The Oriental Orthodox family has five Churches — India, Armenia, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia – three in Asia and two in Africa. Total membership is over 25 millions.
The Byzantine Orthodox family has over 100 million members — in Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Western Europe, America, Australia and so on. Their members are mostly Slavic, Greek or Roman in origin. But they are also regarded as Eastern, though they are a bit less Asian-African.
Thus the Indian Orthodox Church is a strictly Asian-African Church, an Apostolic Church in continuity with the ancient West Asian Apostolic Church. This Church was established in India in the very first century by the Apostle. St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. It is one of the 40 or so ancient Apostolic Churches of the world.
What do they believe differently?
The very question is a Western one. In the West a Church is defined mainly by what it believes, ie. by its doctrines and teachings. This intellectualist orientation of faith does not belong to the Eastern tradition.
The Orthodox confess the same faith as the ancient Church — the faith as was later formulated in the fourth century in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople.
We object to certain later additions made by the Roman Catholics, for example the addition of the word ‘filioque’ in the Latin creed. They, for example, teach that the Holy Spirit, one of the Three Persons of the Trinity, proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque means ‘and from the Son’). We do not teach so. The son is begotten by the father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The words “begotten’ and ‘proceeding’ delineate the difference between the Son and the Spirit in their relation to the Father. In later centuries, especially after the fifth century when the Western Church broke from the Asian-African moorings, it misunderstood the word ‘proceeding’ as related to the coming of the Spirit in the Church on Pentecost. This coming, of course, is from the Father and the Son, but that is not what is meant by ‘proceeding’. The latter word denotes the eternal relation between the Father and the Spirit, and not the relation in time and history.
In the eternal dimension we cannot say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Therefore ‘filioque’ is out of place, wrong and misleading.
There are other doctrines and dogmas which the Roman Catholic Church has added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed — eg. the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma of Papal Infallibility, and the dogma of the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first two are wrong and the third is not dogma, for the Orthodox. We do not believe that there is any special miracle called Immaculate Conception connected with the origin and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nor do we believe that the Pope or any other human being is infallible. As for the teaching about the bodily assumption of Mary, We do teach it, but not as some central dogma of the Church.
Nor do we believe that believing in the right dogma is the evidence of a true Christian. We put equal emphasis on the way of life, on the way of worship, on the way of disciplining oneself as on the way of thinking and belief.
What then is the difference between East and West?
It is not so easy to pinpoint the difference in words. It seems the difference is more one of ethos, of orientation, of spirit rather than of dogma or belief.
Let us state some of the more obvious differences. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, believes in a universal organizational structure for the Church with one particular bishop, namely the Bishop of Rome or the Pope, holding a unique position in the whole world. We Easterners do not accept any one bishop as having universal jurisdiction or authority. So the Orthodox have no Pope. What they have is really an Episcopal Synod for each local or national Church. The President of the Synod may be a Patriarch, a Catholicos, and Archbishop or even a Pope as in the case of the Coptic Church of Egypt. But no such Synod or its president can have universal jurisdiction over the Churches of other countries. Each local or national Church with its Episcopal Synod and Patriarch is autocephalous, ie. it has its own head, and does not look to any other Church to exercise authority over it.