Salim Munayer – Beyond Bells and Smells. The Gap between Eastern and Western Christianity – 2

The Early Church Schisms

Contrary to popular belief, the early church schisms in the fourth and fifth centuries were not exclusively, or even primarily, a result of doctrinal differences, but occurred to some extent as a consequence of political struggles for territory, governance and authority. These political struggles were then couched in theological language at a time when the early church was attempting to combat heresy and articulate a basic statement of core beliefs for the faithful. Imperial and ecclesiastical agendas became somewhat intertwined.

In the early fourth century, Christianity had five main centres throughout the Roman Empire: Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Constantinople and Antioch. Each territory was presided over by a Bishop with authority over the churches in his district and into its hinterland. The Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to unify these disparate territories as a way of asserting political control. Consequently, he invited Bishops from all over the Empire to attend a council in Nicaea near Constantinople in 325 AD in order to obtain this theological and political unification. The ecclesial framework of these churches’ relationship and interaction was established at early councils such as this one. Subsequent church conflicts were not only theological, but political.[1][1]

Linguistic, Cultural and Ethnic Separation

Much later, the Pope in Rome excommunicated the Patriarch in Constantinople and the latter responded in kind. It is important for us to view the doctrinal controversies in this wider political context and not as exclusively theological issues. Doing so will hopefully remove some of the religious and theological objections that western evangelical Christians may have toward the Eastern Church. The primary consequences of these splits for us today are the ethnic and cultural barriers that were erected as the churches spread to different parts of the world – the Western Church into Europe, the Orthodox Church into the Arabic speaking world, and the non-Chalcedonian churches into Asia and Africa. Bringing us into the present, it is the cultural and ethnic barriers resulting from these ancient political decisions which I believe are currently the main source of estrangement between western evangelicals and Catholic or Greek Orthodox Arab Christians, not the theological differences between the churches. As such, these can be overcome through increased contact between the cultures which will increase understanding and address mutual alienation and misunderstanding.

There have of course been far-reaching theological consequences as a result of the linguistic and cultural barriers which now exist. Arabic and Syriac are not widely read in the evangelical church in the way that Greek and Latin are. This has meant that the theology and church teachings of the Eastern Church have not been available to most Western Christians. This wealth of theological tradition has therefore played little role in developing and shaping the theology of the West, to the detriment of the Western Church.


[1][1] For more information, see the section for further reading at the end of the article.

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(This text comes from the latest Musalaha Prayer Update. Two more parts will follow.)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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