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Eastern Christianity comprises the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Africa, India, and parts of the Far East over several centuries of religious antiquity.
The term is generally used in Western Christianity to describe all Christian traditions that did not develop in Western Europe. As such, the term does not describe any single communion or common religious tradition, and in fact some “Eastern” Churches have more in common historically and theologically with “Western” Christianity than with one another. The various “Eastern” Churches do not normally refer to themselves as “Eastern,” with the exception of the Assyrian Church of the East and its offshoots.
The terms “Eastern” and “Western” in this regard originated with divisions in the Church mirroring the cultural divide between the Hellenistic east and Latinate west and the political divide between the weak Western and strong Eastern Roman empires. Because the most powerful Church in the East was what has become known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the term “Orthodox” is often used in a similarly loose fashion as “Eastern”, although strictly speaking most Churches consider themselves part of an Orthodox and Catholic communion.
Families of churches
Eastern Christians do not share the same religious traditions, but do share many cultural traditions. Christianity divided itself in the East during its early centuries both within and outside of the Roman Empire in disputes about Christology and fundamental theology, as well as national divisions (Roman, Persian, etc.). It would be many centuries later that Western Christianity fully split from these traditions as its own communion. Today there are four main branches or families of Eastern Christianity, each of which has distinct theology and dogma.
- Orthodox Christianity
- the Assyrian Church of the East
- the Eastern Catholic Churches
In many Eastern churches, some parish priests administer the sacrament of chrismation to infants after baptism, and priests are allowed to marry before ordination. While all the Eastern Catholic Churches recognize the authority of the Pope, some of them who having originally been part of the Orthodox Church or Oriental Orthodox Church closely follow the traditions of Orthodoxy or Oriental Orthodoxy, including the tradition of allowing married men to become priests.
The Eastern churches’ differences from Western Christianity have as much, if not more, to do with culture, language, and politics, as theology. For the non-Catholic Eastern churches, a definitive date for the commencement of schism cannot usually be given (see East-West Schism). The Church of the East declared independence from the churches of the Roman Empire at its general council in 424, which was before the Council of Ephesus in 431, and so had nothing to do with the theology declared at that Council. Oriental Orthodoxy separated after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Since the time of the historian Edward Gibbon, the split between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church has been conveniently dated to 1054,though the reality is more complex. This split is sometimes referred to as the Great Schism, but now more usually referred to as the East-West Schism. This final schism reflected a larger cultural and political division which had developed in Europe and southwest Asia during the Middle Ages and coincided with Western Europe’s re-emergence from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Eastern Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church is a Christian body whose adherents are largely based in the Middle East (particularly Syria and Iraq), Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and The Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia etc), with a growing presence in the western world. Orthodox Christians accept the decisions of the First seven Ecumenical Councils.
Orthodox Christianity identifies itself as the original Christian church (see early centers of Christianity) founded by Christ and the Apostles, and traces its lineage back to the early church through the process of Apostolic Succession and unchanged theology and practice. Distinguishing characteristics of the Orthodox Church (shared with some of the Eastern Catholic Churches) include the Divine Liturgy, the Mysteries or Sacraments, and an emphasis on the preservation of Tradition, which it holds to be Apostolic in nature.
The Orthodox Church is organized into self-governing jurisdictions along geographical, national, ethnic, and/or linguistic lines. Orthodoxy is thus made up of 15 or 16 autocephalous bodies. Smaller churches are autonomous and each have a mother church that is autocephalous.
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The Orthodox Church includes the following jurisdictions:
- Autocephalous Churches
- The Church of Constantinople
- The Greek Church of Alexandria
- The Church of Antioch
- The Church of Jerusalem
- Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)
- The Church of Greece
- The Church of Georgia
- The Church of Serbia
- The Church of Romania
- The Church of Bulgaria
- The Church of Cyprus
- The Church of Albania
- The Church of Poland
- The Church of Slovakia and the Czech Lands
- The Orthodox Church in America
- Autonomous Churches
- The Church of Sinai (Jerusalem Patriarchate)
- The Church of Crete (Ecumenical Patriarchate)
- The Orthodox Church of Finland (Ecumenical Patriarchate)
- The Church of Estonia (Ecumenical Patriarchate)
- The Church of Japan (Moscow Patriarchate)
- The Church of Ukraine (Moscow Patriarchate)
- Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia – Formerly claimed autocephaly, but unification with Russian Orthodox Church achieved on May 17, 2007
- Exceptional churches generally considered to be orthodox in beliefs but otherwise not in communion with all of the above churches.
All Orthodox are united in doctrinal agreement with each other, though a few are not in communion at present, for non-doctrinal reasons. This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church and its various rites. Members of the latter are all in communion with each other, parts of a top-down hierarchy (see primus inter pares).
The majority of Catholics accept both the Filioque clause and, since 1950, the Assumption of Mary. This puts them in sharp contrast with the Orthodox. Yet some Catholics who are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church side with the Orthodox here and reject these teachings, putting them in theological disagreement with the others.
It may also be noted that the Church of Rome was once in communion with the Orthodox Church, but the two were split after the East-West Schism and thus it is no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church.
It is estimated that there are approximately 240 million Orthodox Christians in the world. Today, many adherents shun the term “Eastern” as denying the church’s universal character. They refer to Eastern Orthodoxy simply as the Orthodox Church.
Oriental Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodoxy refers to the churches of Eastern Christian tradition that keep the faith of the first three Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church: the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325), the First Council of Constantinople (381) and the Council of Ephesus (431), while rejecting the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Hence, these churches are also called Old Oriental Churches.
Oriental Orthodoxy developed in reaction to Chalcedon on the eastern limit of the Byzantine Empire and in Egypt and Syria and Mesopotamia. In those locations, there are also Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, but the rivalry between the two has largely vanished in the centuries since the schism.
The following Oriental Orthodox churches are autocephalous and in full communion:
- Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
- Indian Orthodox Church
- Coptic Orthodox Church
- Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The Oriental Orthodox churches which are autocephalous but not in communion with other Oriental Orthodox churches are :