Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches consider themselves to be the one true Christian church, both claiming direct apostolic succession, to the earliest church established by Paul. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy “is composed of several self-governing ecclesial bodies, each geographically and nationally distinct but theologically unified. Each self-governing (or autocephalous) body, often but not always encompassing a nation, is shepherded by a synod of bishops whose duty, among other things, is to preserve and teach the Apostolic and patristic traditions and related church practices.” (Wikipedia, Orthodox Church). “It is not a monarchy with one all-powerful ruler at the top, but ‘an oligarchy of patriarchs,’ based on the body of bishops and responsible to local or general (ecumenical) church councils. No one patriarch is responsible to any other patriarch; yet all are within the jurisdiction of an ecumenical council of all the churches in communion with the patriarch of Constantinople, who holds the title Ecumenical Patriarch.” (Frank S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations, p.183).
To better understand the nature of Eastern Orthodoxy compared to Roman Catholicism in the way they operate as organizations, Patrick Reardon gives a good explanation:
“A single illustration may serve the purpose. When monks from Rome established their mission in England, centered at Canterbury, near the end of the sixth century, they continued to remain under the immediate jurisdiction of the Roman Pope and their language in worship continued to be Latin. The same pattern attended the missionary work in Gaul, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere in the West. Latin was the language of worship in all these churches (until Vatican II in the early 1960’s), and Rome endeavored with varying success to gain and retain appointment of local bishops. By and large the latter is still the case today. Such centralization and uniformity did not characterize the historical development of Eastern Orthodoxy, as we may see in the matter of language. Notwithstanding the dominance of the Greek tongue throughout the Byzantine Empire, there had always been Eastern Christians who worshiped in Syrian, Ethiopian, Coptic and eventually Arabic; so as Orthodox e.g.) missionaries moved northward it was understood from the beginning that the native tongues of the new regions would be the languages used for worship and life of the new congregations. In fact, since these native languages had never previously been written down, the missionaries themselves were obliged to elaborate a new alphabet for them and commenced their literature from scratch. One should keep in mind that between the Slavic mission of 863 and the Alaskan mission of 1793 the Orthodox Church put the Gospel into nearly 3 dozen languages that had never been written down before.” (The History of Orthodox Christianity, pp. 23-24)
This idea of keeping the individual cultures where the Gospel was preached by Eastern Orthodoxy leads to branches known as “Russian Orthodox,” “Greek Orthodox,” etc. There have even been schisms over the centuries based on some doctrinal issues so that there are also sects called Oriental Orthodox (Coptic and Syrian Orthodox, e.g.).
In my articles about Roman Catholicism, I discussed their teaching authority, baptism, sin, purgatory, indulgences, the Eucharist, Marian dogmas, iconography and the saints. For this article about Eastern Orthodoxy, I will address the same issues.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not have a papacy, and therefore has no papal infallibility. However, they do teach that scripture alone is not sufficient, rather they add to Scripture “Holy Tradition.” Their authority is “the scriptures as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils of the church. Orthodoxy also relies heavily on the writings of early Greek fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great.” (http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/denominations/orthodoxy.htm)
The seven ecumenical councils are also recognized by Roman Catholics and Protestants, and are as follows: The Council of Nicea, 325,. the Council of Constantinople, 381, the Council of Ephesus, 431, the Council of Chalcedon, 451, the Council of Constantinople II, 553, the Council of Constantinople III, 680, and the Council of Nicea II, 787.
The Orthodox Church teaches that baptism is the initiator of the salvation experience, and they practice baptism by full immersion, never sprinkling; pouring is permitted in extreme circumstances. As with Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy believes baptism is necessary for salvation, that baptism washes away “ancestral sin,” and for this reason baptizes infants.
“Baptism is immediately followed by chrismation and Holy Communion at the next Divine Liturgy, regardless of age. Although baptism is a separate mystery (sacrament) from chrismation, normally when it is said that someone "has been baptized" this is understood to include not only baptism but chrismation as well. In some practices, first communion is also administered at once. The Orthodox Church makes no judgment concerning the efficacy or validity of baptisms performed by other denominations, as regards people who are members of those respective denominations. The precise status and significance of such baptisms has not been revealed by God to the Orthodox Church; however, as a practical matter, they are treated as non-efficacious unless and until the person joins the Orthodox Church. Persons coming to Orthodoxy from other denominations, and who had been baptized with water in the name of the Trinity, are generally not received by holy baptism, but instead through holy chrismation, after which their former baptism is deemed to be efficacious.” (http://orthodoxwiki.org/) (Chrismation is the anointing of oil for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.)
As discussed with Roman Catholicism, according to the Bible only faith is necessary for salvation. Also, the Bible does not say one has to be a member of a particular denomination for baptism to be valid. And, since baptism is a public symbol of a proclamation of faith in Christ, baptizing infants is pointless.
Sin and salvation:
Unlike Catholicism’s teaching of sin being either venial or mortal, the Orthodox Church has a more biblical view. Here is an interesting explanation: “The result of sin, then, was a blurring of the image of God and a barrier between God and man. The situation in which mankind has been ever since is an unnatural, less human state, which ends in the most unnatural aspect: death. Salvation, then, is a process not of justification or legal pardon, but of reestablishing man's communion with God. This process of repairing the unity of human and divine is sometimes called "deification." This term does not mean that humans become gods but that humans join fully with God's divine life.” (http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/denominations/orthodoxy.htm)
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not have a doctrine on purgatory as a place. They do believe in the possibility that the dead can have a change of their situation based on prayers by those living. This, of course, contradicts Hebrews 9:27.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has never practiced the use of indulgences the way Roman Catholicism has throughout history.
“The Eastern Orthodox Churches believe one can be absolved from sins by the Sacred Mystery of Confession, which in the East is preceded by a period of fasting. Because of differences in the theology of salvation, indulgences for the remission of temporal punishment of sin do not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy, but until the twentieth century there existed in some places a practice of absolution certificates (συγχωροχάρτια – synchorochartia). While some of these certificates were connected with any patriarch's decrees lifting for the living or the dead some serious ecclesiastical penalty, including excommunication, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, with the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, had the sole privilege, because of the expense of maintaining the Holy Places and paying the many taxes levied on them, of distributing such documents in large numbers to pilgrims or sending them elsewhere, sometimes with a blank space for the name of the beneficiary, living or dead, an individual or a whole family, for whom the prayers would be read. Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheos Notaras (1641–1707) wrote: "It is an established custom and ancient tradition, known to all, that the Most Holy Patriarchs give the absolution certificate (συγχωροχάρτιον – synchorochartion) to the faithful people … they have granted them from the beginning and still do." A Russian Orthodox source says that these certificates were in use among Greek Orthodox until the middle of the twentieth century, and were ‘certificates which absolved from sins, which anyone could obtain, often for a specified sum of money. The absolution granted by these papers, according to Christos Yannaras, had no connection with any participation of the faithful in the Mystery of Penance, nor in the Mystery of the Eucharist’. The same source interprets the Western indulgence also as absolution from sin, not as remission of temporal punishment.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indulgence)
While this is much different than the Roman Catholic view, indulgences are still unbiblical.
Eastern Orthodoxy’s Eucharist is virtually identical to the Roman Catholic Church. They believe, as do Romanists, that the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. Unlike Romanists, Orthodox communicants usually receive both elements.
As with the Roman Church, Orthodoxy claims the Eucharist is a sacrifice of Christ. They teach that, although Christ was sacrificed once, the elements turn into his sacrificed body/blood to be offered to God as a propitiatory sacrifice, and although all the events of sacrifice are not repeated (incarnation, last supper, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension), they are indeed present in the Eucharist. All comments made previously in relation to the Roman Catholic mass are also applicable to Eastern Orthodoxy; the teaching is patently unbiblical and idolatrous.
Like Romanism, Orthodoxy adheres to the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, giving the title “Mother of God” to Mary, and, like Rome, uses the title to exalt her. They also believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary in the same manner as Romanists, including the teaching that even her hymen remained intact while giving birth to Jesus.
Again like Romanists, Orthodox Christians revere Mary to the point of idolatry, saying she is to be highly honored. While they reject the doctrine of “Immaculate Conception,” some say she was free from actual sin, some say she never sinned and some say she died sinless. So even without a specific doctrine, it appears that most Orthodox Christians believe Mary was sinless in some fashion.
Eastern Orthodoxy denies the Roman Catholic dogma of the Assumption. However, they have a very similar teaching called the “Dormition” (Mary’s “falling asleep”).
“Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her death and that she was taken up into heaven bodily in anticipation of the general resurrection. Her tomb was found empty on the third day. "...Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point [of the Dormition]: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body – like His – was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. The Resurrection of the Body ... has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now.”
Review my comments correcting Rome’s teachings about Mary and they can be applied also to Eastern Orthodoxy’s teachings.
Iconography and the Saints:
Even moreso than Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy is heavily into iconography. This is based on the outcome of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which supported veneration of icons.
“An Orthodox believer does not consider these images of Jesus and the saints the works of men but as manifestations of the heavenly ideal. They are a kind of window between the earthly and the celestial worlds. Through the icons the heavenly beings manifest themselves to the worshiping congregation and unite with it. Thus, it is impossible to understand Orthodox worship apart from icons. In Orthodoxy the idea of image is the key to understanding the ways God with man. Man is created ‘in the image of God’: he carries the icon of God within himself.” (Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, p. 142) “An Orthodox cherishes and kisses an image of Jesus or Mary or St. Nicholas for much the same reason that he cherishes and kisses a photograph of his mother, his grandfather or Aunt Dot.” (Reardon, The History of Orthodox Christianity, p. 17)
The problem with iconography was discussed in my article on Roman Catholicism; it is idolatry. It is venerating images of what the imagination says Christ and others would look like. While using the imagination to form a likeness of a person may be condoned, a likeness of Christ, who is God incarnate, must not be imagined. Without knowing what he looked like, everyone could have their own ideas and imagine all sorts of images which could be anywhere from sober to blasphemous. The making of an image of God for worship is a violation of the commandment.
As with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy encourages prayers to the saints.
As with the Roman Catholic Church, we have seen that Eastern Orthodoxy practices some of the same unbiblical teachings. They deny the sufficiency of Scripture, teach baptism as necessary for salvation and that baptism itself has salvific value, teach that the dead can be prayed for to improve their condition, and practice a form of indulgences. Additionally, they teach the continual sacrifice of Christ in their Eucharist, exalt Mary as a sinless, perpetual virgin to be venerated, and practice idolatrous iconography and unbiblical prayers to the saints. For these reasons, while not as unbiblical as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy still must be considered a cultic sect of Christianity.