Why the Russian Orthodox Church deems the war on Ukraine "a holy struggle"

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Why the Russian Orthodox Church deems the war on Ukraine “a holy struggle”

April 27, 2022 - Dr. Ryan Denison

In this handout photo released by Russian Orthodox Church Press Service, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill conducts the Easter service at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, late Saturday, April 23, 2022. Eastern Orthodox churches observe the ancient Julian calendar, and this year celebrate the Orthodox Easter on April 24. (Sergei Vlasov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP)

In this handout photo released by Russian Orthodox Church Press Service, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill conducts the Easter service at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, late Saturday, April 23, 2022. Eastern Orthodox churches observe the ancient Julian calendar, and this year celebrate the Orthodox Easter on April 24. (Sergei Vlasov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP)

As the war between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate, some were hoping that this past Sunday would offer a much-needed respite for those bearing the brunt of the suffering.

You see, while most Christian denominations commemorated Easter on April 17, the Orthodox Church celebrated our Lord’s resurrection this past Sunday (they use a different calendar for their liturgical celebrations). The UN asked Russia to accept a four-day ceasefire to honor Holy Week and allow Christians on both sides of the war to observe the holiday without fear of violence.

Russia responded by escalating its attacks, with bombings, missile strikes, and artillery continuing to demolish buildings and the civilian populations stuck within their walls.

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, though, that Russia would continue its attacks during Holy Week. The Patriarch of Moscow—the spiritual leader for Russian Orthodox believers throughout the region—has endorsed the war as a holy struggle.

Throughout the conflict, Patriarch Kirill has blessed both the Russian military and President Putin, describing the war as the government’s attempt to protect Russia from the scourges of Western debauchery and sin. He has largely ignored the attacks on civilians and stated that, in battling Ukraine, Russia is battling the Antichrist.

To make matters worse, as Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill is also the spiritual leader for Russian Orthodox believers in Ukraine.

And while many have denounced his close affiliation with the Russian government and argue that his stance is likely motivated less by theology and more by the political clout and financial windfall that Putin has granted him since becoming president, the end result is still a deepening divide between Christians who spent the better part of three hundred years united under one common spiritual banner.

Regardless of how the war in Ukraine ends, the actions—and inaction—of Moscow’s Patriarch and those who support him will have an enduring effect on how people see the church in general and the God Kirill claims to serve.

Unfortunately, he is not the first—nor will he be the last—to make the mistake of thinking he was serving Jesus by placing his church in service to the government.

Beware the log in our eyes

There is a growing trend within Christianity today, especially in the West, to see the culture and its growing antipathy toward the movement of God as the greatest threat we face—and understandably so.

However, one of Satan’s most effective strategies for disrupting the Lord’s work has long been manipulating the church to fight the church. He accomplishes that feat most often by blurring—or, in the case of Russia, abolishing—the lines between the church and the culture or government that surrounds it.

While it can be easy to look on from afar and condemn the Russian Orthodox Church for allowing itself to be used as a tool to support the government’s unjust war in Ukraine, the church in America continues to deal with the aftermath of a similar mistake.

In recent decades, Christians on both sides of the aisle have made the mistake of becoming so closely affiliated with a political ideology that we have often lost sight of what makes us unique: that God’s truth, rather than that of any other person or party, defines how we approach the world around us.

As a result, people are increasingly leaving the church or writing Christians off as ineffective and inconsequential. And, to the degree that we have lost sight of our God-given mission, they are right to do so.

One of Christ’s final prayers for his disciples before going to the cross was that the Father would not take us out of the world but, rather, protect us from the evil one, noting that we “are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:15–16).

Far too often, we seem to desire something different than our Lord in that regard. What we see currently going on with the Orthodox Church in Russia is a clear example of where that mistake can lead.

D. L. Moody, preaching on the proper relationship between the church and the state, once remarked that “the place for the ship is in the sea; but God help the ship if the sea gets into it.”

How dry is your ship today?

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