The Eastern Orthodox and the Two Kingdoms

This morning I attended a lecture by the Very Reverend Michael Butler, an Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America who teaches at Baldwin-Wallace College. Butler’s lecture was on the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the relation of church and state throughout history. The foundation of the Orthodox view, according to Butler, is the concept of symphonia, based on the Greek word that means harmony. According to this concept the church and the state are to cooperate in symphonia, each serving the one body of Christians with different functions but for a common purpose. Think of ancient Israel as an example. The priesthood and the kingship are both attached to one kingdom under God. The religious and the political people are coterminous.

In practice, Butler admitted, this situation often devolved into state domination over the church. Indeed, in Russia the church became a virtual department of the state, in the same centuries that a similar development took place in the Lutheran territories of modern Europe.

More recently the Orthodox Church has been forced to come to grips with pluralism and disestablishment. Perhaps the best expression of this is the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. I haven’t yet had time to read the whole document, but while perusing the first part of it I noticed the way in which the Russian church has sought to achieve a balance between cultural transformation and a distinction between politics and the kingdom. Early on the document declares,

Christian participation in it should be based on the awareness that the world, socium and state are objects of God’s love, for they are to be transformed and purified on the principles of God-commanded love. The Christian should view the world and society in the light of his ultimate destiny, in the eschatological light of the Kingdom of God.

While at first glance this sounds “transformationalist” as a basic statement it is actually quite orthodox. The call here is to recognize that the destiny of the whole creation, including of the state, is the kingdom of God, and that therefore the whole creation should be organized with that end in mind, i.e., in light of “the principles of God-commanded love.” But that does not mean we can turn politics into the kingdom of God. On the contrary, as the statement goes on to say,

«My kingdom is not of this world», says the Saviour (Jn. 18:36). «This world» is only partly obedient to God, but for the most part it seeks to become autonomous from its own Creator and Lord. To the extent the world disobeys God it obeys «the father of lie» and «lieth in wickedness» (Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 5:19). But the Church as «the body of Christ» (1 Cor. 12:27) and «the pillar and ground of the truth» (1 Tim. 3:15), in her mysterious essence can have no evil in herself, nor any shadow of darkness. Since state is part of «this world», it has no part in the Kingdom of God, for where there is Christ «all in all» (Col. 3:11) there is no room for coercion, nor is there opposition between the human and the divine, hence there is no state.

This is solid stuff. I hope to read the document more carefully in the days to come, and hopefully I’ll be writing more at that time. It’s always helpful to see how other branches of Christianity have sought to bear witness to the faith once given to the saints, and to its place in this secular age.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 14, 2012, in Eastern Orthodox Church, Two Kingdoms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Eastern Orthodox and the Two Kingdoms.

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