Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Church and State

In America, the phrase "separation of church and state" is often invoked in discussions on the relationship between religion and politics. Different people have different views of what the phrase means and what the ideal interaction between religious groups and political bodies might look like. According to conventional wisdom, "politics and religion don't mix."

Most Americans don't realize that a separation between Church and State has been practiced in Orthodox Christian lands for over a thousand years. An Orthodox Christian country is healthiest when both the Church and the civil government work harmoniously together. In his book, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos Ware quotes the Byzantine Emperor John Tzimisces: "I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the care of men's bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity" (41).

Unlike the situation with Roman Catholicism in past centuries, the Orthodox Christian Church is not over the government. It does not assume the powers of the State. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church is not controlled by the government either.

Some writers have attempted to rewrite certain parts of history regarding the early Church. One idea floating around American culture is that Emperor Constantine the Great, the first emperor of the Christian Byzantine Empire, compelled the Orthodox bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to declare that Jesus was God. Therefore, according to the allegations, Christian doctrine was decided in the fourth century under the political influence of Constantine, a politician. In actuality, the Council at Nicaea didn't decide any new doctrine, but only reaffirmed what the Church had always believed since the time of the Apostles. Having arisen from persecution only a few years before, the Church defended the Faith its martyrs had been killed proclaiming. The gathered bishops intended to clearly distinguish the true Christian Faith from the new heretical ideas espoused by a priest named Arius, who taught that Christ was a created being and not God Himself, as the Church had always believed and taught. The Council condemned the teachings of Arius, and formulated a Creed that rejected Arianism. The Nicaean Creed eventually included these statements:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Sometimes the State may try to control the Church. In such cases, the Church must peacefully defend the Faith for the good of the people. Even after the Christian Church condemned the false teachings of Arius with one voice at the Council of Nicaea, some continued to support his doctrine. When a supporter of Arianism became emperor of the Christian Byzantine Empire, he tried to influence Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea. Despite the pressure placed upon him by the emperor's officials, St. Basil refused to hold back his attacks on the error of Arianism:
Finally, in a heated encounter, the praetorian prefect lost his patience and threatened Basil with confiscating his goods, with exile, torture, and even death. Basil responded, "All that I have you can confiscate are these rags and a few books. Nor can you exile me, for wherever you send me, I shall be God's guest. As to tortures you should know that my body is already dead in Christ. And death would be a great boon to me, leading me sooner to God." Taken aback, the prefect said that no one had ever spoken to him thus. Basil answered, "Perhaps that is because you have never met a true bishop." (The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Justo L. Gonzalez, HarperSanFrancisco, 1984, p. 185)

In recent times the Orthodox Christian Church has spoken out against the government's failure to preserve the Orthodox Christian Faith in its governance of the people. Patriarch Pavle, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in Serbia, denounced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during his rule of Serbia. Milosevic was eventually indicted on charges of crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Father Sava, a Serbian priest, stated that Milosevic had "brought ruin upon the Serb people." He also declared that "the Milosevic regime does not support the Christian values we are fighting for and want to preserve" (BBC News Online, "Orthodox Church Attacks Milosevic," June, 29, 1999).

As the Church must sometimes defend the Faith and people from a straying government, it must also address problems within the Church. When Arius introduced heresy into the Church, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea so that the Church could deal with the problem. In an Orthodox Christian country, problems concerning the Faith affect the whole nation. In this council, and the ones that followed it, the Church condemned heresy and upheld the true Faith. Last year, one of the Church's chief bishops (a Patriarch) was removed from his position by his brother bishops when he became involved in a controversy with political implications that affected both the Church and the people of his land. Although the Orthodox Church itself is incorruptible and whole, she is composed of imperfect individual.

From an Orthodox perspective, the separation of Church and State doesn't mean that the State operates as a secular institution apart from the Faith. The Church is responsible for caring for the souls of Orthodox Christians, citizens of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. The authority and power of the Church is within the realm of this heavenly kingdom, not the civil government. The Church does not hold secular power. The Church offers a spiritual voice within the culture and her bishops offer guidance to the leaders of the State according to the Faith of the Church, the way of life handed down from generation to generation since the Apostles. The State cannot control the Church, but must protect and care for the faithful people of the Orthodox country as is the duty of a sovereign nation's government.

Since we don't live in an Orthodox Christian country, but as Orthodox Christians in the United States of America, let's remember our prayers:

For our Metropolitan PHILIP and our Bishop..., for the venerable Priesthood, the Diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.

For the President of the United States and all civil authorities, and for our Armed Forces everywhere, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will aid them and grant them victory over every enemy and adversary, let us pray to the Lord.

For this city, and every city and land, and for the faithful who dwell therein, let us pray to the Lord.

For healthful seasons, for the abundance of the fruit of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Here is my favorite picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Alexy II, shepherd of the Russian Orthodox Church. The photo, from the St. Petersburg Times, was apparently taken at Pascha (Orthodox Easter).

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The above photo of President Putin and Patriarch Alexy II, taken Christmas 2000, is in the public domain. The portions of the Great Litany and Nicaean Creed have been taken from the Service Book of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.)