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The Doctrine of the Orthodox Church: Orthodoxy in the World

Introduction | History | Doctrine

Architecture and Iconography | The Church and the World
Missions | Orthodoxy and Other Christians |
Church State and Society


Since the time of Constantine I, Eastern Christianity has developed a variety of patterns in church architecture. The chief model was created when Emperor Justinian I completed the "great church" of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 6th century. The architectural conception of that church consisted of erecting a huge round dome on top of the classical early Christian basilica. The dome was meant to symbolize the descent of heaven upon earth—i.e., the ultimate meaning of the eucharistic celebration.

The screen, or iconostasis, which separates the sanctuary from the nave in contemporary Orthodox Churches, is a rather late development. After the triumph of orthodoxy over iconoclasm (destruction of images) in 843, a new emphasis was placed upon the permanent revelatory role of images. The incarnation implied that God had become man—i.e., fully visible and thus describable in his human nature. The images of Christ and the saints, who had manifested in their lives the new humanity transfigured by the grace of God, were placed everywhere in full evidence before the congregation. A contrast was thus suggested between the visible manifestation of God through the pictural representation of Christ as man and his more perfect but mysterious and invisible presence in the Eucharist. The iconostasis, together with those parts of the liturgy that involve the closing and opening of the curtain before the altar, emphasizes the mysterious and "eschatological" (consummation of history) character of the eucharistic service. They suggest, however, that this mystery is not a "secret" and that the Christian is being introduced through the eucharistic liturgy into the very reality of divine life and of the kingdom to come, which was revealed when God became man.

The long Iconoclastic Controversy (725-843), during which the Orthodox theology of icons was fully developed, concerned itself primarily with the problem of the incarnation; it was the direct continuation of the Christological debates of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. The image of Christ, the incarnated God, became, for the Eastern Christian, a pictorial confession of faith: God was truly visible in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the saints—whose images surround that of Christ—are witnesses of the fact that the transfigured, "deified" humanity is accessible to those who believe in Christ.

Departing from tridimensional images or statues, which were reminiscent of pagan idolatry, the Christian East developed a rich tradition of iconography. Portable icons—often painted on wood but also using mosaics with enamel techniques—are always kept in houses or public places. Among the icon painters, who never signed their work, there appeared several artists of genius. Most of them are unknown, but tradition and written documents have revealed the names of some, such as the famous 14th-15th-century Russian painter Andrey Rublyov.


The schism between the Greek and the Latin churches coincided chronologically with a surge of Christian missionary activity in northern and eastern Europe. Both sides contributed to the resultant expansion of Christianity but used different methods. The West imposed a Latin liturgy on the new converts and thus made Latin the only vehicle of Christian civilization and a major instrument of ecclesiastical unity. The East, meanwhile, as noted above, accepted from the start the principle of translating both the Scriptures and the liturgy into the spoken tongues of the converted nations. Christianity thus became integrated into the indigenous cultures of the Slavic nations, and the universal Orthodox Church evolved as a fellowship of national churches rather than as a centralized body.


The Christian East, in spite of the integrating forces of Christian Hellenism, was always culturally pluralistic: since the first centuries of Christianity, Syrians, Armenians, Georgians, Copts, Ethiopians, and other ethnic groups used their own languages in worship and developed their own liturgical traditions. Even though by the time of the Greek missions to the Slavs the Byzantine Church was almost monolithically Greek, the idea of a liturgy in the vernacular was still quite alive, as is demonstrated by the use of the Slavic language by the missionaries of SS. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century.

The Turkish conquest of the Middle East and of the Balkans (15th century) interrupted the missionary expansion of the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, Islam and Christianity had usually confronted each other only militarily, and the victory of Islam meant that the Christians could survive only in enclaves and were legally excluded from proselytizing among Muslims.

The Russian Church alone was able to continue the tradition of SS. Cyril and Methodius, and it did so almost without interruption until the modern period. In the 14th century St. Stephen of Perm translated the Scriptures and the liturgy into the language of a Finnish tribe of the Russian north and became the first bishop of the Zyrians. The expansion of the Russian Empire in Asia was accompanied by efforts of evangelization that—sometimes in opposition to the avowed policy of Russianization practiced by the government of St. Petersburg—followed the Cyrillo-Methodian pattern of translation. This method was utilized among the Tatars of the Volga in the 16th century and among the various peoples of Siberia throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries. In 1714 a mission was established in China. In 1794 monks of the Valamo Abbey reached Alaska; their spiritual leader, the monk Herman, was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1970. Missions in the Islamic sphere resumed to the extent that by the year 1903 the liturgy was celebrated in more than 20 languages in the region of Kazan.

The Alaskan mission was under the direction of a modest priest sent to America from eastern Siberia, Ivan Veniaminov. During his long stay in America, first as a priest, then as a bishop (1824-68), he engaged in the work of translating the Gospels and the liturgy into the languages of the Aleuts, the Tlingit Indians, and the Eskimos of Alaska.

In Japan an Orthodox Church was established by the recently canonized St. Nikolay Kasatkin (died 1913). The distinctively Japanese character of this church enabled it to survive the political trials of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), of the Russian Revolution, and of World War II. The new Church of Japan received its full autonomy from the Russian Church in 1970.

The missionary tradition is also being revived in Greece. Various Greek associations are dedicated to the pursuit of missionary work in East Africa, where sizable indigenous groups have recently joined the Orthodox Church.


Since the failure of the unionist Council of Florence (1439) there have been no official attempts to restore unity between the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. In 1484 an Orthodox council defined that Roman Catholics desiring to join the Orthodox Church were to be received through chrismation (or confirmation). In the 17th century, however, the relations deteriorated to the point that the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople decreed that all Roman Catholic and Protestant sacraments, including Baptism, were totally unauthentic. A parallel attitude prevailed in Russia until the 18th century, when large numbers of Eastern Rite Roman Catholics ("Uniates") were received back into Orthodoxy by a simple confession of faith, and this practice was adopted in the acceptance of individual Roman Catholics as well. However the practice of receiving heterodox to Orthodox Church varies today from the traditionalist attitude which requires baptism to more liberal receiving through chrismation.

After the 16th-century Reformation, a lengthy correspondence took place between the Tbingen group of Reformers (German Lutheran) headed by P. Melanchthon and ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II. It led to no concrete results, for the East generally considered the Protestants as only a branch of deviation of the altogether erroneous Roman Church.

Various attempts at rapprochement with the Anglican Communion, especially since the 19th century, were generally more fruitful. Several private associations of churchmen and theologians promoted understanding between Eastern Orthodoxy and the "Anglo-Catholic" branch of Anglicanism. The Orthodox, however, were reticent in taking any formal step toward reunion before a satisfactory statement on the content of Anglican faith, taken as a whole, could be obtained.

The contemporary ecumenical movement involved the Orthodox Church from the very beginning. Eastern Orthodox representatives took part in the various Life and Work (practical) and Faith and Order (theological) Conferences from the very beginning of this century. One by one the various independent Orthodox Churches joined the World Council of Churches, created in 1948. Often, and especially at the beginning of their participation, Orthodox delegates had recourse to separate statements, which made clear to the Protestant majorities that, in the Orthodox view, Christian unity was attainable only in the full unity of the primitive apostolic faith from which the Orthodox Church had never departed. This attitude of the Orthodox could be understood only if it made sufficiently clear that the truth—which historic Eastern Orthodoxy claims to preserve—is maintained by the Holy Spirit in the church as a whole and not by any individual or any group of individuals on their own right and also that the unity of Christians—which is the goal of the ecumenical movement—does not imply cultural, intellectual, or ritual uniformity but rather a mystical fellowship in the fullness of truth as expressed in eucharistic Communion.

The ecumenical movement, especially since the second Vatican Council, is today much wider than the formal membership of the World Council of Churches. Since then there have been numerous contacts between Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians. In the recent years the relations between Orthodoxy and Rome have become much colder because of the Uniate problem in the Eastern Europe.

The tendency, however, represented by those Western Christians who apparently identify Christianity with various political or social causes has the effect of again widening the traditional gap that has been, in the past, one of the major causes of the break between East and West.

Despite the offical involvement of Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement there is rising tendency among more traditionalist thinking clergy and monastics that such engagement is very harmful for Orthodoxy. According to such opinions Orthodox representatives in the ecumenical movement are seriously influenced by certain protestant theories and are not so ready to confess the the attitude that the Orthodox Church is the only true Church of Christ but tend to accept relativist ideas according to which all Christian denominations are branches of the same ecclesiastic tree (Branch Theory). The recent activities of the World Council of Churches have shown a serious tendencies of accepting religious syncretism and rather liberal attitude towards the questions of traditional Christan moral (same sex marriages, women priesthood etc).


In the West, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the church assumed the unifying social function that no other individual or institution was able to fulfill. Eventually, the popes were formally invested with civil authority in Christendom. In the East the empire persisted until 1453 and in Russia until 1917; thus the church had to fulfill its social functions in the political framework of the Christian empire.

This historical contrast coincides with a theological polarization: the Eastern Fathers conceived the God-man relationship in terms of personal experience and Communion culminating in deification; Western theology, meanwhile, understood man as autonomous in the secular sphere, although controlled by the authority of the church, which was conceived as vicariously representing God.

The Byzantine and Eastern form of church-state relations has often been labelled as caesaropapism, because the hierarchy of the church was, most of the time, deprived of the legal possibility of opposing imperial power. But this label is inaccurate in two aspects: first, it presupposes that the emperor possessed a recognizable power to define the content of the faith, comparable to that of the papacy; and, second, it underestimates the power of the church (as a corporate, transfiguring, and deifying power) that is effective without legal guarantees or statutes. The Byzantine ideal of church-state relations was a "symphony" between the civil and the ecclesiastical functions of Christian society. The abuses of imperial power were frequent, but innumerable examples of popular resistance to those imperial decrees that were considered as detrimental to the faith can be cited. Neither the strong emperors of the 7th century, trying to impose Monophysitism, nor the weakened Palaeologans (13th to 15th century), attempting reunion with Rome, were able to overcome the corporate opposition of Orthodox clergy and laity.

The Byzantine conception of church-state relations was not, however, without major weaknesses. It often led to a de facto identification of the interests of the church with those of the empire. Conceived when both the church and the empire were supranational and, in principle, universal, it gradually evolved into a system that gave a sacred sanction to national states. Modern ecclesiastical nationalism, which inhibits relations between Orthodox Churches today, is the outcome of the medieval alliance between the empire and the church.

Only after the Turkish occupation of the Balkans was civil authority directly assumed by the Orthodox Church hierarchy in the Middle East. It was granted to it by the new Muslim overlords, who chose to administer their Christian subjects as a separate community, or millet, ruled by its own religious leaders. The patriarch of Constantinople was thus appointed by the sultan as head (millet-bachi) of the entire Christian population of the Ottoman Empire. Understood by some, especially the Greeks, as the heir of Byzantine emperors and by others, especially the Balkan Slavs and Romanians, as an agent of the hated Turks, the patriarch exercised these powers until the secularization of the Turkish republic by Kemal Atatrk in 1921. By that time, however, he had lost most of his jurisdictional powers because of the establishment of autocephalous churches in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

The millet system, however, survived in other areas of the Middle East. In Cyprus, for example, the church assumed a leading role in national liberation, and its prestige made Archbishop Makarios the natural leader of the young republic.

The millet system and the active political responsibilities that it implied for the church, it should be noted, originated in the Ottoman period only and is not in the spiritual tradition of the Christian East as such. The Russian Church is the most recent example of religious survival without practical social or political involvement.

The Orthodox attitude toward social responsibility in the world constitutes a distinct contribution to the contemporary ecumenical movement. But it will be meaningful only if it is understood in its proper framework—i.e., as an understanding of the Christian faith as a personal spiritual experience of God, which is self-sufficient knowledge of God and which, as such, can lead to an authentically Christian witness in the secularized world.

The practical forms of that witness have varied greatly in history, and Orthodox tradition has placed among the church's saints both hermits and politicians, hesychast monks as well as emperors. According to Serge Bulgakov, a modern Orthodox theologian, the Orthodox Church accepts "a relativism of means and methods," provided there remains "an absolute and unique goal," which is the Kingdom of God still to come but also already present in the mystery of the church.

Codification and systematization of practical devices in the fields of personal or social ethics is foreign to Orthodoxy, which rather relies on free human conscience; each Christian, in his behaviour, stands before the judgment of the New Testament and of the great examples of the saints.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.