Eastern Orthodoxy (Part V)

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

4.) Can you name a couple of the most common misunderstandings/misrepresentations you come across- in terms of North American conceptions of the Orthodox Church?

Probably the major misunderstanding is to visualize the early church as united under the rule of Rome. In that view, the Orthodox broke off to become a smaller, headless, inconsequential group--identical to Rome in every way, except frozen in the past. But a moment's reflection show the early church wasn't like that. All of the 7 "Ecumenical Councils" were held in the East. The great majority of early Christian documents--the Desert Fathers, the Church Fathers--are written in Greek (including the New Testament). Constantine the Great was ruler over the Roman Empire, after all, and though he moved his capital to Byzantium (which he renamed Constantinople), it continued to be the Roman Empire for another thousand years. In Turkey today, Christians are still known as "Rum."

Of course in the West, the version of the story where Rome is the center of everything is the only version people hear. It was frustrating during the "DaVinci Code" furor to hear this reflexive elision, that there were Christians in Jerusalem, and then everything vanishes except in Europe, and then we're talking about a painter who lived 1500 years later. The entire Eastern side of the story, where Christianity goes into Africa and Asia and flourishes, is ignored. Also, much of what the Reformers reacted against in medieval Rome is not part of Orthodoxy. In my new book, The Lost Gospel of Mary, I try to discover through ancient texts how the Virgin Mary was originally seen, and as I say in the Intro, "the early middle-eastern church was not the medieval European church."

As one Orthodox priest says, when he went back and checked his Church History notes from Lutheran seminary, they covered the centuries between the Apostles and the Reformation in 3 pages. I guess if I could just persuade people that they don't know what Orthodoxy is, I'd consider it a good start.


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