Blood Flowed Ankle Deep: Lessons From West and East Divide

*Today’s post was supposed to feature an interview with a professional female theologian. But owing to some of her deadlines she was unable to return the interview questions completed today. So we will postpone the interview.

I had the privilege of be a guest lecturer in church history last weekend at a neighboring church. The subject matter was the division of the church into Roman Catholic in the West and Greek Orthodox in the East. There are several important lessons that we can glean from the testimony of this even in church history. The one that strikes me as particularly relevant now, however, is the danger of confusing our politics with the Christian faith. That is what happened in the Medieval church and because of it serious damage was done to the unity of the church.

There were essentially three causes that led to the Eastern split from the church. The first cause was the addition of a single word to the agreed upon Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was a mutually affirmed confession of Christian faith, which at the Council of Ephesus (431) was upheld and all parties agreed not to change the confession. But then someone did. A church in spain added a single Latin word to the Creed, “filioque.” The word means “and from the Son,” and it was added to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. This was something that not only could the Eastern Church not agree with, but it was something that was done unilaterally, accepted by the west, and began to isolate the east.

The second major event was a Papal Bull. The Roman church had a new Pope, but the new bishop in the capital city of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, refused to recognize him. So the Pope’s bulldog, Humbert, a fiery Cardinal with a short fuse, marched all the way to Constantinople and in July of 1054 delivered a notice straight from the Roman Pope declaring Bishop of Constantinople and all his followers anathema, unless the repented. It was another blow to the health of the church, and one hardly rooted in Biblical doctrine.

It was the final division, however, which caused the break, and it was one motivated by nothing more than political power. For centuries the Muslims had controlled Jerusalem and their control had meant that many a devout Christian could not take the expected pilgrimage to the Holy City. In 1095 it was decided that something must be done about the Muslim control and the first Crusade was launched. A disgusting display of the abuse of power, the Crusades sought to not only seize control of Jerusalem, but to wipe out the entire Muslim people. Perhaps the only thing worse is that the Fourth Crusade redirected its focus away from the Muslim people and shifted towards fellow Christians.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III wanting to seize a Muslim army base in Egypt organized another Crusade. Initially a nobleman from Venice offered to finance the campaign, but that plan fell through. And so an Eastern Prince declared he would back the military on one condition: they were to march to Constantinople and depose the Eastern Emperor. So in 1203 and 1204 the Crusaders, with red crosses sewn to their clothes, attacked their brothers and sisters. They murdered men, raped women, and even threw babies against walls. One Eastern writer is quoted as having said, “Muslims are merciful compared with these men who bear Christ’s cross on their shoulders.” The Eastern Empire would be lost to the West forever after this.

The deep seat of this division lies in the conflation of Christianity with Western Empire politics. The abuse of power would be a recurring problem in the Western Empire. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) was known as “The Warrior Pope,” leading armies to battle. And there were many who believed that their faith and their politics were the same thing. It happens today too. We can confuse our own political proclivities with the will of God.

If it’s cliché to say that God is neither Republican or Democrat, it is nonetheless true. Your politics are not to be equated with your faith. Faith should, of course, influence how you vote, etc. but to assume that God supports your political party over another is to come dangerously close to believing God wills whatever conforms to your party’s advancement and accomplishments. The confusion of politics and Christianity is what led to the disastrous split of the Eastern and Western church. It’s the same thing that leads to divisions in the church today. Learn from history: beware of this confusion in your own heart.

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