Ecclesiology and National Identity in Orthodox Christianity
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora

Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora

Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora


One of the most dangerous developments in the modern world is the rise of an excessive nationalistic movement, so dangerous for the stability of peace among nations. The most recent developments in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa, with their ethnic wars, only strengthens the assumption of misconception of the sleeping and universal giant of nationalism. The rise of very dangerous nationalism in modern Europe might also be a very early sign for the international community to intensify the study of all the spectrums of this movement. Eastern European nationalism, strengthened by religious awakening after years of persecution, is of special interest to the political analysts. Religion and nationality can form a combustible mixture, where in religious and ethnic prejudices can erupt into bloody conflicts.

A national identity of Eastern European countries or the Balkans has to be studied with special attention on the relation between the Church and national identity. In those regions the old alliance between religion and politics, Church and state, is re-emerging with unpredictable consequences. In this particular development in the Balkans, “the Church is misused as inspiration for nationalism and political instrument in conflict situation”. As a consequence, the Church is being shamelessly used by the modern states in their own egoistic and conflicting interest. The existence of the Church and nationality is not only a theoretical question; it reaches the very existence of human being. Because of this, the concept of Orthodox ecclesiology and national identity is exceedingly complex and an unpleasantly sensitive topic for discussion. Difficulty is also derived from the fact that for the Orthodox Christian, national identity, culture, and social and political life have been so deeply intertwined in the life of the Church. Although it is a difficult theme for analysis, it is also extremely relevant in the developments of today’s world.

It is very important to emphasize the fact that for the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the terms “Church” and “national identity” are to be in relation to each other to a certain degree, but never attached to each other conceptually. The origin of these concepts is ideologically different and they are not adequately related to each other in principle. As will be discussed in the first part of our presentation, there is between both of these terms a synthesis which is being used to express certain correlations. The concepts of ecclesiology of the Church in the world will be discussed first, before discussing the subject of national identity and nationalism. The deformation of a specific balance between Church and nation on behalf of nationalism creates a total inability from Orthodox ecclesiology to combine these concepts together. The fearful events in the former Yugoslavia are atrocious manifestations of the evil and destructive political ambitions, where the Church became a mere instrument to achieve the ultimate agenda. The problem of deformation of Church existence by nationalism will be discussed in the second part of this presentation. The final outcome of our analysis will be presented at the end of our paper, where “healthy nationalism” has a place in the perspective of Orthodox theology.

The Nature of the Church

According to contemporary Orthodox ecclesiology, there is no one official definition of the nature of the Church. The reality of the Church is the experience of people of God in the Holy Eucharist. Because of this specific character, the Church, in its foundation, is Eucharistic and indefinite. Based on the Fathers of the Church, Church Tradition and the Ecumenical Councils, it is impossible to find either the definition of the nature of Church or systematic teaching of her mystical existence. Authentic ecclesiology of the Church is the ecclesiology experienced by the community in the body of Christ as “…life context of all theology”.

Following the development of the contemporary Orthodox ecclesiology, the foundation of the entire theology, including ecclesiology, is the dogma of the Holy Trinity. In the same fashion, the Orthodox ecclesiology is also founded upon the Holy Trinity. Because of this strong and proper argumentation of the Orthodox Church upon the Holy Trinity, the ecclesiology reflects the life and action of the Divine Trinity in the world. According to John Zizioulas, the Orthodox ecclesiology cannot function without continual reference to the Triune God. The Holy Trinity is the ultimate foundation and source of the Church’s existence. In this context, the Church has a Trinitarian character and expression. In essence, the Church becomes the living icon of the Holy Trinity.

Following the analysis of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, we have to state that the ecclesiology also has the Christological, pneumatological, eschatological and cosmic dimensions. The total integration of the Divine Trinity in the life of the Church is expressed in those dimensions. Orthodox ecclesiology is also sacramental and mystical. Church is being actualized sacramentally in the mystical presence of the “Body of Christ”. The Orthodox Church states that based on this last condition of the existence of the Church in the World, the only ecclesiology that fully expresses the mystical presence in the “Body of Christ” is the Eucharistic ecclesiology. The contemporary Orthodox theology presents the Eucharistic ecclesiology as the biblical reality that is being nourished in the life of the Church since Pentecost. In general, we can say that Orthodox theology, in its essence, is Eucharistic. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Church is Eucharistic and the Eucharist creates the Church. The main purpose of the existence of the Church is the vision of the Kingdom of God. Because of this eschatological presupposition, in her existence the Church strives to model itself on the pattern of the Kingdom and should never cease to do so. Any compromise with the powers of the fallen world would be detrimental to her identity. To put this in a different context, the main purpose of the Orthodox Church is the nourishment and cultivation of the Orthodox Christian “lifestyle” for people of any time under any conditions and difficulties. The Church is not an idea or a philosophical, political, or ideological thought that can be put under discussion and classified as any other human concept. The Church is life in God and “…not of this world” (John 18:36), and as such she cannot be categorized and discussed as any other ideology. If the Church is the “living icon of the Holy Trinity” in the world then the entire world, with all its complexity and problems, is the domain of the Church. According to Maximos the Confessor,

“the Church is the print and image of the whole world, which consists of visible and invisible substances”.

In this context the problems of men in the world are the Church’s problems. The Orthodox Church refused to accept the division into “sacred” and “profane” which has prevailed in the West. All the daily dilemmas of human being, including the political, economic, cultural, and social problems, are being transferred to the Church, where they are being sanctified and overcome in the Holy Eucharist. The Orthodox Church is the life of the world and by participating in the struggle of human being for man’s theosis, the Church transforms the world. Although the Church has a distinctive identity with a specific mission in the world, actions for justice, peace, and the stability of the world are constitutive dimensions of the Church mission. Our Church is never associated with the indifference or excessive detachment that are part of the horror of the world. Indifference and apathy lead life to death, while participation and action change and transform the world. If a local church associates itself with indifference, it is not a church. From the other side, we have to state as well that although the problems of the world are being brought to the Church, they are never being identified with the Church. The Church, because of its ontological nature, which is also expressed in an apophatic theology, cannot identify itself with either national or social ideologies or with any other ideological trend of society. It has to be said that the Church incarnates people, refusing to accept any ideas or beliefs. Although the Church is not identified with any of those concepts, she is incarnated into various cultures in order to make history and anticipate the Kingdom.

Church and National Identity

The Church is in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity and as such the Holy Trinity constitutes her being in the world. The Church reflects God’s unity in Trinity. In other words, the Church mirrors the communion and otherness that exists in the Holy Trinity. The Three persons of the Holy Trinity are one in nature, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are absolutely different. If the Church is the mirror of the Triune God, the Church, in parallel, also represents a multiplicity of persons in unity of life and being. There is absolute interdependence among the members of the Church, which also testifies that together with the unity there is diversity. Each member of the Church is different and because of this difference they need each other. The unity of the Church is identified in the diversity of its members which involves the natural, social and spiritual differences. In another context, the differences of the members of the Church are being transfigured as characteristics and make-up of life and thought of all those who create the Church. All the differences are being transfigured and existentially transcended to the upper and only idea of unity of Church:

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, Slave nor free: but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:14) .

In the ecclesiological language, the unity of the Church, which is being actualized in the Eucharist, overcomes any division of any time and any aspect:

“Jesus Christ yesterday and today the same and through the centuries” (Hebr. 13:8).

The implications of this Eucharistic ecclesiology for the social consciousness of the Church are far reaching and, because of its content, should be constantly emphasized. It is exactly for this reason that the Orthodox Church condemned phyletism as opposed to catholicity. The Eucharist not only unifies diversity but also sanctifies otherness. In another way, if the Eucharist celebrated in its Local Church excludes in one way or another those of different race, nationality, philosophy, ideology, sex, age, profession, it is a false Eucharist and it is definitely a false unity. The Church which, in the celebration of the Eucharist, discriminates between races, ideologies, social classes, ethnic identities, etc. fails to present the Kingdom of God and violates the eschatological nature of her being. In this situation, the Church loses her catholicity by adopting the exclusive way of her own being. The Church cannot and should not be identified with any ideology or “ethnicity”, unless she is to be reduced to a simple field of speculation, where the truth is being identified with the social or political value of society. In such a case, the Church ceases to be the Church and the Eucharist ceases to be the Eucharist.

The local Orthodox Church formed and based exclusively on a particular nationalism, culture, clas, or ethnicity should learn to regard itself not as a Church. The local National Church which portrays, as its foundation, other than the element of catholicity, is in fact only an extension of the reality of the Church. From the Orthodox perspective, this church lacks the eschatological dimensions of its nature. It is a purely nationalistic and cultural phenomenon, totally removed from the vision of the Kingdom of God. The total absorption and use of local nationalistic culture may make the church local, but not necessarily catholic. Although the Orthodox Church uses the local national culture as a missionary vehicle for the Gospel, it is also critical of it.

According to the Orthodox theological tradition, the unity of the Church, in its proper context, was never harmed by a variety of national identities, mentalities, languages, and cultures. The development of personal identities of people, which is being presented through nation, language, culture, and philosophy, was in fact part of Orthodox mentality. All the factors, including the ethnic, national, and cultural identity, are given a high priority in the missionary field of the Orthodox Church. They might be carriers of very valuable social, religious, and ethical values. A member of the ecclesial community is born as a member of a particular religion, people, culture, or nation which creates his integrity. The personal identity of every member of the Church is shaped by those factors. From this perspective it also must be said that because the national identity and culture belongs to the personal identity of specific people, the cosmopolitan idea of culture or universal “Christian culture” is not acceptable. No culture is final and definitive. If the Orthodox Church embraces otherness, it is also regardful and respectful of the tremendous riches of human diversity of culture. Christianity does not suppress cultures of national identities, but assumes them into the united diversity of Catholic tradition. There is no “pure Orthodoxy” which is untainted by culture. It must be stated that from the Orthodox perspective, the personal development of its own identity and integrity is a constant process and this can be preserved and continued only with a constant spiritual effort. The culture of human being together with his national identity is being constantly transfigured by the mystical life in the Church. Orthodoxy sees a particular culture as a source of redemptive revelation of God.

Nationalism and Ecclesiology

It must be strongly stated that Christianity, and especially Orthodoxy, is by its nature incarnational. This is based on the fact that the second person of the Holy Trinity Jesus Christ came into the world in a specific time, culture, and nation (Jn. 1.14). Because of the incarnational aspect, the Orthodox Church recognizes that the theological context of the Church is inevitably culturally conditioned. It must be recognized that a “core Christian truth” is to be identified in the shell of a culture of various national identities. Because of the incarnational factor of the Gospel, there should be room for expression of faith in a variety of cultural forms and identities. Theology, therefore, is contextual. One of the greatest achievements of Orthodoxy is the sanctification of cultures of national identities and the readiness to respond to the authentic needs of people. Orthodoxy is, at the same time, a human culture and divine manifestation which transfigures human into divine. But the culture of man, as intellectual creation in itself, cannot be the ultimate value and destiny for man. It is incorrect to identify the Orthodox Church with a specific national identity or ethnic culture, or to put them on the same level. From the Orthodox perspective, when the national or cultural or ideological loyalties displace the primacy of God, the result is a form of idolatry. It is a perversion of the very essence of Christianity. When godliness becomes the dominant factor of a specific culture or nation, Church and human life are devalued and subjected to the higher ideology of nationalism. It must be emphasized that the Orthodox Church worships God in its national and cultural identity, but not imprisoned in the national agenda and ideology of those for whom God is a medium to achieve their goals. Orthodox Christianity from the very beginning followed the policy of embracing the culture and traditions of those who were evangelized. Orthodoxy looked for the possibility to facilitate the integration of Orthodoxy with the cultural and ethnic values of the specific evangelized territory. The Orthodox East has always encouraged the assumption by the Church of the elements of national culture and identity that could contribute to the well-being of the Orthodox Church.

Nationalism in the History of Christianity

If we were to analyze the concept of national identity and nationalism in the history of Christianity, we would definitely find another image of nation understood in an ecclesial form. Any member of the Church baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity became a member of God’s kingdom. Members of early Christianity identified themselves as Christians (Acts 11:26)

“… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).

The identification of Christians of the early Church with the ”chosen nation” or other followed with the understanding of the Old Testament, where the term “nationalism” is nowhere to be found. In the New Testament the titles previously applied to Israel were now used in connection with the New Israel: all those who followed Jesus Christ. This implied the complete transformation of the concept of nationhood, since the Church has universal boundaries. The new concept of unity, radically different from any known form of community, transcended all human limitations of race, nation, or culture. This eschatological concept of the universality of the Church of all the nations is evidently testified by the New Testament:

“In the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the nations of those who are saved shall walk in the light” (Rev. 21:24).

Likewise at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon people of different nations and languages (Acts 2:3-11). Along with the variety of nations and languages, there was also a unity and harmony. The national and ethnic boundaries are transcended by the concept of catholicity of the Church discussed earlier. For the Church of antiquity, all nations were equal in value and honor. It was the consciousness of the generations of Christians for centuries.

The rise of a new concept of national identity and eventually of today’s nationalism can be seen already in the universalism of the Byzantine Empire which, by its exclusivism, was fed by the tragic events in the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The very clear idea of the development of the form of nationalism is already seen in the writing of Spinoza, who identified devotion to country as “the highest form of piety”. The affirmation of the creation of a “new Orthodox nationalism” of the Byzantine State was followed by the “secular nationalism” of 1789. The situation changed dramatically in the 19th century in the wake of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, when the secularization of nationalism acquired a “strange and foreign spirit”. The complex process of the French Revolution and its consequences on the process of development of nationalism, as it is represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robespierre, and Herder, created a need for a national vocation, a kind of corporate identity.

The other very important factor for a proper understanding of a rise of nationalism in the second half of the 18th century (determined in the 19th) was a direct consequence of the great revival of nationalities. While Orthodoxy emphasizes sanctified unity of national identities, the events of the French Revolution and Romanticism accepted the formation of national identities in narrow ethnic terms of intolerance, fundamentalism, and exclusivism. The new nationalist ideology identified the nation as the object of fundamental loyalties. It was definitely not a sacramental community. The consequence of this development we can perceive in the emergence of a variety of “holy” nationalities as “Holy Serbia” or “Holy Russia” as a national Christian vocation. In process, these realities became the foundation for the national churches and their autocephaly, as this appears in Bulgaria, Russia, and Serbia. The national identity of the states was projected in the idea of a national Church, where in fact the ecclesiology of the Church was sacrificed and determined by the needs of the nationhood. The Orthodox Church became identified with given nations in a symbiotic-quasi-mystical union. In the situation where the eschatological reality of the Church is identified with the political and social matters of the nationhood, as is evident in the national Churches, the Church fails in its mission to portray the Kingdom of God. In the process, nationalism became a pseudo-religious invention of the 19th century. This was one fundamental reason why the Council held in Constantinople in 1872 condemned phyletism as a negation of the catholicity of the Church. As a consequence, there can be no doubt that the label of a church as “national”, in an exclusive form, is contrary and erroneous to the catholicity of the Church, and as such it is rightly rejected and termed as ”heretic”.

From this perspective, the nationalistic ideology, as a human product, contains in its essence a certain degree of imperfection, which in the final outcome gives rise to racism, exclusivity, and ecclesiological alienation. In other words, if the Church becomes the force and the source of excessive nationalism, the Church engages in implicit excommunication. God’s grace is being minimized to the needs of social and political matters of people, losing the transformative insight of its essence. In the process of the development of xenophobic nationalism, the theology of the Church is reduced to a human ideology of a national transformation. The human ideology, as a consequence, becomes the theological truth. In the case of the creation of national exclusivism or “ethnic purity” of the ethnic Church, the Church becomes inauthentic. The excessive nationalism, also called ”ethnoracialism” or just “racialism”, is incompatible with the fundamental principles of Orthodoxy, which cannot to be identified with any ethnic Orthodox Church restricted by civilization, language, race. etc. While the national identity is being sanctified by the Orthodox Church, nationalism, as an excessive form of ethnic identity and as spiritual elitism of national Churches, has been condemned by the Orthodox Church and permanently excluded from Orthodox ecclesiology.

While the Orthodox Church condemns excessive nationalism, she does not reject the well-intended and healthy nationalism that can be defined and embraced by the concept of catholicity. Within the concept of Eucharistic ecclesiology there is room for love and respect for the nation-state, expressed by patriotism. True patriotism for the well-being of the state should be distinguished from fanatical patriotism, known as chauvinism. While true patriotism should be guided by the principles of the relationship with God, fanatical principles of patriotism place nation and state on the top of a hierarchy of values. In fact, the fanatical patriotism becomes idolatrous. As a distorted concept of right patriotism, fanatical patriotism can lead to injustice, immorality, and forms of terrorism. As such, fanatical patriotism must be condemned by the Orthodox Church. The concept of positive nationalism, which is embraced and limited to the catholicity of the Church, becomes a positive force for the specific nation. Patriotism and positive nationalism need to undergo a searching metanoia. If nationalism becomes the positive force for people, it can unite them for the transformation of the world. At that time, this becomes an ecstatic contemplation of one’s people in the light of the Holy Spirit. On anthropological grounds, there is no doubt that positive nationalism has an important role to play in religion, possessing a certain inherited authority.


Concluding our analysis, we have to emphasize the fact that the Orthodox Church doesn’t reject the concept of national identity as long as it is embraced by the concept of catholicity of Eucharistic ecclesiology. For Orthodox ecclesiology, the rightly understood concept of national identity becomes the vehicle of missionary work accepted by the Church from the very beginning. The only problem, which is unacceptable by Orthodox ecclesiology, is the deformation of the rightly understood national identity into the concept of nationalism. We have to emphasize the fact that, based on our analysis, nationalism as a deformation of the concept of nationhood, in general, is irreconcilable with the ecclesiology of the Church. More specifically, nationalism is incompatible with the Eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church and, as a consequence, with the concept of catholicity. The Orthodox Church recognizes the divine revelation and divine presence in the Body of Christ as the only criteria for its existence. The fact that God reveals Himself to us is decisive in our understanding of the nature of the Church. The involvement of the Holy Trinity in the life of the Church implies that the Church is incompatible with anything known and created by human beings. The Orthodox Church has no earthly identity. The emphasis of Orthodoxy on the vision of the Kingdom of God excludes the Church from any human ideology. The ecclesiology of the Church represents an eschatological community which ultimately escapes the laws of sociology. While the Eucharist removes the Church from the realm of sociology, it inspires and creates a deep concern for social, political, and ideological concepts of humanity. Based on this fundamental element, we have to say that there is no dogmatic association of the Orthodox Church with any political, social, or national ideology. If the criteria of the nature of the Church is being alerted by the ideology of nationalism, as this is done in some predominantly Orthodox countries, the Church ceases to be authentic. The partisan involvement of the Church in the aspect of nationalism limits her ability to proclaim the Kingdom of God. In order for the Church to maintain her ecclesiological identity, the Church must become herself. The credibility of the Church in the political sphere of life depends on what she does. The praxis of the Church authenticates her being. The involvement of the Church in excessive nationalism not only jeopardizes the essential part of her existence, but also destroys any perspective of the future, which goes beyond the limitations of human mentality. If a Church’s leaders are involved in the nationalism of one particular ethnic group and the existence of the Church is being used for the purposes of this ideology, the authentic Church ceases to exist as soon as her ecclesiology is sacrificed in order to support this ideology. If the contemporary political analysis identifies certain Local Orthodox Churches of Europe with the nationalism of the particular ethnic group, in retrospect, it should envision two different entities: the authentic ecclesiology of the Church and the ideology of nationalism itself, which supports its goals and objectives by using the Church’s structure and her ideology. As long as the Church continues to preserve the authentic Eucharistic ecclesiology in her life, she will direct the entire generation to a better future. She will continue to be critical to any human ideology, including nationalism, as long as the Triune God will be the transformative power of the world. Only in the Eucharist and Eucharistic ecclesiology will the Church transcend the concept of nation and nationalism and all other ideologies. Nationalism can never replace or even illustrate ecclesiology, which is always transcendent eschatologically. Orthodox Christianity with its characteristic ecclesiology can provide modern Europe with the foundation of a meaningful relationship between the Church and nation. Peace and harmony in contemporary Europe based on this principle will lead future generations of Europeans to a meaningful understanding and an appreciation of each other’s identity.