In mid-January, a large cohort of Eastern Orthodox theologians — nearly 400, from 44 countries — gathered in Volos, Greece. It was the largest conference of Orthodox theologians in modern history.
At the center of discussion were theological questions stirred up by the Russia-Ukraine War.
In the conference’s keynote address, Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea condemned the heresy of “ethno-phyletism” — a theological error that confuses church and nation. This tendency toward conflating Christian community with ethnic boundaries is not a new one for Eastern Orthodoxy. While other Christian communions must combat similar attitudes, the structure of the Eastern Orthodox Church makes it particularly prone to this struggle.
The tensions of war have exposed this reality to the world. In a sermon on Sept. 25, 2022, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made headlines by telling Russian soldiers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” On the other hand, the Ukrainian Security Service has conducted regular raids of monasteries and churches within their borders that remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.
To understand these ongoing tensions, let’s take a step back to look at the structure of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Varieties of Eastern Orthodoxy
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which falls under the authority of one bishop (the pope), Eastern Orthodoxy is a collection of ethnic churches that are self-governing to some degree. There are two “levels” of such self-governance: autocephaly and autonomy.
Autocephalous churches each elect their own leader and have full authority to operate as independent church bodies in all matters. Autonomous churches have some authority regarding internal self-governance but rely on a mother church (one of the autocephalous churches) in many matters, including the appointment of a leader.
While there is no pope of Eastern Orthodoxy, the leader of the church of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, is considered the “first among equals,” due to Constantinople’s historic role as the center of Eastern Christianity.
While these designations seem fairly clear-cut, things become less clear once you consider specific churches.
Currently, there are 13 — or maybe 14, 15 or 16, or maybe more — autocephalous churches within Eastern Orthodoxy. There are 14 about which everyone agreed until quite recently: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and the Czech Lands/Slovakia.
In 2019, amid mounting tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which had formerly been a daughter church of the Russian Orthodox Church. In retaliation, the Patriarch of Moscow declared the separation of the Russian Orthodox Church from Constantinople — a significant schism in Eastern Orthodoxy since nearly half of its adherents fall under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church (110 million in Russia and its subsidiary churches). A schism of this magnitude has arguably not occurred since the Eastern Church splintered from the Western Church in A.D. 1054. If this declaration leads to a lasting divide, then the Russian Orthodox Church can no longer be considered an autocephalous church of Eastern Orthodoxy but will have the same standing as the Oriental Orthodox Church, which broke from the established church in A.D. 451 (long before the Great Schism).
In May 2022, the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which had been a schismatic church for over five decades, reconciled with the Serbian Orthodox Church from which it had broken. In June 2022, the Serbian Orthodox Church granted Macedonia autocephaly, which has been confirmed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So that brings the number of autocephalous churches to 14 or 15, depending on Moscow’s status.
Further, there are two churches whose autocephaly is recognized by some, but not all, of the other autocephalous churches. The Orthodox Church in America, which was originally an autonomous church of the Russian Orthodox Church, was granted autocephaly by Russia in the 1970s. However, Constantinople has never recognized this autocephaly. On the flip side, Russia still refuses to acknowledge the autocephaly granted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019.
Russian Orthodoxy, church and state
With a structure of church authority and hierarchy so rooted in geographic regions, it is understandable that politics and ethnic divides could seep into Eastern Orthodox churches and foment division contrary to the Gospel. Even before the conflict with the Ukrainian Church, the Russian Orthodox Church has been a case study of blurring the lines between church and state. The extent to which this happens can be shocking to the West.
In May 2020, construction was completed on a cathedral an hour outside of Moscow — a towering fortress of green metal featuring six gold domes, from which gleam six bright crosses.
The cathedral’s main dome sits on a pedestal 19.45 meters in diameter, is 22.43 meters tall and contains eight windows — in reference to the German surrender on May 8, 1945, at 10:43 p.m. (22:43 in military or 24-hour time). This surrender marked the end of 1,418 days of the war on the eastern front of World War II (known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War”) — hence the 14.18 meter height of the six smaller domes.
This is the new “Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.” Its front steps and floors are fashioned from the metal of melted German tanks and other weapons. Stained glass windows on the ceiling feature Soviet war medals. Interior mosaics (the largest amount of mosaic in any church in the world, in fact) show numerous scenes from World War II, as well as other depictions of Russian military history. Wrapped entirely around the cathedral is a museum of the Soviet war effort in World War II, which opened at the same time as the cathedral.
One journalist, visiting the cathedral in 2020, asked an altar server about the juxtaposition of military and religious images in the cathedral. He did not find the pairing odd: “In the war, our soldiers martyred themselves so that we could be free and independent. Only Russians are capable of sacrificing themselves to save humanity, just like Jesus did.”
Such news from the church in Russia is a chastening look into the dangers the state can present to the church when they are too closely affiliated. And yet, some veins of conservative Christians have even endorsed Putin for his upholding of “traditional values” in society. An honest look at the Russian Orthodox Church as political arm leaves us with no question: This is not the Gospel.
Identified in Christ
Eastern Orthodoxy’s belief in its status as the one true church, paired with its commendable rejection of one central human spiritual authority like the pope, leaves it with a structure vulnerable to internalizing human political divides and ethnic differences that are ultimately not proper to the church, even here on earth. Many devout Orthodox faithful, we pray, continue to cling to Christ even as they endure such things from their leaders. Regardless, consistent Orthodox Christians under the Russian Orthodox Church now must question the status of their union with the human organization they have been catechized to believe is the one church, outside which there is no salvation.
The Lutheran Confessions point us to Christ. Our Lutheran confession catechizes us that we belong to Christ above any other, even while it catechizes us to belong faithfully to our nation insofar as this does not require us to turn from Him. We are grateful for a political system designed to protect the church from the state, a government under which a church body like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has flourished and grown and, with a clear voice, even spoken against the government at times.
Moscow and Kirill remain important reminders for us, as well: that our ultimate identity, that the church, rests not in Germany, not in America, not in our heritage, our songs, our liturgy, our history or our piety, as salutary as any of these things may be — but in Jesus Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” in whom “you are all one” (Gal. 3:28).
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