13-6 Unity And Disunity In The Orthodox Churches
Orthodox priests warn their flocks in bitter terms against the likes of ourselves, claiming that we are breaking up their nation. We approach Orthodox people with this cloud hanging over us. But this again is mere politics; the priests believe the whole [e.g., Bulgarian] nation are their flock by reason of birth, and that salvation depends upon loyalty to their organization. To counter this we need to explain to our contacts that we advocate faithfulness to the laws of the land in which we live; and yet we are not seeking to create just isolated believers. We are part of the world-wide family of Abraham. Explain to people, show them photos, pull out letters from your Bible...to show what our world-wide fellowship means in practice. We are a family. We agree with unity! And my observation is that this is one of the key things which leads people to join us. It shows the power of our doctrine in practice. I often show them a copy of Gospel News, and they are amazed that people from throughout Africa, America, Russia and the Arab world, with all that stands between them, are brought together in the uncanny unity of the Gospel. And of course the Lord predicted just this; that by our unity, the world would know Him in truth. This is why it happens that many of the people who read Bible Basics on the www.biblebasicsonline.com website also spend time browsing around Gospel News, according to our web usage statistics. The nature of the community is the proof of our doctrinal validity. Which is why our disunity is the biggest disadvertisment we could possibly make.
Another point worth making is that the Orthodox stress on unity is nothing more than a mechanism to obtain and retain power. ‘We all must have the same view, otherwise, there will be disunity’- and so any dissenting voice is to be silenced in the name of unity. Discerning people are not slow to realize that this is going on. They also know full well that this is why the Orthodox criticize other parts of the Orthodox movement and indeed any other religious group with a venom which is clearly unChristian, so much so that it raises big questions in the minds of the thinking minority- questions which we can easily plug into and give credible answers to.
Consider this quote from Orthodox Unity Today by the Right Reverend Photios, Bishop of Triaditza
[Translated from the French by Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna]: “I am speaking about ecumenism (and its midwife, modernism). Briefly, modern ecumenism is both a movement and an ecclesiological heresy. It poses a grave threat to the very " pillar and foundation of the Truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) itself-the Church... the Orthodox Church is not a church, but the Church...Thus, the proof of Orthodox unity is, above all, " the correct and saving confession of the faith" . There is much here that we can plug into. We too, unlike many Western Christian missions, are not preaching a church, i.e. we are not [or should not] be doing a mere publicity exercise for our church. We are preaching the true church, a community of believers who have lived and believed the faith of Abraham all down the millennia, into which community we enter through baptism into Christ. We too are against ‘ecumenism’; but, let us emphasize, for different reasons. Not because we in some parochial sense want to preserve the power of our little ‘church’, but because we are convinced that the inspired Bible teaches doctrines which comprise the one true Faith, and that Faith is essential for the true belief, baptism and walk with the Lord which ultimately saves.
And of course, the question of authority keeps intruding into all such discussions. The Orthodox are not united, neither within each country nor internationally. This, we submit to our contacts, is because the basis for authority is upon men, upon a line of tradition and interpretation of various Bishops, rather than the plain man reading his Bible. Each country has their own exclusive church- the Macedonian Orthodox for the Macedonians, Serb Orthodox for the Serbs, Russian Orthodox for the Russians etc. They each teach that their ethnic group are the true people of God- so, axiomatically, they have to be divided from the other Orthodox churches. They have made various irrelevant ‘doctrinal’ points the bases for these divisions, especially the dating of Easter and the arrangement of the liturgical Calendar. But it’s all just justifying their power games; and this is why there can be no genuine going into all the world with the Gospel for all nations. It may be as well to mention in passing our obedience to the great commission, resulting in the mixture of all nations and tongues which we have in our wider community- it’s an impressive thing for an Orthodox person to hear about. Macedonian believers mix with Serb believers, Russian ones etc. in a genuine unity- which is enough to convert the world. So we agree in outline with the Orthodox position that unity is related to having “the correct and saving confession of faith” of which Bishop Photios wrote. We might also point out that the Orthodox mentality and following of previous tradition is exactly what led Judaism to lose the true hope of Israel, and to crucify the Son of God.
Examples of disunity
- The Orthodox Church of Finland celebrates the Feast of Pascha (Easter) according to the new calendar, separately from all of the other Orthodox Churches, but at the same time as the Catholics and Protestants.
- Most of the Orthodox Churches, the Bulgarian especially, are divided into mutually exclusive factions over the issue of which Calendar to use for their liturgy, and how to celebrate Easter. Orthodoxy simply hasn’t brought about unity- neither between nations, nor within them. Their usual reply is that if everyone accepted their view, then there would be national unity. Yet this is just another version of Stalinist-Leninist-Marxist ideology, and in most Slavic consciences this fact will be readily recognized. And Orthodoxy by its very nature means that there can never be any international unity of believers of the type which the New Testament so often glories in. For each Orthodox church claims that their ethnic group alone are the true people of God.
- The division between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian Church Abroad (RCA) is well known. It has resulted in RCA churches being firebombed, their priests murdered etc., often with state support. These incidents have often been reported in the Russian press; everyone knows about them. Likewise the Moscow Patriarchate has often been out of step with the ROC Patriarchs in other parts of the huge expanse of Russia, again issuing in violence- all in the name of unity. One naturally makes the connection with the Northern Irish war between Catholic and Protestants, also fought in the name of unity. We need to explain and show that true unity both Biblically and in true Christian practice is a natural process, brought about by a common covenant relationship with the Father. It isn’t something that can be achieved by politics, hurtful behaviour nor violence.
- The ROC and RCA have recently sharply divided over which ‘martyrs’ from the Communist period should be made saints [canonized]. They have no common authority, therefore, they divide so bitterly. The advantage of having the Bible as our sole authority and the way we have no hierarchy or controlling organization needs to be emphasized very early on in our discussions.
- Leonid Regelson in his book The Tragedy of the Russian Church (Paris, 1977) brings out many of these divisions. He writes on p. 495: “The Moscow Patriarchate has, since Stalin's time, according to its own basic assumptions, called upon the Russian Church Abroad to return to " the saving bosom of the Mother Church." The same call echoed again in 1987. They have even said that the parishes of the Free Russian Church must be " flushed into the sewer where all unclean elements are drained off" (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, No. 9/1990, p. 33)”. The RCA teach that the Russians can fall from grace and no longer be the people of God unless the RCA is accepted as the true church rather than the ROC: “The fate of Russia is in the hands of God and the hands of the Russian people, if they desire to remain the people of God”. The ROC teach that the Russians are inalienably the people of God whatever.
It may be helpful to remember that some leading popular Russian writers, some with almost cult status in Russian society, have been highly critical of the Orthodox church. Here are a few examples worth quoting from Tolstoy:
Tolstoy called the trinity a “ridiculous, immoral dogma…incompatible with reason and knowledge….which cannot be accommodated in a healthy mind" (1)
" Humanity can only be saved from disaster when it frees itself from the hypnotic influence the priests hold over it, and from that into which the learned are leading it. In order to pour something into a full vessel one must first empty it of its contents. Likewise, it is essential to free people from the deception they are held in, in order for them to adopt the true religion: i.e. a relationship with God…which is correct and in accord with the development of humanity, together with the guidance for conduct that results from this relationship”(2)
(1) Leo Tolstoy: A Confession, and other religious
writings (London: Penguin, 1987 ed.) p. 116
(2) Ibid p. 118