The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church broke away from mainline Christianity long before the Great Schism and only recognizes the first three ecumenical councils: Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Ethiopian Orthodox churches are unique for strongly emphasizing certain Old Testament laws such as dietary restrictions, for performing exorcisms, and for using a now-extinct language, Ge’ez, for official liturgical purposes. They also prescribe specific rules for who may receive communion and dedicate their church buildings to patron saints. Membership of this denomination is estimated at more than 40 million.
The Oriental Orthodox Church split from mainline Christianity after the Council of Chalcedon. Prior to Chalcedon, councils such as Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus had defined the orthodox view of Christ’s divinity. Nestorianism, which emphasized that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were two completely different entities, had been rejected. The Council of Chalcedon declared that Christ was a single person with two unified natures, human and divine. Some felt this was too close to Nestorianism and rejected the council’s decision.
Politics also played a role in this split, as pro-Chalcedonian Emperor Justinian I attempted to replace all Christian bishops with like-minded believers. The groups that would eventually form the Oriental Orthodox Church refused to cooperate with this move. In recent years, particularly between Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, there has been much discussion about whether the split between the two was really one of theology or mere terminology.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the largest sect within the Oriental Orthodox, which itself is discrete from the Eastern Orthodox Church. The other sects within Oriental Orthodoxy are Coptic, Syriac, Eritrean, Armenian Apostolic, and Malankara Syrian. As a result of the split between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, these groups are sometimes referred to as “monophysite” churches. However, they typically prefer the term miaphysite, since they reject Nestorianism.
Ethiopian Orthodox Churches are notable for their strong adherence to many Old Testament practices, including restrictions on pork and other non-kosher foods. They also heavily emphasize certain feast and fast days. Worshipers are expected to remove their shoes prior to entering a church building. Women are seated separately from men and may not enter during their menstrual period. Ethiopian Orthodox churches are each devoted to a patron saint and frequently pray to him/her, as well as to Mary. Exorcism is a common practice as well. Ethiopian Orthodox churches usually use the local dialect for sermons and other communication, but all liturgy is performed in the Ge’ez language, which today is used for no other purpose.