‘You Are All One’? Eastern Orthodoxy and the Struggle of Ethnic Christianity

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).

Photo: Getty Images

14 thoughts on “‘You Are All One’? Eastern Orthodoxy and the Struggle of Ethnic Christianity”

  1. James Rinkevich

    The Eastern Churches of Orthodoxy have a history of heresy. There are really too many to mention all of them here but you can start with Arianism, and finish with the polytheism of Photian monopatricism from Blachernae. Following Palamas, they have a divine uncreated essence and a divine uncreated energies and they can both be worship as god but they aren’t the same. In other words they created a second god to explain their Filioque rejection. Really we probably should make all of them be rebaptized since it’s a different god they worship.

  2. “An honest look at the Russian Orthodox Church as political arm leaves us with no question: This is not the Gospel.” This sentence betrays the intellectual slight-of-hand this author is attempting to utilize in order to undermine the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church without any actual grounds to do so.

    No Orthodox Christian, I doubt even those who agree wholeheartedly with everything happening in Russia under Kirill, would argue that the current political tragedy, or the Russian church’s involvement therein, equates to “the Gospel”. It’s a strawman, intended to trick the non-critical reader into reading that the Orthodox Church is not the Gospel without actually saying it (because she knows she can’t back that up).

    There is no accusation made in this article against the Orthodox Church that could not also be equally applied to any ecclesiastical body. Any structure that is used will have its pros and cons, but that is irrelevant when attempting to discern if the theological claims of a particular ecclesiastical body will hold up under societal and environmental pressures or succumb to errors.

    Historically, the Orthodox Church is the only Christian Church that has an unblemished record. Orthodoxy has been introduced successfully into dozens of cultures and languages. It has endured many heretical hierarchs, countless schisms and tragedies. It has been subject to monarchs, communist regimes and democratic chaos – and it has endured. It has endured without altering its theology, without adding or subtracting anything from the faith that has been delivered once for all to the saints. Even when contemporary heresies arise, they never remain in the Church. Christ preserves His Church.

    This is a far cry from the Catholic Church which has added numerous and damaging theologies since its schism. It is also an incredible contrast to the quite young, ever-schisming Protestant denominations whose theologies appear to be built on constantly shifting sand. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has its own fair share of schisms, and if we look at its age and the number and size of its schisms, it is far less stable than the Orthodox Church which has two thousand years of history behind it.

    And even within the safe haven of the LCMS proper, you cannot always tell that you are in an LCMS congregation when you attend services. There is no consistency or safeguard for the faithful, even in the most basic necessities – the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. If the True Church is where the Gospel is preached purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly, you must come to the conclusion that the LCMS is in no way a church, because it does not seem to mind whether its parishes are doing either of those things.

    Indeed, the political persuasion of its laymen and clergy is often much more emphasized, and certainly more streamlined, than what is being said or taught during its services or the practices surrounding its sacramental life. It is laughable that a member of the “most Republican denomination in America” is accusing Orthodoxy of being an arm of the state. Is your church being held together by its cultural and political affinities or its mutual love of Christ?

    In the Orthodox Church, you may not know if the person standing next to you is a Republican, a Democrat or none of the above… but you do know exactly where you are every time you attend liturgy, even if that liturgy happens to be in a completely different language. Why? Because we have unity in the Orthodox Church. It is not an earthly unity (obviously) but it is an otherworldly unity, a heavenly unity that we can and do experience in liturgy. We celebrate our liturgy uniquely according to language and culture, but the same according to its spiritual teaching, content and Sacramental participation.

    To be a consistent Orthodox Christian, is not to look at our hierarchs and wonder if we should find a new “human organization” to join. That would be consistent with Protestant or Lutheran theology, but we are not Protestants joined to a human organization.

    We listen to Scripture when Paul admonishes us not to say “I follow Paul or I follow Apollos or I follow Cephas or I follow Christ”. We do not look at our contemporary leaders and abandon our Lord when they are not appealing to us. We cling to this salvific Ark, the Church, even when the storms encircle her on every side. We know that the waves threaten to break her hull in two… but Christ is not divided, and neither is His Church. This is walking by faith, not by sight.

    To be an Orthodox Christian is to cling to Christ, not to abandon our Mother in her time of need, as if one can simply throw away the Bride of Christ when she is being assailed by Satan. Rather it is our calling to stay right where we are, in the harbor of Christ’s safety, knowing that His promises are sure. The gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. This evil war, our hierarchs, both erring and faithful, and all the baggage of our generation will eventually fade, but the Orthodox Church will be preserved whole and undefiled through it all – just as it always has.

    May God forgive us and have mercy on us all.

    1. Hi Amelia,

      Thanks for your comment. What you read as sleight of hand here is not meant as such at all: The antecedent of “this” is not meant to be “The Orthodox Church,” but “the church as political arm.” My comment, and my article, point out that the Gospel can easily be clouded by the conflation of church and state. This can be true in any church body, including our own.

      I would push back on your point that no Orthodox Christian would conflate this political tragedy to the Gospel, and refer you to some of the rhetoric cited in the article, such as the altar server at the Cathedral to the Armed Forces who is quoted saying that “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.” I came across many instances of such rhetoric in my research for this story, and the entire existence of such a chapel could be considered a conflation of military victory and salvation by Christ.

      I agree with some of your critiques of Protestant denominations and you do point out aptly (if acerbically) some of the struggles we face in the LCMS. However, the LCMS does not claim that its institution is coextensive with the true church. I am not accusing the whole Orthodox Church of being an arm of the state; I am simply analyzing the situation in Russia to point out how the combination of ethnic Christianity and institutional ecclesiology is very thorny: some who believe the Orthodox Church is the true church are now in churches which are in schism over political issues. As a Lutheran, I am not surprised by the many problems we face in the LCMS. The LCMS is not the one true church. No human institution is. The true church is Christ’s and, as you have said, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

  3. It is always fascinating to watch people move the proverbial goalposts to serve their own whims and desires. The author here is clearly unaware of their un-ironic sleight of hand, most likely believing that this was well thought out.

    Of interest, for example, is the specificity of “Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod” noted toward the end of the article. We are led to believe that disputes among Orthodox about the autocephalous nature of individual jurisdictions is somehow major cause for concern, but that this same concern somehow, magically, does not apply to the world of Lutheranism as a whole, which is a hot-mess of theological disagreements (and always has been), all of which falls under the even bigger umbrella of Protestantism, a great deal of which was inspired by Lutheran teachings and upon none of which all of them come anywhere close to agreement.

    The author lectures us that churches tied to states is somehow de facto proof that the Orthodox Church is not “one” or “true,” all while apparently failing to recall that we are barely a century away from a small event known as World War I, in which Lutheran Churches on opposite sides of the Atlantic each believed that their host country was on the side of Good and that the other was evil incarnate (see: Jenkins, Philip, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade).

    Or should we go down the path of Luther himself being tied to German princes, thus enabling his success beyond that of his predecessors who had already said the same things?

    There is a reason why Lutheranism’s greatest historian became Orthodox. Think deeper, please.

    1. Hi Greg,

      I certainly agree that all Christian churches face these temptations, as I mentioned in the article. However, to deny that a church whose organizational borders are national borders will not have specific struggles with ethnophyletism seems strange to me, especially in light of what is and has been going on in Russia and Ukraine, and what has been stated by Orthodox leaders themselves in recent conferences.

      However, the central difference is not this structure, but our ecclesiology. The LCMS does not claim to be the one true church. No struggles or sins in our church body will cause us to question the purity of the church. I am not in fact arguing that the OC is not “one” or “true” because it is tied to the state, but because it is a visible human institution. With human leaders and human structures there will always be corruption, but the true church is Christ’s, and we cannot mar it.

      My specific expression of gratitude for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the last paragraph should not be surprising from an LCMS author writing to a largely LCMS audience in an LCMS publication. I am grateful to be in a Lutheran church body in America, with an ecclesiology I believe to be faithful to Scripture, in a setting where the church has comparative distance from the state (though not always, as you’ve pointed out.)

  4. Basil Biberdorf

    There are a couple of factual, and significant inaccuracies in the article. In particular: “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).”

    There has been an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church (connected with the Russian Orthodox Church) for some time. The church body the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) granted a putative autocephaly to was the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), body that had previously been a schismatic breakaway from the canonical UOC, with a number of moral scandals among her leaders. The canonical UOC remains in communion with Moscow, and the other Orthodox in the world, in spite of this novel attempt of the EP to confer legitimacy on a church body that had none before.

    “On the flip side, Russia still refuses to acknowledge the autocephaly granted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019.” Of course. The Russian Church considers the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church — well-established and with a long history of communion — to be the legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine. They will not acknowledge this rival, schismatic body to be Orthodox just because a prominent patriarchiate says it must be so. None of this is to deny the real difficulties between the Russian and Ukrainian faithful as CHRISTIANS and between those people as political citizens affected by a really ugly war that was in no small part precipitated by the American government.

    Lutherans have long had such conflicts between self-identity (as with parishes having non-English services in America long into the 20th century, and even entire synods rooted in historical national affinities), national politics, and the Faith. Those synods often had competing communions that were more fragmented than the current problems in the Orthodox world.

    Note that I’m not trying to make a value judgment in speaking of this comparison. However, the article’s failure to discern the difference between the established UOC and the upstart, schismatic OCU makes some of its own value judgments about the Orthodox world of limited worth. The LCMS is a young church. These Orthodox jurisdictions have been around for centuries and millennia, with lots of political and other changes in that time. These must be acknowledged for what they are.

    1. Rev. Biberdorf,

      Thank you for reading and for your comment. All of this history and these shifting political lines are hard to follow, so I’m very open to hearing that I’ve been imprecise somewhere.

      However, I’m trying to understand where I have presented a factual inaccuracy. My understanding is that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine formed in 2019 by declaration of Constantinople, combining two Ukrainian Orthodox church bodies which had already declared their independence from Russia in the early 1990s. The current Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (UOC-Moscow Patriarchate), as I understand it, formed around that exact same time (90s), leaving itself under the authority of Russia.

      My article refers to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine when I say “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” but this seems to be standard nomenclature. I did not have space in this article to get into all of the dynamics between the UOC and the UOC-MP simply because that was not the focus of the article, and I don’t have a precise knowledge of the history of these bodies. I do mention “regular raids of monasteries and churches within [Ukraine’s] borders that remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.”

      Please let me know if I am missing anything and I would be happy to clarify the article; however, it seems to me that the church body granted autocephaly by Constantinople being “upstart” and “schismatic” is a matter of pious opinion rather than fact. And in any case, I don’t think where these lines are drawn affects the point of my article.

      I don’t deny at all that Lutherans and all Christians have shared the Orthodox Church’s struggles with faith, national politics and identity. I am grateful for our Lutheran theology that teaches me that failures in our leadership and institutions over the years are to be expected, and that I need not place my ultimate trust or hope in any human institution.

  5. The author wrote: “ 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 rest of the article did not make it clear why this is particularly a struggle for Orthodoxy compared to anyone else. Divisions among Lutherans in America were largely on ethnic divides, which reflected doctrinal divisions in the old country between state churches.

    And even though the LCMS was founded as a rejection of the Prussian union and state church in Germany, it maintains to this day an English and Slovak district even though everyone now speaks English. And it took two world wars with Germany before German really started to be shed and for the LCMS to open up more to her American neighbors.

    The author correctly noted that many groups struggle with a wrong attitude about church and nation but the article did not make it clear to me why the Lutheran Confessions prevent the same sort of problem from happening among Lutherans vs Orthodox.

  6. There are many other Autocephalous Churches that agree with Moscow over the Patriarch from Constantinople. And the Patriarch of Constantinople not “recognizing” a churches, or granting them without permission, autocephalousness in no way makes that universal for the Eastern Orthodox.

    I.e. you say that Moscow may have split from the Eastern Orthodox. Something like 90% of the EO think Constantinople has split from them!

    All of the quotes you give to the Moscow Patriarch and to the worker at the Cathedral of the Armed Forces has MUCH more nuance than you are giving it credit for.

  7. Rev. T.W. Chopp

    While on a Luther Sites Tour in East Germany with Dr. John Warwick Montgomery back in 1973 we celebrated a New Year’s Eve Divine Service in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig; I remember that the pastor, who preached a wonderful sermon, concluding with the words: “Earthly kingdoms come and go, but Christ’s Kingdom endures forever. Amen” Indeed, the Church is to glory in the Cross of Jesus the Christ and to preach and proclaim “Christ Crucified!”

  8. A well-known American hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia said, “If God wishes to grant salvation to some who are Christians in the best way they know, but without ever knowing the Orthodox Church—that is up to Him, not us. […] There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace….”

    Source: https://preachersinstitute.com/2019/08/31/salvation-of-christians-outside-the-orthodox-church/

  9. An odd sort of article coming from the synod which in prior years could not coexist with other Lutheran communions simply because they weren’t German. It used to be a common axiom in Missouri Synod circles that good theology couldn’t be done in English. The parish where I first became Lutheran just over a decade ago itself only exists because the other Lutheran parish in town refused to add an English service to the Sunday schedule.

    1. That’s not entirely true. The LCMS has had Slovak and English synods then districts of the LCMS very early on. It was in communion with Norwegian Synods very early on.

      It is true many think German is the best language for theology and some congregations didn’t change to the English language for quite some time. That though is a different issue than in the article.

      I know my second parish changed to English when an English speaking family wanted to join and they the service in English when they attended.

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