Politics in Orthodox Christianity

(To be published in J.Neusner (ed.), God's Rule.The Politics of World Religions, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, 2003)


In the mind of the general populace Christianity may broadly be understood as the religious tradition devoted to Jesus Christ, which today is most readily identified with a variety of churches and denominations. Furthermore, followers of Christ would logically be known as Christians. Beyond that, however, it would be difficult for most people to keep track of the distinctions within the Christian tradition, even on the denominational level. Particularly with reference to the Orthodox branch of Christianity, a clear, concise definition is in order.

Defining “Orthodox Christianity” is indeed a very difficult task. At a time when the very attribute (“orthodox”) is widely understood as having more or less negative connotations, what can we identify as the defining attributes of the “Orthodox Church?” In western theological and academic circles Orthodox Christianity has become known through ecumenical discussions, especially within the World Council of Churches, involving Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. Some scholars used to identify Orthodoxy either as a kind of Roman Catholicism without the pope, or as a kind of Protestantism with an episcopacy (hierarchy of governance through bishops). Certainly to most Protestants from the "evangelical" stream of the Christian tradition, but sometimes also those from the "ecumenical" one, the “Orthodox Church” has a negative old-world connotation. For them, Orthodox Christianity has come to signify either stagnation in church life, strict dogmatic confessionalism, inflexibility and unreadiness to adapt to modern situations, or to deal with politics in a comprehensible way. At best Orthodoxy is an “eastern phenomenon” vis-a-vis the “western modern mentality” and perhaps theological and academic process.

Orthodox Christianity is normally defined in confessional or denominational terms, i.e. as the Eastern branch of Christianity, which was separated from the West around the beginning of the second millennium CE. In the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church the Orthodox Church is described as “a family of Churches, situated mainly in Eastern Europe: each member Church is independent in its internal administration, but all share the same faith and are in communion with one another, acknowledging the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople.” In general, most textbooks of church history with a western perspective make little or no reference to Eastern Orthodoxy after the Great Schism between Eastern and Western churches in 1054 CE – or at least after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. With regard to our subject of politics the general impression of most scholars from all church traditions that underwent modernism is that for a very long period of time what actually characterized Eastern Orthodoxy was an intolerable subservience of church to the state. Another way of looking at is that the church adapted to the existing world order, resulting in church and society penetrating and permeating each other. At the same time, however, others insist that the Eastern Orthodox Church established itself in the world as an institution focused almost exclusively on other-worldly salvation.

Reinforced by recent developments, both these contradictory assessments of Orthodox Christianity hold some truth, but at the same time neither is completely accurate. The former view was reinforced by the political attitude of almost all the so-called “Orthodox” nations in the near past (e.g., Russia, Greece), which actually gave the impression of a nationalistic inclination of the Orthodox Church. The latter view, found in the writings of some Orthodox theologians, lays disproportionate stresses on the mystical aspect of Orthodoxy. It should be noted that these writers are mostly immigrants from pre-revolutionary Russia (before 1917 CE), who came in contact with the West after a long period of separation. In a desperate attempt to preserve their ancient Orthodox identity surrounded by a modern world quite alien to them, they underline the mystical aspect of Orthodox Christianity to western Christians. However, today both these one-sided presentations of Orthodox Christianity (i.e. nationalistic and mystical) are seriously questioned.

In order to give an accurate description of Orthodox Christianity we need to redefine the actual understanding of the term to a radical (getting back to the root meaning) degree, because current usage is so misleading. According to most serious interpreters of this tradition, if we examine the derivation of the term Orthodox Christianity it refers to the wholeness of the people of God who share the right conviction (orthe + doxa = right opinion) concerning the event of God's salvation in Christ and his Church. In addition, this label encompasses the notion of right expression, or right practice (orthopraxia) of the Christian faith. Orthodoxia leads to the maximum possible application in Orthopraxia of charismatic life in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, in all aspects of daily social and cosmic life. Everybody is invited by Orthodoxy to transcend confessions and inflexible institutions without necessarily denying them. Some Orthodox theologians even insist that Orthodoxy is not to be identified only with those belonging to the canonical Orthodox Churches in the historical sense and with all their limitations and shortcomings. After all, initially this term was not given to any historical branch of Christianity, but to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as a whole over against the heretics who, of their own choice, split from the main body of the Church. The term is exclusive for all those, who willingly fall away from the historical stream of life of the One Church, but it is inclusive for those who profess their spiritual belonging to that stream. The term, therefore, has more or less ecclesial (having to do with the essence of what it means to be a church) rather that confessional connotations. And for this reason one can argue that the fundamental principles of Christian spirituality, of social and political theory, are the same in the East and in the West.

Nevertheless, that ecclesial charismatic community has had a certain historical manifestation, and has developed concrete political viewpoints, which need to be extracted from a certain background, from certain texts, from certain sources. Attempting to accomplish this, however, we encounter some major difficulties.

I. Classical Sources of Orthodox Christianity on Politics

On what ground and from what sources can one accurately establish an Orthodox viewpoint? Roman Catholics have the decisions produced by the relatively recent council (1962-65) known as Vatican II to guide them, the Orthodox do not have an equivalent collection of authoritative statements. The Lutherans have an Augsburg Confession of their own; the Orthodox do not, and Orthodox Christianity also lacks the equivalent of a Luther or Calvin, to mention just two spokespersons from the Protestant Reformation, who could give Protestant Christians their theological identity. With regard specifically to politics and social life in general the Catholic tradition has certain encyclicals and declarations, such as Rerum novarum (1891), or Gaudium et spes (1965), and more recently Justitia in mundo (1971). Similarly, Protestant denominations in the wider sense have their Confessions and from time to time certain decisions taken by their respective collective bodies. This has never been the case with the Orthodox, until a very recent exceptional case with regard to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which we will return later. In contrast the only authoritative sources that Orthodox Christianity possesses are in fact common to all Christians: the Bible and the Tradition, although they have never been considered by Orthodox Christians as “sources” in the strict sense, at least in the way they are thought of in the West. How can one establish a distinctly Orthodox view on a basis which in fact is common to non-Orthodox as well?

Some Orthodox, insist that defining Orthodox Christianity is not a matter of drawing from special sources, but of interpreting the sources the Orthodox share with the rest of Christianity and partly with Judaism. In other words it is a matter of theological presuppositions, which suggests a certain problematic and method not always familiar to the non-Orthodox. Naturally then, all their social, ethical and theological viewpoints, and politics in particular, come only as the logical consequence of these presuppositions. However, even the essence of Orthodox Christianity, vis-a-vis Western Christianity in its entirety, i.e. Catholic and Protestant, is even beyond such theological presuppositions. After all, the main theological difference, which resulted in the eventual split between Eastern and Western Christianity was a different understanding of truth. Eastern Christianity – especially in later Byzantine antiquity – presupposes a concept of revelation substantially different from that held in the West under the influence of Aristotle. In particular, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they believe that in the Church every Christian, and the saint in particular, possesses the privilege and the opportunity of seeing (theorein) and experiencing the truth. Because the concept of theologia (i.e., theology) in Cappadocian and Antiochean thinking was inseparable from theoria (i.e. contemplation), theology could not be – as it was at least in western high scholasticism – a rational deduction from “revealed” premises, i.e. from Scripture or from the statements of an ecclesiastical magisterium; rather it was a vision experienced by the faithful, whose authenticity was of course to be checked against the witness of Scripture and Tradition. A true theologian as understood in later Byzantine thought was for the most part the one who saw and experienced the content of theology. Theological inquiry and insight were considered to belong not to the intellect alone, though rigorous thinking of course is not excluded from the process, but to the “eyes of the Spirit”, which place the whole human being – intellect, emotions and even senses – in contact with the divine existence. In Orthodox Christianity the “truth” is inseparable from the “communion.”

Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that Orthodox Christianity is a way of life, hence the importance of its liturgical tradition. It is exactly for this reason that the Liturgy plays, such a prominent role in the theology of almost all Orthodox Christians in modern times. It is widely held by the Orthodox that the liturgical dimension is perhaps the only safe criterion, in ascertaining what might be considered unique or peculiar to Orthodox theology. Given the centrality of the Liturgy, I would suggest that the Orthodox Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second. As an old Latin saying goes, lex orandi lex credendi, “The rule of prayer dictates the rule of belief,” or “As we pray, so we believe.” The lex orandi (the law or rule of prayer) has a privileged priority in the life of the Christian Church. The lex credendi (the law or rule of belief) depends on the devotional experience and vision of the Church, or more precisely on the authentic (i.e. liturgical) identity of the Church. The question, therefore, about the principal sources on which one can draw to describe this religious system’s views about politics, are much more complex than with the rest of Christianity.

The heart of Orthodox liturgy, as in all or almost all Christian traditions, is the Eucharist, which is called by the Orthodox “Divine Liturgy.” The Orthodox Church has consistently accepted the priority of the eucharistic experience over all theological views and convictions, the priority of communion over faith or belief, and as a matter of fact the priority of ecclesiology over theology in its regular meaning. One of the most distinguishing features of Orthodox Christianity is that, contrary to many western religious systems that have adapted to modernism, Orthodoxy has attempted to distance itself as much as possible from the dominant post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation paradigm that most theologians tacitly accept. Theologians who have a modernist bent believe that the essence of Christianity is to be found in the articulation of theological statements, based on Scripture, Tradition, or other authoritative pronouncements, and that these truths are upheld by church institutions and promoted by the authority of clergy and scholars. For the Orthodox, who by the way have not yet undergone modernism, what constitutes the core of Christian faith cannot be extracted from the expressed theological views, from a certain depositum fidei (depository of faith), be it the Bible, the Tradition (or both), the writings of the Fathers, the canons and even the decisions of the Councils. Whereas that outlook inevitably led the western Church to adopt some kind of magisterium, be it hierarchical or scholarly, Orthodox Christianity took a different tack. It is mainly for this reason that the criterion most widely held among Orthodox of our time in defining the Orthodox Church’s response to all ethical, moral, social and political issues is undoubtedly the eucharistic approach. Only in the Eucharist does the church become God’s people, Church in its fullest sense.

Even with Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Eucharist, I will start my discussion of politics with Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah. All social ethical issues, and the understanding of politics in particular, are based and determined in Orthodox Christianity – as in all Christian traditions – by the teaching, life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. His teaching, however, and especially his life and work, cannot properly be understood without reference to the eschatological expectations of Judaism. Without getting sidetracked by the complexities of Jewish eschatology, one can very briefly say, that this eschatology was interwoven with the idea of the coming of a Messiah, who in the “last days” of history (“the eschaton”) would establish his Kingdom by calling the dispersed and afflicted people of God into one place to become one body united around him. As it was expressed in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Joel 3:1; Isaiah 2:2, 59:21; Ezekiel. 36:24), the start of the eschatological period will be marked by the gathering of all the nations and the descent of God’s Spirit to the sons and the daughters of God. One particular statement in the Gospel of John about the Messiah's role is extremely important. In Chapter 11 the writer interprets the words of the Jewish High priest by affirming that “he prophesied that Jesus should die . . . not for the nation only but to gather into one [emphasis added] the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52).

Throughout the Gospels Jesus Christ identifies himself with this eschatological Messiah. We see this in the various Messianic titles he chose for himself, at least as witnessed by the most primitive sources of the Christian tradition (“Son of man,” “Son of God,” most of which had a collective meaning, whence the Christology of “corporate personality”). We see it as well in the parables of the Kingdom (e.g., Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8), which summarize his teaching, the point of which is to proclaim that his coming initiates the new world of God’s Rule. In the Lord's Prayer, but also in his conscious overt acts (e.g. the selection of twelve disciples, symbolizing Israel’s twelve tribes), Jesus introduces the eschatological agenda. In short, Christ identified himself with the Messiah of the eschaton, who would be the center of the gathering of the dispersed people of God.

It was on this radical eschatological teaching of the historical Jesus about God’s Rule that the early Christian community has developed its ecclesiology and determined its “political” theory (in the wider sense). Modern biblical research has shown that Jesus’ expectation about the rule of God moves dialectically between the “already” and the “not yet”; in other words, begins already in the present but will be completed in its final authentic form in the eschaton. In the first two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus the Christian community understood its existence as the perfect and genuine expression of the people of God. With a series of terms taken from the Hebrew Scriptures the early Christian community believed that it was the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), the “saints” (Acts 9:32, 41; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25), “the elect” (Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12 etc.), “the chosen race” and “the royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9); namely the holy people of God (laos tou theou), for whom all the promises of the Bible were to be fulfilled at the eschata. During this constructive period the concept in which the early Christian community understood its identity was that of a people and not of an organization, or even of a religious system. An examination of both the First (Old) and the Second (New) Testament terminology makes this quite clear. The chosen people of God were an ‘am (in Hebrew, especially in the prophets) or a laos (in Greek), whereas the people of the outside world were designated by the Hebrew term goyim and the Greek ethne (cf. Acts 15:14).

The second generation after Pentecost is certainly characterized by the theological contribution of St. Paul. He takes over the above charismatic notion of the Church, but he gives it in addition a universal and ecumenical character. To the Church belong all human beings, Jews and Gentiles; for the latter have been joined to the same tree of the people of God (Romans 11:13ff). The Church, as the new Israel, is thus no longer constituted on grounds of external criteria of Judaism (e.g., circumcision, sacrifices), but on her faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 9:6). The phrase, however, which characterizes Pauline ecclesiology is body of Christ. With this metaphorical expression St. Paul was able to express the charismatic nature of the Church by means of the Semitic concept of corporate personality. He emphasized that a variety of gifts exist in the Church, exercised by the individual members of the community, and necessary for the building up and the nurturing of this body, Christ alone being its only head and authority.

The understanding of politics, and the Church’s social responsibility in general, stems exactly from this conception of the Church. The people of God is an eschatological, dynamic, radical, and corporate reality that struggled to authentically witness to the Kingdom of God, i.e. to manifest God’s Rule, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 par). The Apostles, Jesus of Nazareth’s disciples, were commissioned to proclaim neither a specific political theory, nor a set of given religious convictions, doctrines, or moral commands. Instead, they were to announce the coming Kingdom, the Gospel, i.e. the Good News of a new eschatological reality, with the crucified and resurrected Christ as its center. He is the incarnate Logos (or word) of God, who nevertheless through the presence of the Holy Spirit continues to dwell among human beings, guiding them to transform the present – “fallen” and unjust – world order, and pave the way toward the ideal and otherworldly Kingdom of God.

On the basis of this Kingdom reality, therefore, all faithful Christians were called – not so much as isolated individuals, but as a corporate ecclesial entity – to behave in this world “politically.”[1] Because they understood themselves to be carrying on the line of Israel, the Early Christians took on the political responsibilities required of the chosen race of the people of God. They were considered a “royal priesthood” by reason of the fact that all of them, without exception have priestly and spiritual authority to practice in the diaspora (or the dispersed community of faith) the work of the priestly class. The fact that not just some special cast, such as the priests or levites, i.e. people with certain political and religious authority, were responsible for this “eschatological holy nation” at the same time reminded Christians to be worthy of their election through their exemplary life and works. That is why they were called to walk toward unity (“so that they may become perfectly one”, John 17:23), to abandon all deeds of darkness and to do justice to the society at large.

We note that the Church was able within a few generations of the first century CE, based largely on the important contribution of the Greek Fathers of the golden age (second-third centuries CE), to come up with the doctrine of Trinity, and much later to further develop the important distinction between substance and energies of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. According to some historians, this was only possible because of the eschatological experience of koinonia (fellowship, community) in the Eucharist (both vertical with its head, and horizontal among the people of God, and by extension with all of humanity through the Church’s mission), an experience which ever since continues to constitute the only expression of the Church’s self-consciousness, its Mystery par excellence.

No one, of course, can deny that early enough in the history of the Christian community, even from the time of St. Paul, there has been a “paradigm shift” in the understanding of this act (Eucharist) of self-consciousness of community as a koinonia of the eschata. The Christian community’s enactment of the Eucharist was for them a manifestation of the coming Kingdom of God in anticipation of the actual eschatological event. Regardless of the reasons, over the centuries there has been a shift of the theological center of gravity of Christianity from the (eucharistic) experience to the (Christian) message, from eschatology to Christology (and further and consequently to soteriology), from the event (the Kingdom of God), to the words and story about the bearer and center of this event (Christ, and more precisely his sacrifice on the cross). However, the Eucharist (the theia koinonia) has always remained the sole expression of the Church’s identity. This koinonia dimension of the Eucharist recently has been quite strongly reaffirmed by Orthodox Christianity, with its indications that not only the identity of the Church, but all its expressions (structure, authority, mission etc.) and actions (ethics, social and moral, and consequently politics) are in fact relational.

To sum up: if one wants to approach, and reflect on, any specific issue, like politics, from a distinctly Orthodox perspective, it is the eucharistic theology in its broad sense that should guide his/her effort. Of course, one would expect from Orthodox Christianity, as from all other religious systems, that they will offer final solutions to common problems, and inevitably to exercise some kind of legitimate power, and not only present affirmations of conscience. But the caution to keep in mind with Orthodoxy is that the entire ethical issue, i.e. the problem of overcoming the evil in the world, is basically understood neither as a moral nor as a doctrinal issue; it is primarily (and for some even exclusively) understood as an ecclesial one. The moral and social responsibilities of the Church (both as an institution and also of her individual members), as their primary witnessing acts, is the logical consequence of their ecclesial self-consciousness.

II. Orthodox Christianity’s Theory of Politics

Given how differently the Orthodox tradition views the relationship between the religious and the ethical, it behooves us to begin our discussion of its theory of politics with a couple basic questions. First of all, “Does Orthodox Christianity have a theory of politics and the social order?” Secondly, “Is politics a tangential and unimportant subject?” These questions cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” Orthodox Christianity in dealing with the problem of politics in the past has come to a solution, according to which religion and polity were never divorced or even separated from each other, despite the lack of any visible spectacular victory of the Church over the empire, and the detrimental impact of the imperial forces on ecclesiastical affairs (dethronements and exiles of bishops and Patriarchs).[2] Most Orthodox Churches nowadays have this model of “in-and-out-of-politics”, the model of “symphonia” or “synallelia,” fully developed and elaborated in pre-modernity, still as their ideal, trying to impose it as far as they can into modern constitutions of modern democratic states.[3] Only in the Orthodox diaspora have there been serious attempts to adapt the Orthodox ecclesiology into the modern context.[4]

For an explanation to this close relation between religion and polity in Orthodox Christianity one has to go back to ancient Greece, where religion was understood as the cultic life of the polis, never conceivable outside it. Being ideologically shaped  (more than any other branch of Christianity) on the Greek culture, this religious system not only borrowed the word ecclesia, the assembly of the citizens, from Greek political life to denominate itself; it also developed its identity very much embedded in the whole society. Religion as a separate sphere has never found a solid footing in the theological thinking of the Orthodox Church. It would have been impossible to relegate the Church, holistic in conception – and relational rather than confessional in character – to a private sphere in civil society. This idea of privatization of the Church, together with individualism – which for historical reasons was adopted in the historical Protestant Churches – was developed in modernity. There the cardinal idea, which still shapes our modern western culture, is that religion should be separate from the state altogether, being a matter of individual conscience, in an attempt to provide the basis for social peace and stability. In part this was a reaction to the religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the early seventeenth century CE. At the same time, however, the eschatological inclination of Orthodoxy gives the impression that politics may be a tangential and unimportant issue.

In recent years, and despite the fact that the eucharistic approach to all aspects of Orthodox Church life has been repeatedly reaffirmed, the Orthodox have drafted a number of official documents to be presented for final approval to the forthcoming Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church. One of these documents/decisions, entitled “The Contribution of the Orthodox Church in establishment of peace, justice, freedom, fellowship and love among the peoples, and the lifting of racial and other discriminations,” deals indirectly with socio-political problems. Finally officially approved in the third Pan-Orthodox Pre-conciliar Consultation by all Orthodox Autocephali Churches,[5] this is a first attempt of a theological response from an Orthodox perspective to social issues pertinent to modern challenges. More precisely focused on our subject is an even more recent document, issued by the Russian Orthodox Church, entitled: The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church.[6] This document may not have a Pan-orthodox canonical status,[7] but accurately describes the present status of the Church-State relations in the Orthodox world:

“Today the Orthodox Church performs her service of God and people in various countries. In some of them she represents the nation-wide confession (Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria), while in others, which are multinational, the religion of the ethnic majority (Russia). In still other countries, those who belong to the Orthodox Church comprise a religious minority surrounded by either heterodox Christians (Finland, Poland, USA) or people of other religions (Japan, Syria, Turkey). In some small countries the Orthodox Church has the status of the state religion (Cyprus, Greece, Finland), while in other countries it is separated from state. There are also differences in the concrete legal and political contexts in which the Local Orthodox Churches live. They all, however, build both their internal order and relations with the government on the commandments of Christ, teaching of the apostles, holy canons and two-thousand-year-long historical experience and in may situation find an opportunity to pursue their God-commanded goals, thus revealing their other-worldly nature, their heavenly, divine, origin.”[8]

Having said all this, it is important to underline that some of the theological differences between the Orthodox East and the Christian West were, and in some cases still are, related to the way the Church – as the image of the expected Kingdom of God – was/is directly engaged with temporal and secular matters, i.e. with politics. It has been argued time and again that toward the end of the first millennium the Church in the West adopted, or was forced to accept, a kind of Church-State relationship on a legal basis, namely as a relationship between two distinct institutions, two distinct and independent “temporal” authorities. Thus, she moved away from the model of symphonia, or synallelia, and adopted the theory of the “two swords.” In certain critical moments she even argued that, whereas the priestly authority is directly derived from God, the secular authority can only be assumed through the priestly one.

Even if such political views are no longer officially supported in Catholic Christianity, one can safely argue that during the second millennium – the millennium of the tragic Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity – the emphasis of western theology was more on the historical dimension of the Christian ecclesial identity, thus being more sensitive on ethics, constantly reminding the Church of its responsibility for the world. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Orthodox Church has developed a clear awareness of the eschatological dimension of Christianity, being in fact the only ecclesiastical institution, which always emphasizes the eschatological identity of the Church, sometimes even disincarnating her historical manifestation from history.

It was mainly for this reason that many of us[9] are in search of a synthesis between eastern and western spirituality, believing that a dynamic encounter will enrich both traditions. After all, the authentic catholicity of the Church (in terms not so much of ecclesiology, but of spirituality, of ethics, and in particular of politics) must include both East and West. Only through such a synthesis can the perennial problem of the tension between history and eschaton in Christianity – and by extension of politics – find a proper and permanent solution.

Quite simply, therefore, this is the message of Orthodox Christianity’s politics, no matter how strange or vague this may sound!

III. The Medium of Expressing Politics in Orthodox Christianity

Turning next to the question “through what medium does Orthodox Christianity make its point,” the answer is certainly: through the eucharistic liturgy, understood as a glimpse and a foretaste of the eschatological Kingdom of God. In her liturgy however, the Orthodox Church clearly and in a very stylish and sophisticated way re-enacts a story: the story of God’s creation of human destiny and condition, of God’s abundant love for his creation (and therefore, his intervention in history), his continuous care for his people, by giving them the Law and by making a covenant with them, and finally by sending them his only-begotten Son, who inaugurated his Kingdom on earth, experienced in history by hosts of saints in his Church, but expected in its fullness at the eschaton. In Orthodox Christianity this story is not told as a past event, but as a present reality, as personal narrative with far-reaching consequences of the social order of corporate community. It is for this reason that the political role of her members starts after the liturgy, in the meta-liturgy, the Liturgy after the liturgy, in which the Orthodox are sent forth “in peace” to give witness to this ideal by any means, including politics. Those means, nevertheless, have never been clearly defined (except in a very vague way, i.e. that they should not deviate from the Gospel, as proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples and the hosts of saints thereafter). This is partly because almost all geographical areas, where this religion has historically flourished, have never undergone the process of modernity. As I will assert more fully below, the relationship between religion and politics has become an issue only after the Enlightenment.

IV. The Message of Orthodox Christianity’s Politics

We have stated above that, although the principal sources of Orthodox Christianity are the same with the rest of Christianity (Bible and Tradition), the special nuance is its liturgical (i.e. eucharistic) dimension. To put it in a different way, compared with the West the Orthodox tradition underlines more sharply the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith. In that respect Orthodox Christianity claims to have followed the Early Church, which entered history not so much as a “doctrine,” but as a new otherworldly “social order,” a new “community.” Time and again early Christians insisted that their true citizenship (politeuma) was not of this world:

“our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior.” (Philippians 3:20)

“here we have no lasting city (polin), but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)

And not only this; the members of the early church were almost always addressed as strangers and traveling through (paroikoi and parepoidemoi 1 Peter 2:11) this world. Although the main issue in politics is who does what to whom, these tasks were consciously, although in certain cases reluctantly, transmitted to the lay members of the Church, and in time to the secular authorities. This migration of political responsibility results from the incompatibility of using even legitimate force with being and reflecting that glorious and ideal Kingdom, which the Church (especially her priestly members) strives to do. Only in special situations, such as when the people of an organized nation request the head of their local Orthodox Church to assume for a while leadership in secular matters, only then does one find an Orthodox ecclesiastical figure engaged in the politics of this world. The guiding principle for those tasks, both for those belonging to the laity (which by the way is considered in Orthodoxy an ecclesiastical priestly order, without which no liturgical service is possible) and for those coming from the ordained priesthood, was Jesus Christ’s admonition to his disciples:

“The rulers of the Gentiles exercise lordship over their subjects; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26 par.)

Recall that the Orthodox Church considers as her main task to make manifest proleptically (or in anticipation of the promised future reality) in the Eucharist this new, ideal order of the coming Kingdom. To this end the faithful literally are sent at the end of the service to “go forth in peace” to transmit the experience gained in the Liturgy – even as a glimpse and as a foretaste – of that glorious expected moment. In this respect the Orthodox faith in fact embraces all aspects of human life. The ultimate basis for such a concern for life and for all that has been created in this world comes from the fundamental doctrine of creation, according to which God – ex nihilo (out of nothing) – made all that exists and “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4,10,13,18). Because, however, God’s creation was corrupted by sin, it became necessary for all of creation to be transformed, ("that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” Romans 8: 21), to be renewed, to become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), a process which started with the incarnation of God Himself in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God he proclaimed did not have an eschatological character alone, but also an earthly one. And his people, the Church, the “true” Israel (Galatians 6:16) was in fact “a city,” a polis, a new and peculiar “polity,” she was more than “a church,” just as ancient Israel was at once a “church” and a “nation.”

It was for that reason that in the early stages of their existence, the Christians were suspected of civic indifference, even of “misanthropy,” odium generis humani (probably contrasted with the alleged “philanthropy of the Roman empire”). Origen, accepting responding to a similar accusation by Celsus, insisted that the Christians “have another system of allegiance (allo systema tes patridos).”[10] And Tertullian even went to the extreme, when he declared that for Christians “nothing is more alien than public affairs (nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica).”[11] A more balanced position, however, we find in an anonymous letter from the early years of the second century CE. In the famous Letter to Diognetus the Christians are presented as living in the world, but not being of the world:

“while they dwell in the cities of Greeks and Barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, the structure of their polity is peculiar and paradoxical. . . . Every fatherland is a foreign land. . . . Their conversation is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”[12]

All these are common heritage of both eastern and western Christianity. Where Orthodox Christianity seems to differ from both the Catholic and the Protestant point of view with regard to politics, is the famous “Byzantine synthesis,” a unique experiment in political matters, which most Orthodox Churches and Orthodox societies (some even use the awkward term “Orthodox nations”) unfortunately dream to revive, even in the age of modernity and post-modernity.

This experiment was the first Orthodox adventure in Christian politics. According to a renowned Orthodox historian and theologian, George Florovsky, “it was an unsuccessful and probably an unfortunate experiment. Yet it should be judged on its own terms.”[13] It was wrongly labelled as a “Ceasaropapism” (alluding to the combination of the two roles of Ceasar and pope) on the assumption that in Byzantium the Church ceased to exist as an independent “political” institution, since the emperor became with the agreement of the Church her actual ruler. The emperors were indeed rulers in the Christian society, also in religious matters, but never rulers over the Church.[14] In fact, this solution to the perennial problem of the relationship between Church and State, initiated by the overall policy of Constantine the Great,[15] had its origin in Pauline theology and his understanding of the role of all secular ruling authorities. The ruling secular authorities are understood as being instituted by God, and therefore are of divine origin:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-7)

It was exactly for that reason that in the so-called Pastoral Epistles the faithful are urged even to pray for governing authorities:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

This compromised solution to all the problems dealing with power and the authorities of this world is in effect in agreement with Jesus of Nazareth’s clever answer to the religious authorities of his day:

"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mark 12:17 par.).[16]

The response of early Christians to this dilemma, i.e. how to accommodate their simultaneously belonging to the secular and to the eschatological world, was not unanimous. Paul’s accommodating views in dealing with the secular authorities are seemingly in sharp contrast with the more radical views expressed by the author of the book of Revelation (ch. 13). There the secular Roman authorities are compared with the beast, in contrast to the eschatological identity of the Church as the “New Jerusalem,” making any dealing and connection of the people of God with the hostile secular authorities impossible.[17] I have argued in other related studies that the solution to our problem, offered by Paul – and in fact to all other social issues – might not have been as idealistic or radical, as in the rest of the New Testament. It was, nevertheless, a realistic solution of social integration of the charismatic (and eschatological) people of God to the society at large.[18]

This solution reached its climax in the sixth century CE. It is expressed in a more detailed way in the preface of Justinian’s famous Sixth Novel, which is a summary of the basic principles of the Byzantine political system, and which has greatly influenced the political views of Orthodox Christianity, even to this day.

“There are two major gifts which God has given unto men of His supernal clemency, the priesthood and the imperial authority – hierosyne and basileia; sacerdotium and imperium.  Of these, the former is concerned with things divine; the latter presides over the human affairs and takes care of them. Proceeding from the same source, both adorn human life. Nothing is of greater concern for the emperors as the dignity of the priesthood, so that priests may in their turn pray to God for them. Now, if one is in every respect blameless and filled with confidence toward God, and the other does rightly and properly maintain in order the commonwealth to it, there will be a certain fair harmony established to it, there will be a certain fair harmony established, which will furnish whatsoever may be needful for mankind. We therefore are highly concerned for the true doctrines inspired by God for the dignity of priests. We are convinced that, if they maintain their dignity, God will bestow great benefits on us, and we shall firmly hold whatever we now posses, and in addition shall acquire those things that we have not yet secured. A happy ending always crowns those things, which were undertaken in a proper manner, acceptable to God. This is the case, when sacred canons are carefully observed, which the glorious Apostles, the venerable eye – witnesses and ministers of the Divine World, have handed down to us, and the holy Fathers have kept and explained.”[19]

The Sixth Novel, of course, does not speak of Church and State, but of two ministries. And in addition it was a secular (legal) not a religious (Christian) document. There the imperium is at once an authority and a service. This model, very often called “symphony”, or synallelia, was further developed in the famous Epanagoge, a constitutional document of the ninth century CE, most probably prepared by Photius, the famous Patriarch of Constantinople.[20]

"The temporal power and the priesthood relate to each other as body and soul; they are necessary for state order just as body and soul are necessary in a living man. It is in their linkage and harmony that the well-being of a state lies".[21]

In the Epanagoge, however, we notice a slight centralization of power. In the place of the imperium and sacerdotium we now have the Emperor and the Patriarch,[22] not as rivals, but as allies, both parts of a single organism, both essentials for the prosperity of the people. This model has helped the Church in the East to turn down the temptation to acquire temporal secular authority, and avoid the temptation to be “clericalized.” In addition, Orthodox Christianity did not feel the need to develop the theory of the “two swords,” which held such appeal in the West. This may be due to a more classical Greek philosophical background in her ontological thinking, compared to the more Roman, i.e. legal, heritage of Western Christianity. It is to be noted that the famous programmatic model and vision of De civitate Dei, by Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 CE), which was so influential in Western Christianity, did not play a decisive role in the development of Orthodox Christianity’s political theory.

On the other hand, this enmeshment between Church and State, very tight indeed, which has caused so many tensions and even clashes (e.g. in the case of iconoclastic controversy and later in the case of imperial unionist policy), was not without opposition. For instance the emergence of monasticism has helped Eastern Orthodox Christianity – not without problems of course – to keep the balance between the eschatological vision and the historical missionary engagement of the Church. This is especially true in monasticism’s later development not as an arm of the institutional Church (cf. some medieval orders of Roman Catholicism), but rather as a strong reaction to it, as a constant reminder of the eschatological character of the Church, and the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith in general.[23]

V. Orthodox Christianity and Nonbelievers: Politics and People Outside the Tradition

History has shown that Orthodox Churches have traditionally taken a tolerant attitude toward nonbelievers by and large. One case in points is the crusaders, who found the Orthodox in Constantinople unexpectedly and unacceptably tolerant toward the Muslims. Similarly, more openness and hospitality has been granted by the Orthodox to non-Christian “religious cousins” (e.g. in the case of the expelled Jews from the Iberian peninsula in the sixteenth century CE). These were not accidental occurrences, but the result of their trinitarian understanding of mission, which goes beyond the “christocentric Christian universalism” developed in the past by Western Christianity. Underlying its response to nonbelievers, is the Orthodox Christianity’s twofold fundamental missiological assumption about God: (a) the divine self, God’ s inner life, is a life of communion; and (b) God’s involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into this communion with the very life of the divine being. It is, perhaps for this reason that Orthodox Christianity has never developed a universal proselytizing mission. Without relegating their mission to an optional task and neglecting the imperative of bringing new converts to Christ, the Orthodox normally direct their efforts towards the transmission of the life of communion that exists in God, and not at the propagation of certain doctrines, or moral and social norms.[24]

If one carries this understanding of mission a little further, one can even argue that the church’s purpose in this present fallen and sinful situation, worldly politics does not actually involve the use of power and coercion that inevitably includes legitimate violence. Rather the Orthodox understand their task to be that of witnessing in a tolerant, loving and reconciling way the proleptic experience of God’s rule (i.e. the Kingdom of God), gained in their liturgical/eucharistic communal life. According to Orthodox theology, the mission of the Church does not focus on the conversion of the “others” by the spreading of the Gospel of the abundant love of God to the end of the world (which inevitably leads to a “confessional and religious exclusiveness”). Its mission is to serve in this multicultural and pluralistic world as the witness of the Church’s eschatological (and certainly not institutional) identity (this can be labelled “ecclesial inclusiveness”). That understanding of mission has by and large prevented Orthodoxy from all kinds of aggressive proselytism. For her, the real aim of evangelism has never been so much bringing the nations and the people of other faiths to her own religious "enclosure"; her real aim has always been to “let” the Spirit of God use both the evangelizers and those to whom they bear witness, to bring about God’s rule. According to this understanding, everything belongs to God, and to his Kingdom; in more simple terms everything belongs to the new eschatological reality, inaugurated of course in Jesus’ messianic work but expected to reach its final stage at the end of history. The Church in her historical manifestation does not administer all reality, as it was believed for centuries in the West; she only prepares the way to that reality, being an icon of it.


In recent years, as a result of the effect of postmodernism and of the resurgence of religion worldwide, some Orthodox societies (at least those with a powerful institutional Church, like the Greek and the Russian) have shown signs of willingness to allow their Churches to reassert their influence in both politics and public life. This deprivatization of religion means that the ideal of modernity to keep Church and State (or religion and society) separate, relegating the former to the private or personal realm, and declaring the public realm secular and free of all religious influence, is loosing ground. This is, of course, a universal phenomenon, mainly due to the shortcomings of modernism. The post-Enlightenment modern critical paradigm, which has undoubtedly shaped our democratic political process, has over-rationalized everything from social and public life to scholarship, from emotion to imagination, seeking to over-control and over-limit the irrational, the aesthetic and even the sacred. In its search to rationalize and historicize all, modernism has transformed not only what we know and how we know it, but also how we understand ourselves within that known world. Hence the desire in a wide circle of intellectuals (not limited to scholars or even to theologians) for wholeness, for community, for what in German is called Gemeinschaft, for an antidote to the fragmentation and sterility of an overly technocratic society, and in the end for post-modernism.

To be honest, religion is far too important for human existence to be excluded from politics; and this is undoubtedly both a threat and a hope. It is a threat if the fundamentalists assume uncontrolled power, as in the case of September 11th of the very first year of the third millennium. However, it is a hope if religion can exercise its tremendous potential and power to bring back moral values, and if recreate, and originate new images of what it means to be human in a just, peaceful and sustainable universe. Nowadays this last option is being seriously considered by the Orthodox, if not for anything else, at least because the basic ecclesiological principles of their religious system are incompatible with “individualism,” one of the pillars of modernity. There is a lot of discussion that the old “Byzantine symphony” can again become a model of Orthodox political theory, but this time not in terms of a symphony of the Church with the State but directly with the citizens. And in addition, any such “symphony” could not be implemented in isolation from the rest of Christianity, but in cooperation with them, as an example of a “common Christian witness.” Even people of other faiths, and established religions are considered as partners on certain political issues, as has been shown by the most recent initiatives of the primus inter pares Orthodox Patriarchal see of Constantinople, but also of other autocephali Churches. In our small global village, that mysterious universe, the values of God’s Kingdom are common to all people of good will, religious or not! Only wicked people could object their political implementation, provided of course that the basic democratic rules are observed.



On Orthodox Christianity

Kallistos (Timothy) WARE, The Orthodox Church,  Penguin Books: Baltimore 1964 (and numerous subsequent editions).

Vladimir LOSSKY, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Clarke: London 1957.

Georges FLOROVSKY, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Nordland: Belmont 1972.

Jaroslav PELIKAN, The Christian Tradition 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), UCPress: Chicago 1974.

John MEYENDORFF, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, FU Press: New York 19741 / SVS Press: Crestwood New York 19872.

Alexander  SCHMEMANN,  Church, World, Mission, SVS Press: Crestwood New York 1979.

John ZIZIOULAS, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church SVS Press: Crestwood New York 1985.

Dumitru STANILOAE,  The Experience of God, HCO Press: Brookline MA 1994.

Thomas FITZGERALD, The Orthodox Church, Greenwood Press: Westport CT 1995.

Petros VASSILIADIS, Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Witness of the Church, Geneva: WCC Publications/ Massachusetts: HCO Press 1998.

On Church and Politics

J. Zepos-P. Zepos (eds.), Jus Graecoromanum,  Vol. II, Athens 1931.

Fr. DVORNIK, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy. Origins and Background, Vol. I, Washington 1966.

Georges. FLOROVSKY, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert,” Christianity and Culture. Vol. II of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Nordland Publishing Company: Belmont 1974, 67-100.

Stanley S. HARAKAS, Wholeness of Faith and Life: Orthodox Christian Ethics,: HCO Press: Massachusetts 1999.

Emmanuel CLAPSIS,  Orthodoxy in Conversation: Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements, WCC Publications: Geneva / HCO Press: Massachusetts 2000.

The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, available on the Internet (http://www.incommunion.org/misc)

[1]In classical Greek philosophy and language (which was the overall language adopted by Christianity to elaborate its doctrine) “political” behavior, i.e. care for the polis (the city, the society) was contrasted to a selfish, egocentric lifestyle, i.e. the behavior of the “idiot” (Greek idiotes), a term which universally acquired negative connotations. Cf. 1 Corinthians 14:24, where the term idiotes is equated with that of the unbeliever.

[2]G. Florovsky was right that “Byzantium collapsed as a Christian Kingdom, under the burden of (this) tremendous claim.” G. Florovsky, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert,” in Christianity and Culture. Vol. II of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Nordland Publishing Company, Belmont 1974), 67-100, p.83).

[3]The majority of the Orthodox positions with regard to a system of Church-State relationship, take this Byzantine model as the only acceptable in the Orthodox world, despite the above mentioned Florovsky’s remarks.

[4]Cf. St. Harakas, “Church and State in Orthodox Thought,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 27 (1982), pp. 5-21; E. Clapsis, Orthodoxy in Conversation Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements (WCC Publications/Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Geneva/Brookline 2000); Th. Hopko, "Orthodoxy in Post-Modern Pluralistic Societies," The Ecumenical Review 51 (1999), pp.364-371.

[5]The final documents were originally published in the journal Episkepsis (12.15.1986), and they have since received wide circulation, being translated into many languages. According to a decision of the consultation, they all have a binding canonical status for the Orthodox, even before their final synodical (ecumenical?) approval (ibid, p. 9 n.).

[6]The final document (now available on the internet http:// www.incommunion.org/misc) deals with “those aspects of the life of the state and society, which were and are equally relevant for the whole Church at the end of the 20th century and in the near future.” It is a document of a local Autocephalus Orthodox Church, primarily aimed at providing her members “the basic provisions of her teaching on church-state relations and a number of problems socially significant today” (Preamble).

[7]This may be because some of the positions taken reflect rather conservative views, not shared by all Orthodox. In addition, the wide range of themes tackled (anthropological, ecological, bioethical, educational) may need further theological examination. But mainly because of the principles underlined above in section I. After all, the Russian Orthodox, being aware of all these, does not claim for the document anything more than that it “reflects the official position of Moscow Patriarchate on relations with the state and secular society” (ibid). Despite all these limitations, the document is a courageous first attempt by an official Orthodox institution to deal with social problems, in the way Western Christians have been responding to modern everyday challenges in the last centuries, and for this reason it must be judged accordingly.

[8]The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, III 4.

[9]P. Vassiliadis, “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism,” Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Mission of the Church, (WCC Publications/Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Geneva/Brookline 1998), pp. 7-27, especially p.15.

[10]Origen, Contra Celsum VIII 75.

[11]Tertullian, Apologeticum 38,3. Cf. also his statement in De Pallio: “I have withdrawn myself from the society (secessi de populo)” (5).

[12]Ad Diognetum 5,6.

[13]G. Florovsky, “Antinomies,” p.77.

[14]Ibid. Fr. Dvornik was certainly right that “in most ways the Byzantine emperors followed the example of their ‘predecessors’ David and Solomon when organizing religious life” (Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy. Origins and Background, vol. I (Washington 1966), p.301.

[15]The importance of Constantine’s religious policy rests not so much on the implementation of the religious freedom of his subjects, not even on his conversion to Christianity. It rests, instead, on the fact that he introduced a major shift in politics, by replacing the cosmocentric theories of Greco-Roman antiquity with the theocentric worldview of Christianity, a process which was dramatically ended in post-Enlightenment modernity. In the person of Constantine, the Church recognized the possibility of implementing her catholicity, but also the founder of her visible ecumenicity, and for that reason she canonized him with the honorable title of isapostolos (equal to the apostles).

[16]The other biblical reference, which usually enters in the discussion, i.e. Peter and the rest of the apostles’ statement: "we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29), has more general connotations.

[17]Theologically interpreted, the book of Revelation expresses the victory of the oppressed over the impersonal and oppressing secular institutions, the victory of the “politics of theology” over the (pseudo-) “theology of politics.”

[18]P. Vassiliadis, “The Church and State Relationship in the N.T. (With Special Reference to the Pauline Theology),” Biblical Hermeneutical Studies, Bibliotheca Biblica 6, (Pournaras Press, Thessaloniki 20004), pp.435-444 (in Greek); cf. also my “Your Will Be Done. Reflections from St. Paul,” Eucharist and Witness, pp. 77-84.

[19]R. Schoel- W Kroll, Corpus Juris Civilis, Vol. 3 (Berlin 1928), pp.35f.

[20]The Epanagoge was in fact a draft that has never been officially promulgated. However, substantial portions of it were incorporated in later legislation, but most importantly it received wide circulation and appreciation throughout the Orthodox world.

[21]J. Zepos and P. Zepos (eds.), Jus Graecoromanum, Vol. II, (Athens 1931), pp.240ff.

[22]“The Patriarch is a living and animate image of Christ, characterizing the truth in deeds and words.” The role of the Patriarch (in rank after the Emperor) was threefold: (1) to preserve the faith of the Orthodox believers, (2) to make any possible effort that the heretics be reunited to the Church, and (3) “finally to behave in such a brilliant, most glorious, and admirable way so that those outside the faith be attracted and imitate the faith” (Epanagoge in Jus Graecoromanum, p.242)

[23]More in G. Florovsky, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert,” pp. 83ff.

[24]Cf. I.Bria (ed.), Go Forth in Peace. Orthodox Perspectives on Mission (WCC Press, Geneva, 1986), p. 3.