‘Orthodox’ complaint by reader

Trust me, I am aware that the Eastern Orthodox Churches have some rites that are unique and, to the eyes of outsiders, may seem a bit on the wild side.

I mean, watch the video attached to this post, which focuses on traditions — I stress that they are what we call “small-t traditions” — observed by some Orthodox believers during the recent “blessing of the waters” celebrations of Theophany (called Epiphany in the West). It is one thing to see people jumping into blessed waters as they observe these traditions in, well, South Florida. It’s something else to see it taking place in Russia, even in, let’s say, Siberia.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is time for reporters to start using the word “Orthodox” — with a large “O” — in the following context. If you happen to be Orthodox, you may want to sit down before reading the following chunk of this very strange story.

This is from The Star-Ledger in New Jersey:

A New York City woman on trial for starving four of her children was brought up in a “cult-like” religion that prohibited its members from direct contact with the outside world, her brother testified yesterday.

“It was an almost cult-like existence. We weren’t allowed to watch TV, go to the movies, or vote,” said Frederick Phillips, 45, of Manhattan, describing the lifestyles of members of the Brooklyn-based Church of the Brethren, an Orthodox Christian church that believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible.

Say what? Needless to say, the Church of the Brethren is not part of the ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, I am not even sure if this story is describing a congregation that is linked to the Church of the Brethren, as traditionally understood.

So what is going on here? I know one thing. GetReligion reader Jason Gilbert of Topeka, Kan., was right to pen the following letter to the newspaper.

I am writing about a factual error in your story, “Defendant raised in cult-like faith, brother testifies.” You use the term “Orthodox Christian,” which a proper noun that does not apply to the organization described. Additionally, your general treatment of the defendant’s religion in this story seems flawed.

Firstly, to capitalize the “O” in “Orthodox” means that the church is “Orthodox Christian;” that is, part of the Eastern Orthodox communion of churches (“Greek Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox,” etc.). I am certain that the Church of the Brethren is not part of this communion.

The second error is more vague and perhaps forgivable. If you had not capitalized the “O,” then you would merely have been describing the church as “orthodox” in the sense of adhering to traditional Christian dogmas, beliefs, or practices. Nowadays, with the complete shattering of a cohesive Christian identification, it is understandable that a reporter is unable to pin down exactly what those are, but from the small about of space given to the description of this organization’s dogmas, beliefs, and practices, they don’t appear to fit the definition at all.

Furthermore, if you are going to mention a religious organization in the lede, you should take the time to find at least one other source of information about that organization. It appears that maybe you used “Orthodox” as a synonym for something like “ultra strict” or “controlling.” Some journalists use “fundamentalist,” or “extremist,” which are problematic. Using “orthodox” with a small “o” would also be problematic in this case. However, to make it a proper noun is simply factually incorrect.

Amen, all the way around. Strange, strange, strange.

In terms of good journalism, this story was most unorthodox.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    There is the same problem with catholic and Catholic. At least nobody disputes the Eastern churches’ right to call themselves Orthodox without a qualifier.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Bad journalist! Bad! Bad!

  • str

    I don’t know that group so I cannot say whether the group is “Orthodox”.

    However, to label it “orthodox” is meaningless as that word begs the question “orthodox according to which standard”? Or is it merely used as a journalistic slur?

    But the whole notion of distinguishing meaning by capitalisation is flawed – there are no small-t, big-T traditions, no small-o, big-O orthodox, no small-c, big-C catholic, and last but not least, no small-t, big-T truth. In all these cases, the word is identical – the exact meaning is determined by context, not by capitalisation (if there is a meaning – truth is truth, no more no less)!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The “small-t” tradition statement is something that the Orthodox say when referring to things that are not creedal, traditions that are often ethnic in origin and are not part of the core of Christian belief. Traditions with a large T refers to the doctrines of the faith.

    This is not something that goes in AP Style or something. It’s language that people us inside the church.

  • Julia

    re: Tradition and tradition

    It’s the same with the Catholics and Jews.

    It’s important to know that if the reporter wants to understand what a religious person is saying. the reporter doesn’t have to believe it or report it as the truth, but should be able to convey the jist of what is being said.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    “In all these cases, the word is identical – the exact meaning is determined by context”

    The context, in this case, is the grammar of written English. To capitalize certain words is to make them proper nouns. I am not disputing the “orthodoxy” of the group (well, I am, but I admit the issue is a sticky wicket and not my central point). I was simply pointing out that they are not part of the properly-titled “Orthodox Christian” communion. This is not a letter about truth; it is a letter about getting names wrong.

  • Northcoast

    I would question the logic of anyone who would apply the descriptions cult-like and orthodox (even with the small “o”) to the same religious body.

  • David Wiechmann

    These appear to both be journalistic digs at those, who take their faith seriously. This time around, the Orthodox Church is the target. If they go after the much larger and much more powerful Roman Catholic church, they certainly won’t stop for the Orthodox.

  • str


    Sure! But it still makes no sense. It would be better to speak of sacred tradition (which is hardly all “creedal”) as opposed to local traditions.

    And let’s note that it is “something that the Orthodox say” as long as the are American. It is ony feasible in English.

  • Julia


    sacred tradition (which is hardly all “creedal”)

    You are missing the point that Orthodox are not part of the sola scriptura gang. Like the Jews and Catholics they have rabbinic or Apostolic & Church Father teachings and theology (AKA Tradition) not appearing in the Torah or New Testament that are important in a way that Protestant traditions are not.

    Creeds are not the end of the story for Orthodox and many other Christians.

  • str

    I am not missing that point at all, being Catholic myself. Incididentally I posted about this in a comment on another entry here.

    But what you say wasn’t really the point at all. Neither did I say creeds were the end of story, rather the contrary: Creeds are not all there is to sacred tradition, hence “creedal” is not the word.

    My point merely was that capitalisation is no proper way to distinguishing and that one shouldn’t project a pure English-language phenomenon to speakers of other languages, orthodox or not.

  • Liesl

    I think some of this confusion is due to the inherent nationalism within the Orthodox Church. Most Orthodox do not call themselves “Orthodox Christians” but rather “Greek Orthodox” “Russian Orthodox” “Antiochian Orthodox” etc.

    When I am asked what religion I am, my first response is “Orthodox.” When I notice my questioner’s face twist, and realize that he’s thinking it’s very strange for an Orthodox Jew to be dressed in modern clothing, I quickly qualify myself as “Orthodox Christian.” The response, “Oh, GReeek Orthodox.”

    While I’m technically Antiochian Orthodox, as many converts are, I have no ethnic affiliation with the Church and don’t always want to explain why a blond-haired, blue-eyed, freckle-faced girl is Antiochian.

    It’s not that the public is ignorant of Orthodoxy, (well, some are), but perhaps the greater problem is that the term Orthodox Christian isn’t broadly used by the Orthodox themselves- at least not in America, nor in France where I’m currently living.

    Then again, a religion reporter aught to figure it out. To start, he/she might want to look the word up, big O and small o….

  • MichaelV

    Stu, if I tell you I like the taste of Mountain Dew but not the taste of mountain dew, you know what I mean. In the case of Orthodox vs. orthodox, people in the know know what the difference is too (unless, I guess, it’s the first word in a sentence), and reporters ought to avoid ambiguity. But I’ll agree that different people believe in different standards of orthodoxy and for that reason it’s best to avoid the term in a news report.

  • str

    The difference is in the context, not in the capitalisation. Whether the consumption of coke is illegal does not rest upon capitalisation but on context.

  • MichaelV

    Whether a word is capatalized tells you whether it is a proper noun, which is part of the context. Whether you agree English should work that way or not, it does.

  • str


    that might work with regard to “Mountain Dew” but it doesn’t work in regard to “orthodox” because that word in itself is not a proper noun at all but an adjective “the Orthodox Church” might be a proper noun – if somebody actually used that exact term – but this would allievate the confusion.

    And your cited capitalisation rule is not the only one in existence.