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Strangers in a Foreign Land: Nationalism and the Orthodox Church

In calling the Church ‘catholic,’ Orthodox Christians confess belief in a Church for all ages, nations, and races.

The Catholic Church is whole, complete, and lacking nothing—for this is what ‘catholic’ truly means. It is a calling for all, and Christ our God is sacrificed ‘on behalf of all, and for all.’

There is often confusion—especially for those either outside or unfamiliar with the Orthodox Church—in viewing our local, autonomous churches as ‘ethnic’ churches. Nevertheless, such a perspective was condemned as heresy (termed ‘ethno-phyletism’) by an ecumenical council in Constantinople (August 10, 1872).1 In that context, the concern was the uncanonical creation of an ethnic church for Bulgarians—a church sharing essentially the same ‘space’ as the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Both the fall of monarchy and the wiles of the Enlightenment led even Orthodox Christians into the arms of the nineteenth century’s pseudo-replacement for imperial veneration and identity in Christian faith: nationalism. Logical ends of nationalism were, of course, both racism and Hitler’s Third Reich. To be clear, a pride in one’s cultural or religious heritage is not necessarily a problem, but pride based solely on the superiority of one’s race over others is far removed from the Orthodox faith.

And though certain, Balkan churches (in Serbia, Greece, and Romania) were ratified and ordered canonically (and especially as the Ottoman Empire dissolved in the wake of World War I), the Bulgarian situation was a step too far.2

Our holy fathers reacted appropriately, and the synod of 1872 concludes:

[I]n the Christian Church, which is a spiritual communion, predestined by its Leader and Founder to contain all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, racism is alien and quite unthinkable. Indeed, if it is taken to mean the formation of special racial churches, each accepting all the members of its particular race, excluding all aliens and governed exclusively by pastors of its own race, as its adherents demand, racism is unheard of and unprecedented.

All the Christian churches founded in the early years of the faith were local and contained the Christians of a specific town or a specific locality, without racial distinction. They were thus usually named after the town or the country, not after the ethnic origin of their people.3

And further:

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which ‘support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.’

Many today still demonstrate confusion over the ordering of Orthodoxy, even as our foundation as local (not ethnic) churches is rather ancient. After all, did not the apostle write letters to the Christians—both Jew and Gentile—of Rome, Galatia, and Colossæ? Was not the Gospel a universal message for all the world (Matt. 28:18–20; John 3:16–17)?

Since the earliest centuries, the governance of the Orthodox Church has been aligned with geographical or national boundaries (as the synod of 1872 makes plain)—and this irrespective of the ethnicity, language, or skin color of those within each region.

In their definitive report on these issues, the synod discusses the ancient, canonical foundation for the organization of all local Orthodox churches. The Bulgarians at that time were claiming the thirty-fourth canon of the Holy Apostles:

[T]he bishops of each nation (ethnos) must recognize the first amongst them, and he shall preside as head.

But the council interprets this canon within the broader, and more accurate, scope of canonical precedent:

[This canon] is best explained by the sacred form of government prevailing throughout the church, which is entirely alien to racism. Its true meaning is confirmed by the ninth canon of the Council of Antioch, which says explicitly: “The bishops in each province must recognize the bishop presiding in the metropolis, and he must take care of the entire province [. . .] following the ancient canon which has prevailed from our fathers.” Moreover, the Apostolic canon explains itself and makes clear the sense of the word ethnos when it goes on: “And each (bishop) is only to do such things as are proper to his congregation (paroichia) and the areas under his authority.” Local, not racial churches are clearly meant here. This is confirmed by the thirty-fifth Apostolic canon, which prescribes that: “A bishop should not venture beyond his boundaries to perform ordinations in towns and areas not subject to him.” From all this, it is quite clear that racism finds no recognition in the government and sacred legislation of the Church.4

While in Egypt, Moses has a child with Zipporah, one of Reuel’s daughters. Naming the child ‘Gershom,’ Moses remarks (Ex. 2:22):

I am a stranger in a foreign land.

The tagline for our website is: ‘Orthodox Christianity in the Diaspora.’ While that term ‘diaspora’ has a tangible and even self-evident meaning for those living in the West as Orthodox Christians, there’s a deeper sense in which all Orthodox Christians are diaspora Christians. Like Moses’ sojourn in Egypt, we are all ‘strangers in a foreign land.’

A second century letter addressed to a ‘Diognetus’ describes the conduct of early Christians:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity . . . They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers . . . They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. —Epistle to Diognetus 5

After extolling the innumerable virtues of various, old covenant saints, the apostle Paul concludes: “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39). Moses, too, endured the toils of a foreign land, brought freedom to captives, and yet was unable to cross over. And for Christians—the ‘Israel of God’ in Jesus Christ—the kingdom is not of this present, evil age. The reign or ‘kingdom’ of God is one that transcends not only space and time, but also language, culture, and race.

Of course, having a citizenship ‘in heaven’ does not mean that we should neglect this life (or planet) as merely transitory, but it does mean that we should seek to order our lives according to eternal principles, rather than transitory. And this is why the Church—imaging the Holy Trinity—is a ‘monarchy,’ with each bishop as the local head of each local church. We are not ordered according to race or even language, but rather according to the providence of where God has placed us.

In the Church, dividing walls of our fallen world are broken down, with each person treating and honoring the other as a precious icon, created in the image and likeness of God. In the Church, we are called to love one another—regardless of race, culture, age, or gender—and confess our changeless, Trinitarian faith. In the Church, we are all equally beloved of God, because we are all equally ‘strangers in a foreign land’:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. —Gal. 3:28

Only by opposing both nationalism and racism can Orthodox Christians proclaim the one, true faith. A faith in a loving God who has trampled down death—and all forms of division—by his own death; a faith in a loving God who died and rose again ‘on behalf of all, and for all.’

By Gabe Martini
On Behalf of All Blog

  1. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Gregory, referred to it as such in a letter to the Ottoman leadership of that era, although this is not at the same level of importance as the first seven (or eight) Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church. 
  2. And of course, the Bulgarian Patriarchate today is a fully canonical and Orthodox church. These issues were not long-lived, nor is this post meant to be a slight to Bulgarians in any way, shape, or form—merely a description of historical facts. 
  3. Metropolitan Maximos of Sardis, The Œcumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church (trans. Gamon McClellan, 1976), p. 303 
  4. ibid., p. 305 
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