As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, an unknown dynamic of the crisis is deeply religious in nature. Specifically, the history of the Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian and Russian branches. Many would say that you cannot fully understand what is unfolding – let alone grasp the implications of Russia’s success or failure – without understanding the role of the Church.
In this one, the first in a series of two blogs, I will give an overview of the Orthodox Church. In the second blog, I will discuss the role the Church plays 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 composed of the 14 Churches officially invited to the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania and Czech Republic/Slovakia), the Church Orthodox Church of America (formed in 1970) and, more recently, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine created in 2019. They are approximately 220 million worldwide. The largest of the churches is the Russian Orthodox Church.
The head of each church is called “patriarch” or “metropolitan”. The Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) is considered the first among equals or “first among equals”.
The Orthodox Church claims to be the only and true Christian Church, all others (Roman Catholic, Protestant) being later offshoots that deviated from the historical 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 turned heresy through the development of the papacy and claimed supremacy over all other churches. Essentially, the Church of Rome moved away from the other four patriarchal centers in an effort to assert its primacy.
In truth, there was much more to the growing divide. Culturally, the divide between East and West has deepened over the years. It is often said that the East forgot to speak Latin and the West forgot to speak Greek. It was true figuratively and literally.
A theological disagreement over the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed without the approval of a General Council would also prove to be a continuing and ever-growing division. Originally, this part of the Nicene Creed said, “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, who gives life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified. Latin for “and the Son”, the later addition of the filioque reads “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, who gives life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified. The position of the Orthodox Church was that the overflow of all divine life comes from the Father – that both the Son and the Holy Spirit are recipients, not merely the Holy Spirit – and that changing the verbiage had implications for a true understanding of the Trinity. , especially since it had not been approved by a General Council.
Rome’s claim to universal papal supremacy and the addition of the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed (not to mention the increasing 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 branch of Christianity which, in the minds of the Orthodox, drifted away from the one true Church they believed to represent. Placing the Bible above Church and tradition has been called “the sin of the Reformation”, as the Orthodox have placed the Church above Scripture, fearing that private interpretation would go wrong. They would argue that the Spirit of God speaks to his people through the apostolic tradition which, though expressed through scripture, is also expressed through the seven ecumenical councils and then, to a lesser extent, the fathers of the Church, Liturgy and Canon Law. There are many other distinctions with Protestant theology, including ideas surrounding apostolic succession, the meaning and number of sacraments, the role of icons, and the emphasis on Christian sanctification (or “deification”) as opposed to the justification.
Orthodox Christians have suffered enormous persecution, perhaps more than any other Christian group. During the era of Soviet atheism, the Communists closed 98% of 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, especially in Russia. According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, based on an analysis of data from the International Social Survey Program, the number of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox increased from 31% to 72% between 1991 and 2008.
So what does all of this mean for the 2022 Russian invasion? This will be the subject of the second part of this series.
James Emery White
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church.
“Eastern Orthodoxy”, Christian historynumber 54, (vol. XVI, no. 2).
“Russians are returning to religion, but not to the church” Pew Research CenterFebruary 10, 2014, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, go to 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.