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The Christian Orthodox Church in the United States

That adherence to Biblical teaching in the New Testament not only is distinct of individual Orthodox believers, but it is the foundation of the entire Orthodox church and its claim to be the “original New Testament church.” The Bible speaks of one undivided church, consisting of all Christians, regardless of where they attended church locally.

That universal church is said to have begun on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s resurrection. Father Paul Burholt, priest of The Protecting Veil of the Most Holy Theotokos, a Christian Orthodox mission, in Kerrville, Texas. Orthodox Christians believe they are the continuation of that ancient Orthodox Christian Church, and they can trace their history through official ordinations of their priesthood back to Christ and appointments made by the apostles.

Today, the term which means “correct believing” or “correct, true glory” not only designates Christians who adhere to the teachings of Jesus found in the Bible, but it designates all churches that are part of the Orthodox lineage. Burtholt warned, however, that not all churches who take the Orthodox name actually are part of the official Orthodox church.

Burholt said Orthodox Christians don’t claim that all other churches fail to adhere to Biblical teaching. Their assertion is that no other denomination has direct ties to or is in fact the original church, but this lineage is, for Orthodox Christians, no mere boasting point. The church’s traditionalism is center to its beliefs, affecting the life of the church and the lifestyles of its parishioners, Burholt said.

While many churches have evolved during the last 2,000 years, changing their structure, styles of worship and membership requirements, often times, to attract and keep new believers, the Orthodox church maintains that to be Christian, people must change, not the church.

“We have to ask ourselves if the worship is just an expression of what we feel comfortable with, or if it is heavenly,” Burholt said. “Orthodox doesn’t agree with the idea of making a church fit your temperament, or a family,’ where the purpose is for people to feel accepted. When we come to Christ, we are the ones that have to change, not the church.  “We have to defeat our culture and the idea that getting our needs met is what’s most important,” Burholt said.

Orthodox Life

Burholt said the Orthodox Christian lives a life both in and out of church akin to how the apostles lived, following Jesus’ direction in every aspect of their lives. While Burholt admits it’s a challenging life to live in modern modern America, it isn’t impossible, and the church recognizes that no one does it perfectly.

“Orthodoxy is interesting to people, perhaps, because it’s a bit exotic,” Burholt said. “But it’s very difficult to be Orthodox. It’s very counter culture. There’s not puritanical rules, but the whole mindset of Orthodox practices is very counter culture in America.”

The pursuit of the Orthodox life is what’s important, he said.

“We’re all a work in progress,” Burholt said. “Being in the church, the priest is not going to tell you that you can no longer do this or that, but as time goes on, you begin to see things in your life that need to change, that you want to change.”

Burholt said the Orthodox lifestyle is characterized by a life lived in prayer, fasting and moral purity. Burholt said fasting is one element of Orthodoxy that puzzles outsiders.

“Fasting is very important to us, but it’s not for the purpose of gaining merit,” Burholt said. “It’s because we know we need to tame our impulses. It’s not that we see food as evil, or that we’re vegetarians. It’s just that at certain times of the year, we abstain, or hold back from the good things God gives us to restrain our crazy passions.”

Fasting and prayer for the Saints, which Burholt said is another often misunderstood Orthodox practice, keeps believers “watchful” and able to live a holy life.

“These practices are a spiritual weapon or tool based on the Orthodox emphasis on reducing distractions and keeping the heart pure, not from other people, but from nonsense of this life,” Burholt said. “God doesn’t need us to suffer, but we have so many compromises in our lives, fasting and withholding good things from ourselves, helps us keep in mind the eternal kingdom.”

Icons

Burholt said the importance of images and saints in the Christian Orthodox faith is associated with the church’s belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ that he was fully God and fully human. The use of icons in the church, particularly those that depict Mother Mary and Jesus, Burholt said, helps believers grasp Jesus’ humanity, he said.

“Images are absolutely central to us, because we believe that Jesus was fully human and fully God,” Burholt said. “When he came as a man, he was made visible. If he wasn’t made flesh, we couldn’t be able to portray him.

“It’s very important to know the face of Christ, so it is really important that we can see and touch during worship,” he said. “Every object, every human and everything that is created really is an icon, and they all show the beauty of God.”

The same is true for the church’s regard for Mother Mary, Burholt said.

“It’s really about who Jesus is,” Burholt said. “We have a very high regard for the Mother of God, but it’s because of her son, who was truly God made man.”

The purpose of praying to the Saints, Burholt said, is to embrace the “eternal” nature of God and the communion of all believers, both those who still are living and those who have died and now are living in Heaven.

“We don’t worship them; the icon is not an idol, but we respect the icon, and we pray in front of it. They’re mediums in which we are brought into the Kingdom of God.”

“It’s a lense or a window in which we see the Heavenly world. It’s like a telescope, he said.

He added that Orthodox Christians have a “great belief” that death is not a barrier among believers, which is why they can pray for each other, even after death.

“We don’t have a problem with prayer of the saints, we pray for the departed faithful, and they pray for us because they lived this life and now are with God,” Burholt said. “When we pray, we take every human person into our hearts.”

Burholt admitted that this element of Orthodoxy often is difficult for outsiders to understand.

“In a sense, Orthodoxy is very other worldly,’ because we talk a lot about the eternal kingdom,” Burholt said. “But it’s also this worldly, because we incorporate a lot of the senses and the physical, especially with icons. So, we recognize that this world is very important. It’s full of God’s glory.

“For us, Salvation is not just being saved, but it’s communing with God, and that is why we honor the saints,” he added.

Condition of Man

As salvation is concerned, Burholt said Orthodox Christians don’t “evangelize” in the traditional sense, or seek out nonbelievers to convert. He said Orthodox Christians simply live their lives willing to share their faith with whomever they come into contact. When it comes to explaining their salvation to others, Burholt said Orthodox believers rely on a “medical” model to explain man’s condition and relationship to God, compared to a type of “legal” model used by many Evangelical churches use.

The Orthodox model, he said, identifies man’s ultimate problem as an inherent “sickness” that only Christ can heal.

“Rather than the legal model of being acquitted,’ Orthodox embraces a medical model,’ that salvation provides healing,” Burholt said. “We take a healing approach that looks at people as being sick.’ Orthodoxy says God is good and loves mankind, but that doesn’t mean our salvation is automatic.”

Orthodoxy believes that man must accept that he is sick, and accept God’s offer of healing, Burholt said.

“God doesn’t throw people into the darkness, but he allows them healing,” he said. “It’s much more challenging to respond to love than fear.

“If all of us are sick, and this (God) is the healing, then we want the real thing, not the generic thing,” Burholt said. “For us, we’ve found salvation and communion with God in the Orthodox church.”