Dr. Savvas had a huge painting of St. George and the Dragon on his office wall. The image of the lance going into the beast's mouth fascinated me as a child. Dr. Savvas was originally from Cyprus and studied medicine in Greece. I guess he provided my first exposure to the Orthodox Church, though I don't think I even knew that the Orthodox Church was a thing at the time.
Protestants aren't sure what to do with Orthodox Christians. Since they've spent so many centuries beating up on Catholics, I guess they think the Orthodox are harmless enough to ignore. On the Protestant religious radar, the Orthodox seem to show up even less than Anabaptists. Which is odd since the number of Orthodox adherents worldwide is similar to the number of Pentecostals, approximately 250 million.
The Orthodox Church practices three things that correspond to important teachings of the Churches of Christ, in which I grew up. The Orthodox baptize by immersion for the forgiveness of sins (including infants), they observe communion every week, and most do not use musical instruments in their services. The Orthodox claim that they are following the traditions handed down from the beginning of the church and the Churches of Christ claim that they are going back to the Bible to learn what Christians should believe and do. The similarities are intriguing but the two groups also have major differences of opinion (praying to the saints, congregational autonomy, etc.).
I've learned more about the Orthodox Church listening to a podcast series of Sunday school classes taught by Michael Hyatt. Hyatt is a businessman and author whose work I respect. For many years he worked at and then served as CEO of Thomas Nelson, one of the largest evangelical book publishers. Hyatt is also a long-time member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, one of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. (The organization of the Orthodox Church is an interesting but complicated topic that I won't try to explain here.)
One of Michael Hyatt's podcast episodes dealt with things he wished he knew before visiting the Orthodox Church. So I felt moderately prepared when I visited Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Louis with my son Henry.
Some Orthodox Churches are strict on expecting people to arrive on time, and you may not even be admitted if you are late. Henry and I arrived right at the start of the divine liturgy at 9:45am. The small crowd of about 25 surprised me. I guess this congregation is lenient, because another 125 or so drifted in at various times over the next hour before the celebration of communion. The entire service lasted an hour and forty-five minutes.
The Orthodox liturgy engages all five senses. The icons are visually impressive. Nearly everything is sung in a melodic chant--in this case some in Greek and most in English; the congregational responses were quite beautiful. Various people spread incense at various time. People touch and kiss each other and the icons. And the entire focus of the service is on communion, tasting what they see as the actual body and blood of the Lord.
I assume the service was conducted largely as it has been conducted for hundreds of years. Near the end, the priest did make some informal announcements, including reminding the youth to sign up for the float trip and making a reference to the St. Louis Cardinals. Those must be fairly recent additions.
Jesus taught the first disciples, who taught others, who taught others, and so on. The world has had Christians ever since the beginning of the church. So I do not have a problem believing that the Orthodox Church really does have a direct historical connection to the church of the first century. That means that they probably have some things right. But it does not guarantee that they have everything right. My cynical side says that nearly two thousand years of history has given them more time for their man-made traditions to ossify.
Though I am not convinced that all Christians must join the Orthodox Church, I do want to learn from their traditions and appreciate their commitment to following Jesus. In John Wesley's sermon on having a "Catholic Spirit" he talked about how we should view those who have different religious opinions. While we should follow our own conscience and understanding honestly, we should love others:
Yes, there are elements of doctrine and practice that matter. But if we mess up the loving God and loving our neighbor part, including our neighbors who follow Jesus but aren't part of our "team" (Mark 9:38-41), it's going to be hard for us to do the other important stuff. If we really believe that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness toward us, then it should be easy for us to believe that God can accept others with that same amount of mercy.
Christians spend way too much time arguing and fighting with each other. We also show disdain by ignoring each other's existence. I appreciate John Wesley's exhortation to engage actively with other believers through prayer and good deeds. We should look for common ground and work together to serve those in need around us. Much more than what our church buildings look like or which creed we recite, love is what shows that we truly are disciples of Christ.