Divisions in the Church

In his pastoral prayer, reported in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The motto of the United Church of Christ comes from this verse: “That they may all be one.” At the time that the United Church of Christ was formed from Christian, Congregational, Evangelical and Reformed roots, church leaders had a strong vision that church unions would continue and that one day in the future there would be a reunification of the Christian Church. So far, that vision remains a vision, without much real-world manifestation. Denominations are shrinking and independent congregations, with few ties to other communions, are on the rise. There seem to be more and more expressions of Christianity and less and less unity among churches.

This is not a new story.

A bit of church history can give us some context. About a thousand years after Jesus, starting in 1054, a great divide developed in Christianity. Two churches, The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church separated and many of the ties between the two communions were halted. Although there have been many overtures and a few shared worship services, that split has continued to the present time. Then, in 1378, there was a split within the Roman Catholic Church that led to there being two popes at the same time. This split was eventually healed and the Roman Church was reunited in 1417, only to experience the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. That reformation began as a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church and provide some limits on the political power and control of ambitious leaders within the church. The result, however, was a splintering of the church. Not only did leaders and congregations break away from the Roman church, but they, in turn, formed denominations that were separate from one another.

History demonstrates that we Christians are not very good at getting along with one another. Jesus prayer remains as relevant and necessary today as when he first prayed it. The fact, however, is that all Christians are connected. We believe in the same savior. We share a great deal of our history. What happens in one part of the church has an impact on other parts of the church. We were not created to “go it alone.”

From a great distance, I’ve been watching, along with many other Christians, a tragic split that is widening in the Eastern or Orthodox side of our church. We’ve been separated from our brother and sister Christians in that part of the church for more than a millennium, but this new split is important to the overall story of Christianity in the world.

The Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the Church leaders in Istanbul. For centuries the Istanbul church, known formally as the Constantinople Patriarchate, has been considered to be the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox church. But Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has at least 150 million followers, which is more than half the total of Orthodox Christians. The divide has occurred because of a disagreement over another split within the church. The much-smaller Ukranian Orthodox Church has sought independence from the Russian Church largely because of the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has been intensifying since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists seized a big swath of territory in eastern Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church accused the Ukranian nationalists of attacks on its churches and has condemned actions of Ukrainians, alienating leaders of the Ukranian Church. The Ukranian Church has declared itself to be independent from the Russian Church. Last week the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to back the Ukranian Church’s bid for independence.

You might say that this is an obscure theological dispute in a distant part of the world. Most Christians in the United States don’t feel much connection with the workings of the Orthodox Church. When I read of the autocephaly of the Ukranian Church, I had to look up the word “autocephaly.” It isn’t in my usual vocabulary.

The Russian Church, however, has close ties to the Putin Government. President Vladimir Putin has boosted the prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church and many of its priests identify with his nationalist agenda. There have been many ceremonies where priests have blessed Russian military jets and space rockets and troops.

This dispute affects a lot of individual believers. It is estimated that there are 150 million followers of the Moscow Patriarche out of a total of 260 million Orthodox Christians. The division leaves roughly 110 million faithful to Istanbul. There are two huge churches which see themselves in conflict where not long ago there was one.

There are many who believe that the conflict within the church has been manipulated by forces outside of the church. Politics of power in the former Soviet countries are creating tensions and divisions within the church, which is being used to boost the control of governments. Church politics are usually closely related to governmental politics and lines of separation are not always evident and sometimes cease to exist entirely. 150 million believers is a lot of people and leadership of their church is a powerful position.

I, and many other Christians, have no desire to become involved in these massive power plays and struggles for position. I’m happy to be just a pastor in a rather obscure denomination with a remarkable history serving a congregation that has been serving its community since the days when it was the first and only Christian congregation in the town. We count our membership in the hundreds, not thousands or millions. We don’t have the ear of political leaders and power brokers. We are not the shapers of government.

We are disciples. Which means that we are followers. Our faith is not blind. We are informed and aware. And we know that we have deep connections with those in other parts of the church. But for now, we’ll leave the politics to others and turn our attention to prayer for all of the church, “that they may all be one.”

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!