Orthodoxy, Oppression and Social Harmony

This week, we are looking briefly at Eastern Orthodoxy and the way it has been formed its unique political climate. The experience of Eastern Orthodoxy can be an important source of wisdom for the contemporary Western Church and Christians generally as they seek to adapt to the vast and sometimes revolutionary social change which Western society is experiencing as the Modern Age draws to a close. The task this week is to set the stage by looking at one single concept that was of historical importance to the Eastern Orthodox view of the relationship between government and the church.

Symphonia East and West

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith had a special position within the Roman empire. It eventually became the established religion of the empire. Under these circumstances, a doctrine known as “Symphonia” developed. The root in Greek for symphonia means “to speak with” or “a harmony of sounds or voice” The Greek is the root from which we get our word “symphony,” an extended musical piece performed by an orchestra made up of many different instruments making an harmonious sound in unison.

Transposed into political thought, the idea is that the spiritual realm, made up of the Catholic Church, and the political realm, made up of the Roman Empire, as the two primary social institutions of the Empire, should work together to create and harmonious, peaceful, and just society. In the East and in the West, until the fall of Rome in the West and the triumph of Islam in the East, this doctrine of Symphonia was at the root of the relationship between the Roman emperor, the political establishment, and the church.

In the West, after the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian empires of Europe until the Modern Age, the fundamental unity of church and state with each function overlapping the other and complementing it retained its force until the Protestant Reformation, and even after the Reformation the nations of Europe sponsored established churches and the majority of their inhabitants belonged to the state church.

In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire things were different. Beginning in the 7th Century Eastern Orthodoxy (hereinafter “Orthodoxy”) found itself confronted by militant Islam and substantially within the boundaries of a growing Islamic empire. In the end, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire was defeated and became part of the Ottoman Empire by 1453. Within this empire, Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, was a restricted faith, subject to special taxes, economic disadvantages, and persecution. It had to apply Symphonia in a much different way in order to survive within the boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate. Naturally, the result was survival at the occasional cost of integrity.

The Russian Experience

In 998 AD, Orthodox Christianity came to Russia at the invitation of Prince Vladimir (980-1015) and became a central feature of Russian society and culture. Eventually, as the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, the center of Orthodoxy began to shift from Constantinople to Russia and Moscow. Even today, at least nominally, the largest Orthodox community is in Russia.

In Orthodox Russia, the Tsar and his family were intimately bound to the church, and the doctrine of Symphonia continued to be the foundation of political theology and of the practical relationship between the church and the state. Unfortunately, as one writer put it, by the time of Czar Nicholas II, the Russian nobility was corrupt and unable to take wise political steps and the Russian Orthodox Church was similarly incapacitated by its ossification as an institution. [1]

After the Russian revolution and for the next eighty years, the Russian church was faced with an historic crisis. It was attacked by the Soviets, persecuted, its properties taken over by the state, and its seminaries and monasteries closed. Many priests and others were martyred, as was the Romanov royal family. This created in crisis in Russian Orthodoxy that continued for most of the 20th. Russia exited the Soviet Communist era an economically, spiritually, morally, and politically bankrupt society. It is still in the process of recovery from its eighty-year detour into Communism, if indeed it will ever recover.

When the Communists came to power in Russia, Lenin and his successor Stalin, motivated by militant atheism and the desire to destroy any institution that might hinder the progress of their revolution, shut down many churches and monasteries, and sponsored atheist organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless to wage war on Christian faith. The Donskoi Monastery became the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) became the Museum of the History of Religion. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public display for all the world to see. [2] Just as in the areas controlled by Islam, Orthodox Christians were a persecuted and disfavored minority. To one degree or another, this was true in Russia until the near the fall of Communism. [3]

Thus, unlike the West in which the Christian church had a privilege status in society, Eastern Orthodoxy was forced to live under the constraints of hostility, opposition, disenfranchisement,  and often corrupting political influence. This was true in both post-Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy and in post-Revolutionary Russia. Under conditions of oppression, the doctrine of Symphonia could be construed to make collaboration the best (and only) means of preserving the Christian faith. Just occasionally, this collaboration resulted in the church taking self-destructive stands, and the church was much embarrassed by disclosures of its occasional collaboration with the Soviet State. On the other hand, one might ask, “What other course of action could they have taken?” In fact, had the Eastern Church not acted as it did, it would most likely have been extinguished.

Symphonia and Russia Today

This issue is of continuing importance today as the Patriarch of Moscow has leant some degree of support to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which may well in the long run at least somewhat discredit Russian Orthodoxy in Russia and certainly in the Ukraine and the West for some time to come. As the Washington Post recently observed:

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub. Because of this, Kirill, 75, has offered a full-throated endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils at widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support. [4]

Underlying difficulties caused by the activities of the Patriarch Krill and his alliance with Vladimir Putin is an historic difficulty involving the Russian and Ukrainian churches. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian church was under the patriarch of Moscow, a situation that changed only in 1990 after the fall of Communism and Ukrainian independence. Under Soviet Communism, the Ukrainian church had been a part of the Russian church without its own independent patriarch. Obviously, as a part of Putin’s desire to reunify the Soviet Union, the Russian Patriarch has a desire to unify the Russian Church to include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church once again. It is my guess that, even if Russia proves successful, the destruction and defacement of Ukrainian Churches by the Russian Army will result in hostility for years to come.

This incident illustrates a difficulty that plagues the notion of Symphonia, as applied in Orthodoxy as well as Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine as applied in Western Churches: There is a danger of the Church either becoming:

  1. Too spiritually intertwined with the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state with which it is intertwined (Symphonia danger); or
  2. Too spiritually separated from the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state as a distinct power (Two Kingdom’s danger).

In either case there is a tendency for the church to be used by the state to achieve its own political purposes, tacitly support political behavior by the state that is unwise or violent, and in the end become discredited in the eyes of society. The experience of the Eastern Church in Russia and the Lutheran Church in World War II Germany are two vivid examples of the problem.

Reflections for Memorial Day

In America, contemporary Christians, liberal and conservative in leanings, sometimes adopt a form of subconscious Symphonia, where we expect the state and church to live in a kind of harmony with the values of Christian faith in some sense being body in society. Both are tempted to support and be used by a political regime that actually does not share their values. This way of thinking is inclined to view the success of the policies and political party they support as advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, and too often this way of thinking is used by politicians to manipulate their followers.

Following up on my blogs regarding Royce, it seems to me that a dialogical view of the relationship between Christianity and the state is a more productive way of viewing things. No state will ever embody the fullness of the kingdom of God to which Christians look forward as a transcendental ideal. Christians need to bring the specific tools and ideals of the Christian faith into a continual dialogue with the state in such a way as to promote a wise, caring, just, and harmonious society.

A Place for Symphonia?

The doctrine of Symphonia has fallen out of favor in recent years. In a later blog I hope to cover some contemporary voices in Orthodoxy and their contemporary views on political theology. For now, it is enough to indicate that there may be a place for a kind of “Reimagined Symphonia” in Christian thinking. In a pluralistic society, Christians are but one voice as are the voices of those of other religions and secular voices as well. On the analogy with a symphony orchestra, government, religious and other groups (what are sometimes called “mediating institutions”) are all instruments in the “orchestra” of our society and of creating the “music” of social harmony and a just and fair society. A plurality of voices is what makes our society dynamic and able to achieve peaceful and positive change.

All the voices that make up a diverse society need to be heard in the formation of public policy, and when they are heard, they should be seen as contributing to the health of the polity. (Of course, the voices should be wise, courteous and loving and not foolish, strident, and divisive. “Speaking the Truth in Love” is forever difficult to achieve) In our society, powerful forces want to silence religious voices, perhaps especially the voices of traditional Christian faith and morality. This is a mistake, as the eighty years of Soviet Communism proved. A better and wiser course is given in the notion that we should all work together to create a free, just, and wise social order. We will not always or even generally agree, but a wise government listens and serves as best it can all of the social components of society.


This is Memorial Day Weekend. It is an important and appropriate that Christians join with the rest of our nation recognizing the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf by past generations. The future will not be a rerun of the past, but those who with humility and wisdom appreciate the sacrifices of the past and attempt to learn from its successes and failures have the best chance of creating a society “Of the People, By the People, and For the People.” This means all the people, not just those in power and in a position to dominate society.

Copyright, 2022, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissents (New York: Sentinal Press, 2020), 22.

[2] Gene Sublovisch, “Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again” in Religion and Politics October 16, 2018 https://religionandpolitics.org/2018/10/16/russias-journey-from-orthodoxy-to-atheism-and-back-again/ )downloaded May 19, 2022). This is a review of Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Stace is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[3] This is a long and complex story. During World War II, Stalin, wanting as much social support for this military as possible, began the process of allowing greater religious freedom in Russia. Under Khrushchev, this progress was halted to some degree. In the late years of the Soviet Union, the process of allowing greater religious freedom continued. Nearly all religious Russians are Orthodox, though other Christian groups, Islam, and other religions are part of the Russian religious landscape.

[4] Erin Cunningham, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine is Dividing the Orthodox Christian World” Washington Post, April 24, 2022 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/24/russia-ukraine-orthodox-church/ (downloaded May 19, 2022). I think it is important to recognize that the Russian Orthodox Church stands almost alone in its support of Putin and this war.