For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ~ Ephesians 2:8-9
A Brief History:
The Orthodox Church is the first Christian Church, the Church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ and described in the pages of the New Testament. The history of the Orthodox Church can be traced in unbroken continuity all the way back to Christ and His Twelve Apostles.
Incredible as it may seem, for over 2000 years, the Orthodox Church has continued in undiminished and unaltered faith and practice. Today, the apostolic doctrine, worship, and structure continue to remain intact. The Orthodox Church maintains that the Church is the living Body of Jesus Christ.
Many people are surprised to learn that for the first 1000 years of Christianity there was just one Church. It was in the eleventh century that a disastrous split occurred, resulting in the western church, under the pope, separating itself from the Orthodox Church. The papacy sought to establish itself over all of Christendom and finally succeeded in the West. But the rest of the Church rejected this "innovation", knowing no so-called "universal head" apart from Jesus Christ himself.
What is the Real Difference:
Orthodoxy has maintained the New Testament tradition, whereas Roman Catholicism has often added to it and Protestantism subtracted from it. For example, Roman Catholicism added to the ancient Creed of the Church while numerous Protestant Churches rarely study or recite it. Roman Catholicism has numerous layers of ecclesiastical authority while much of Protestantism is anti-hierarchal or even independent. Roman Catholicism introduced indulgences and purgatory, while Protestantism shies away from good works and discipline.
In these few examples, and numerous others matters, the Orthodox Church has steadfastly maintained the Apostolic Faith. The Orthodox Church has avoided the excesses of papal rule and of congregational independence and has maintained the Faith "once for all delivered to the saints". The Orthodox clergy are servants of Christ and His people and not a special privileged class. The Orthodox Church preserves the Apostle's doctrine of the return of Christ at the end of the age, of the last judgement and eternal life, and continues to encourage people to grow in Christ through union with Him. Orthodox Christianity simply does not change!
The Orthodox Church in North America:
It was from the religious and political Western World of Europe that the vast majority of early colonists came to make their homes in the New World of North America. Here they could be free to live without the threat of recrimination by the Roman Catholic or Protestant dictums. However the colonists did bring their religious convictions of the Western Europe that they left behind.
When the Orthodox "latecomers" finally arrived in North America, they were often ignored as a "foreign" minority. The religious and cultural climate of the New World was already deeply entrenched. Rather than mingle with the culture religiously, Orthodox Christians tended to maintain their Old World ethnic identity, even to the point of retaining their native languages in their worship, resulting in many ethnic parishes. People who visited their churches were often unable to understand what was said or done. The Orthodox Church today is now recognized as a serious religious entity in North America. People who are devoted to Christ and desire a more full worship and spiritual life, but who are distressed and frustrated by the current directions of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, are turning to the changeless Orthodox Church.
It only makes sense that the Church from which the Bible came would be the Church where the faith described in the Bible could be lived out and preserved. The Church which brought Orthodoxy to North America is now bringing North America to Orthodoxy! People are constantly being introduced to the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church from coast to coast. With renewed vision, many established churches have transitioned to English language services to allow Orthodoxy to be discovered as a place where the search for spiritual reality may find fulfillment.
(Excerpts from "What on Earth is the Orthodox Church?" Copyright 1988 by Conciliar Press)