Question: "What is the Oriental Orthodox Church?"
Answer: The Oriental Orthodox Church is a family of six self-governing church bodies in the East. The Oriental Orthodox Church includes the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (Egypt), the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (also called the Indian Orthodox Church). Each of these churches is autonomous while maintaining communion with each other.
Each self-governing church in Oriental Orthodoxy has as its highest office a patriarchate. The patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria is known as the Pope; however, the title carries no special authority over the other patriarchs. The Coptic patriarch is a “first among equals” and chairs the general council of Oriental Orthodox churches.
Most of the 60 million members of the Oriental Orthodox Church live in Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, Armenia, India, Syria, and Lebanon. Oriental Orthodox churches also exist in North America, Australia, Europe, and other parts of the world.
The Oriental Orthodox Church is separate from the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodoxy separated from Roman Catholicism at the Great Schism in AD 1054. But the Oriental Orthodox Church had become a separate branch of Christianity much earlier than that, in AD 451.
The Oriental Orthodox Church differs from other churches in that the Oriental Church recognizes only the first three ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus), rejecting the other four of the ecumenical church councils. The point of doctrine that led to the formation of the Oriental Orthodox Church was this part of the creed of the Council of Chalcedon: “Christ . . . Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son.” Most Christians accepted the council’s statement that Christ has two natures (human and divine) within one Person. Church leaders who rejected this teaching broke away to form the Oriental Orthodox Church. A distinguishing mark of Oriental Orthodoxy is their emphasis on the one nature of Christ, although they reject Eutychian monophysitism. The Oriental Orthodox Church prefers the label non-Chalcedonian or miaphysite over monophysite.
Politics also played a role in the formation of the Oriental Orthodox Church. Pro-Chalcedonian Emperor Justinian I attempted to replace all church bishops with pro-Chalcedonian clergy. The groups that would eventually form the Oriental Orthodox Church refused to cooperate with Justinian’s move. In recent years, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox churches have dialogued to discuss whether the split between the two groups was really one of theology or mere terminology.
Unfortunately, the Oriental Orthodox Church holds to some false doctrine. They observe seven sacraments, and they teach these sacraments are the means by which believers receive grace. Four of the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and confession) are required for salvation, according to the Oriental Orthodox Church. Teaching that religious works are a means to receive grace amounts to a works-based salvation, in violation of the Bible’s teaching that salvation is all of grace, apart from human works (Romans 11:6). God forgives the debt of sin freely, for the sake of Christ (Luke 7:41–42; Romans 3:24). The Oriental Orthodox requirement of keeping the sacraments is “another” gospel and not the true gospel (see Galatians 1:6–9).