In the year 858, the emperor of the Byzantine Empire declared that a man named Photius was to be the Patriarch of Constantinople. This made him the most important religious leader in the eastern Church, which was still technically one with the western Church, but that unity was continuing to fray.

Emperors did such things in those days, appointing religious leaders and all. The problem was, Constantinople already had a Patriarch.

His name was Ignatius, and he had been appointed by the pope. The pope was the most important religious leader in the western Church and, to many (including himself), the most important religious leader overall. Since the Byzantine Emperor took it upon himself to declare the western appointed patriarch not fit for office, the pope returned the favor and declared Photius to be unfit. So now you have a pope saying Photius is illegitimate and an emperor claiming Ignatius was illegitimate.

If all that is confusing, it actually gets worse:

  • Easter emperor (his name was Michael, by the way), deposes Ignatius and appoints Photius
  • Pope supports Ignatius and deposes Photius
  • Many Christians in the East depose the pope (you read that right)
  • Someone kills Michael, takes over as emperor, and reinstates Ignatius
  • Ignatius dies, Photius replaces him with the emperor’s approval
  • The pope annuls that decision and re-deposes Photius

It would almost be humorous if it weren’t so sad. One church divided in two, in part because of theological convictions and confusion, but also due to the alignment between church and state and the power plays that ensued.

Sound familiar?

The Church is more fractured than ever before. It’s not just East and West anymore. The Western Church has shattered like glass into a thousand different pieces. Each division is a Photius-like moment. Either a theological disagreement or a power affiliation or a set of beliefs has caused a group to dig their heels in and say “This is our line in the sand. If you believe this, you can be one of us. If you don’t, you can’t.”

We are living in similar times, and times that are in my view no less historic. The Church in America is going through a sifting, a Reformation of a unique sort. Huge questions are being asked:

  • What do we believe about women in leadership?
  • What do we believe about same sex relationships?
  • Can you be a Christian and support Donald Trump?
  • Can you be a Christian and support a democrat?
  • Can you be a Christian and own a gun?
  • Can you be a Christian and be a pacifist?

Every question has the same root query at the root:

Who is in and who is out?

Hundreds of people I know have felt the sting of being labeled as unwelcome for some reason. Maybe they asked the wrong question, said the wrong thing, were honest about their doubts, or vocalized some wrestling. They were labeled as divisive, unqualified, as having a lack of faith, or being too liberal or being too conservative.

Here’s the rub — when people of faith crown themselves with the power to decide who is in and who is out, we not only go too far, but we further alienate those who are already struggling. Instead of making declarations about their fitness for ministry or the strength of their faith, what if we simply had the conversation with them, welcomed their wrestling, and patiently walked with them through whatever crisis of belief they were navigating?

Mike McHargue said it this way on a recent episode of The Faith Angle Podcast:

“The main venue behind belief formation is social identity. We do a terrible disservice to people when in times of doubt they come with questions and we shame them or ostracize them or correct them and in doing so move them further and further to the edges of our community and then eventually out.”

It seems that modern American evangelicalism, in particular, is repeating the story of Photius. We may not advocate for a particular patriarch, but we do advocate for a very specific set of beliefs, or you’re not our guy. Unless you have our approval, aligning with us theologically, politically, and socially, we depose of you. We may not have the actual power of the ancient popes or emperor’s, but many have taken it upon themselves to play judge and jury.

We may do our excommunicating via Twitter and blogs rather than councils or synods, but we do our excommunicating with just the same.

If this keeps up, what will become of us?

Less than 200 years after the whole Photius thing, the Great Schism ripped the East and West apart once and for all. They went from one church struggling to get along to two entirely separate churches, never to fully reconcile as one, not even to this day. And they set a precedent for how future disagreements, largely, would be navigated. We’re still doing it.

Want a seat at our table? Believe this way, follow this author, listen to this podcast, watch this news channel, vote this way. Otherwise, find another table.

If you really study the Photian Schism, it’s hard to tell who was right and who was wrong. And both sides can’t be correct. It leaves me to think maybe both sides were actually wrong. Maybe the power plays and the deposing and executing and ostracizing were a bigger failure than the theology or practice that was called into question during the whole ordeal.

Look around the Church today and it’s easy to reach the same conclusion.

When, oh when, will we finally learn our lesson?




3 thoughts on “Photius, Who is In/Out, Who Decides & When Will We Learn Our Lesson

  1. Interesting Post Titus.

    I loved the Faith Angle part about ““The main venue behind belief formation is social identity. We do a terrible disservice to people when in times of doubt they come with questions and we shame them or ostracize them or correct them and in doing so move them further and further to the edges of our community and then eventually out.”

    The words “shame them” is a judgement.
    The words “ostracize them” is a sentence.
    The words “correct them” is not a problem in itself, it’s the motivation and method which usually is a problem.

    Maybe we should identify why “the west” is leaving God/Christianity in droves and what “the collective church” is going to do about it – hopefully in the public square…and hopefully undivided in Christ’s Name. Division is certainly one of those reasons.

    I’ve spent 30+ years leading business and teaching business from the line to the boardroom. In doing so learned a few things. In my humble opinion, two lessons apply here:

    *”Becoming irrelevant in business is a company’s just reward for failing to supply customers with the right product and service they need or desire.” I assume it is the same for the church and does it apply here? It matters who determines that relevance. This I assume is, or will be, God.

    The second lesson is from marketing, about making a difference: “If you never venture into the market* and make a visible difference which is recognized and appreciated, your company will never reap the rewards from the expense and efforts made behind the four walls of the company. Talking about going into the marketplace* and making a difference, is not making a difference. It is an illusion justifying that your present efforts are both sufficient and relevant.”

    Now everywhere I marked * insert the word “culture” and reread the above again.

    To these lessons, perhaps “the church” needs to be both relevant (in the mind of the populus) and make a cultural difference (go out into the public square and meet issues (political, moral and personal) headon – and make a persuading and grounded “argument” that counters the perceived issue which we all agree leads to a decline of culture using the tools God gave us. The church can never do this divided for it makes the message divided.

    Division is Satan’s way of keeping our eye off God and onto each other’s differences.

    One God, One Voice, One Society.

  2. I don’t think there’s a Christian alive (and now gone) who hasn’t wrestled with the Lord and His word. Some people may choose to be more private with their wrestlings and doubts (or seek counsel from a smaller inner circle) rather than make their wrestlings public. Yet, in this highly social society, going public online and on podcasts with doubts, shifts and changes is the norm and can naturally endear you to a certain side, like you said theologically, politically and socially. It also seems like the greater question is what does God say in His word and how does the Lord want me to worship Him through these challenges? Each believer in Christ is at a different stage of their walk of faith and if a group of people are wrestling with beliefs like the ones you listed above, they are free to do that of course publicly or privately (but most probably feel more comfortable among others who are at that point in time wrestling with the same things.) And for those who are not at an exact point in their walk where they are wrestling, they are free to stand firm in biblical convictions and free to be accepted in that season. Can either one be tolerated? Yes and both should be, no matter who labels another person “unwelcome.” And I’ve seen enough criticism of both sides from both sides…makes you want to avoid church and Christian blogs and Christian podcasts and Christians altogether. There’s always something/someone to criticize and we so easily miss the beauty of this imperfect church Jesus died for. But even in a person’s wrestlings and doubts, they should still welcome challenges from either side. Being certain of biblical convictions does not make you superior to any believer who is doubting or struggling but there is a difference between a person who is actively seeking and questioning and wrestling and one who has made a decided position about a doctrinal issue that opposes Scripture. However, I think that’s really the crux of the matter – how we view and accept God’s word.

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