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On the Relationship between the Church and State

Russian Orthodox Church

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In Orthodox tradition a concept was developed of symphony between ecclesiastical and civil authority as the ideal form of the relationship between the Church and state. This symphony presumes conditions for the Church and the faithful to practice church life freely, which leads the faithful to eternal salvation, "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (1 Timothy 2:2).

Since, in the words of God, "the whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5:19), the ideal of such a symphony was never fully reached in reality. As a result of the Petrine reforms, the symphony was in effect replaced by a system of governmental ecclesiology, under which the state deprived the Church of full independence.

In the 20th century, after the Bolshevik revolution, unprecedented persecution of the Church in Russia began. During those years, through Divine Providence, the Russian Church produced a great host of Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Not everyone withstood during the years of persecution. Some clergymen and laypersons, trampling upon Divine truth, facilitated the persecutors in their actions directed towards the destruction of the Church. Such actions cannot under any circumstances be permitted and justified; they deserve all condemnation, to avoid their repetition in case the Lord allows persecutions to resume.

Various approaches to the understanding of the relationship between the Church and state arose under the conditions of persecution. Some people of the Church deemed it necessary to choose the path of compromise with the state hostile towards the Church for the sake of preserving ecclesiastical structures in order to openly serve the people of God.

Others rejected this path. In the end, both were subjected to brutal repressions. These two approaches were reflected in the sorrowful divisions in the Russian Church, which gradually faded away in the following decades.

Taking into account the bitter experience of the Church in the 20th century, and based on the witness of the New Martyrs, it is necessary to define what is permissible and what is impermissible in the relationship between the Church and state, especially a state which pursues the goal of the utter destruction of the Church and the faith of Christ. Orthodox Christians came to a clear understanding of the inadmissibility of the absolutisation of government authority. It is unacceptable, in particular, to use the texts of Holy Scripture (for example, Romans 13:1-5) in a way which does not correspond with the interpretation and spirit of the Holy Fathers. Earthly and temporal powers of the state are recognized as imperative to the degree that they are used to support good and limit evil.

The relationship between the Church and state is extensively discussed in a document crucial for the self-understanding of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, the "Encyclical Epistle of the Council of Bishops Abroad" of 1933:

"While the Church exists on earth, it remains closely bound to the fates of human society and cannot be viewed as being outside of space and time. It is impossible for it to refrain from all contact with a powerful social organization such as the government; otherwise it would have to leave the world. The attempt to delineate spheres of influence between the Church and the State - the soul of man belongs to the former, his body to the latter - will in principle, of course, never achieve its objective, because it is only possible to divide man into two separate parts in an abstract sense; in reality, they comprise a single, indivisible whole, and only death dissolves the tie that binds them together. Therefore, the principle of separating the Church from the State will also never be fully realized in real life."

The Jubilee Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of 2000 also spoke out on this matter in its "Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church:"

"In everything that exclusively concerns the earthly order of things, the Orthodox Christian is obliged to obey the law, regardless of how ideal or imperfect it is. However, when compliance with legal requirements threatens his eternal salvation and requires an act of apostasy or the commitment of some other definite sin before God and neighbour, the Christian is called upon to perform the feat of witness of the faith for the sake of Divine truth and the salvation of his soul for eternal life. He must speak openly and lawfully against the indisputable violation committed by society or state against the statutes and commandments of God. If this lawful action is impossible or ineffective, he must assume the stance of civil disobedience" (IV, 9).

"The Church remains loyal to the state, but God's commandment to fulfill the task of salvation in any situation and under any circumstances supersedes this loyalty. If the authority forces Orthodox believers to apostatize from Christ and His Church and to commit sinful and spiritually harmful actions, the Church should refuse to obey the state" (III, 5).

The Church is called upon to exert spiritual influence on the state and its citizens, to confess Christ, to defend the moral foundations of society. By interacting with the state for the good of the people, the Church, however, cannot assume civil functions for itself. The state must not interfere in the inner structure, administration or life of the Church. The Church must support all good initiatives of the state, but must resist evil, immorality and harmful social phenomena and always firmly confess the Truth, and when persecutions commence, to continue to openly witness the faith and be prepared to follow the path of confessors and martyrs for Christ.

Read this article on the Orthodox Europe website (new window will open).

Posted: 3 Jul, 05

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