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The Church and the State in the contemporary social teaching of the Orthodox Church

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Author: Associate Professor Dr. Kostadin Nushev, Faculty of Theology, SU “St. Kliment Ohridski”

When building its attitude towards the state in the modern world, the Orthodox Church turns to the classic Gospel truths about the relationship between the spiritual realities of the kingdom of God and the earthly state, to its millennial tradition and its current ministry in the world in the conditions of today’s socio-political realities.

The relations between the Church and the state in the modern conditions of social development, of a democratic civil society and a pluralistic political system, presuppose the existence and fulfillment of some fundamental conditions and requirements both on the part of the institutions of state power and on the part of the representatives of the Church. These requirements and conditions express both Christian traditions and evangelical principles, as well as the specific democratic spirit of modern models of partnership between the state and the church, and are particularly important for the affirmation of church-canonical, constitutional and international legal norms regarding freedom of conscience and religion.

In our post-communist socio-cultural context – mainly for the countries of Eastern Europe, these basic principles have their important place and special importance for overcoming the negative legacy of the time of totalitarianism and the anti-church policy of militant atheism. In the establishment and construction of modern relations between the Orthodox Church and the state, it is necessary to respect the established canonical traditions, but also to improve the legal and institutional framework according to today’s constitutional and international law. Therefore, it seems meaningful to recall some foundational principles and literal truths for building and maintaining normal, balanced Church-State relations that are valid in today’s democratic political and legal space.

Relations between Church and State – foundations, traditions and contemporary challenges

The main principles of classical Christian understanding and theological teaching about the relationship of Christians and the Church to the state and respect for its functions in society are rooted in the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament. This Christian understanding is based on Christ’s words from the Gospel: “Render Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God” (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17).

In these Gospel words, we can recognize the classical understanding of the Church and the modern fundamental principles of constitutional norms and international legal acts on the attitude of the state to religious freedoms, on freedom of conscience and the internal autonomy of the Church in the field of religion and spiritual life.

Evangelical and New Testament principles

In the Gospel, there are two moments in which Jesus Christ clearly expresses his attitude towards earthly authorities or “Caesar’s kingdom” (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17). The first case is in Christ’s answer to the question whether a tax should be paid to the state. This question provoked Him to reveal His attitude towards the authority of the Roman emperor – “Caesar” (Caesar), which at that time extended into the lands of the Israelite people. The second case is when Christ is confronted by the representative of this earthly authority – the procurator of the Roman province of Palestine, Pontius Pilate (John 18:33-38).

In the first case, Christ reveals His attitude and understanding of the authority of the earthly ruler, distinguishing it clearly from the worship of God. In this way, He rejected both the pagan deification of the earthly king and the then Old Testament Jewish theocratic ideology of incompatibility between the authority of the kingdom of God over the people and the authority of the earthly kingdom of the Roman Caesar. This Gospel teaching of the Savior is the basis of the Christian doctrine and the tradition of the Church, in which there is an understanding of the state as a “Caesar’s” or earthly kingdom, which is defined and considered in opposition and distinction from the kingdom of God, but does not contradict it.

The earthly kingdom covers another, different and limited reality, while the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of the Spirit, is universal and not limited by earthly boundaries. God’s kingdom of the Spirit, according to the words of Jesus Christ, “is not of this world” (John 18:36), while Caesar’s kingdom is an earthly political kingdom and encompasses the earthly state. The state serves itself with the coercive power of political power (imperium), while the spiritual power of the Church is rather an authority (auctoritas), which is based on the truth of the Gospel and the power of God’s word and necessarily implies the freedom of the person and the voluntary consent of the faithful , who accept it based on their conscious conviction.

The traditional Christian understanding and teaching of the Church about its relationship with the state is based on the principle Gospel truth and theological position that the state and the Church are two separate realities. They are different and separate, but they are not irreconcilable and do not contradict each other (Romans 13:1-7).

The State and the Church have their own specific tasks, different functions and spheres of competence within the limits of their own ministry for the good of the individual and of society as a whole. They are different institutions, but not incompatible with each other and can interact within the limits of their powers if they observe the principles of mutual respect and equal partnership.

Theological understanding of Church-state relations in contemporary Orthodox social teaching

What can and should the Orthodox Church do in this regard and what are the special current tasks before it within the framework of the contemporary socio-political situation? How are these current tasks understood and reflected in the perspectives of the specific historical and cultural tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy? How does the modernization, democratization and Europeanization of the Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe affect the preservation and renewal of the traditions of the relationship between the Church and the modern legal state!?

It is necessary to remind that today’s society is radically different, both from the realities of the theocratic monarchy of Byzantium, and from those of the political system of the Russian Empire or, in the context of Bulgaria, the legal system of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom (1978-1947) and the norms of the Tarnovo constitution.

Some modern Orthodox clergy and theologians in this connection today point out that the Orthodox Church in the countries of Eastern Europe, facing the modern political and state-legal realities, is facing a very serious test and a fundamental challenge. It is expressed in the need for the Orthodox Church to reformulate its traditional or Byzantine “symphonic” understanding of its relations with the “holy Christian empire” or the old monarchical state in the direction of the new institutional relations with the modern democratic legal state. The constructive incorporation of the Orthodox Church into the modern European model for partner relations with the state or its latent presence as a counter-cultural and conservative-retrograde factor in the process of democratic social development will depend on the efforts to make this path successful. A new effort is needed to seriously rethink the gospel truths, historical traditions and contemporary realities in the field of relations between the state and the Church.

Basic Principles of Church-State Relations

We could formulate the main principles and conditions for modern democratic and balanced relations of partnership between the state and the Church in three main points and present them in the following way:

1. unconditional and categorical respect, guarantee and observance of basic human rights and religious freedoms both on the part of the state, which has adopted them in its legislation as universal values ​​and European legal norms and standards, and on the part of the Church;

2. maintenance and strict observance of the principle of the rule of law as a fundamental basis of the democratic rule of law and its unwavering application in the field of religious freedoms, relations with the Church and church activities in society;

3. building balanced relations of partnership between the state and the Church, in which the institutional separation between them is preserved and not violated, the difference of their specific spheres of political and religious autonomy.

All these modern relations of cooperation between the Church and the State are built and based on the principles of personal freedom, freedom of conscience and religion, respect for human rights, the rule of law and the maintenance of a just social and legal order oriented to the common good in one modern, democratic and European pluralistic civil society.

In fulfilling the outlined conditions for building and functioning of balanced and equal partnership relations between the Church and the state in a democratic civil society, it is necessary for both church officials and state authorities and institutions to make serious efforts to maintain the just legal order based on freedom of conscience and human rights and to overcome some serious challenges of a cultural, historical and political nature.

Contemporary challenges and perspectives

The political history of relations between the Christian Church and the state in the twentieth century clearly show that only in the conditions of the rule of law and strict respect for human rights and the rule of law, the secular principles of separation of the Church from the state and the separation of the political from the religious sphere do not lead to violation of the freedom of the person, conscience and religion. In the political system of the totalitarian state, where this respect is absent, the separation of the Church from the secular state leads to oppression and deprivation of personal freedom, violence against the conscience of believers and discrimination of religious communities by the state.

For the Orthodox countries and for the local Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe only after the so-called “democratic revolutions” of 1989 opened a chance for a freer construction of relations with the democratic legal state in the spirit of the perception of the universal principles and norms of natural human rights.

Western Christian denominations, in their struggle against Nazism and right-wing totalitarian movements in Europe, prepared a better basis for adopting the fundamental principles than the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention for the Protection of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, and the Catholic Church finally moved towards this new Christian culture of human rights after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the adoption of its new doctrinal documents (Dignitates Humanae, Gaudium et Spes, etc.).

For the Orthodox Church, it was only after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe that the possibility of a free, independent and positive interpretation of the doctrine of human rights and the adoption of its principles in the spirit and context of the Orthodox Christian theological teaching and church social doctrine was discovered. The post-communist situation, of course, offers other opportunities for traditionalist and isolationist “revival” and revitalization of tradition. With the growing role of religion and the Church in public life, these opportunities may lead to confrontation with modern political and legal principles and the values ​​of modern democratic society. Such attempts and projects lead to peculiar fundamentalist forms of fanatical religious psychology and intolerant religious culture.

Therefore, the Orthodox Church is faced nowadays with a serious challenge and test to make efforts to overcome the remnants of the old traditionalist – Byzantine or Caesaropapist, political and legal concepts, which lead to the fusion of state and Church and prevent the creation of modern balanced relations between them. They are incompatible with the universal norms of individual freedom of personality in the public sphere and freedom of conscience in the field of religion and confessions.

In the modern era, these archaic models from the time of the traditional mono-confessional society are also incompatible with the principles of the democratic legal and non-confessional state and the socio-cultural realities of the pluralistic civil society. In other words, in order to face contemporary political realities, the Church in the traditionally Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe must rethink and overcome some aspects of the old Byzantine “symphonic” paradigm of relations with the state. This formula of the “symphony” was inherited from the Eastern Orthodox imperial model of sacral monarchy and above all to overcome the associated Caesaropapist stereotypes.

Along with this, systematic efforts are needed to adopt the modern contractual-legal paradigm of equal inter-institutional relations with the state and adopt a balanced attitude towards the concept of human rights by rediscovering its Christian roots in the teaching of the dignity of man as a free and God-like person (Genesis 1:26-27) and the principles of Christian humanism.

For some more conservative circles in the circles of the Orthodox Church and individual political defenders of Orthodoxy, interpreting it only as an alternative and counterpoint to the West or modern civilization, this may represent a kind of cultural shock and a serious challenge. A change in the discussed direction would be an “encroachment” or “betrayal” against the inherited tradition and the archaic legacy of the past. But in some of its forms, this legacy is reproduced in the present through peculiar worldview stereotypes and political paradigms, which are an echo of the old habits of resorting to the “sword of Caesar” to resolve intra-church and religious-religious issues. Such approaches prevent the creation of modern, equal and balanced relations between the Church and the state in modern society.

All these general principles and vaguely outlined trends can be observed and outlined in the specific social, political and cultural context of the various local Orthodox churches with different features, specificities and variations. In certain problematic directions, they are observed in the relations of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state authorities in modern Russia, in the countries of the European Union or in a special form for the Orthodox Church diaspora in Western Europe and North America.

The principles of interaction between the church and the state are particularly important for Bulgaria in particular and for the development of relations between the democratic rule of law and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) as a religious institution of the “traditional” according to the Constitution (Art. 13, Para. 3) ” Eastern Orthodox confession” in the Republic of Bulgaria. In recent years, after the entry into force of the new Law on Religions (LA) and the country’s full membership in the European Union, some decisions of the Constitutional Court on important questions about the role of the state and the limits of church autonomy, the consistent efforts by the state to implement the special legislation for religious communities for the purpose of “overcoming the schism and division in the BOC” in the spirit of the constitutional principles of the separation of the Church from the state, the foundations of the modern system of relations, cooperation and partnership between church authorities and state institutions are being built and shaped a number of areas of public life in the conditions of a democratic public environment and a European legal framework for guaranteeing human rights and the freedom of religious communities.

Source: First published at dobrotoliubie.com


Nushev, K. Christliche Sozialethik und Sociallehre der Kirche. Grundprinzipien und Orthodoxe Perspektiven. – In: Die Gesellschaftliche Rolle der Kirche. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Sofia, 2016, ss.14-22.

Nushev, K. Orthodoxy and human rights. – in: Harmony in differences. (ed. Georgeta Nazarska, Svetla Shapkalova), Publishing House: About the Letters-Opismeneh, S., 2015, pp. 101-108 (in Bulgarian).

Nushev, K. Religious education in the Bulgarian school – traditions, problems and perspectives in a national and European context. – in: Humanism. Science. Religion. Religious education and upbringing in institutional and confessional discourse. S., BAS, 2018, pp. 24-35 (in Bulgarian).

Nushev, K. Christian freedom and the challenges of neoliberalism in connection with the topic of Christian education and contemporary Europe. Contemporary Christian Education. Conditions, challenges and expectations. Association of Professors of the Teaching Subject Ethics in Religions “Enlightenment”, Skopje, 2018, pp. 49-63 (in Serbian).

Photo: Icon of Ever-Virgin Mother of God / Ikoni Mahnevi, https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100057324623799

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