Question: "What is the Greek Orthodox Church?"
Answer: The Greek Orthodox Church (GOC) is a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, which formally broke with the Western (or Roman Catholic) Church in AD 1054. Even though the Greek Orthodox Church is separate from Catholicism, many of its practices are similar, such as the veneration of saints. The term orthodox means that they believe they hold the correct opinion on true Christianity. The Greek Orthodox Church claims to trace its roots to the apostles and early church fathers, calling itself “the Mother Church of Christendom.” While they do hold to many foundational truths of Christianity, such as the Trinity, they have also added many practices and beliefs at variance with biblical Christianity.
Many Greek Orthodox Churches conduct their Sunday service, called a Divine Liturgy, in Greek, which is a problem for anyone who does not speak Greek. Their structure more resembles Catholicism than Protestantism. Worship services are filled with formality, ritual, and choral music. Within a typical 75-minute service, they will light candles for various reasons, kneel in tandem, kiss icons, and make the “sign of the cross,” although they repeat the gesture backward from the way Roman Catholics do. Observing the Eucharist is central to their service and for continuing their “process” of salvation.
A few Greek Orthodox practices that differ from evangelical Christianity are as follows:
1. Communion – Only baptized and faithful Orthodox may partake of the elements of Holy Communion, which they suggest become the actual body and blood of Christ, a belief called “transubstantiation,” although some Orthodox theologians object to that term. There is no solid scriptural foundation for believing that bread and drink become the physical body and blood of Jesus. Such a concept hints at cannibalism, which is only spoken of in Scripture as a most heinous desperate act (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53–57; Jeremiah 19:9; Lamentations 2:20; 4:10; Ezekiel 5:10). The Greek Orthodox Church believes that the partaking of communion helps guarantee their salvation.
2. Veneration of saints – The Greek Orthodox Church states that their practice of kneeling before or kissing the images of Mary and deceased saints is a way of showing reverence to their memories, rather than worshiping them. Their website states, “The Orthodox Church worships God alone. Yet, she does offer veneration to individuals who have been important human instruments of God in the history of salvation. Among those so venerated is Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos.”
Evangelical Christians consider this inclusion of saints in worship as a violation of 1 Timothy 2:5, which states, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Scripture also records several responses of men or angels when someone bowed before them (Revelation 22:9; 19:10). Acts 10:24–25 says, “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.’” The persistent focus on celebrating deceased saints draws attention away from Jesus and therefore does not agree with Scripture’s focus. Revelation 5:13 describes a scene in heaven: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’”
3. Salvation – The Greek Orthodox Church claims that salvation is by faith in Christ. However, they differ from the evangelical concept of faith by adding, “Orthodox Christians throughout their lives receive salvation and renewal through faith, works, and the sacraments of the Church.” They teach that the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection was so that we could become divine as He is divine.
Their website states that “the Holy Spirit is the agent of deification whose task it is to incorporate us into the life of the Holy Trinity.” They believe that it is baptism that “introduces the believer into the life of the Kingdom”; therefore, they baptize infants, stating that “holy anointing or Chrismation grants the gift of the Holy Spirit for growth in the image and likeness of God.”
However, this contradicts the New Testament teaching that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for those who hear and believe “the message of truth, the gospel” (Ephesians 1:13). Infants and young children have no way of understanding the message or of making a decision to “deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Jesus” (Luke 9:23). While the Greek Orthodox Church claims to believe in salvation by faith, they add this: “According to St. Paul, not only loving deeds but also the sacraments of Baptism (Rom 6:1–11) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16–22; 11:23–32) are decisive to salvation.” Sadly, many who have grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church tradition have never heard the real gospel of grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9), either because all services were in Greek or because the true message was lost in all the pomp.
4. Scripture – The Greek Orthodox Church uses Scripture but includes twelve non-inspired, apocryphal books. On par with Scripture is their “Holy Tradition,” which includes “the writings, teachings, and acts of the apostles, saints, martyrs, and fathers of the Church, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.” Their website states, “All of this collective wisdom and experience through the centuries are combined to form this second great source of sacred authority.” Although wisdom passed down through the ages can be of value, Bible-believing Christians do not consider any other writings or revelations equal to the 66 books of the Bible. It is dangerous to consider human experience and man’s “collective wisdom” as a “source of sacred authority.”
5. Life after death – The Greek Orthodox Church’s doctrine of life after death is vague. They maintain that they do not support the Catholic idea of purgatory, yet they state that “a partial judgment is instituted immediately after our physical death, which places us in an intermediate condition of partial blessedness (for the righteous), or partial suffering (for the unrighteous).” They believe that “a change is possible during this intermediate state and stage,” and therefore include prayers for the dead, along with almsgiving on their behalf. This contradicts the biblical teaching that there is no change possible after death (see Hebrews 9:27). This also does not comport with Jesus’ description of what happens immediately after death in His account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).
6. Feasts and holy days – Greek Orthodoxy resembles ancient Judaism in its designation of holy days, feasts, and remembrance celebrations. While it is not wrong to celebrate special days and feasts, the Greek Orthodox Church borders on legalism in its rigid adherence to religion, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (Matthew 23:23; Luke 7:30). The extreme focus on tradition, ritual, repetition, and formality creates an environment for a false understanding of what it means to have a saving relationship with Jesus. Although perhaps not intentional, such focus on outward displays can leave the impression that pleasing God equals strict obedience to the Greek Orthodox Church tradition. Romans 14:5 gives the Christian freedom in regards to days: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”
Mankind has always been prone to create external religion out of anything spiritual. Every denomination has elements that are more traditional than biblical. People feel comfortable with routine and tradition and may come to equate favorite traditions with godliness. However, Scripture warns against this. Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’” (Luke 18:10–14). Any church tradition that replaces or nullifies God’s truth or that exalts itself as the only right way to God is guilty of pharisaical pride and should be avoided.