Why We Do That
A Guide for Understanding Orthodoxy after 2,000 Years
by Fr. Matthew J. Streett
(Revised 19 Dec 2012)
Greetings! If you’re reading this you’re confused, or rather, you’re reading so you won’t be confused about the rich heritage of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox worship is like a fruitcake: so full of ingredients packed into a small space that it can get a little dense if you’re not used to it. This guide is written to help you get a taste for that fruitcake. Even if you don’t like fruitcake.
God commanded us not to have idols, so why do you have icons? Aren’t those idols?
And just a few verses away from that commandment, he told his people to make the images of two cherubim – kind of like a sphinx – and plop them on top of the box that held that very commandment. So he clearly didn’t mean don’t make images in the worship space, since those angelic images would have been in the absolute holiest place of Judaism, the Holy of Holies.
The church took a strong stand about abuses against icons and abuses of icons. Some people went too far and treated the icons in an idolatrous way, so the church condemned that. Some people went too far the other way and whitewashed or burned icons, and the church straightened that out, too.
The church condemned images of God the Father, because the Old Testament teaches us he should not be depicted (apologies to Michaelangelo) – but Christ lived and walked among us, so painting him was a way of affirming that he was fully human while fully God as well.
What’s with kissing the icons?
Kissing didn’t mean the same thing for early Christians as it does for Americans. St. Paul told Christians to greet each other with a holy kiss because that’s what family members did in his society, and he wanted the church to be a family. Because Christians thought of the saints as members of the Christian family, they wanted to give the saints who were alive in Christ the same honor that they did to their fellow human beings in this world. It’s mainly weird for Americans because we don’t live in an “honor culture” like Jesus and the apostles and early Christians did, and we don’t usually kiss each other to say hello. Kissing them is an affirmation that they’re still alive with Christ, that they’re still part of our family, and that we still love them.
Look, giving “honor” to a thing is still idolatry, though.
Do you salute the flag or put your hand over your heart? You know that it’s just cloth, but what you’re doing is honoring the things it stands for – freedom, justice, democracy, and all those who have fought for them since the beginning of this nation. Icons work the same way. The church proclaimed that the honor given to sacred images is rendered to the people and ideals they stand for – just like the flag.
Are you saved?
That idea assumes that baptism is like rustproofing your car; get it done, and the sin will just bounce off you. To us, that’s an idea that didn’t really flourish until Protestantism came along a few centuries ago – the same idea that got the Corinthians in trouble. And while St. John may stress that you’re saved when you believe, he also stresses that you’re damned if you hate, which means that they’re not necessarily permanent states in this world.
I’m not knocking the biblical precedent seen in St. John’s gospel and in Paul’s letters that later Protestantism interpreted as the idea of being “saved,” but the problem is that there are plenty of passages on the other side emphasizing that God, though a merciful judge, does have some standards he uses to examine our souls when we stand before him. We each have biblical support, and when we take a position, we’re all reading the parts in terms of what we understand the whole meaning to be. Scripture can disagree with itself and often does, which is why it needs the Holy Spirit as an interpreter, and the Holy Spirit has never stopped speaking through his people.
Are you Christian?
We are the original Christians, and have been for 2,000 years. Nowadays, some people from Protestant or Evangelical backgrounds describe only themselves as “Christian” and exclude every other bible-believing religious tradition, but that really distorts history and often insults people who really love Jesus. We existed for a millennium as a half before the Protestant movements started, and those Protestant movements spawned the Pentecostal and Evangelical and Nondenominational movements centuries after that. It’s kind of funny to us to be asked that question, because it’s like a grandfather going to a family reunion and being asked by his grandson who he is and why he thinks he belongs there.
It seems idolatrous to put the authority of the church over the authority of the Bible.
It would be if the church was just people, but we say that the authority of the Holy Spirit tops everything else, and the Holy Spirit never stopped working in God’s people. The Holy Spirit worked in the apostles and evangelists who wrote the books of scripture, and the Holy Spirit guided the whole people of God (the church) in deciding what books belonged in the Bible and what books didn’t, and that took centuries. Even three centuries after Christ, there was still a strong, Spirit-filled church, but there wasn’t total agreement on the Bible yet, and it wasn’t until a millennium and a half after Christ that churches decided they needed to make scripture’s table of contents a closed list – though there are still four or five different collections of books Christians call “The Bible,” even today. So the Spirit-filled church existed for centuries before most of the Bible came together as a book, and it was the Spirit acting through the church that made the call on what the Bible should look like. The books formed the church, and the church formed the books into one book.
Why do you baptize babies?
Although Christians probably didn’t originally because of fear of sinning after their baptism, that was an early change that happened because baptism is the beginning of membership in God’s people, the beginning of the process of salvation that changes us and makes us more like Christ as we try to live in imitation of him, day by day. Many in the early church believed that you were damned if you sinned after your baptism, and so many people waited until the end of life for baptism. If you could be forgiven after your baptism, then you could be baptized earlier in your life – even as an infant. A one-time, rational, adult affirmation didn’t save you if you later abandoned that conviction, but Christ gave us the church to guide us back to his embrace.
Why don’t you have women clergy?
Orthodox place a lot of weight on tradition and precedent because the Holy Spirit speaks through the entire people of God over time, and that gets embodied in our tradition. While the church has had only male bishops and priests, the church has always had women involved in the mission of the church. At times the church used deaconesses to baptize women, and the church has had nuns for most of its existence. Finally, the Greek Orthodox church, unlike western Christian churches, regarded St. Junia as an apostle not only through St. Paul’s voice at the end of Romans, but also in the writings of saints like St. John Chrysostom (an author of the Sunday liturgy), and in saints’ lists, and we also honor the prominent role of biblical women such as Phoebe the Deaconess and legions of others. We believe that we’re all equal in God’s eyes, but our functions sometimes differ.
Why don’t you have women or girls helping behind the altar?
In general, neither men nor women have the “right” to enter the altar; the idea is that the altar is the place of the clergy (priests and tonsured altar boys) and of those who have a specific reason to be there with the blessing of the priest. While in the distant past, girl babies were taken into the altar, and while some female saints (such as St. Gorgonia) did enter it, it is uncommon today.
Why do you pray to Mary and the saints?
We don’t pray to them as much as we ask them to pray for us to Christ, our sole intercessor before the Father, exactly as we ask other people to pray for us. Abraham started the tradition of intercessory prayer when he asked God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. Most Christians will do the same – through private requests and prayer circles, we pray to God for other people. Orthodox do the same thing with the saints – we ask them to pray for us just as we ask each other to pray for us. If we believe that the dead are alive in Christ, then the issue isn’t that we’re asking saints, the issue is whether one can, like Abraham, pray for another – even if the other is unrepentant. Yet as Christ showed us on the cross, he shows mercy even on those who are blinded by their sin so that they “know not what they do.”
Why do you call Mary that funny name?
Calling the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” is an old tradition that started as a way to proclaim that Christ was God as well as man. The original debate in the church was whether to say that Christ was only a human messiah, or if he really was the divine son of God. Folks who didn’t believe in his full divinity called her “Christotokos,” the mother of the messiah. Folks who believed that Christ was the only-begotten son of God called her “Theotokos,” the “Mother of God.” So the title isn’t so much about her as it is about just who Christ is.
I went to a church one time and the people looked at me really weird, or they were cold.
Yeah, people can be jerks sometime. We try not to be like that.
Seriously, though, because Orthodox often has an ethnic stamp, what people encounter is the cultural behavior of people from other parts of the world – how much eye contact they make, how much personal space they want, how they communicate, things that are different in every part of the world.
Why isn’t everyone here at the start of the service?
While it would be awesome if they were, Orthodox think differently about the worship space and about time. The morning service (“orthros” or “matins”) flows right into the main liturgy, and both are long to begin with, so people arrive at different points. Many Orthodox churches don’t have pews or chairs, and so people’s personal prayers and their comings and goings mix together with what the priest does. It’s still a communal service, but it’s less tightly wound than many western Christian services.
Why does your Bible have extra books?
Because we never cut any out. The shorter Bible used by Protestants is a radical revision, only a few centuries old, that hacked many Old Testament books out of their proper place because of a desire to imitate the Hebrew Bible used by the Jews of Babylonia. Yet the early church had followed the Bible used by the Jews of Alexandria, a collection that is still five hundred years older than the texts used in Babylonian Judaism. Most convincingly, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it quotes the Greek (Alexandrean) version far more often than the Hebrew when differences can be determined, so we’re following the scripture that the majority of evangelists and apostles did.
In other words, many Jews disagreed on the exact contents of scripture, so “scripture” was a very flexible idea when Christians inherited it. The New Testament refers hundreds of times or more to the books Protestants cut out, but because the references are indirect, Protestants dismiss them.
How can you believe in things that aren’t in the Bible?
Before the Bible was, the church was, and the Holy Spirit brought the books together into a single collection over the course of centuries. Even as late as the fourth century, there was still serious debate over whether some books did or did not belong. That means that Christianity existed as a living church for hundreds of years before a single Bible was agreed on, and even then, the church was still comfortable with minor disagreements over content – to this day, the Greek and Slavic churches disagree on a few books (3 and 4 Maccabees), and they’re part of the same church.
And Protestants do it too – look at the book of Jude, which quotes as scripture a book that is not in scripture – 1 Enoch. If we exclude 1 Enoch from scripture (and everyone except the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does), then we are claiming authority on par with scripture, whether as churches or individuals. In Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit speaks through all of us as a church, which is why we’re comfortable with tradition playing such a central role in racking and stacking scripture.
I don’t think you have to come to church to be a good Christian.
I know a lot of really good people who don’t go to church. Unfortunately, I also know that 66% of their children have never had to wrestle with a moral problem because our culture doesn’t give them any way to measure right or wrong other than the way they feel about it. If you don’t model what going to church means, your descendants will disconnect from the things you value. Our ability to wrestle with morality, our knowledge of the bible, and our ability to speak out against evil usually doesn’t progress past a sixth-grade level these days. As a culture, we’re religiously illiterate and morally hamstrung, and that disconnects us from our culture, our history, our heritage, and our souls. Church is one of the few ways we reconnect to the ideas that have shaped us for 2,000 years.
“Church” literally means “an assembly” in Greek. God’s people worshipped together, whether as an assembly of Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, or in the early Churches when Paul’s letters were read to them together. The modern idea of individual spirituality, disconnected from the community, is a modern thing, and it doesn’t help us. At all.
So while I would totally love to crack open a Mountain Dew on a Sunday morning, kick back in my recliner, and watch Star Wars, I need to show my kids (and eventually, my grandkids) what’s important. Because while I love George Lucas, Jesus has a bigger role in my life, and needs to have a role in theirs.
What’s with all the fasting? It’s like, half the year!
Jesus and his disciples fasted sometimes and feasted sometimes, and all Jews and Christians at that time did the same – even a couple of times per week. Fasting is a spiritual tool designed to reduce our dependence on material things. It’s hard for Americans to fast because we’re used to abundance all the time, and we have yet to see the long-term damage that kind of philosophy gives you, though our waistlines are an early clue. If you’re a drill sergeant or a personal trainer, you push people because you love them and want them to change in positive ways, and you do that by challenging them. The church is the same way. If you want your will to be strong enough to fight the devil, then you start by mastering the needs of your own body.
At the same time, the fast is only a tool. If it leads us to pride, or to notice what others are eating or not eating, then it’s damaged us. We set a high communal standard in the church, but we also don’t judge.