A French court has ruled that the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Nice, built with funding from the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and completed in 1912, just prior to the country's revolution, belongs to the government of Russia and must be handed over. The victory is Russia's latest in a series of battles for church property around the world, which represent attempts by the Russian government and Russian Orthodox Church to reassert control over a widespread diaspora. A Russian émigré group has run St. Nicholas Cathedral under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople since the 1920s.
If you do not follow such news this may strike you as quite unimportant. It strikes me as both sad and dangerous. By danger I am not reworking the old themes of the cold war, not at all. I am reminding Christians of the danger the church faces when it gets too comfortable with the state. From 1917 until the fall of the U.S.S.R. the church and state were very separated in Russia. In fact, the state persecuted the church in waves and waves of opposition. This persecution ran the gamut from killing bishops and ordinary Russian Christians to destroying property and taking it to make it into museums for atheism.
When the communist regime began to crumble in Eastern Europe, and then inside Russia, things changed for the church. At first almost all Christians were welcomed into the former Soviet Union. Bibles and church workers of all sorts moved in and the results have been mixed to say the least. One of the sadder parts of this story is that we exported a great deal of American evangelical subculture with the gospel message. Eventually the government, and especially the Russian Orthodox Church, became concerned about all this foreign, and mostly evangelical, influence. Frankly, one can understand why if you study what happened closely. Besides exporting a great deal of our own version of the faith we also exported ideas foreign to Russian culture and trampled over centuries old traditions without wisdom.
Another tragedy, maybe even greater than the first, was that we also exported our sectarian versions of the church. We went in as Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Independents and charismatics. The result was a scandal to those who had professed faith in Russia for centuries and to those who saw the impact of this divided church on the new Russia.
All of this preceded rulings like that of the French court. In time the Russian Orthodox Church and the new government (which is a mixture of the old with some things new) made "peace" and the result is a new marriage between church and state that frankly troubles me as a teacher of mission and an advocate of church unity and the Great Commission.
I asked an Orthodox priest about all this and he answered me as follows:
This is just another of the long-standing problems of church/state relationships. To put the best light on it (which is to really strain things), churches that have suffered persecution have been known to "rebound" into unholy arrangements when favor comes to them. Constantine and the Church had some of the same problems. Yes, there are things worse than persecution.
What a thought for serious Christian leaders and churches. "There are things worse than persecution." I doubt most American churches and leaders have a clue about what is worse but I think we might live to find out. We shall see. In the meantime don't you think we need to think about the role of church/state continually and vigilantly and be discussing it inside our Christian churches in the West?