The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia was administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria from the first half of the fourth century until 1959, when Saint Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria granted it autocephaly with its patriarch, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Ethiopia is just the second nation in history to declare Christianity as its official religion, after Armenia (in AD 333).
The Ge’ez word tewahedo means “united as one.” This term refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in Christ’s one perfectly united existence; that is, a complete unification of the divine and human natures into one nature is self-evident to achieve the divine redemption of humanity, as opposed to the “two natures of Christ” belief held by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as Anglican, Lutheran, and most Protestant churches.
Ethiopia’s Oriental Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in Ethiopia) is autocephalous, which means appointing its own head, not subject to the authority of an external patriarch or archbishop. And the headquarter resides in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahdo church is the largest branch of Oriental Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia. The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, one of the few pre-colonial Christian churches in Sub-Saharan Africa, dates back thousands of years and has a current membership of around 36 million people, the majority of whom live in Ethiopia.
It is a member of the World Council of Churches since its inception. After gaining autocephaly in 1959, the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia joined forces with the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches adopt Cyril of Alexandria’s miaphysitic Christological view, which advocates one nature of the Word of God incarnate and a hypostatic union, as advocated by Cyril of Alexandria, the leading protagonist in the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries. This position differed in that the incarnate Christ has one nature, but that nature is made up of the two natures, divine, and human, and retains all of their characteristics after the union.
Miaphysitism holds that divinity and humanity are joined in one nature in the one individual of Jesus Christ, where Christ is consubstantial with God the Father, without division, misunderstanding, modification, or mixing. About 500 bishops from the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem declined to embrace the dyophysitism (two natures) doctrine decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, leading the Roman Empire’s main church to split for the second time.
They gained the king’s confidence and were granted permission to evangelize in Aksum (a powerful kingdom in northern Ethiopia). Frumentius baptized the succeeding king, Ezana, and Christianity became the state religion. Nine Syrian monks are said to have introduced monasticism to Ethiopia at the end of the fifth century, promoting the translation of the Bible into the Ge’ez language.
In opposing the Christological decision issued by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were equally present in one person without commingling, the Ethiopian church adopted the Coptic (Egyptian) church (now called the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria).
The Coptic and Ethiopian churches, in contrast to this dyophysitism, or two-species doctrine, claimed that the human and divine natures were equally present through the mystery of the Incarnation within a single nature.
The Roman and Greek churches interpreted this position, known as miaphysitism or single-nature doctrine, as a heresy known as monophysitism, or the idea that Christ had only one divine nature. The Ethiopian church adopted the term tewahedo, which is a Geez word that means “unity” and reflects the church’s miaphysite values.