and parish is the same, though in some, languages other than English continue to be used in the services. Russian, Greek, Serbian, Antiochian – it is all in reality one and the same Orthodox Church.Our particular parish is part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which historically emerged from the Russian Orthodox Church.
I only know of two kinds of Christians, Protestant and Catholic. How can you claim you are neither?
From the Orthodox point of view, Roman Catholicism is an early medieval modification of the original Orthodoxy of the Church in Western Europe, and Protestantism is a later attempt to return to the original Faith. To our way of thinking, however, the Reformation did not go far enough.
We respectfully differ with Roman Catholicism on the questions of papal authority, the nature of the Church, the approach to salvation, and a number of other consequent issues. Historically, the Orthodox Church is both “pre- Protestant” and “pre-Roman Catholic” in the sense that many modern Roman Catholic teachings were developed much later in Christian history.
The word catholic is a Greek word meaning “having the fulness.” We do consider ourselves “Catholic” in that sense of the word, that is, as proclaiming and practicing “the Whole Faith.” In fact, we proclaim our Church to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”
Protestants can often relate to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a personal experience of faith and on the Holy Scriptures. Roman Catholics easily identify with Orthodoxy’s rich liturgical worship and sacramental life. Roman Catholic visitors often comment, “in lots of ways your Liturgy reminds me of how our old High Mass used to be.”
Many of the “polarities” between Protestants and the Roman Communion (i.e., “Word versus Sacrament,” “Faith versus Works” or “Symbol versus Reality”) have never arisen in the Orthodox Church.
Why do you call yourselves “Orthodox”?
The word orthodox was coined by the ancient Christian Fathers of the Church, the name traditionally given to the Christian writers in the first centuries of Christian history. Orthodox is a combination of two Greek words, orthos and doxa.
Orthos means “straight” or “correct.” Doxa means at one and the same time “glory,” “worship” and “doctrine.” So the word orthodox signifies both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine.”
The Orthodox Church today is the same as the undivided Church in ancient times. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that he believed the pure Faith of primitive Christianity is to be found in the Orthodox Church.
Are you Conservative or Liberal?
In current usage, the words “conservative” and “liberal” indicate a variety of often-conflicting viewpoints. Usually we don’t really fit either category very well, as the Orthodox Faith is a lot older than the American “culture war.”
On seven major occasions during the first millenium of Christianity, the leaders of the worldwide Church; from Britain to Ethiopia, from Spain and Italy to Arabia and Asia, met to settle crucial issues of Faith. The Orthodox Church is highly “conservative” in the sense that we have not added to or subtracted from any of the teachings of those Ecumenical Councils. But that very “conservatism” often makes us “liberal” in certain questions of civil liberties, social justice and peace. We are very conservative, or rather traditional, in our liturgical worship.
Do you follow the Bible or Tradition?
A good short answer to this question is “Yes!” The question implies precisely a kind of polarity (i.e., “Bible versus Tradition”) which is not part of the Orthodox Christian worldview.
“Tradition,” or in Greek paradosis, is used very often in the New Testament both as a verb and a noun. (See I Corinthians 11:23, where literally translating the original Greek, Paul says “for I received of the Lord that which I also have traditioned to you …” See also I Corinthians 11:2, and II Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6.)
Tradition means “that which is handed over.” The New Testament carefully distinguishes between “traditions of men” and Holy Tradition, which is the Faith handed over to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit. That same Faith was believed and practiced several decades before the New Testament Scriptures were set down in writing and given canonical (i.e., official) status. We experience the Tradition as timeless and ever timely, ancient an ever new.
We distinguish between Holy Tradition (“with a capital T”) which is the Faith/Practice of the Undivided Church, and traditions (“with a little t”) which are local or national customs. Due to changing circumstances, sometimes cherished customs must be altered or respectfully laid aside for the sake of Holy Tradition.
The New Testament Scriptures are the primary written witness to Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians therefore believe that the Bible, as the inspired Holy Scriptures, is the heart of the Tradition. In the New Testament all basic Orthodox doctrine and sacramental practice is either specifically set forth, or alluded to as already a practice of the Church in the first century A.D.
Holy Tradition is also witnessed to by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Nicene Creed, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, by the liturgical worship and iconography of the Church, and in the lives of the Saints.
Are you saying that your elaborate worship is based on the Bible? I’d like to know where.
The Christian Church learned to worship in the Jewish Temple and in the Synagogues. Again and again the New Testament tells us that Jesus, Paul and the others worshipped regularly in Jewish houses of worship. (See for instance Luke 4:16; Acts 3:1; Acts 17:1-2.) We know from archaeology, and from modern Jewish practice, that Synagogue worship was and is highly liturgical, i.e., communal, organized, ceremonial, and done decently and in order (I Corinthians 14:40).
Many Biblical scholars have shown, very convincingly, that when John describes heavenly worship in the book of Revelation, he is following the Hebrew custom of portraying Heaven’s worship in terms of earthly liturgy. The writers of the Bible thought of earthly worship as a “shadow” or “type” of Heaven’s liturgy. (See Isaiah 6, Hebrews 8:4-6.) In other words, a biblical passage such as the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Revelation gives us an accurate picture of a very early Christian worship service. That service very much resembles traditional Orthodox worship.
Orthodox worship is also very Scriptural in the sense that it is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of Scriptural quotations, paraphrases, references, and allusions. It is, quite literally, “to pray the Bible!”
Apart from the fact that we worship in English, and sometimes use modern harmonies with our ancient melodies, our services are basically identical to those of the early Christian Church. For that reason our worship sometimes seems a bit “strange” to Protestant and Roman Catholic visitors. We often hear, “Your services are just beautiful, and the music is outstanding, but they feel somewhat different.”
It sounds as if you are rigidly bound by your Tradition. You mean it can’t change?
Holy Tradition as a set of basic principles outlining our worldview is a constant. Its very constancy, however, sometimes will even demand change. As a simple instance of this, by Tradition our worship is to be celebrated in a language understood by the worshipping congregation. This means that Tradition, not infrequently, requires a change in liturgical language. As another instance, the Tradition also requires constant change in ourselves as, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we grow spiritually and respond ever more fully to the call of God in Jesus Christ.
Holy Tradition has been defined as “the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.” As such it is dynamic and adapting, while at the same time always remaining the same Divine life. The life of the Church does not change to satisfy our whims and personal preferences. It is there to change us, and to bring healing to our tarnished soul.
Do you have the Virgin Mary, Saints, prayer for the dead, and confession “like the Catholics?”
There are points of contact between Orthodox and Roman Catholic belief on these issues, and modern Roman Catholic practice. After all, we shared more or less a thousand years of history. But there are also significant differences. To discuss them in depth is beyond the scope of this short summary. The following is a brief statement of the Orthodox point of view.
1. We venerate the Virgin Mary as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim” because she is the woman who gave birth to Jesus Christ, Who is the Word of God, Who is God. Therefore we often refer to her as Theotokos, which is Greek for “birth-giver of God.” We call her blessed and think of her as the greatest of missionaries, for her unique mission was to deliver the Word of God to the world. We do not see her as an exception of the human race, but as an example for all of us to follow. (See Luke 1:43, 48: John 1:1, 14; Galatians 4:4.)
2. We likewise honor the other great men and women in the life and history of the Church – patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors and ascetics – who committed their lives so completely to the Lord, as models of what it means to be fully and deeply Christian. These men and women are called “saints”; a word deriving from the ancient Latin word meaning “holy.” For example, we believe that men like the apostle Paul – in their devotion to Christ – led holy lives and that we are indeed to be imitators of him, as he was of Christ.
3. We also believe that in the risen Christ, prayer transcends the barrier between life and death and that those who have gone before us pray for us, as we remember them in our prayers. In Christ, we are one family. (See Hebrews 12:1; II Timothy 1:16-18.)
4. As indicated in John 20:21-23, and James 5:14-16, we practice sacramental confession and absolution of sins. The presbyter (priest) is the sacramental agent of Christ (as were the Apostles) and the witness of the confession. The priest sacramentally conveys Christ’s forgiveness, not his own.
Why do you not practice “Open Communion?”
In the strictest sense the Communion of the Orthodox Church is open to all repentant believers. That means we are glad to receive new members in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox concept of “Communion” is totally holistic, and radically different from that of most other Christian groups. We do not separate the idea of “Holy Communion” from “Being in Communion,” “Full Communion,” “Inter-Communion” and total “Communion in the Faith.”
In the Orthodox Church therefore, to receive Holy Communion, or any other Sacrament (Mystery), is taken to be a declaration of total commitment to the Orthodox Faith. While we warmly welcome visitors to our services, it is understood that only those communicant members of the Orthodox Church who are prepared by recent confession, prayer and fasting will approach the Holy Mysteries.
Why do you have all those paintings in your church?
Icons are not paintings in the sense of naturalistic representations. They are rather stylized and symbolic expressions of deified humanity. (See II Peter 1:4; I John 3:2.) For the Orthodox, icons are sacramental signs of God’s “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We do not worship icons. Rather, we experience icons as Windows into Heaven. Like the Bible, icons are earthly points of contact with transcendent Reality.
In the original Greek of the New Testament, Christ is frequently called the icon (image) of God the Father. (See II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3.) Man himself was originally created to be the icon of God (Genesis 1:27).
Don’t you think your old-fashioned doctrine and worship a bit irrelevant to modern American life?
We believe that God quite literally does exist. He is not a figment of pious fiction or wishful thinking. God and His will is therefore our “top priority.” We believe that the Word of God literally became Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. We believe the Lord Jesus literally rose from the dead in a real though transfigured and glorified physical body. We also believe that life apart from God is hollow and meaningless. Being “relevant” should not be our concern – being holy should be.
However, it is our experience that our sacred Liturgy, the ancient Christian teaching about God and the meaning of human life, are just as relevant today as yesterday. These define our basic values. We know the whole ancient Christian Faith as that which makes more sense than anything else in this world of constant change, confusion and conflict. And we know from the experience of the Saints that the services and the mystical life of the Church brings healing to the depth of the human soul.
We believe that the purpose of human life is for man to become partakers of the divine nature through the grace of the Holy Spirit; in prayer (both at home and in Church), sacrament, reading the Scriptures, fasting, self-discipline, and active love for others. All other human projects and purposes, however noble and important, remain secondary to that which gives ultimate meaning to our human existence.
This brief outline of Orthodox Faith necessarily only touches upon a number of more involved issues. If you would like to find out more, we would welcome your inquiries. Please contact us.
Why do you use the Greek language at the Services along with the English language? Do you have to?
A common topic of discussion, and indeed argument, in Greek- American Orthodox parishes, is the language of the services. One point of view is that the “modern” and “American” thing to do is to have the services be all in English, and that those who wish to maintain the Greek are reactionary troglodytes. But this is an oversimplification of a complex issue. There are many pastoral, theological, and practical reasons why it is very important and critical for us to maintain Greek in the Liturgy.
1) Greek is important to many parishioners. Quite a few of our parishioners speak Greek as their primary language. There are others, children of immigrants, whose primary language is English, but who grew up speaking Greek, and more to the point, praying and worshipping in Greek, both in this country and while in Greece visiting family. For these parishioners, the services and hymns are well known in Greek, while the newer English versions are unfamiliar. While Orthodox worship is done in “the language of the people”, we must remember that for many parishioners, Greek IS that language, at least in spiritual matters.
2) The Greek is the original and accurate version. The New Testament written in Greek, so in Greek we have no need of a translation; we are using the original text.
The Old Testament that we use also was originally written in Greek. This is the Septuagint, translated by seventy scholars in Alexandria between the third and first centuries BC. In contrast, the Latin Vulgate Bible was a fifth century revision of older Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts. The Masoretic text that is used by Hebrews, and is the source of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, is even newer; it was not assembled until between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. Thus, the Septuagint predates the Masoretic text by a millennium. That Massoretic text is the source of the Latin and the English translations. The Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The Orthodox use the Septuagint as it is stronger in its Messianic references, for example Isaiah 7.14 in the Septuagint refers to a virgin with child, whereas in the Masoretic text it refers to a woman with child. Indeed it has been said that the later Jewish texts modified these references to downplay the Old Testament prophecies about Christ. Therefore, the Greek Old Testament is the more Christian of the Old Testaments.
The hymns and services are originally in Greek. When the Archangel Gabriel gave the Hymn “Axion Estin” to the monks of Mount Athos, this wasn’t in English! Certainly “it is proper ” to use the hymn in the original language from which it was delivered from Heaven.
3) The translations are inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate. This is apparent to apparent to anyone who attends different churches, or for that matter listens to how many different versions of the Creed people are saying in English on any given Sunday. There is no such confusion in the Greek; there is one version.
4) Beauty is an important part of Orthodox Worship. The largest Orthodox country in the world is Russia. Russia became Orthodox because of the beauty of Orthodox worship. Prince Vladimir, seeking for a religion for his people, sent forth envoys to investigate other religions. On their return, he received the following report:
“When we journeyed among the Bulgarians we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a Mosque while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
On the basis of that report, Prince Vladimir in 988 chose Orthodoxy as the faith of the Kievan Rus. Compare the beauty of Byzantine chant in Greek, with the mutated form of the same in English. Either the words must be forced into a melody not designed for the language, or the melody must be cut and pasted to make it fit the English words. This is distracting for many Greeks, and also for many non-Greeks, both who find the services more prayerful when done in the original Greek.
5) Paradosis “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” 2Thessalonians 2:15.
6) Correct Theology requires the use of Greek. Use of Greek is necessary for transmission of certain concepts. To understand the full Orthodox understanding of repentance, one must understand the Greek work “metanoia” and its relationship to the word “nous”. Indeed, the word “nous” itself has no equivalent word in English. A second example is the distinction in Greek between “agape”, “eros” and “filia” whereas English has only one word, “love”. Protestant American preachers will use the Greek words “agape” and “filia” to make these distinctions. Protestants study Greek to try and understand the Bible. The Greek Church should not be so eager to discard the Greek.
7) Orthodox Worship is based on Experience, not Intellect. On the 2nd Sunday of Lent, we remember St. Gregory Palamas, defender of Orthodoxy. He is known, among other things, for his correspondence with Barlaam, a theologian from Italy. Barlaam supported the view of Western Christianity, which is that God is approached and understood through the intellect. Palamas, on the other hand, asserted that humans approach God through experience, that in through prayer and through ascetic practices, we can come to experience God’s energies, if not his essence.
A more recent theologian to address the role of the intellect is Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. In his book Orthodox Psychotherapy, pp.206 – 214, he addresses the relationship of heart and mind before and after the Fall. Quoting from Archimandrite Sophrony, he states that:
“… it is a fact that when man’s spiritual being is concentrated on and in the mind, reason takes over and he becomes blind to anything that surpasses him and ends by seeing himself as the divine principle. The intellectual imagination here reaches its utmost limits and, at the same time, its fall into the darkest night”.
The understanding of the Church is clear: knowledge of God is not achieved through the intellect. As it is sometimes said, “there are more theologians in the monasteries than in the universities.” The argument that everything must be in English, so that the intellect can have full comprehension, is not an Orthodox position; indeed, it is more in the spirit of the West than of the Orthodox church fathers.
8) Creating Orthodoxy in a post-Christian society. As Orthodoxy contains the fullness of the Faith, we have a duty to share it with our Christian brethren. This task is different than the mission to non- Christians. Visitors and even converts to Orthodoxy come with an understanding of Christianity based on their non-Orthodox background. Even those “cradle” Orthodox raised in this country are influenced by non-Orthodox definitions and concepts; thus Catholic terms are used such as “confessional” and “transubstantiation” without realizing that these words convey ideas that do not truly exist in Orthodoxy. Concepts such as “salvation” and “original sin” mean far different things to the Orthodox than to the non-Orthodox. How can we convey the truth of Orthodoxy, how can we have a true conversation, if the same words have different definitions? Again, the intellect fails us. We cannot only tell, we must also show. We must say, as Philip did to Nathaniel “Come and see”.
We, therefore, need to convey the nature of Orthodoxy by using all the “old country” cultural tools at our disposal. This includes traditions such as the making of kolyva for memorials, traditional cultural foods appropriate to the fast such as fakes, revithia and gigantes, celebratory foods such as the Paschal lamb and the red eggs, breads such as artoclasia, vasilopita, and fanouropita, all those traditions that convey nonverbal truths about Orthodoxy. Of course it includes our liturgical traditions. And, since “language creates culture”, there is an important place for traditional Orthodox languages in the creation of an Orthodox “fronema” and the maintenance of an Orthodox culture.
In summary, there are many reasons why the preservation of Greek is very important in a Greek American Orthodox parish, for Greeks and for non-Greeks alike.
Some Facts about Orthodoxy
-There are some 250 million Orthodox Christians in the world.
-Most Christians in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, Russia and Ukraine are Orthodox.
-Three million Americans are Orthodox Christians.
-According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the number of Orthodox Christians in the United States grew by 5.8% a year from 1990-1995, making Orthodoxy proportionally the fastest growing faith in America. In the years 2005-2010 the attendance growth in Orthodox churches increased by 18%!
-Centuries of vigorous Orthodox missionary activity across 12 times zones in northern Europe and Asia was halted by the Communists after the Soviet Revolution in 1917.
-Orthodox missions are increasingly active worldwide, notably in Central Africa, Japan, Korea and many other parts of the world.
Part of the text above were taken from the Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon.