Divisions in the Orthodox World: An Unfolding Tragedy that Challenges Christian Witness

The deep religious conflict behind the Ukraine-Russia war.

Ganoune Diop
Divisions in the Orthodox World: An Unfolding Tragedy that Challenges Christian Witness

NOTE: The following reflection is not an official text of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The voice of the church is expressed through votes of official statements. The reflections expressed in this article are meant to be descriptive and mobilizing for peace to prevail in a region which is known a tumultuous history and experienced much suffering.1 Orthodox Christians have borne the toll of incalculable predicament: intimidation, harassment, confiscations of properties, persecution, and martyrdom. When the church resurrected from that era, one can understand the expectation of solidarity Orthodox Christians expected from other Christians. Instead of signs of solidarity, Orthodox Christians felt betrayed again, disappointment towards Western churches who through proselytism seem to have opportunistically taken advantage of their vulnerability and fragility after years of being stifled by atheistic ideologies. 

The current situation in Ukraine is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional crisis. The complexity of the various interwoven issues is expressed in the very etymology of the word Ukraine, the bumpy history of the principality of Kievan Rus, the legitimacy of its aspiration of being an autonomous nation, and as importantly, the perception of its identity. 

On the higher end, it is estimated that there are between 260 to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The data on demographics regarding the Orthodox world in Eastern Europe is significant. “A recent Pew Forum survey found that 71% of Russians identified as Orthodox, along with 78% of Ukrainians, 73% of Belarusians and 92% of Moldovans. A newly confident Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) viewed itself as a repository of Russian national identity, and Moscow as the ‘third Rome’ with primacy over the Orthodox Churches in those countries and beyond.” 2

“Ukraine as the root kraj of its name indicates, is a border zone which has taken on the dimension of a country at the point of split between the two Europes. The pendulum movement is recurrent for centuries. The adoption of Christianity from Constantinople, the Tatar invasion, the creation of a Cossack entity, the Ottoman incursion, the annexation by Russia makes Kyiv as part of the Orient. Polish and Lithuanian occupations, the rallying of a part of the clergy to Rome, the revolutionary romanticism, and the vitality of minorities such as, formerly, the Jewish community animated by the ideals of emancipation before being annihilated, make it part of the West. The repeated dream of independence, constantly undermined internally by fragmented feudalisms or popular revolts, threatened externally by predatory neighbors, thus crystallizes a nationalism exacerbated by the consciousness of an accordion-territory and a composite identity, if not contradictory.”3

Unlike the 1054 schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, this one is within the Orthodox tradition itself.

The core contest is inseparable from the very nature of this “border zone” between East and West. The geopolitical rivalry between East and West finds a ground in this territory which has a rich but tumultuous history.

The geopolitical question has brought to the fore several interrelated issues, aspirations and demands. The argument for the neutrality of such “a border zone” between East and West, the issue of demilitarization of this so-called “buffer state” by advocates of the security of Russia basing their concerns on the repeated historical Western incursions,4–these are all part of the difficulties in achieving peace in this region of the world. 

Though aware of the thesis that the conflict in this part of the world is primarily secular rather than religious,5 the religious component plays an important role.  Solutions to the current crisis could thus benefit from the reconciliation of religious entities.

Cupola of St Andrew’s Church – Kyiv, Ukraine

Rivalries are not the monopoly of the geopolitical world. Regrettably, the religious world at large and the Christian faiths have woven in their last two thousand years of common history deep divisions, conflicts and wars which have considerably discredited the faith in the one who has been identified as the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. This article will highlight the religious aspect which seems to undergird the current tragedy in Ukraine.

Divisions and multiplications of factions have characterized the faith named for the One who prayed for the unity of His disciples. Jesus calls for unity as a means of credibility to the justification of belief in him.6

I have written the following reflection to encourage Christian traditions and denominations to reconsider the damage done to the credibility of Jesus Christ as the world witnesses Christian mutual hostilities and infightings. Foreseeing the turbulent history of those who claim to follow Him, Jesus addressed this same issue of the need for unity in His priestly prayer recorded in John 17.

Freedom of conscience and right to self-determination are parts of what lies at the heart of the Russia/Ukraine conflict and crisis.

When it comes to the situation in Ukraine, one must remember first that every faith tradition must learn the difficult lesson of embracing religious freedom for all.

The Roman Catholic Church offers an example.  After the compromise of the faith through the Holy Roman empire, the intolerance, the inquisitions, the persecution of those deemed heretics, the oppression and burning at the stake of other Christians, a significant departure from medieval violence emerged with the second Vatican Council. In 1965, the adoption of the text Dignitatis humanae constituted a landmark in the shift from coercion, inquisition, and domination of the secular space to presence and nonviolent witness. Will this welcome development continue? Only history will tell.

Today the challenge is within the Christian Orthodox Church’s internal schism. A tragic situation is unfolding. In other words, unlike the 1054 schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, this one is within the Orthodox tradition itself.

The situation is complex and irreducible to generalizations because there are geopolitical, cultural, military, ideological and religious issues interwoven into a tapestry of intolerance. The root cause of the current crisis, however, has an incontrovertible religious component. Freedom of conscience and right to self-determination are parts of what lies at the heart of the Russia/Ukraine conflict and crisis.

Distinctives of the Orthodox traditions

Every Christian denomination professes unique claims determinative to their self-perception and identity. The Orthodox Church claims to have preserved the original apostolic faith.

The distinctive claim of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the following: “The Orthodox Church views itself as the divinely appointed witness to the unbroken ‘tradition’ of primitive apostolic Christianity. Through its divine liturgy, it unites the faithful in mystical communion with the holy fellowship of saints and martyrs extending backwards through the centuries of Christian history and forwards into the heavenly company of the redeemed. The church is the visible embodiment of heaven in earth.”7

The Orthodox faith is grounded on the dogmatic decrees of the seven ecumenical councils, the Scriptures, and the teaching of the Church Fathers.

The First Seven Councilsinclude the following: 

  1. The First Council of Nicaea in 325, 
  2. The First Council of Constantinople in 381, 
  3. The Council of Ephesus in 431, 
  4. The Council of Chalcedon in 451, 
  5. The Second Council of Constantinople in 553, 
  6. The Third Council of Constantinople from 680–681  
  7. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
Saint Andrew (Andriyivskyy) Church in Kiev, Ukraine

The ecumenical councils were refuting several beliefs considered heresies. Key among those were heresies related to the nature of God, of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The ecumenical councils rejected the following:

  • An Arian heresy. The idea that the Son of God was only the highest creation.
  • A Macedonian heresy. The Holy Spirit is not God.
  • A Nestorian heresy in reference to Mary
  • The doctrine of the Monophysites—a belief according to which the human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ was completely absorbed into His divine nature
  • The doctrine of Monothelitism—a belief according to which Christ has only one will.
  • A rejection of what was considered iconoclastic heresy.

Examples of Core differences between Orthodox and Catholics.

For the Orthodox believers, there is:

  1. No papal supremacy
  2. No papal infallibility 
  3. No immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary 
  4. Differences in the doctrine of God, especially in understanding the procession of the Holy Spirit.

The Orthodox Church believes the Holy Spirit “proceeds from God the Father,” while for Catholics and Protestants, the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (This issue has historically been known as the “Filioque”).

There are obviously other differences. such as the differences of calendar and festivals, for example. The Orthodox Church observes the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics and Protestants use the more recent Gregorian calendar. This explains the different dates for religious festivals. Christmas is celebrated by Catholics and Protestants on December 25, whereas Orthodox Christians celebrate it around January 7.

Unique Contributions

The contributions of the Orthodox faith to Christian thought have been profound throughout the centuries. Suffice it to underline the depth of various aspects of the notion of the glory of God in its connections to Christian life, beliefs, and practice as experienced in Orthodox liturgy. Insights into the concept of human dignity have been remarkable.8 Orthodox spirituality with its focus on the Holy Spirit deserves deeper explorations.

Root Cause of the Current Crisis

The current crisis is connected to a schism within the Orthodox faith tradition. This schism is part of a rivalry regarding the legitimate authority in the Orthodox world. The issue is that of primacy of leadership, connected to a primacy of origin, and ultimately, the legitimacy of leadership over the whole Orthodox world. 

Though there are about 15 autocephalous (“self-headed” or self-governing) entities in the Orthodox family, the two major rival sites of authority have been the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople and the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox church. 

In 2019, the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, granted autocephalous (self-governing) status to the Ukraine Orthodox Church, basically severing it from the Moscow Patriarchate and the patriarch Kirill. 

An expression of the root cause of the current conflict has been expressed as follows: “A theory grew up that there had been one Rome, in Italy, which had fallen to the barbarians and to the Roman Catholic heresy. There had been a second Rome: Constantinople. And when that fell to the Turks, there was a third Rome, Moscow. The emperor took his title from the first Rome – czar is the same word and Caesar–just as he had taken his religion from the second. In the year 1512 a monk wrote to the czar: ‘Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be. Thou art the only Christian sovereign in the world, the lord of all faithful Christians.’” 9

The rivalry was exacerbated by the decision to grant the status of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox church. In 2019, the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, granted autocephalous status to the Ukraine Orthodox Church, basically severing it from the Moscow Patriarchate and the patriarch Kirill. 

There are several issues at play when it comes to the relation between the Ukrainian Orthodox church and the patriarchate of Moscow,.

A claim of a common root and origin.

The current schism questions the common root of the Russian and the Ukrainian Orthodox, dating back to 980 when Prince Volodymyr the Great or the Saint, converted to the Christian Orthodox Church.

“Around 950, Queen Olga, who ruled the principality of Kiev, was converted, and baptized by Germanic missionaries. But it was under her grandson Vladimir (980-1015) that Christianity began making significant progress. For reasons that are not altogether clear, Vladimir sent missionaries, not from the West, but rather from the Byzantine Empire. He and many of his subjects were baptized in 988, and this date is usually given as the beginning of both the Ukrainian and the Russian church—for the princes of Kiev would eventually rule in Moscow, which at the time of Vladimir’s conversion was just a small village.”10

For Jesus and apostolic Christianity, God’s presence is not limited to a place a region, not even a sanctuary or temple.

A view of timeline and recent developments in the conflict within the Orthodox tradition can be insightful in understanding how the current conflict is inseparable from considerations of national identity and the common religious roots of Ukraine and Russia.  This timeline also has important implications for religious liberty in such a context.

On 5 January 2019, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed the tomos that officially recognized and established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it autocephaly (self-governorship). The timeline of the events leading to the grant of autocephaly shows the following:

  • On 11 October 2018, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that it would “proceed to the granting of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine”, making it independent from the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • This decision led the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to break communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 15 October 2018, which marked the beginning of the 2018 Moscow–Constantinople schism.
  • On 15 December 2018 a unification council founded the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
  • On 5 January 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew signed the tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

There are deeper issues connected to deeply held beliefs and philosophical dispositions.

  1. A sense of betrayal as Ukraine leans towards the West, unequivocally interpreted as decadent.
  2. Canonical territorial integrity.11 The key question regarding this concept is the following: Should Ukraine be considered a canonical territory belonging to the Russian Orthodox church and the patriarchate of Moscow?
  3. Slavonic solidarity.
  4. The “manifest destiny” of the Moscow Patriarchate as the guarantor of Orthodoxy in the face of the accusation of decadence of western Christendom. The fall of both Rome and Constantinople are interpreted as corroborating factors for the election of Russia, the new and last holy center of the Christian faith. Currently, this sense of being the guardian or guarantor of Orthodoxy has been expanded to include the responsibility to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East, for example.
  5. The preservation of national Christian identity since and despite various invasions. The Mongols, for instance, invaded Russia in 1240 and ruled for 200 years.
  6. A deep conviction that the Orthodox faith has helped Russia survive various invasions and occupations.
  7. The adoption of national or state religion. As history has repeatedly witnessed, separation of church or religion and state is a proven antidote against the instrumentalization of either religion or state to secure domination over people—and thus deprive them of their freedoms.

During the pristine era of the Christian faith its internal resources were characterized by the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, by canonical writers’ articulations of the New Covenant reality, and by imperative exhortations.  The following questions may be helpful to rally people of good will who are committed to the freedom Jesus brought.

  1. In the New Covenant Jesus brought, the concepts of holy places and holy nation are expanded and inclusive. In other words, for Jesus and apostolic Christianity, God’s presence is not limited to a place a region, not even a sanctuary or temple. “Where two or three gathered in his name God is in their midst.” Moreover, the church is not a temple, argues the Apostle Paul. He also specified that believers, individually, are temples of the Holy Spirit. 
  2. Though people have the right to their beliefs, in accordance with the principle of religious liberty, freedom of thought, conscience, or belief, according to apostolic Christian faith, a universal faith cannot be reduced to regional allegiances.
  3. God’s people, after the Advent of Jesus Christ, and from the apostolic era forward, cannot be reduced to membership in ethnic groups. See the unequivocal teachings addressed to all Christians: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9).  A humbling question to all Christians is this: can we “proclaim the excellencies of Christ Jesus,” while endorsing violence and wars? Far from it, in light of the global or universal agenda of the Prince of Peace who brings life in abundance, and wishes all people to be saved.
  4. Moreover, can the unambiguous relativization of holy places (seen in the case of the discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman) be canceled by Christian conventions of considering some places as sacred? The sacralization of places and objects and rituals of salvation gave way, according to the book of Hebrews, to the repositioning of the sovereignty, primacy, and sufficiency of God. This refocus on God’s ultimate and absolute will is an intrinsic part of the New Covenant. This is an understanding the Reformation reopened. The re-sacralization of places and objects by some Christian faiths. Therefore, has fundamentally altered the unique contributions of Christianity.  Centuries of fusing political aims to religious and spiritual aspirations have contributed to this form of Christianity.  The radicalness of Jesus’ teachings and the New Covenant of direct access He insisted upon have all been toned down. A direct consequence is the loss of vision for one humanity with one heavenly Creator, our Father in heaven—not a tribal, national, or regional deity, but the Father of all humankind created in His image. 
  5. Various obstacles to the oneness of the whole human family have found ways to flourish in all religious traditions. Exclusivity, exclusion, and divisiveness have been corrosive to the gift of unity and solidarity of humankind. Unity is not manufactured by human political endeavors, but is a gift from the One triune God.
  6. Religious wars have punctuated the history of our world. The advent of the Christian faith began in followers of Jesus being persecuted and murdered by the Roman Empire’s emperors and officials. From Nero to Diocletian, the church, up to its embrace of the Holy Roman Empire, moved from being persecuted to being the persecutor of those considered heretics. The sad stories of inquisitions, persecutions, and burnings at the stake approved by ecclesiastical authorities have spread a dark shadow on the Christian witness to the world. No wonder, that in 1905, in Western Europe and particularly in France, secular political movements rallied to shake off the yoke of the church over society. 
  7. In Eastern Europe, the onslaught of atheistic/Marxist ideologies on Orthodox Christians has been one of the darkest sides of the 20th century. Today, the internal division of the Eastern Orthodox world between Constantinople and Moscow continues the tragic rift within the body of Christ—a scandal of scandals. 

Conclusions and Perspectives

Today, contemporary movement for peace is urgently needed, inviting all Christians, including our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox traditions, to wholeheartedly embrace the peace of Jesus we claim.

Going back to the roots of the Christian faith could be a good place to start to find inspiration, motivation, and a model of peacemaking in the person of Jesus Christ.

The New Covenant Jesus brought is indeed radical. It is distinguished by the concept of direct access to God and the abolition of in-betweens between God and human beings. The right to religious claims can never justify ways of violence. The Prince of Peace claimed by all Christians came to give life in abundance. God is the new center or rallying point. Jesus came to re-center everything on God to whom the whole earth belongs. 

Today, the internal division of the Eastern Orthodox world between Constantinople and Moscow is continuing the tragic rift within the body of Christ—a scandal of scandals. 

Christians of all traditions, while endowed with the right to personal beliefs, conscience, and claims, are all called to embrace the witness to Christ, the nonviolent Savior, who refused to call twelve legions of angels to fight for Him. He rather preferred to absorb the violent consequences of the evil of and in this world—to deliver us from evil, and death. 

As followers of the prince of life, whatever our traditional allegiances may be, we are all called to human solidarity in the form of saving lives, healing, and promotion of health: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social. Wars in all their forms are negations and antitheses of these virtues.

May peace prevail. The prince of life endorsed peace as is revealed by His own words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” He said. (Matt 5:9).

May all, therefore, who pray “Our Father in Heaven,” give heed to the words of Jesus. We owe it to the One who gave His life for the life of all of us. 

Ganoune Diop, Ph.D. is director of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

  1. It is estimated that the total number of Christian murdered in that region ranges from 12 to 20 million, with at least 106,000 Russian clergymen executed between 1937 and 1941. 
  2.  Russia’s War on Ukraine: The religious dimension. At A Glance. A document prepared for and addressed to members and staff of the European Parliament as background material to assist them in the parliament work. 
  3.  Jean-Francois Colosimo. “La crise Orthodoxe: Théologie et géopolitique.” In Le Christianisme du XXIe siècle. Sous la direction de Dominique Reynie (Paris: Le Cerf, 2021), 222.
  4.  Russia has experienced famous or infamous invasions: the Mongols in the 13th century, The failed Swedish invasion during the so-called Northern War (1700-1921), Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941. One could also mention the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which some argue, has been one of the factors that triggered the Russian Revolution of 1905. 
  5.  Religion During the Russian Ukrainian Conflict. Edited by Elizabeth A. Clark and Dmytro Vovk. Routledge Religion, Society and Government in Eastern Europe and The Former Soviet States (London, New York: Routledge 2020)
  6.  According to the center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are an estimated 45,000 different Christian denominations. See Donavyn Coffey. Why does Christianity have so many denominations? published February 27, 2021.
  7.  Brian Stanley. Christianity in the Twentieth: A World History (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018), 313.
  8.  See. Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos). Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns (Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 2003), 60. “Human dignity is not some vague kind of civic pride but arises from the certainty that each human being is indeed a sacred person, the creation of a personal God. Human dignity has nothing to do with egotistical arrogance but is associated with an awareness of human greatness and its limitations. Dignity is marked by discretion, consideration, and respect for others.”
  9.  Bamber Gascoigne. A brief History of Christianity (London, 2003) quoting Runciman, 178.
  10.  Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. Vol. 1. Revised and Updated (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 311. He noted that “by 1240, when the Mongols invaded Russia and ruled the country for over two centuries, Christianity was the national bond of unity that allowed Russia to survive as a nation, and eventually to be rid of the invaders. In the sixteenth century, after Constantinople had been taken by the Turks, Russia declared that Moscow was the Third Rome,” its rulers took the imperial title of czars, and the bishop of Moscow that of Patriarch.” Idem, p. 312.
  11.  This concept of canonical has been challenges within the Orthodox thought. as follows: “from the outset, it must be understood and emphasized that the Church was revealed in the world by God through Jesus-Christ for the salvation of all people and the world, irrespective of race, and not for the benefit of ambitions or political and other objectives. The Orthodox Church is one; one, too, and common is the Orthodox faith; the same sacraments sanctify the faithful in it; the same sacred canons regulate the affairs of its life and order. It is neither Russian nor Greek nor Serb nor Romanian etc. but it is the Orthodox Church in Russia, in Greece, in Serbia, in Romania and so on. As for the boundaries of the local Churches and the eparchies, these are geographical and have been defined not by ethnophyletic, but by administrative criteria which normally follow the political administration (St. Photius) and by spiritual criteria in order better to serve the shepherded people of God in order for it to be led to salvation in Christ.” See

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Ganoune Diop