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What is the Russian Orthodox Church?

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According to tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church is what came of a community of believers founded by the apostle Andrew, who visited Scythia and Greece, along the northern part of the Black Sea. According to the tradition, while on his missionary journeys, Andrew eventually reached Kiev, the current home of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Later, Princess Olga of Kiev converted to Christianity, and eventually her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Byzantine Rite Christianity the official religion in Kiev. This marked the birth of what became the Russian Orthodox Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Like other Orthodox churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is trinitarian, believes the Bible to be the Word of God, and teaches that Jesus is God the Son. In these matters, the Russian Orthodox Church aligns with Scripture. However, their doctrine has much more in common with Roman Catholicism than with evangelical Christianity. Russian Orthodox services are liturgical and filled with symbolism. Mary has a special place in Russian Orthodoxy as the Mother of God. The Russian Orthodox Church promotes the use of icons (sacred images) and teaches that salvation is conferred through the observance of the sacraments—the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone is not taught in Russian Orthodoxy. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church regard the decisions of their church councils to be infallible.

Count Leo Tolstoy, author of novels such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, was baptized (as an infant) into the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1880, Tolstoy raised the church’s ire by publishing Critique of Dogmatic Theology. The church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, blacklisted his books, and decreed that no candles could ever be burned for Tolstoy within any of its churches.

The word orthodox refers to adherence to a set of beliefs as they were originally set forth. Orthodox churches, including the Eastern, Oriental, Celtic, Polish, and other types of Orthodoxy, claim to adhere to the Christian faith as it was practiced by the early church. However, the biblical descriptions of the early church bear little resemblance in belief or practice to Orthodox Churches or any of the other high church orders.

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the autocephalous (self-governing) Eastern Orthodox churches. Being the head of a self-governing body, the bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church does not report to a bishop higher than himself. There is no pope in Russian Orthodoxy. While the minimization of bureaucracy is commendable, the fact remains that the Russian Orthodox Church, like all other churches of this type, depends on a wide and many-faceted power structure consisting of bishops, monks, priests, archbishops, cardinals, nuns, and so on. In contrast, the early church, in obedience to Christ’s teachings, considered themselves all brothers and sisters and did not hold any one man above another, because God was their Father and Teacher (see Matthew 23:8–10).

The Russian Orthodox Church claims exclusive jurisdiction over any Christian living within the former republics of the USSR. The Russian Orthodox Church is not to be confused with the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, an institution created in the 1920s by communities of Christians who wished to disassociate themselves from communism. In any case, it is clear that the Russian Orthodox Church is largely a socio-political, rather than spiritual, institution. The body of Christ is a spiritual brotherhood of believers and is not limited by borders or nationalities or political beliefs, nor does it hold physical jurisdiction or control over any man (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 3:6; 4:12; 5:23; Colossians 1:24). With Christ as its head, the Church spans ages, crosses borders, defies human control, and thrives despite persecution. There are undoubtedly members of the body of Christ who are also members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but religious institutions are not to be confused with Christ’s body or followed as if they held His authority.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022