Since the earliest days of Christianity, there have been tensions between the Eastern or Greek and the Western or Roman strains of the faith. The Orthodox faith, which includes Russian Orthodox, maintains many differences from the Western faiths of Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Culture, geography and ideology have all played roles in separating Russian Orthodox from Western Christianity.

A History of Schism

By the time the Russian Orthodox Church was officially recognized in 988, the split between Eastern and Western Christianity was almost complete. Western Christianity recognized the pope, the bishop of Rome, as the authoritative head of the church. Eastern Christians saw the pope as one bishop among equals. In addition, differences over the wording of the Nicene Creed separated Orthodox Christians from those in the West. This separation was solidified in 1054 when the heads of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy excommunicated one another.

Differences in Structure

The Russian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Orthodox body. It represents one of five great patriarchates in the Orthodox Church. The Russian Patriarch is one among equals with the other patriarchs, with none having ecclesiastical authority over the other. Russian Orthodox bishops preside over distinct geographic areas, with each responsible for leading the church in his region.

Western church government can vary significantly. Roman Catholics have a similar hierarchical structure to Russian Orthodox. However, Catholics give the bishop of Rome (the pope) authority over the entire church. Protestant churches run the gamut from a hierarchy with bishops leading the churches, as is the case with Episcopalians, all the way to fundamental independent Baptists who recognize no central authority whatsoever.

Sacraments and Celebrations

Western Christianity shares some traditions and practices with Russian Orthodoxy, such as baptism and communion. Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics share seven sacraments, including baptism, confirmation (called "chrismation" in Orthodoxy), communion, penance, marriage, holy orders and the anointing of the sick. While there are some slight differences in ritual and meaning between Orthodox and Catholics, these sacraments are essentially compatible. Most Protestants recognize only two sacraments: baptism and communion.

There are also differences in the religious calendar between Russian Orthodox and Western Christians. Christmas and Easter are both celebrated at different times in Russian Orthodox churches than they are in Western churches.

Beliefs Compared

Christians in both the East and West share a common set of beliefs, including the belief that God is a trinity made up of three persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also share a belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus.

Yet, there are some beliefs unique to Russian Orthodox Christians that aren't shared by everyone in the West. For example, Russian Orthodox see scripture and tradition as equal sources of God's revelation, while Protestants only recognize scripture as authoritative. Orthodox Christians venerate the Virgin Mary, but they don't ascribe to her a role in salvation, unlike Roman Catholics. Western Christians teach that Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden led to the corruption of all human nature, a condition known as "original sin." Russian Orthodox believe that Adam and Eve's sin led to the entrance of death into the world, but didn't essentially change human nature.