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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy


Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The Church in Constantinople enjoyed the protection of an emperor and a military, and flourished in an educated and wealthy city. The Church in Rome responded to the challenges of the "Dark Age" creatively, establishing networks of communication and welfare, and sometimes providing the only source of security and law in western Europe. It responded to the pressures on its survival by building a monarchical form of leadership that invested ultimate authority in the pope. While the Byzantine Church had no objection to this, problems developed between Rome and the eastern Christians when popes began to claim supremacy and jurisdiction over the entire Christian world. The eastern Christians would have none of it because they rejected the idea that decisions affecting all Christians can be made by only one man. In the view of Orthodoxy, only councils attended by bishops from all the churches have authority for all Christians.

Disputes broke out in the 9th century over the Spanish church's addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed, and again in the 11th century when the Normans began applying military pressure to Byzantine Italy while the pope attempted to enforce Roman jurisdiction over the Byzantine churches. In 1054, the pope sent three delegates to the patriarch of Constantinople in an effort to resolve differences, but neither the delegates nor the patriarch were diplomats in temperament, and they wound up excommunicating each other!

Friendly relations were restored however, and rivalries again receded. In 1071, when the Byzantine Army was defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert, Byzantium turned to its European allies for help. Pope Urban II raised an army, and the Crusades began. The Crusaders successfully returned much of conquered Byzantine territory to Constantinople, but also established kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine. This brought the disputes between Rome and Constantinople to the grassroots, as the Crusaders imposed Latin practices in these traditionally Greek churches. Arguments over who had the right to appoint bishops led in some places to rival bishops, Greek and Latin, claiming the same throne.

The Crusades eventually led to the cataclysmic invasion and pillage of Constantinople by a Crusader army in 1204. The three-day merciless plunder of this famous Christian city by soldiers with crosses on their shoulders left the Byzantines deeply embittered, if not hateful. Since this time, the two churches have been alienated from each other, each claiming to be the true Church. The sides have recently taken fresh steps, in hopes that in time a reunion could be accomplished, in careful and deliberative ways.

Study Questions:
1.     How was Christianity united with a common origin? When did Eastern Orthodoxy begin to originate?
2.     What was the Great Schism? How was Christianity divided?
3.     How did the two churches respond to the Dark Ages?
4.     What developments in doctrine or practice contributed to the separation of Orthodox from Catholics?


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