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Understanding Eastern Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church

Understanding Eastern Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church

On the occasion of Orthodox Christmas according to the Julian calendar, George Lapshynov writes an introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy and to the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. 08/01/2024

The West is in dire need of better education on Eastern Christianity, and especially on the Russian Orthodox Church, which has received an unusual amount of attention in the last few years following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Patriarch Kirill’s close support for Vladimir Putin’s military ambitions. So argues Katherine Kelaidis in her book Holy Russia? Holy War?, which Theos recently reviewed.

As Russian Orthodoxy is rarely presented other than through the sometimes helpful, though ultimately limited lens of politics, this article will seek to nuance the picture by delving into the lived experience of Orthodox Christianity, and by debunking some of the more widespread myths.

Introduction to Eastern Christianity

To understand the complex organism that is Eastern Orthodoxy, any Western reader should start by acknowledging that the very name “Eastern Orthodoxy” is misleading.

Officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church – in other words, the Right–believing Universal Church – it is to all intents and purposes the Church established in Constantinople in 325 AD. This article will continue referring to Orthodox Catholic Christians as “Eastern” for ease of comprehension in a Western context, but its members refer to themselves simply as Christians, or right–believing (i.e., Orthodox) Christians. And from its own perspective, there is nothing “eastern” about it.

The same can be said about the (Eastern) Roman Empire – the history of which is inexorably linked to Orthodoxy. “Byzantium” is from the Orthodox perspective a Western neologism; the ancient city of Byzantion ceased to be in 330 AD when Emperor Constantine re–founded it as New Rome, later Constantinople. The entity known in the West as the Eastern Roman Empire was for them simply the Roman Empire. Its habitants were Romaioi – Romans. And until WWII, five centuries after the Fall of Constantinople of 1452, those who we now call Greeks could still be found to refer to themselves as such.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is not administratively a single, coherent body; it is a fellowship of autonomous and autocephalous (i.e., self–headed) churches who are in communion with each other and follow the same faith and practices, as defined by the first seven ecumenical councils.

Its organisation is not rational and streamlined: it is the result of seventeen centuries of slow evolution, though strong immutable theological principles underpin its structure. Its canon law is uncodified – neither unified nor harmonised. And the Church is organised around a territorial principle: each autocephalous church is sovereign within its own territory, according to the Apostolic Canons, and foremost importance is given to local legislation and governance.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, whose episcopal see is in modern–day Istanbul, is its honorary primate, the “first among equals.” As the bishop associated with the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, he remains as a symbol of church unity and cooperation and has the power to call a pan–Orthodox conference, a Synod of the entire Eastern Orthodox Church. This symbolic primacy however does not reflect actual influence, and there are no hierarchical relations between the Orthodox Churches.

Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate is senior in the order of precedence of the Orthodox Church, it is today only a shadow of its past self and is responsible for but a small minority in terms of the number of believers. The Slavic nations and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe account for three quarters of the approximate 220 million Orthodox believers worldwide. The remaining quarter consists of Georgia, the Middle East, and Central Asia, as well as Greece, Cyprus, and the other world countries where Eastern Orthodox immigrant communities or converts exist.

Though not senior in age or status, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest. Because of its sheer size, it has great political weight, and often acts internationally as the voice of Orthodoxy.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Initially under Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church unilaterally declared its independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1448. Constantinople, surrounded by the Ottomans and desperate for help, had recognised the universal and supreme jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, then Pope Eugene IV, over the whole Church at the Council of Florence in exchange for military aid. The Russian hierarchy unreservedly rejected the act of union with Rome and became de facto autocephalous. As the military aid provided by the West proved insufficient, Constantinople fell, as did its alliance with the See of Rome, but the Russian bishops remained autonomous.

With the disappearance of the Roman Imperial state on which Orthodoxy relied, and the Ecumenical Patriarch’s submission first to Rome and then to the Ottoman occupier, the Grand Prince of Moscow was the only remaining free–standing Orthodox ruler. By the 1470s, Ivan III started to view himself as the sole guardian of Orthodoxy. And it is his grandson Ivan IV, called the Terrible, who began using the title of Tsar, meaning Caesar – emperor and autocrat. The Roman Empire was no more, and so with Ivan III’s marriage to Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, Moscow would claim the title of Third Rome, the only credible and Orthodox successor to Constantinople–New Rome.

The other Churches officially recognised the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church during the period 1589–1593. The Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus’ became a Patriarch, fifth in the order of precedence and honour of autocephalous Orthodox Churches, first among the Slav Churches, and listed immediately after the historical Greek Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church as its own entity was born out of a categorical rejection of union with the West. And as the newly autocephalous Russian Church, now with Patriarchal rank, it remained the most senior Orthodox Church outside of Ottoman control until the mid–19th century.

However, that is not to say that it had complete freedom or was free from persecution. From 1700, as part of the government reforms of Peter the Great (who sought to modernise and westernise the Muscovite Tsardom), the patriarchal throne was first left vacant and then replaced in 1721 by a mixed clerical and lay committee directly under the authority of the emperor, effectively making the Russian church a department of the state. It lost its autonomy from temporal power and the emperor’s reforms forced it into political isolation. This situation lasted until 1917, when the Patriarchy was restored, only to be systematically suppressed by the new Soviet regime from the following year. The systematic murder of clergy and plundering of churches only ceased when the Communist Party found it could use the Church for its own political ends in the 1940s, but not before over 100,000 clergy and laity were martyred and persecuted in the first 20 years following the October Revolution. [i]

Orthodox Spirituality

Orthodoxy is usually presented as either specialising in “mysticism” and “spirituality,” an exotic though backward expression of the East, or alternatively as the “liturgical” and “sacramental” Church par excellence. [ii] These visions of Orthodoxy, however, are orientalising and foreign to Orthodox self–perception.

Orthodox Christians see themselves simply as committed to the immutable Truth and traditions of the first seven ecumenical Councils and the creeds of the traditional faith of Christians. [iii] Likewise, the Orthodox tradition views theology as rooted first and foremost in experience of the Divine, which is why its greatest theologians were rarely academically trained. It’s apparent focus on spirituality or mysticism is therefore not the result of a quest for some exotic experience; it is the reality of the simple life of a believer, borne out of its focus on relationship with and experience of the Divine.

Eastern Christianity rejects comprehensive philosophy – like scholasticism – or the reduction of Christianity to a particular doctrine – like the doctrine of justification by faith. It also rejects the Western dichotomy between Word and sacrament, which it views as false. It regards any human construction, be it intellectual, like a systematic theology, or material, like a streamlined Church administration, as a narrowing down of the faith.

Similarly, neither the Scriptures nor the Church Fathers and their Councils, being human creations, are considered infallible, though they are divinely inspired. The Holy Bible is not primarily considered a source of reliable information about religious matters, and there is no consensus across the Orthodox world on how to interpret it. Rather, the Bible, together with the writings of the Fathers, the history of the Church and its Councils, and the lives of the saints, bear witness to Christ and are ways of encountering Him.

Instead of delineating the Truth intellectually, Eastern Christianity cares about the genuine encounter with the Person of Christ and focuses on prayer and worship. Faith, it believes, cannot be the fruit of intellectual search, nor a reasonable solution to the frustrations and anxieties of life. [ii] In the words of Fr Pavel Florensky, Russian priest and polymath of the early 20th century, “the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life – not in the abstract, not in a rational way… Orthodoxy is shown, not proved.” [iv]

Its theology therefore begins by standing before God in a mysterious togetherness, caught up in the presence of God. And mysterious it is because our understanding will never be exhaustive.

This focus on lived experience rather than rationalisation finds expression in the hierarchy of the Church, as all bishops are chosen from among the monastic clergy (those who are both priest and monk). It is also expressed in what from the Western perspective might look like chaos in theology and structure, but which the Orthodox view as organicity: instead of seeking standardisation and ironing out differences, disagreements, and clashes, the Orthodox look for “a rich harmony, not a thin unison.” [iii]

This idea of organic or spontaneous order bears the name sobornost’, a Slavonic translation of the Greek katholikos, which expresses both catholicity and conciliarity. Sobornost’ describes the Orthodox understanding of the Church – a free and level association of believers, coming together in unity – as well as of the fundamental nature of human community. In sobornost’ is also expressed the view that no one is saved alone, but in the Church and in unity with all her members. It views this “holy union” of all the believers, living and departed, the angels, apostles, and martyrs as the “true life of the Church.” [v]

It is in this light that Orthodox theology insists on the doctrine of deification, theosis. For Eastern Christians, man is made in the image of God (Gen.1:26–27), but this image is broken since the Fall. Deification therefore entails the recovery of the fullness of the image through Christ, and the restauration of our true humanity through a process which involves real and complete change within ourselves. As we, by the grace of God, further empty ourselves of ourselves, Christ transforms us ever deeper, and God shares through us ever more of His love with the world. [vi]

Though Orthodox Christians look forward to “the life of the age to come” (Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed), they also believe that through deification, man has already a foot in the Kingdom of God. And looking up to the lives of the saints, whom we are called to imitate, we can already glimpse at ta eschata, the “last things.”

* * * 

Myth 1: There is no one Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church is divided internally along territorial lines, and each recognised Church is sovereign within its borders. This territorial partition corresponds naturally to cultural and national–ethnic differences.

When considering Orthodoxy exclusively through a political lens, only its legal–administrative outlines are visible; it resembles a random collection of independent units, each with its own structures, problems and histories, and the tensions between them stand out saliently.

Take the UK for instance: in it overlap the jurisdictions of the Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ecumenical (Greek, and Ukrainian), Antiochian, and Russian (Moscow Patriarchate, and the two autonomous Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, and Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) Orthodox Churches, each with their own structures, clergy, and faithful.

Where in its native lands Orthodox Churches are responsible for neatly delineated countries or regions, the situation abroad is much more complicated and messier indeed. As the national Churches expanded westward not to convert but to meet the spiritual needs of immigrants, they grew haphazardly and irrationally – one priest and one community at a time. Western observers are therefore not entirely to blame for this misapprehension; the ubiquitousness of ethnic divisions is indeed a feature of 20th century Eastern Christianity.

However, behind structural–political divisions hides a deep sense of spiritual unity. Lift the superficial blanket of division in any UK city with Orthodox Christian communities and you will immediately notice that Romanians attend Serbian churches, Russians frequent Antiochian churches, and Greek churches might hold occasional Slavonic–language services. In addition, despite national distinctions, Orthodox Christian communities come together at events such as youth group meetings, social picnics, pilgrimages, and Great Feasts. 

Of course, most Orthodox Christians prefer their own national church over any other. Aside from offering spiritual nourishment, Orthodox churches, at home but especially abroad, also function as ethno–cultural community hubs. Yet crucially, every Orthodox Christian is welcome and at home in any Orthodox Church, regardless of the language of the service or the brand of incense used.

To think of the Russian Orthodox Church, or indeed of any other Orthodox Church, as an isolated and discrete body is therefore to miss the point: it is an expression of wider Orthodoxy. On its own, its very doctrines and theology falls apart. Go to a Russian parish in Oxford or London, and you will find Ukrainians, Moldovans, Serbs, and English converts in attendance. They are not there because the church is Russian – they are there because it is Orthodox.

The administrative division of Eastern Christianity into national Churches does correspond to a certain reality and is a feature that should not entirely be dismissed. However, it is also a severely limiting perspective, a small aspect of a multi–faceted picture.

Myth 2: The Orthodox Church is torn by politics.

The tensions between Constantinople and Moscow are a particular focus of attention, and external analysts and commentators are keen to frame the entire internal Orthodox debate in the binary terms of a rift between the two. The temptation is all the stronger because the Istanbul–based Ecumenical Patriarchate promotes a certain adherence to Western liberalism while the Russian Church stands for a more vocal opposition to “the West” in the broadest sense.

The relationship between Constantinople and Moscow has been complicated for centuries, it is true. In the last years especially, both have been overstepping their boundaries, flexing their muscles, and leading increasingly petty attack campaigns on each other. Yet, to reduce Orthodoxy to a battlefield between these two competing camps is misleading on several accounts.

First, it forgets about the many other Orthodox Churches which are not aligned with either side, avoid activism for either cause, and continue the Church’s ancient tradition of opposition to politics. Second, it treats the national Churches as “black boxes”, ignoring the fact that the political views of the members are rarely well represented by the leadership, as was the case when the Orthodox Cypriot faithful preferred an anti–Western archbishop, but the Synod elected a pro–Western and pro–European candidate instead. Last, it reduces the intra–Orthodox debate to one vis–à–vis the West, which is a biased, naval–gazing lens to deploy when studying Orthodox relations from a Western perspective.

It is a fact that Eastern Christianity is struggling with its relationship to an ever–expanding West. Should it be embraced? Opposed actively? Evaded passively? A straightforward solution is elusive.

But the problem of the West, unlike what most commentators believe, is not all–consuming. The Orthodox Church has survived the fall of Constantinople, it has sat out the Ottoman Empire, and has sat out decades of Communism in the Soviet Union and the Balkans. Although the jury is still out, I believe for better or for worse that it is leaning towards its time–tested strategy of sitting this out also until, as all empires and ideologies do, Western liberalism collapses. Time is on its side.

The political approach further misses the point because neither the Orthodox Church as a whole, nor any of its constituent parts is political. Unlike its Western sister, the Roman Catholic Church, it has never been a state. It has never been its role to decide who is or is not the rightful heir to a throne. Unlike its cousin the Church of England, it has never sat in parliament. It has, quite the opposite, always relied on delegating its politics to the state, whose patronage assured its defence and the protection of its integrity. And this even when living in hostile and non–Christian lands.

This apolitical quality runs deep through Eastern Christianity and is articulated in the Orthodox theological concept of symphonia. Dating back to Emperor Justinian’s 6th century legal code, it divides labour between the state and church, such that the state deals with the imperium, the worldly things, but does not let it interfere with the sacerdotium, the field of spiritual things, while the Church acts as the ‘conscience’ of the state. Today, in a secular world, the principle of symphonia amounts to a principle of “mutual non–interference.” [i]

Indeed, for all the disagreements and power struggles that exist among the leaders of the Church, and for all that politics are a part of its everyday reality, the political does not penetrate its every level. In its uninterrupted daily cycle of prayers, politics scrupulously perform no role whatsoever.

The duty of all Orthodox clergy, whichever the country, is to pray for all of humanity, including and especially those they consider to be in the wrong, so that they may fulfil the commandment to love even their enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). Priests must hold everyone in their heart as they stand before the altar and desire the salvation of all. To limit an analysis of Eastern Christianity to the political would be to ignore a central quality that has enabled it to survive through centuries of political turmoil, warfare, and oppression.

Myth 3: The Russian Church is but a mouthpiece of the Kremlin.

Of all the interest in Eastern Christianity in the last few years, most has been directed towards the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Church and Putin’s government.

Ben Ryan, in his essay for Theos, rightly noted that “Putin has allowed the Church to return to prominence and supported it in a way unheard of since the Revolution. The Church has, in turn, provided some of the intellectual and cultural backing for Putin’s Statist vision for Russia and the wider Russian sphere of influence.”

It is undoubtable that the Russian Orthodox Church has benefitted materially from its association with Putin’s Kremlin – especially in the early 2000s, when it was still recovering from 70 years of Soviet oppression. Putin’s administration helped the Church secure funding, recover previously nationalised property, and obtain legal protection and status.

This begs the question: what does the Church have to do for the Kremlin in return?

“It would be simple to conclude that, in bringing back faith–based politics,” Elle Hardy recently pointed out, “Putin is dictating his people’s values. But the truth is not so straightforward. Because, as in the chaotic years after the end of the Cold War, Russians do seem to be turning to God of their own volition.” Yet the return to faith of a portion of the population, even on their own, is not devoid of political baggage altogether.

As one of the few surviving repositories of pre–Soviet Russian identity, the Church connects the Russian people with their pre–communist past. In comparison, the modern Russian state, which is the product of the mass corruption of the 1990s, has little to offer in terms of values and national narratives. It has no history to draw on, no symbolism of its own (all state symbols are either recycled from the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire) and relies so increasingly on the seniority and moral leadership that Orthodoxy offers.

Polls clearly show Russians are losing faith in the state, yet the Russian Church, acting as a cultural symbol and providing a point of reference for collective identification and expression beyond the political, does not seem affected by this loss of trust. Unlike what many Western depictions suggest, and notwithstanding existing ties to politics, Russians perceive the Russian Orthodox Church to be distinct from the Kremlin. And this is a crucial point.

Why, then, does the Church continue to serve the interests of the Russian state, as the war in Ukraine has shown?

The Russian Church is guilty of acting in the interests of the Russian state. Its spiritual head, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, has not only failed “to condemn Russia’s military aggression,” in the words of Metropolitan Kliment, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Information and Education, “but he also failed to find words for the suffering of the Ukrainian people”. More than failing to condemn the war, Kirill has justified the war by blessing anyone “moved by a sense of duty” to fight the war in Ukraine, stating that anyone who would die in the performance of this duty would see their sins washed away. And he is not alone in the Church in offering support to the Kremlin in such a fashion.

To understand why these senior figures have acted the way they did, it is necessary to look at the structure of the Russian Orthodox Church again. For indeed if we can guess how Kirill benefits personally from patronising the Kremlin, this is not the case for the average parish priest.

Just as in the wider organisation of the Orthodox Church, Moscow is not subordinate to Constantinople, so it is for the Russian Orthodox Church at the national level. Although Kirill is Patriarch and he is the ceremonial head of the Church, he is sacramentally only a bishop and is neither higher nor greater than, nor does he rule over, any of the other 270+ bishops of the Church.

To treat the Russian Orthodox Church therefore as a single, homogenous, and monolithic entity is to obscure its internal organisational and hierarchical complexity. When Patriarch Kirill speaks, though he may speak with the authority that the seniority of his office affords him, it is he who speaks and not the Russian Church. And he certainly doesn’t speak for Christ. His outspoken alignment with the Kremlin, though it casts a dark shadow over the whole of Russian Orthodoxy, is not a policy of the Church.

The Russian Church, its clergy, and the people, far from the politics, and far from benefitting in any meaningful way from the upper hierarchy’s symbiotic relationship with and loyalty to the Russian state, persevere silently in their good works and prayers for peace in the world.

More than that, many clergy actively oppose the Church hierarchy’s involvement in politics through peaceful disobedience, a right which is protected by the Russian Church’s social doctrine, the Basics of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (III, §5). Even some very senior figures of the Church such as Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), former chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, have refused to endorse the Kremlin’s war with Ukraine.

In March 2022, 293 clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church, including a representative of the Patriarch, openly demanded the immediate cessation of the fratricidal war in Ukraine and issued a warning to the Russian state, threatening it with the curse of Cain (Gen. 4:10–12). Some bishops have publicly allowed their priests to stop commemorating the Patriarch during the Divine Liturgy. Monasteries and parishes of the Russian Church in Germany have offered housing to Ukrainian refugees. And churches in the UK directly under the jurisdiction of Moscow, horrified by the war, openly welcome and support Ukrainian refugees by the dozen, offering regular prayers for peace. Even within Russia itself, the administration of the Russian Church has deployed schemes all over the country to support, house and feed the millions of Ukrainian refugees who crossed the border to the east rather than to the west.

Indeed, despite appearances, in the words of Hoppe–Kondrikova et al., “the Russian Orthodox Church is not a state church, does not want to be a state church, and cannot be a state church.”[i] To treat it as such is to turn a blind eye to the Russian Orthodox Church’s centuries of struggle with and subordination to successive tsarist and Soviet regimes, from which yoke it only freed itself in the 1990s and at a very steep price – a freedom it is not ready to give up.

Oversimplifying the relationship of the Church with the state is also to undeservedly erase the good that thousands of Russian Orthodox clergy do both for their local communities, through pastoral and material help and often at their own expense, and for the world more widely, by praying for all humankind and regularly defying Russian state policy.

It is easy to simply reject Russian Orthodoxy as Putin’s propagandistic means to political ends. It is much harder, yet so much closer to the truth, to look at the lives of the millions of Russian Orthodox believers and thousands of clergy in Russia and abroad who go to church not for politics but to grow in love for their neighbour and find peace. 


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[i] Olga Hoppe–Kondrikova, Josephien Van Kessel & Evert Van Der Zweerde, “Christian Social Doctrine East and West: the Russian Orthodox Social Concept and the Roman Catholic Compendium Compared,” 2013.

[ii] Alexander Schmemann, “For the Life of the World.”

[iii] Andrew Louth, “Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology.”

[iv] Fr Pavel Florensky, “Pillar and Ground of the Truth.”

[v] Aleksei Khomiakov, “The Church is One.”

[vi] St. Maximos the Confessor

Image: Tretyakov Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of sacred music.

Watch, listen to or read more from George Lapshynov

Posted 8 January 2024

Christianity, Church, Eastern Christianity, Orthodoxy


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