Church History

The birth of the Church is commonly dated to the day of Pentecost AD 33, as recorded in the second chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. This is a convenient enough date, although it may be more appropriate to say that Jesus Christ inaugurated the Church when He began His public ministry, but it was fulfilled by the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Whichever view prevails, this is clearly when the Church began publicly to proclaim the message of the Gospel, or the good news that the Son of God—Jesus Christ—had come, died, and risen again to save all humanity from sin and death. 

This first generation of the Church was led by the Apostles, or the envoys whom Jesus Christ Himself had appointed. As they went throughout the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, they established parishes—sometimes at preexisting Jewish synagogues, other times within the homes of wealthy converts. Over the early decades, a major controversy arose over whether non-Jews who became Christians had to follow the ritual Mosaic Law that the Jews themselves had followed. The leaders of the Church gathered in a Great Council in the mother-city of Jerusalem, as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. St. James, the foster-brother of Jesus Christ and the first bishop (‘episcopos’ or ‘overseer’) of the Church of Jerusalem, was the head of the Council because it was held in his city. The Church in Council declared that non-Jewish converts did not have to follow the ritual Mosaic Law, but did ascribe canons (‘guidelines’) that they abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from anything that had been strangled, and that they avoid sexual immorality. The pattern established by this first Council would be repeated whenever the Church was faced with a significant controversy.

Although it suffered intense, violent persecution in the first three centuries of its existence, the Church grew. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, legalized Christianity. Over the next centuries, the Church would meet in Council several times, the seven most significant of these meetings would be called the Ecumenical (‘worldwide’) Councils. The major points they would discuss included: the unity in essence, yet distinction in persons, of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit; the fullness of the divine nature and the fullness of the human nature in the one person of Jesus Christ; the reality of Mary as the Birthgiver of God (‘Theotokos’); the divinity of the Holy Spirit; and the validity of sacred images.

Throughout all this time, the Church continued to evangelize the surrounding nations: Europe, Africa, the Slavic peoples, Arabia and India. The Church flourished throughout much of the inhabited world, despite incursions of pagan barbarians in the Western Roman Empire, and Islamic armies in the Eastern Roman Empire. These wars led to a breakdown in communication between the Greek-speaking Church in the East and the Latin-speaking Church in the West. Theological disagreements, as well as the centuries of political and cultural separation, would lead to the tragic schism—or tear—between Greek Orthodoxy in the east and Roman Catholicism in the west.

In 1453, the encroaching armies of Islamic kingdoms completed their conquest of the Eastern Roman Empire by sacking the great city of Constantinople. Many had already fled westward, sparking the Renaissance in Europe, while others fled to the Russian Empire. The Turkish domination would last until the 19th century in Greece, but it continues in Asia Minor and the great city of Constantinople—modern-day Istanbul—to this day. Russia and the Balkans would likewise endure persecution under militant atheism in the 20th century, not emerging until the end of eighty years’ intense subjugation.

Today, the Church has continued to spread throughout western Europe, and the so-called new world. In North America immigrants from traditionally Orthodox lands settled and brought their faith with them. Today, due to the nature of immigration patterns and an lack of coordinated effort, there are multiple national Orthodox Churches represented in North and South America, Western Europe, Asia and Australasia. Under the directive of the mother Churches, the various jurisdictions are currently working to unify administratively, even while they are already fully united in faith and in communion with one another.

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