Christian Discipleship Under Holy Tradition


Holy Tradition, the unbroken voice of our Church
Holy Tradition, the unbroken voice of our Church

One common fear is the fear of the unknown.

Many Protestants contemplating becoming Orthodox wonder what Christian discipleship under Holy Tradition will be like.  Will I have to believe strange doctrines and do odd rituals?  Will I come under a new law and have to earn my salvation?


Relinquishing sola scriptura does not mean we stop reading the Bible.  We continue to read the Bible but in the context of Holy Tradition.  The Orthodox interpretation of Scripture is framed by the Nicene Creed, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the consensus of the church fathers.  Holy Tradition is not something vague and mysterious.  It is a body of beliefs and practices passed on from one generation to the next.  Basil the Great, a fourth century church father, described in On the Holy Spirit the Church’s unwritten tradition:

For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer?  Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing?  For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching.

Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized.  On what written authority do we do this?  Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition?  (Chapter 66)

Orthodoxy claims to have kept the Tradition without change for the past two millennia.  This claim can be tested through the study of church history.  Entering into an Orthodox Church is like having a “Jurassic Park” experience.  We see the ancient Church right before our eyes.  It’s nothing at all like what we see in modern Protestant churches!  The continuity between the early Church back then and the Orthodox Church today indicates that the Orthodox Church will still be Orthodox one thousand years from now.

Where Protestantism teaches Scripture over Tradition, Orthodoxy follows the model of Scripture in Tradition.  Orthodoxy believes that Apostolic Tradition and Scripture arise from the same source: Jesus Christ.  St. Paul admonished the Christians in Thessalonica to “hold fast” to the tradition both in the oral or written form (2 Thessalonians 2:15).  St. Paul also referred to his Gospel message, the Eucharist, and Christian propriety as part of the tradition he received and handed down to them (I Corinthians 15:1-4, 11:28, 11:16).



Tradition is not static, but dynamic and organic.  It is like a tiny seed that grows into a big tree (Mark 4:30-32).  One common misunderstanding is that Tradition means Orthodoxy will do things exactly like the early Church.  But when we study church history we find a certain amount of variety and fluidity that in time would evolve into more stable and uniform structures.  There are two opposites to living tradition; one is dead formalism and the other is unchecked innovation.  The former gives too much priority to the outward form at the expense of the inner life of the Gospel, the latter disregards the importance of the form to preserving and giving expression to the inner life of the Gospel.

The Nicene Creed is a good example of the growth of Tradition.  The New Testament writings contained short confessions like: “Jesus is Lord!”  This would develop into a confession of faith taught to baptismal candidates who were expected to recite it from memory.  While there were local variations, the basic contents of the early creeds were the same.  By the time of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils the Creed acquired a fixed form that endures till today known as the Nicene Creed.

When the early Church was confronted with the Arian heresy an ecumenical council was convened in which bishops from all parts of the world came together.  They repudiated Arius’ teaching by inserting into the Creed Athanasius’ phrase homoousios, that is, the Son was of the same essence as the Father.  Athanasius’ coining “homoousios” might seem innovative, but it was really conservative in intent.  Similarly, the coining of “Trinity” was not an innovation, but an attempt to make explicit what had long been understood in the Church’s Tradition.

In matters of controversy the Church gathered in council.  The Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 set the precedent for the later Ecumenical Councils.  Orthodoxy considers the Seven Ecumenical Councils as binding on all its members from the bishops and clergy down to the laity.  Orthodoxy relies on Christ’s promise in John 16:13 for its belief that the rulings of the Ecumenical Councils were more than human decisions but the result of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The fact that the Councils are not optional ensures doctrinal consistency in the Orthodox Church.  For a former Protestant who had to live with Protestantism’s doctrinal chaos I find this to be a huge relief.


Priest and Bishop at the Eucharist
Priest and Bishop at the Eucharist

Tradition informs the leadership structure of the Orthodox Church.  The office of the bishop or episcopacy is rooted in the New Testament practice of ordaining qualified men to the priesthood (2 Timothy 2:2) and entrusting them with the “sacred deposit” (2 Timothy 1:13).  Irenaeus described how the Christian faith was preserved by means of a chain of apostolic succession.  Furthermore, the authority of the bishop was not so much institutional as it was rooted in his faithfulness to Tradition.  A bishop unfaithful to Apostolic Tradition would cease to be qualified to hold that office.  The office of the bishop was critical to a local church’s claim to be apostolic.  ‘No bishop’ = ‘no link’ to the apostles.  Without the bishop the local church could not claim to be following the Apostolic teachings or be part of the Church Catholic.

Tradition can be viewed as a matrix made up of several components: the Bible, the Nicene Creed, the Eucharist, the episcopacy, and church councils.  These are integrally linked to each other and together uphold each other.  In other words, Tradition is a singular Package.


Tradition in the Liturgy

Orthodox Church - Warrenville, IL
Orthodox Church – Warrenville, IL

We see Tradition most notably in the Sunday Liturgy.

The first half of the Liturgy is focused on Scripture and thus is called the Liturgy of the Word.  The Orthodox Church follows a set of prescribed Scripture readings known as the Lectionary.  This ensures that all parishes will share in the same Scripture readings.  It also ensures that what the parish hears is not subject to the personal whim of the priest.  The Lectionary is like a menu that ensures a balanced diet of spiritual feeding.  In many Protestant churches it’s hard to predict what the coming Sunday sermon will be about.

Another important aspect of the Liturgy of the Word is the prayers and hymns.  We pray for each other and for the needs of the world.  We also remember to pray for our bishop and other clergy.  We end the litanies or prayers invoking the name of the Trinity.  Several times during the Liturgy the Holy Trinity is mentioned and at that point we make the sign of the Cross.  Through regular participation in the Liturgy we become vividly aware of the reality of the Trinity.  For much of Protestant worship the Trinity is hardly mentioned at all.  For many Protestants the Trinity is something they read about in a book or hear about in a church membership class.  This has caused the Trinity to fade from the consciousness of many Protestants.

In the Liturgy the Orthodox Church remembers and honors Mary the Theotokos (God Bearer).  The Orthodox Church’s honoring Mary is a way of affirming the Incarnation and also the result of the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils’ repudiation of the Nestorian controversy.  It is also a way of affirming our fellowship with the great cloud of witnesses in heaven (Hebrews 12:1).  To neglect honoring Mary as the Mother of God would be consequential for our theology.  It would weaken our appreciation of the Incarnation.  Many Protestants view Christ’s Incarnation as a historical event but have very little appreciation of its implication for the Eucharist, the Church as a divine institution, for salvation as recapitulation and deification, and the redemption of the cosmos.  Also, not to honor Mary in the Sunday services implies that we honor her in word but not in our actions.

Following the sermon we stand and recite the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene Creed unifies us across the world and to other Christians in history.  The Creed provides a fence protecting us against heresy.  If there is no fence in place a local congregation can become vulnerable to the pastor or a visiting preacher introducing a questionable new teaching.


christ_comm_cup_kiev2The second half of the Liturgy, the Eucharist, is rooted in Tradition.  St. Paul in I Corinthians 11:23 told the Christians in Corinth that the way he celebrated the Eucharist was based on a tradition that went back to Christ himself.  The early Church had a variety of liturgies but by the fifth century the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom became the norm in much of the Greek speaking world.  In the early Church the Eucharist was a normal part of the Sunday worship (see The Didache Chapter 14).  This stands in contrast to the infrequent observance of the Eucharist in many Protestant churches today.

The Eucharist unites the local church to the Church Catholic.  The Eucharist was viewed, not as a mere symbol, but the actual receiving of Christ’s body and blood (Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians Chapter 4).  In the early Church the Eucharist could not be celebrated apart from the bishop (Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans Chapter 8).  For an Orthodox Christian to go up and receive Holy Communion means that he or she accepts the teachings of the Orthodox Church and that he or she accepts the authority of the bishop.


 Holy Tradition — A Way of Life

Orthodox Monk on footbridge
Orthodox Monk on footbridge

Holy Tradition is not a set of rules but a way of life.  It is the Church living out the teachings of Jesus Christ.  It is the culture that has unified Orthodoxy for the past two millennia.  Jesus commended fasting (Matthew 6:16-18, Mark 2:20) but did not dictate the specifics of fasting.  We learn in the first century church manual called The Didache (Chapter 8) that the early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.  This spiritual discipline is still followed by the Orthodox Church today.  It is not viewed as a quaint practice or for the super spiritual but expected of all Orthodox Christians: laity, clergy, and monastics.  We fast as a way of denying ourselves, combating the passions of the flesh, and for our spiritual growth.  It is not a way of earning our salvation!

Orthodoxy has a lot of rules, but it is not legalistic.  The rule is for Orthodox Christians to fast the night before to prepare for receiving Holy Communion, but there are exceptions to this rule.  One is that we don’t keep a spiritual rule if it results in bodily harm.  I know of a priest who would withhold Communion to a parishioner if she disobeyed her physician’s instructions to eat on a set schedule!  Another exception is that we try to avoid the sin of pharisaism, that is, of putting spirituality over charity.  For example, for the Wednesday and Friday fasts we are expected to abstain from meat and dairy product.  However, if we are invited to a meal it is better to eat what is set before us than to reject our host’s hospitality.  Being Orthodox means not just knowing the rules for spiritual disciplines but more importantly the spirit of charity behind these rules.  We fast under the guidance of the parish priest or our spiritual director.  It is not advisable that we make up our own rules for fasting.


Orthodox Crossing Themselves
Orthodox Crossing Themselves

Holy Tradition consists of little things like making the sign of the Cross, bowing at certain times during the Liturgy, lighting candles, kissing the Bible, venerating icons etc.  Orthodox music tend to follow either Byzantine chant or Slavic polyharmonic singing, both done a capella.  The general consensus is that musical instruments (whether ‘traditional’ organ or contemporary guitars) and contemporary praise songs are incompatible or inappropriate for Orthodox Liturgy.  All this is part of the Orthodox way of life.  Those contemplating converting to Orthodoxy must be prepared to make the necessary adjustments.  This calls for the relinquishing of the independent spirit and the adoption of an attitude of trust and humility needed for submission to the Church’s authority (Hebrews 13:17).


Two Ways of Joining a Church

When a Protestant decides to join a church body they usually check out the church’s statement of faith, and if they agree with its teachings they join that church.  Or they may decide that they like the services the church offers or that the pastor’s sermons help them grow spiritually.  In many churches there is a short four to six weeks long membership class that goes over what the church believes.

But in the case of becoming Orthodox people are encouraged to check out the Orthodox Church’s beliefs and its way of life.  Catechumens attend the Sunday worship services and take a several months long overview course.  An up close look at an Orthodox parish will reveal people who are far from perfect but committed to growing in Christ in the context of His Church.  To accept Tradition is not so much agreeing with a theological system as it is entering into a way of life.  Converting to Orthodoxy is much like Ruth’s conversion to Yahweh:

Do not ask me to leave you, or turn back from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

Robert Arakaki


  1. One of my concerns as a female is how to dress on my first visit to an Orthodox church. In these times, all my clothes are in the form of pant suits, not dresses. I don’t relish having to go out and buy a dress at today’s prices. Can you tell me how it is (in the U.S.)? Do all the female attendees wear dresses?

    1. Mirrie,

      Good question! From what I know there is no strict rule that women should wear dress at the church service. I’ve seen both dress and pant suits at the Orthodox services. The most important guideline is that of modesty and respect. Dress as you would for a business meeting or a serious event. Be yourself, don’t go out and buy something just to conform to a legalistic dress code.

      If a woman were to ask my advice, my concern wouldn’t be the pant suits but whether their shoulders are covered up. If a woman or girl comes to my parish in Honolulu with bare shoulders, they will be offered a shawl to cover their shoulders.

      The issue of proper attire applies to men as well. Men should not come to an Orthodox church service in shorts. In Hawaii we occasionally have tourist visitors who come to church wearing shorts. I know the priest doesn’t like it, but he’s not going to make a big issue of it and withhold Communion. In Orthodoxy we want to have the attitude of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, not that of the older brother.

      Orthodox parishes in America vary. Some parishes have many members who just migrated from the “old world” where cultural values are more traditional. These tend to use more non-English in the services and can lean more towards traditional dress. Then there are Orthodox parishes where many of the members grew up in the US. These tend to have all English services and the dress more like the American mainstream. If you are wondering what an Orthodox service looks like, you can watch this YouTube video of an Orthodox church service in Kansas. This will give you an idea of what goes on in a typical American Orthodox service and how the people dress. A number of the women wear dress but if you watch 5:50 to 5:55 of the video you will see two women wearing pants.


      1. Re robertar: In Hawaii we occasionally have tourist visitors who come to church wearing shorts. I know the priest doesn’t like it, but he’s not going to make a big issue of it and withhold Communion.

        I can understand non Orthodox visitors coming in wearing shorts but Orthodox Christians? No Orthodox Christian that is prepared to approach the Holy Chalice would wear shorts–even on vacation.

        Non Orthodox visitors in shorts, at the very least, should be asked to stand in the back of the temple and not be a cause of offense to the Faithful. If inappropriate attire is an ongoing issue perhaps a nicely worded notice at the entrance is needed.

        Re Mirrie: A modest pants suit should be OK for a visit to the Orthodox Church. Some parishes have wrap around skirts for women at the candle stand if they are wearing inappropriate attire. Should Mirrie decide to become a frequent visitor, or even join the Church, an inexpensive long dark skirt and a white long-sleeved blouse should not set her back too much and could be her Church “uniform” while she gradually augments her wardrobe. Thrift shops have some very decent, inexpensive clothing.

        Re the Website: Thank you for a wonderful resource to which inquiring Protestants from the Reformed tradition can be directed.

        1. Dear Fr. Joseph,

          Thank you for your insight! You’re right we need to approach the holy chalice with fear and trembling.


  2. Mirrie, don’t let it worry you. Many women wear pants to Liturgy now, and no one notices. If you were going to a monastery, you might run into other expectations there; but usually even there they are prepared for people to arrive not knowing the preference, and will have a box or basket of headcoverings, wraparound skirts, and so forth. I hope you are greatly blessed by the Liturgy and receive a warm welcome.

  3. I am wondering how much room there is in Orthodoxy for the individual conscience to make some of it’s own determinations before God? My Protestant background was quite conservative, but there was still a sense that there were things to be determined by the heart of the individual. I wonder if this understanding is congruous with Orthodoxy or foreign to it? Is it expected, for example, that everything not covered by tradition should be settled by one’s spiritual father? I have some slight concerns (forgive me if this does not come across properly) that the multi layered power structures may prove infantilizing.

    For instance, I have been trying to research what the Orthodox position on birth control is. Some of what I found online quoted a handful of Church fathers and stated that their anti contraception opinions constitute “Tradition” and mean that any form of birth control, for the Orthodox, is a sin. Is this really “Orthodox” or just the interpretation of a handful? Other online sources said some forms of birth control are okay if used with the blessing of your priest– it is hard for me not to feel deeply uncomfortable with that, the expectation that one would need to seek a priest’s blessing for such a personal decision.

    1. P.S. I do want to apologize if this comes across as in any way offensive. I am very drawn to the Church, but want to make sure I know what I am getting into.

      1. Jane, my understanding is that it is very counter to an Orthodox mindset for a spiritual father to discourage his spiritual child from exercising his or her own effort of discernment in areas that are not a question of clear violations of Christ’s commands or for him to seek to override another’s free will even in areas that do involve the clear commands of the Scriptures.

        Generally, a good spiritual father in the parish setting will give advice, but not commands, especially around issues of this nature. My own experience is that my parish Priests don’t ask what is going on in my marriage bed. If I were to ask a question about such things, likely they would offer an Orthodox opinion and advice. I think it would be rare for the Orthodox Priest of a parish in this country to believe that Orthodox tradition requires the ban of any form of birth control under any circumstance whatsoever in marriage. The opinions of Priests I have read seems to be that the Fathers’ teaching on this issue in its own context is more nuanced than that.

        With regard to birth control as it exists today, you may realize there are some forms of birth control that have the potential to operate as very early stage abortifacients in that they do not always prevent conception, but do prevent implantation of the fertilized egg (e.g., I.U.D.’s, the pill). As an Orthodox Christian, I believe anything that has the potential to end a developing human life would be a sin to use as birth control. Where this is not an issue, however, as I have said (and as you have found out on the Internet) there appears to be freedom within Orthodoxy for differences of opinion, and I suspect most parish Priests in this country would allow there are situations where it is permissible for an Orthodox Christian to use birth control (health reasons, spacing of children, etc.). I would encourage you to discuss this issue (at least in the abstract) with an Orthodox Priest to get an idea of what Orthodox teachings ought to be considered in making such a decision and how he approaches matters such as this with his own spiritual children.

        1. Karen,

          Thank you for sharing with us your experience of Orthodox pastoral care for this very personal area of life. My experience has been that Orthodox priests are respectful of people’s privacy.


        2. Karen,
          Thank you very much for the reassuring reply in response to my concerns. Coming from such a different background, it’s hard to envision just what a relationship with a spiritual father is supposed to look like and what it entails. I appreciate the clarification you offered.

          Re: the example I raised, I believe procreation is a primary purpose of marriage (in fact I’m expecting my third baby) and I share your views on potentially abortifacient forms of birth control. Hopefully that is “good enough”. . . I really can’t imagine discussing these things with a Priest, although I am gathering (again, mostly from the Internet) that there are many who do include discussing with their Priest as part of the decision making process for family planning.

          I just can’t imagine having (or wanting) that sort of relationship with a Priest. I think I could be okay with confession, and seeking guidance on prayer and fasting, spiritual struggles, etc.

          1. Jane,

            Another possibility is for you to bring up the matter with the priest’s wife. The priest’s wife is supposed to be his partner in ministry. That is why in Orthodoxy the priest’s wife is addressed as: Presbytera, Khouria, or Matushka. These words mean something like “leader” or “mother.” The important thing is to use commonsense. Most priests wives are spiritually mature but not all may have the maturity to answer your concerns. Get to know the priest’s wife and if you feel you can trust her then bring up some of the matters that you are wondering about.


          2. Well, Jane, this wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing I’d bring up with my priest as I’m getting to know him either! 🙂 (I’m from a Protestant background as well.) A relationship with one’s priest is just like any other relationship. You take it slowly a step at a time. Robert’s suggestion may also be helpful. And, to be frank, not all Orthodox priests are equally discerning or mature either and each has their own strengths and weaknesses which you have to take into account as you proceed just as you would with any other person.

            The first Orthodox priest I had gave me counsel regarding my first sacramental Confession to be specific enough in my confession to really unload my guilt, but otherwise to give as few details as necessary to get the job done. His point was that it was in his best interests also for confessions not to get too graphic (less temptation for him that way). I appreciated his perspective, especially considering I was at that point confessing *everything* I could ever remember having done wrong and I had, had a long life already for a lot to add up. It was a terrifying and yet a wonderful experience. After I finished and after he had prayed the prayer of absolution, he took from me the sheet on which I had listed those sins and burned it in my presence. When I walked away, I don’t think my feet were still touching the ground! I have not actually discussed birth control with my present priests (or any of their wives), but at my last parish, the priest’s wife made it clear she believed the judicious use of birth control was quite compatible with Orthodox tradition (she was speaking to an exhausted and overwhelmed young mother of four)!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *