Still, it would be an understatement to say that Orthodox Christian worship, and the lifestyle that's associated with it are somewhat different from what people experience with American Evangelicalism. For some first-time visitors from Protestant Evangelical circles, Orthodox worship and life-style can be a culture shock. That's before you even go to coffee hour! Even if you first experience with Orthodoxy doesn't require a passport, it will still be somewhat unfamiliar.
Here are some general discussion topics that Evangelical Protestants might wonder about:
Why do you pray to saints?
We don't, we pray with the saints. Much the same as you would ask your friends, family or other Christians to pray for you, we ask the saints to intercede on our behalf. It’s important to remember that the saints who are in paradise are alive. Because they are alive, they pray for us! They are aware of what we are doing here in this life, for, as the Scriptures say, we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1).
Why are there icons everywhere?
Icons are a family album. In the same way that many people keep photo albums to help them remember people and events, icons remind us of the people and events of the history of our salvation. They adorn the walls of our worship spaces, making that “great cloud of witnesses” more apparent to us. Most Orthodox Christians also have an icon corner in their home where they display icons of Christ, the Theotokos (a Greek word meaning “Birth-giver to God,” i.e., the Virgin Mary) and other saints and scenes from the Scriptures.
Icons are not just items made of wood and paint. Human beings are also icons of God (that is, we are made in the image and likeness of God). Jesus Christ is called by St. Paul the “image” (in Greek, eikon) of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Thus, icons always point back to God. Reverence which is made through these “windows into heaven” is directed at the image of God found in each of the saints depicted.
Why do you mention Mary so much? Why is she so important? Why do you pray to her?
As the one who gave birth to God Himself in the flesh, we hold her in high reverence and respect. It only makes sense that we should love someone who literally held God inside her for nine months. And imagine the intimacy with God that she experienced both during her pregnancy and then feeding Him as an infant! She experienced something that the rest of humanity never will. But she also shows us the way to become one with her divine Son—humility, love and obedience to Him.
Why is she so important? Mary stands witness that Jesus Christ is fully human, even while being fully God. The early Christians made a point of inserting into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325) the statement that Christ was “incarnate… of the Virgin Mary” to ensure there would be no confusion on this matter.
As for prayers, we pray with Mary, and ask her to intercede on our behalf. The best thing about it, is that it works! It’s no different than asking your own mother to pray for you. And, just as Jesus did, we must also lisen to our mother. As shown at the Wedding at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus turned water into wine at His mother’s request (John 2:1-11).
Why do you cross yourselves?
Jesus calls us to “take up [our] cross,” and this is a visible identification with that command of our Lord. We make the sign of the cross to remind us of Christ’s conquest of death on the cross.
Making the sign of the cross is not unique to Orthodoxy—Roman Catholics also make the sign of the cross, as do many Protestants, including Anglicans/Episcopalians and some Lutherans (including Martin Luther).
Don’t you get tired of singing the same hymns or praying the same prayers every week?
All hymns and prayers that are offered to God are beautiful, how could anyone get tired of them? While there are some hymns that we sing regularly, many of hymn and prayers change on a regular basis but each day. This can depend on the day of the week, or for a day that honors the life of a saint or an event in the life of the Church.
Why do you use incense?
The Scriptures often depict incense being used in worship - most importantly when they describe worship in Heaven (Is. 6:4; Rev. 8:3-5). Our worship incorporates all our senses, sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Incense symbolizes our prayer rising to God in heaven.
Do you have to be Orthodox to be saved?
In a word, no. We believe that Orthodoxy represents the fullness of the faith—that is, the most complete and accurate expression possible by man. God honors truthful belief and proper faith anywhere it is found.
Then why become Orthodox? Simply put, the fullness of the faith is found here, the fullness of the truth is found here, and the fullness of worship is found here. Why would anyone want only partial measures?
While it may be possible to be saved outside the normal boundaries of the historic Church Jesus Christ founded—the Orthodox Church—it is not something that should be counted on. Christ never explicitly revealed any alternate paths to salvation except in His one Church.
Why do you fast so much?
We don't fast all the time - just most of the time!
Prayer and Fasting is something that brings our souls and bodies “under subjection” as St. Paul said (I Cor. 9:27), so that we might be pure and holy. Jesus said that when He had gone, His followers would fast. Like the early Christians, we fast so that we may learn to control our appetite for all things that are not good and holy. It is not about earning salvation, it is a tool to help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), enabling us to train and strengthen our wills so that they can prepare ourselves to encounter Christ.
Specifically, we fast each Wednesday to commemorate the day when Jesus was betrayed and each Friday to commemorate His death on the cross. In addition, we fast during the entire Lenten period and the entire Advent period, as well as during other times during the year.
Orthodox fasting practice, when followed strictly, means that the believer does not partake of any animal products from vertebrates (i.e., no meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), nor of olive oil nor wine. These choices reflect the desire to do no harm on these days, as well as giving up certain staples of life.
At the same time however, we should never approach fasting with a legalistic mentality. Fasting is for the health of the body and soul so that we can prepare for the salvation of the soul and body. If there are ever any questions about fasting, or if there are issues surrounding someone's health (i.e. if one is elderly, pregnant, or perhaps too young to fast) they should seek the council of the priest so that he may help you decide as to how to exercise discretion when fasting.
Do you believe the Eucharist is REALLY the body and blood of Christ?
We do hold the view that the Eucharist is a “re-sacrifice” or a “re-presentation” of the Sacrifice of the Cross. In the Eucharist, the Church is brought up to heaven to participate in the heavenly communion that finds its origins in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which continues throughout all time.
And, even though Aristotle was a Greek, we also do not hold the Roman Catholic view of Transubstantiation - that a substance can change while appearing to look the same.
We simply take our Lord's word for it. "Take eat, this is my Body!" and "Drink this all of you, this is my blood of the New Covenant!"
Orthodox Christians believe in the Real Presence and accept it as a mystery. Some things, if not most are beyond the use of reason. As a consequence, we Orthodox are comfortable with accepting mysteries like the Real Presence as what they are—mysteries, without feeling obliged to explain them.
Why else would we approach the Body and Blood of Christ with "Fear of God, with Faith, and with Love?"
What do the Orthodox think about the Bible? Do you agree with Sola Scriptura (“the Bible alone”)?
If the scriptures were not important, and contained everything for our salvation, then the prophets, and the Apostles would not have written them through the inspiration of God. Furthermore, Christ himself who is the Word of God would not be holding the Gospel himself as He blesses us from the Dome of the Church.
The Scriptures are the “canon”—the measuring stick—which must be applied to all doctrine, but it is not the only source doctrine. In other words, not all doctrine is found in the Scriptures, but no Orthodox doctrine contradicts the Scriptures.
Why is this so? It’s because the Orthodox Church actually produced the Bible. The Church also lived Christian life to the fullest for centuries before the canon of the New Testament was even recognizable (AD 367). As such, the Bible is always understood within the life of the Church, not above or apart from it. The Bible is the Church’s book.