The Archpastors of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia

The Archpastors of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on War

These insightful thoughts are particularly pertinent considering the latest developments in the two major war fronts we are experiencing. Where peace could hopefully be achieved if there was willingness, we witness the opposite where every means is employed to further death and destruction.

+ Bishop Luke

The Archpastors of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on War

We will soon arrive at Holy Week where we will be invit­ed by the Church to enter the events of the Lord’s sav­ing pas­sion, that will in turn lead us to the joy of His res­ur­rec­tion. We will come to the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane where He is betrayed by one of His clos­est dis­ci­ples. In his com­men­tary on the Four Gospels Arch­bish­op Averky writes con­cern­ing this[1]:

St John explains that the words of His high priest­ly prayer had to come to pass, when He prayed that no harm would come to any of his dis­ci­ples. And tru­ly, the sol­diers let the apos­tles go and approached Jesus to take Him. But here the apos­tles decid­ed final­ly to inter­vene and, with­out wait­ing for an answer to the ques­tion one of them raised — “Lord shall we strike with the sword” — iras­ci­ble Peter him­self attacked with a sword and cut off the ear of a cer­tain Malchus, a ser­vant of the high priest. But the Lord healed the man with a touch (Luke 22:51), say­ing to Peter, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will per­ish by the sword.” Of course this is strict­ly speak­ing not a prophe­cy, but only an expres­sion of cer­tain unde­ni­able spir­i­tu­al laws — who­ev­er attacks anoth­er with the inten­tion of killing or maim­ing him is wor­thy of the same treat­ment from anoth­er. This same thought is includ­ed in the com­mand­ment giv­en by God after the Flood: “Who­ev­er sheds man’s blood, By Man his blood shall be shed.”( Gen 9:6)

Read­ing these pas­sages of scrip­ture cit­ed here by Arch­bish­op Averky, togeth­er with his com­men­tary on them, we might rush to con­clude that any form of self-defense is imper­mis­si­ble to the Chris­t­ian believ­er, but such a view would not accord with the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion formed in the cru­cible of two thou­sand years of lived expe­ri­ence. To bet­ter con­tex­tu­al­ize the cir­cum­stances in which “the pow­er of the sword” might be legit­i­mate­ly used we can turn to the trea­tise on The Chris­t­ian Faith and War[2] writ­ten by the first First Hier­ar­ch of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church Out­side of Rus­sia, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny (Khrapovit­sky). He draws our atten­tion to Romans 13:4 where the apos­tle Paul tells that rulers, or gov­ern­ing author­i­ties, bear the sword as God’s min­is­ters and reminds us that:

wars are con­duct­ed by gov­ern­ments, but the teach­ings of Christ and the Holy Apos­tles do not estab­lish any sort of rules for gov­ern­men­tal life and nowhere in the New Tes­ta­ment is it envi­sioned that a Chris­t­ian state will exist at any time; we are com­mand­ed only to ful­fill those pas­sive demands which are claimed by, gov­ern­ments from their subjects…

Hav­ing made it clear that wag­ing war is a pre­rog­a­tive of gov­ern­ments and not of the Church, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny tells his readers:

… that the Holy Scrip­tures of the New Tes­ta­ment do not estab­lish laws or rules for gov­ern­men­tal life, but only for per­son­al life and life in the soci­ety of the Church. Thus, it is sense­less to pose the ques­tion: “Is not war for­bid­den for a Chris­t­ian gov­ern­ment in the Holy Gospel?” The ques­tion can only be posed in this form, “Does a Chris­t­ian sin when he agrees to become a sol­dier? Does a king or a mem­ber of a high gov­ern­ment body sin when he declares war or accepts a chal­lenge to war? Final­ly does a Chris­t­ian sin if he works for the suc­cess of a war by con­tri­bu­tions, man­u­fac­tur­ing arms and the like?” Nowhere in the Holy Bible, nei­ther in the Old nor the New Tes­ta­ment, will you find an affir­ma­tive answer to these three questions.

He reit­er­ates this con­clu­sion lat­er in his trea­tise writ­ing, “Is it not clear that nei­ther war nor the death penal­ty is for­bid­den by the com­mand­ment, but the per­son­al homi­cide inspired by hatred or arbitrariness.”

In the Old Tes­ta­ment era Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny explains how God waged war togeth­er with His cho­sen peo­ple Israel, but that this par­a­digm can­not be applied to the New Tes­ta­ment Church whose bound­aries do not coin­cide with those of any earth­ly kingdom:

… in the Old Tes­ta­ment the Lord Him­self com­mand­ed his peo­ple to con­duct wars of exter­mi­na­tion and to pun­ish peo­ple with death for cer­tain crimes; … Christ the Sav­iour rec­og­nizes these Old Tes­ta­ment decrees as the com­mand­ments of God. Do these com­mandments have any mean­ing for the New Tes­ta­ment Church? — No, we shall answer, they have no oblig­a­tory mean­ing. The Old Tes­ta­ment Church was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a state which was tied to a spe­cif­ic ter­ri­to­ry and a spe­cif­ic peo­ple; the New Tes­ta­ment Church is a spir­i­tu­al king­dom, not a state; but war and the death penal­ty, and in gen­er­al any sort of com­pul­so­ry judg­ment, is a mat­ter for the state, to which, as we said, not a sin­gle instruc­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment is addressed.

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny wrote this trea­tise as what we now call World War I was rag­ing around him. He refers to this and sev­er­al oth­er con­flicts in which the Russ­ian state engaged in the pre­ced­ing cen­tu­ry, rec­og­niz­ing that from the per­spec­tive of the Church the neces­si­ty of these could be debat­ed and that ulti­mate­ly even in the much clear­er cut instances it can be said that:

If the Russ­ian nation had had such moral strength that it could have per­suad­ed the Aus­tri­ans not to crush the Ser­bian king­dom[3], not to force the Bosni­ans into Catholi­cism, not to hin­der with tor­ture and pun­ish­ment the Gali­cians’ return to Ortho­doxy, then there would have been no rea­son to resort to mil­i­tary threats.

So, war is a reflec­tion of our spir­i­tu­al weak­ness, but we are weak and sin­ful peo­ple, and, in some cas­es, he sees that war was nec­es­sary to pre­vent even greater spir­i­tu­al harm. Although our hier­ar­chs might refer to defend­ing our neigh­bor as our sacred duty war itself, they would not describe as “holy”. Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny concludes:

Mur­der is rep­re­hen­si­ble as an act of self-will and hatred, i.e. per­son­al mur­der, but killing an ene­my in bat­tle “is tol­er­at­ed and permitted.”

Anoth­er First Hier­ar­ch of The Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church Out­side of Rus­sia, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Phi­laret sup­ports this con­clu­sion writ­ing that:

One of the clear­est and most self-deny­ing strug­gles of ser­vice to one’s home­land is to die for the nation. A Chris­t­ian sol­dier is a defend­er of the home­land and clear­ly ful­fills Christ’s pre­cept, “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

War is evil and an extreme­ly sad phe­nom­e­non and deeply con­trary to the very essence of Chris­tian­i­ty. Words can­not express how joy­ous it would be if peo­ple ceased to war with one anoth­er and peace reigned on earth. Sad real­i­ty speaks quite oth­er­wise, how­ev­er. Only some dream­ers far removed from real­i­ty and some nar­row­ly one-sided sec­tar­i­ans can pre­tend that war can be omit­ted from real life.[4]

There seems no doubt in Met­ro­pol­i­tan Philaret’s mind that war is evil, but he also gives us exam­ples from the lives of the saints as to why it may some­times be a nec­es­sary evil and yet capa­ble of redemp­tion for the sol­dier who par­tic­i­pates in this evil. He con­cludes at length:

…war is a neg­a­tive phe­nom­e­non. Yet it will exist, some­times as the sole defense of truth and human rights, or against seizure, bru­tal inva­sion, and vio­lence. Only such wars of defense are rec­og­nized in Chris­t­ian teach­ing. In fact, we hear of the fol­low­ing event in the life of St Athana­sius of the Holy Moun­tain. Prince Tornikian of Geor­gia, an emi­nent com­man­der of the Byzan­tine armies, was received into monas­ti­cism at St Athana­sius’ monastery. Dur­ing the time of the Per­sian inva­sion, Empress Zoe recalled Tornikian to com­mand the armies. Tornikian flat­ly refused on the grounds that he was a monk. But St Athana­sius said to him,

“We are all chil­dren of our home­land, and we are oblig­at­ed to defend it. Our oblig­a­tion is to guard the home­land from ene­mies by prayers. Nev­er­the­less, if God deems it expe­di­ent to use both our hands and our heart for the com­mon weal, we must sub­mit com­plete­ly … If you do not obey the ruler, you will have to answer for the blood of your com­pa­tri­ots whom you did not wish to save, and for the destruc­tion of the church­es of God.”

Tornikian sub­mit­ted, defeat­ed the ene­my, and res­cued the home­land from danger.

In a con­ver­sa­tion with Mohammedans, about war, St Cyril, the Enlight­en­er of the Slavs, said, “We meek­ly endure per­son­al offens­es; but as a soci­ety, we defend each oth­er, lay­ing down our lives for our neigh­bors, so that you have tak­en them cap­tive, do not force them to deny their faith or per­form acts against God.” Final­ly, what Russ­ian does not know the exam­ple of St Sergius of Radonezh, who blessed Prince Dim­it­ry Don­skoy to go to war, prayed for the suc­cess of the Russ­ian army, and com­mem­o­rat­ed those sol­diers who died on the field of bat­tle? Two lat­er were glo­ri­fied as saints.

One can, of course, sin and sin great­ly while par­tic­i­pat­ing in war. This hap­pens when one par­tic­i­pates in war with a feel­ing of per­son­al hatred, vengeance, or vain­glo­ry and with proud per­son­al aims. On the con­trary, the less he thinks about him­self, and the more he is ready to lay down his life for oth­ers, the clos­er the Chris­t­ian sol­dier approach­es the martyr’s crown.

Arch­bish­op Averky, with whom we began this essay, also knew first­hand the hor­ror of war and expe­ri­enced it direct­ly dur­ing World War II. He writes[5]:

We have seen a tran­si­tion from human to beast­ly behav­ior dur­ing this war. I have in mind the cru­el bom­bard­ment of the peace­ful civil­ian neigh­bor­hoods of Bel­grade on the very day of the Great Feast of Pascha imme­di­ate­ly after Holy Litur­gy had been served in the church­es. This is in direct con­trast with the pre­vi­ous world war, when dur­ing the great feasts both war­ring par­ties stopped their mil­i­tary activ­i­ties, exchanged greet­ings and even pre­sent­ed gifts to one anoth­er[6]. A mere twen­ty years or so, and we see such “progress” in the lev­el of human cru­el­ty! This regres­sion points to a com­plete loss of conscience.

Since the Arch­bish­op wrote these words many decades ago human inge­nu­ity has only gone fur­ther in its cre­ation of weapons of mass destruc­tion, whilst loss of con­science pro­gress­es faster still. But, as scrip­ture reminds us “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is noth­ing new under the sun” (Eccle­si­astes 1:9). Arch­bish­op Averky offers some hope that this may not always be so, but nev­er­the­less his words are laden with sobri­ety as we con­sid­er the wars rag­ing in our world today:

Under the guise of ser­vice to oth­ers, we find the pur­suit of one’s own nar­row ego­tis­ti­cal goals: deceit, black­mail, hypocrisy, and insin­cer­i­ty. We can char­ac­ter­ize the inter­nal and exter­nal pol­i­tics of many con­tem­po­rary nations and their rulers in the same way. Even wars in the past, despite their bru­tal­i­ty, were fought for some noble aim and were con­duct­ed with at least a sem­blance of prin­ci­ples and restric­tions of mer­ci­less cru­el­ty. In the past, not only were writ­ten trea­tis­es adhered to with respect, but even ver­bal agree­ments on the part of gov­ern­ment heads were hon­ored. Now we see such pacts as mere scraps of paper, devoid of any sig­nif­i­cance. This is under­stand­able, for the rulers do not take God and His law into account, for they gen­er­al­ly achieve their polit­i­cal pow­er through bribery and fraud, with no intent to serve the needs of their peo­ple. Those who are hon­est and respectable shy away from the government’s helm, not want­i­ng to engage in dis­hon­est activ­i­ty. On the oth­er hand, the immoral ones stop at noth­ing to achieve their goal of pow­er, per­son­al com­fort and mon­e­tary gain, push­ing all aside and even killing those who get in their way.

“This was always the case!” some­one may quip. Yes, there were sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions in the past, when, so to speak, “someone’s eyes were gouged out,” but these were excep­tions to the rule. Now hon­est and noble rulers are the excep­tion, and rarely do they sur­vive, for they stand in the way and are fre­quent­ly elim­i­nat­ed by those who want to con­tin­ue in their own dark deal­ings.[7]

War is at best the less­er of two evils, jus­ti­fi­able only in the most extreme of cir­cum­stances, par­tic­i­pa­tion in it by Ortho­dox Chris­tians can be redeemed through sac­ri­fice. To leave the final words of this essay to the Archbishop:

The sword should be drawn only for the defense of God’s truth and for the pun­ish­ment of “those who do evil.” From this point of view, the Church also jus­ti­fies war as an extreme, unavoid­able mea­sure for the sup­pres­sion of even greater evil. That war is not sim­ply mur­der as for­bid­den in the sixth com­mand­ment is evi­dent at least from the fact that, when sol­diers came to John the Bap­tist to repent and receive bap­tism, he did not con­demn them for bear­ing arms and serv­ing in the mil­i­tary but exhort­ed them to not intim­i­date any­one or accuse false­ly and be con­tent with your wages (Luke 3:14).

Many sol­diers, even those who served under a pagan king, for exam­ple, St George the Tro­phy-bear­er, St Dim­it­ry of Thes­sa­loni­ca, etc., were glo­ri­fied by the holi­ness of their lives and were count­ed among the saints and those pleas­ing to God. What do we do when there is no oth­er means for the sup­pres­sion of great evil oth­er than the tak­ing up of arms? We will have to allow that which is a less­er evil to avert a greater evil. But to sit indif­fer­ent­ly, pas­sive­ly and watch as mass­es of peo­ple per­ish is con­trary to the spir­it of Chris­t­ian love for one’s neigh­bor. In this case, strength of arms may save the inno­cent from per­ish­ing at the hands of evil­do­ers.[8]

  1. © Averkey (Tau­shev), The Four Gospels (Jor­danville, New York: Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, 2015) ISBN 978–194269-900–2 p216
  2. © Antho­ny (Khrapovit­sky), Chris­t­ian Faith and War (Jor­danville, New York: Holy Trin­i­ty Monastery, 1998) ISBN 978–0‑88465–087‑4
  3. Seen as the event that trig­gered Russia’s entrance into WWI
  4. © Phi­laret (Voz­ne­sen­sky), Liv­ing Accord­ing to God’s Will (Jor­danville, New York: Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, 2021) ISBN 978–0‑88465–443‑8 p114
  5. © Averkey (Tau­shev), The Strug­gle for Virtue (Jor­danville, New York: Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, 2014) ISBN 978–0‑88465–373‑8 p63
  6. Per­haps a ref­er­ence to the Christ­mas Truce between British and Ger­man forces on the west­ern front on Christ­mas Eve 1914. See
  7. © Averkey (Tau­shev), The Strug­gle for Virtue (Jor­danville, New York: Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, 2014) ISBN 978–0‑88465–373‑8 p64
  8. Ibid p106