Patheos answers the question:

What Are Some Russian Orthodox Beliefs?

faith russian ortho candle

The Russian Orthodox Church, legally known as the Moscow Patriarchate, is actually part of a “communion” (or conglomerate) of various autocephalous and autonomous branches or denominations of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Autocephalous” is typically used to mean an Orthodox denomination that is “self-governing” (like the Russian Orthodox Church is), whereas an “autonomous” Orthodox Church is one that is “self-legislated,” but still under the governance of one of the autocephalous Orthodox denominations.

The universally acknowledged autocephalous branches of Orthodoxy are the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech Lands/Slovakia. The universally acknowledged autonomous branches are the Orthodox Churches of Finland and the Sinai. There are other branches (such as the Orthodox Church in America and the Orthodox Church of the Ukraine) which are not acknowledged by all branches of Orthodoxy as autocephalous. (The Russian Orthodox Church is one of those that flatly rejects Ukraine’s autocephalous status.) There are also numerous branches of the Orthodox tradition that are not universally acknowledged as autonomous, as well (such as the Orthodox Churches of Estonia, Japan, China, the Ukraine and the Archdiocese of Ohrid—in Macedonia). There are other formerly self-governing Orthodox Churches (like Rome, Carthage, Latvia, and Lithuania) that are either no longer Orthodox, or which simply no longer exist. And others still that are considered schismatic, having broken ranks with the mainstream Orthodox Church—being no longer in communion with the main Church, even though they usually maintain the doctrines and practices of the mainstream Church (such as the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of France, and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church).

Each of the fourteen main denominations function independently from each other, but are united under the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople—who is seen as primus inter pares or “first among equals.” In other words, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox tradition symbolizes the unity of the various denominations. Unlike the Pope (in Roman Catholicism), the Ecumenical Patriarch does not “run” the various denomination—which have their own denominational patriarch. However, the Ecumenical Patriarch does preside (as “first among equals”) when the various denominations meet collegially, symbolizing the reality that each of these denominations are not only “in communion” with each other, but they are essentially “one.”


Of the many autocephalous, autonomous, and independent Orthodox denominations, the Russian Orthodox is the largest—with over 100 million members, which means that nearly half of all Orthodox Christians are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the next largest Orthodox denomination is the Orthodox Church of the Ukraine, and they only have about 35 million members; which gives you some sense of the largeness of Russian Orthodoxy.

When understood as being a singular denomination of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Churches (of which Russian Orthodoxy is but one) constitute the second largest Christian tradition—Roman Catholicism being the largest. According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world today—though estimates vary from as low as 160 million to as high as 320 million. (While there are more people who are members of the various protestant denominations than there are Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestantism is very fractured and cannot be considered a singular denomination—whereas the branches of Orthodoxy are really a singular Church, with a singular head—the Ecumenical Patriarch.)


Russian Orthodoxy shares with other Churches many traditional Christian doctrines—though the Russian Orthodox Church sometimes has a slightly more nuanced understanding of these doctrines. By the time of the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325), the theological rift between the East (what would become the Orthodox Church) and the West (what would become Roman Catholicism) was already quite pronounced. We will delineate some of the differences below. However, it is worth nothing that the Orthodox more frequently fall closer to Catholics than protestants on most major doctrines—though certainly not all.


Much like the Roman Catholic tradition, the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy see themselves as the original Church of the New Testament—the very Church that many hold was founded on the day or feast of Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit was poured out in abundance upon the followers of Christ. Whereas Roman Catholics often perceive all other Christian denominations as a “break off” of their tradition, many Eastern Orthodox Christians hold that all Christian denominations broke off of Orthodoxy—including Catholicism, which the Eastern Orthodox often claim severed itself from Orthodoxy in the “Great Schism” of the 11th century.

The Russian Orthodox Church traces its denomination’s origins to AD 988, when Vladimir the Great (AKA Prince Volodymyr Sviatoslavych—AD 956-1015) declared Byzantine Christianity the state religion of Russia. That being said, there was apparently a Russian diocese already established in the country (by the patriarchate of Constantinople) as early as AD 867—even though official recognition would not happen for more than a hundred and twenty years.

As each denomination of Orthodoxy as its own Patriarch or Metropolitan, the initial seat of the Metropolitan of Russian Orthodoxy was Kiev. However, when the center of power and leadership in the Russia government shifted to Moscow (in the 14th century), the head of the Church relocated as well. It wasn’t until after the 15th century fall of Byzantium that the Russian Orthodox Church began to become autocephalous. Within a century and a half, Moscow had its own patriarch, and the Church was then truly self-governing. Because of the influence of Byzantine tradition, where the civil government actively influences the Church’s governance, there really isn’t much in the way of separation of Church and State in Russia.


While Roman Catholicism accepts twenty-one ecumenical councils (from the 1st Council of Nicaea, in AD 325, down through Vatican II, in AD 1962-1965), the Russian Orthodox Church (and Orthodoxy in general) only accepts the first seven ecumenical councils (i.e., Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II).

Jesus Christ

Russian Orthodoxy holds Jesus to be the central figure of Christianity, and certainly the center of Russian Orthodox doctrine, worship and life. It is He around which all sacraments of the Church revolve, the liturgical calendar is focused, and in whom all hopes for salvation are grounded. The Christology of the Russian Church holds that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—one Person with two natures. He was perfectly human and perfectly divine. Jesus was begotten in pre-eternity as God’s Son, having no heavenly mother; and begotten in mortality, as a man without an earthly father. As one Russian Orthodox source explains: “In Orthodox worship, the fulfillment of our two natures, the physical and the spiritual, come together, just as human nature and divine nature came together in the Person of Jesus Christ.”

Of Him, one Orthodox website states: “As the unique divine-human person, Jesus saves the world by teaching the absolute truth of God; by forgiving the evils of all men and the whole world; by suffering and dying in innocence, voluntarily and unjustly on the cross in order to be with all who suffer and die; by rising from the dead in a new and glorified form; by taking our humanity to God in order to make it divine forever…that they could, in a word, be sons of God in Him.”


In Russian Orthodoxy, salvation is often defined in terms of “theosis” or “deification”—meaning, the ultimate goal of the Christian life is for God (through Christ) to cleanse each Christian of “hamartia” (i.e., ways in which we have “missed the mark” or the purpose of the Christian life)—thereby allowing the saved person to share eternally in the “nature” of the Holy Trinity (though not in God’s “essence”—which would be an impossibility, since we are not Gods). Thus, for the Russian Orthodox, heaven is not simply a place which awaits the faithful. It is also the abode of those who have been deified, who have been “saved from unholiness,” and who will enjoy and participate in the everlasting “life” of the Holy Trinity.

Trinity & the Filioque

Russian Orthodoxy believes firmly in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. However, it rejects all modalistic interpretations of that sacred doctrine—interpretations so common in much of low-church protestantism, and among many contemporary Catholics. Rather, the Russian Orthodox emphasize the “oneness” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while acknowledging those three divine Persons as utterly distinct—with unique roles in the Godhead. For the Orthodox, though the Father, Son and Holy Spirit constitute the Holy Trinity and one God (united in divine essence), the Son and Holy Spirit are traditionally seen as subordinate to the Father.

Russian Orthodoxy rejects the filioque, or Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit precedes forth from both the Father and the Son. The filioque, meaning “and from the Son,” was added to the Nicene Creed (by the west) in the late 6th century, and the Orthodox Church universally rejects that addition—not only because it changes the original text of the creed, but also because it rejects the doctrine of the subordination of the Son to the Father—a doctrinal belief which distinguishes the Russian Orthodox from the Catholics and most protestants in their understandings of the Holy Trinity.

The Virgin Mary

Mary is considered the greatest of all of the Saints and is honored above any other Saint of the Church. Of course, both Russian Orthodox and Catholic Christians elevate the Virgin Mary to a very high status. The Orthodox Church refers to her as “the Theotokos”—meaning literally “the Mother of God.” However, whereas Catholics have toyed with the idea that Mary may be “co-redemptrix” with Christ, the Russian Orthodox emphatically reject that idea. While Mary is revered in Orthodoxy, she is not on par with Jesus, nor does she receive the same worshipful adoration that she does in many Roman Catholic nations.

Additionally, whereas the Catholic Church proclaims a doctrine known as the “Immaculate Conception”—which states that Mary was herself conceived without “original sin” (thereby making it impossible for her to pass on “original sin” to Jesus)—the Russian Orthodox reject that doctrine, and do not fully embrace the doctrine of “original sin” (in which the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is grounded); at least, the Russian Orthodox do not accept “original sin” in its Augustinian conception (even though the Orthodox do practice infant baptism).

Like Roman Catholics, the Russian Orthodox do typically subscribe to the perpetual virginity of Mary. The New Testament passages which speak of Jesus’s “brothers” are traditionally interpreted (by the Orthodox) as Jesus’s “kin” or “kinsmen”—a looser interpretation of the Greek word adelphos, entirely possible in the original Greek. Thus, the Orthodox do not believe that Mary and Joseph every consummated their marriage, and believe that Mary’s extreme holiness was manifest, among other ways, through her choice to remain a perpetual virgin.

Supremacy and Infallibility

Among other things, one of the driving factors behind the “Great Schism” (AD 1054) between the Eastern and Western sides of the Church had to do with papal supremacy. Whereas the West had come to believe that the Bishop of Rome (or Pope) held authority over all other bishops of the Church (in the West and in the East), the Eastern side of the Church firmly believed that the Church should be led collegially, as a college of bishops, with no one bishop exercising more authority than the others. When the pope sought to exercise his authority over the ecumenical patriarch (in Constantinople), the gauntlet had been thrown down and, ultimately, this led to the two sides excommunicating each other.

Whereas the Roman Catholic Church holds that the pope has the ability to speak infallibly on matters of dogma and morality, when speaking ex cathedra, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has consistently maintained that no man—pope, patriarch or person—is anything more than human and, thus, none can claim infallibility—ecclesiastically, theologically, or otherwise. In this regard, the Russian Orthodox (and Orthodox Christians in general) are much like the various protestant denominations, and very different from the Catholic Church.

Clerical Celibacy

In Roman Catholicism, those who have taken holy orders (nuns, priests, bishops, popes, etc.) are required to take a vow of celibacy. (The only exception being a married and ordained priest from another Christian tradition, such as Anglicanism or Lutheranism, who then converts to Catholicism and continues to function as a priest, though now in the Catholic Church.) However, in the Russian Orthodox tradition, while “higher clergy” (e.g., Bishops, Archbishops, Metropolitans, Patriarchs) are expected to be celibates, “lower clergy” (specifically parish priests) are required to be married. Among other things, the Russian Orthodox have argued that a priest over a parish will need to counsel his parishioners on issues of marriage and family life. How can he adequately do so if he has no experience in this arena himself? Thus, celibacy—while the norm among the monks and leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church—is largely non-existent among local parish priests (with the exception of widowers). For the Russian Orthodox, like protestants, a life of celibacy is not seen as a more holy life than is the married life, as marriage is a sacrament, and thus is, by definition, “holy” or “sacral.”

Seven Sacraments

While both Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians have seven Sacraments, those seven are not identical in the two traditions. Customarily labeled, the sacraments of these two traditions are as follows:

Russian Orthodox Sacraments

Roman Catholic Sacraments





Holy Communion

The Eucharist

Holy Orders or Ordination

Penance or Reconciliation

Confession or Penance

Holy Unction or Anointing of the Sick

Anointing of the Sick or Holy Unction

Holy Matrimony

Holy Matrimony

Holy Orders

Sin and Human Nature

The Russian Orthodox acknowledge the Fall—as do most Christian denominations. However, for the Orthodox, since humans are created “in the image of God,” they do not say that “human nature” is “evil.” Rather, their focus instead is on the reality that humans are “attracted” to sin or are “inclined” to sin. Thus, whereas Augustine focused on the guilt humans possess because of the Fall—and in the form of “original sin” or “inherited guilt”—the Russian Orthodox largely reject this, saying instead that our humanity makes us more susceptible to sin, but we are no less endowed with “divine nature” and the potential to experience divinization through the God who has created us “in His image.”


While the Russian Orthodox do believe in the entire Holy Bible as canonical, as an official position, the various parts of the Bible have greater or lesser status, contingent upon the book. The four gospels have the greatest esteem out of all the Biblical books.

The Russian Church rejects the protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (or “scripture alone”). “Tradition” (i.e., the content of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Church’s official interpretations of scripture, and the Church’s long-standing theological positions and practices—as manifest through “holy tradition” and the “consensus” of the Church Fathers) also carry canonical status and are interpreted by many Russian Orthodox Christians as equally binding as that which is contained in the Holy Bible.


The Russian Orthodox use religious icons (or art) quite heavily. While they do not perceive doing so as idolatrous, they traditionally venerate (or kiss) icons, burn incense to them, and use them in most acts of worship. For practitioners of Orthodoxy, icons help the worshiper to draw closer to God. They are a door to spiritual communion with the divine. Because of what they represent, they are treated with great respect and even awe—though the Russian Orthodox are emphatic that the icons are not perceived as God, only as a representation of the divine.

In Russian Orthodox tradition, icons are not simply “nice” depictions of divine beings or holy events. Rather, they are “necessary” or “essential” in Russian Orthodox worship, as they “safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the incarnation.” They help us to understand what Jesus was. Just as an icon is earthly matter with a divine image, pointing our minds and hearts to God, Jesus came to earth, took upon Himself a body made of “earthly matter” (but with a “divine image” or the “express image of God”—Hebrews 1:3), thereby pointing our hearts and minds to His Father, God. Thus, icons not only open a door to heaven, but they also teach us about a crucial Russian Orthodox doctrine—the incarnation of God’s Son.

While the Russian Orthodox will use 2-demensional images, they traditionally avoid statuary as part of their formal worship (in an effort to avoid breaking the commandment given in Exodus 20:4-5 about “graven images”).

Progressivism and Church Evolution

One of the things that sets the Russian Orthodox Church apart from other Christian denominations are its efforts to remain as close to the New Testament Church—its doctrines, structure, and feel—as possible. In that regard, some outside of the Orthodox tradition have seen it as “anti-progressive.” The Russian Orthodox do not use such terminology in explaining their stance. However, it is true that Orthodoxy generally sees the evolution of the look, feel, doctrines, and practices of many of the other Christian Churches as evidence that they have strayed from New Testament Christianity. The Russian Orthodox, on the other hand, have sought to avoid as much of that theological “drift” as possible and, thus, when one steps into a Russian Orthodox Church, sometimes it feels a bit as though one has stepped back in time. For practitioners of Russian Orthodoxy, this is not only part of the beauty of their tradition, but also part of what evidences that it is the “true” or most “accurate” of Christian denominations.

5/14/2024 9:13:57 PM
Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology/comparative religion, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.
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