Photius, Who is In/Out, Who Decides & When Will We Learn Our Lesson

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?