Ukraine, Russia and the Orthodox Church – Part 1
As the Russian invasion into Ukraine continues, an unknown dynamic of the crisis is deeply religious in nature. Specifically, the story of the Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian and Russian branches. Many would argue that you can’t fully understand what is unfolding – much less grasp the implications of Russia’s success or failure – without understanding the role of the Church.
In this, the first of a two-blog series, I’ll give an overview of the Orthodox Church. In the second blog, I’ll address the role the Church is playing in the current conflict.
The Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church is not a single church, but rather a family of self-governing churches that are largely regional in nature. They are united in their theological understanding of the sacraments, doctrine, liturgy, and church government, but each administers its own affairs.
It is currently made up of the 14 churches that were officially invited to the Pan-Orthodox Council of 2016 (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania, and the Czech Republic/Slovakia), the Orthodox Church in America (formed in 1970) and, most recently, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine created in 2019. They number approximately 220 million worldwide. The largest of the churches is the Russian Orthodox Church.
The head of each church is called a “patriarch” or “metropolitan.” The patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) is considered the primus inter pares or “first among equals.”
The Orthodox Church claims to be the one, true Christian Church, with all others (Roman Catholic, Protestant) to be later off-shoots that deviated from the historic norm. In their sense of history, the Church was “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” for the first 1,000 years of its existence with five historic patriarchal centers: Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople. They embrace the decisions of the first seven General Councils of the Church, held between 325 and 787. What the Orthodox Church maintains is that in the East they kept the faith, while in the West (the Roman Church) they veered into heresy through the development of the papacy and claims to supremacy over all other churches. In essence, the church in Rome pulled away from the other four patriarchal centers in a bid to assert its primacy.
In truth, there was much more to the growing divide. Culturally, the divide between East and West grew profound as the years went by. It is often said that the East forgot how to speak Latin, and the West forgot how to speak Greek. This was true figuratively and literally.
A theological disagreement over adding the filioque to the Nicene Creed without the approval of a General Council would also prove to be an ongoing and ever-growing divide. Originally, that part of the Nicene Creed read, “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.” Latin for “and the Son,” the later addition of the filioque made it read “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.” The position of the Orthodox Church was that the overflow of all divine life is from the Father – that the Son and the Holy Spirit are both recipients, not simply the Holy Spirit – and that changing the verbiage had implications for a true understanding of the Trinity, particularly as it had not been approved by a General Council.
Rome’s claim to a universal papal supremacy and the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed (not to mention the growing cultural separation) led to what is known as the “Great Schism” in 1054, forming the Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century provided another Christian branch that, in the minds of the Orthodox, led away from the one true Church they felt they represented. Putting the Bible above the Church and tradition has been called “the sin of the Reformation,” as the Orthodox put the Church over Scripture fearing private interpretation running amuck. They would contend that the Spirit of God speaks to His people through apostolic tradition which, while expressed through Scripture, is also expressed through the seven ecumenical councils and then, to a lesser degree, the church fathers, liturgy and canon law. There are many other distinctions with the Protestant theology, including ideas surrounding apostolic succession, the meaning and number of the sacraments, the role of icons, and an emphasis on Christian sanctification (or “deification”) as opposed to justification.
Orthodox Christians have suffered enormous persecution, perhaps more than any other Christian group. During the time of Soviet atheism, communists closed 98% of the Orthodox churches in Russia, as well as 1,000 monasteries and 60 seminaries. Between 1917 and the outbreak of World War II, some 50,000 Orthodox priests were martyred.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been significant growth in the Orthodox Church, particularly in Russia. According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, based on an analysis of data from the International Social Survey Programme, the number of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox rose from 31% to 72% between 1991 and 2008.
So, what does all of this mean for the Russian invasion of 2022? That will be the focus of part two of this series.
James Emery White
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church.
“Eastern Orthodoxy,” Christian History, Issue 54, (Vol. XVI, No. 2).
“Russians Return to Religion, But Not to Church,” Pew Research Center, February 10, 2014, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.