Phyletism: The Devil’s Demonic Division
In 1872, a pan-Orthodox Synod convened in Constantinople defined the heresy of “Phyletism.” The synod proclaims:
“We renounce, censure and condemn phyletism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”
Phyletism is the name of an ecclesiological heresy which says that the Church can be territorially organized on an ethnic, racial, or cultural basis so that within a given geographic territory, there can exist several Church jurisdictions, directing their pastoral care only to the members of specific ethnic groups.
Phyletism is a lie of the devil. Satan searches for any and every way to divide Christ’s Holy Orthodox Church, and the base temptations of mankind is one avenue of his manipulation. Phyletism, though not formally defined yet, played a heavy role in the Great Schism of 1054, as Frankish kings rapidly spread anti-Greek propaganda to assert the superiority of the Latin Church over the East.
As discussed in my article discussing the future of African Americans and Orthodoxy, people will naturally and almost unavoidably interact with each ethnic group in a different way than how they will interact with their own. Much like lust is a temptation of the flesh, so too is phyletism, as it takes our human characteristics and magnifies them in a way that distracts us from the love that is in Jesus Christ. Phyletism, however, is not preached against as much as it may seem necessary in the modern day.
Many may think they preach against phyletism when they preach against racism. Racism is the hatred of another race, and it shares some overlap with phyletism, but it is not the same. It is important to preach against phyletism and not confuse it with racism because most people who preach against racism (at least in America) are in one way or another, playing into the hands of 20th and 21st century secularism, which exacerbates the focus on race relations and assigns blame, which assigns guilt, which creates a scapegoat. People overly concerned with racism have a tendency to forgo forgiveness in the face of repentance, leading to the advent of “Cancel Culture.” This is even employed by clergy who are more concerned by the world and its morality as a pretext for excluding people from the Church.
Phyletism in action can be seen in the demands and actions of certain Bulgarians during the time of subjugation to the Greek Church of Constantinople. Many Bulgarians requested that they have their own parishes and hierarchies where Greeks are excluded, and likewise Greeks having their own parishes where Bulgarians are excluded. The tragic irony of this situation is that Bulgarian phyletism came about primarily as a result of the Bulgarian Schism which only happened due to the enforcement of Greek in Bulgarian speaking lands by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
This irony would not go unnoticed by writers of that time. Konstantin Leontiev commented after the 1872 Synod, “Both you [Greeks] and the Bulgarians can equally be accused of phyletism, that is, of introducing ethnic interests into Church questions, and in the use of religion as a political weapon; but the difference lies in the fact that Bulgarian phyletism is defensive, while yours is offensive. Their phyletism seeks only to mark out the boundaries of their tribe; yours seeks to cross the boundaries of Hellenism…”
However, in this critique, we notice that there is a new definition of phyletism not present in the 1872 Synod itself. Leontiev calls expansion of the dominance of one ethnic group in ecclesiastic relations over others a form of phyletism. Is he correct?
The followers of the arch-heretic Arius were not all one group. Some were Strict Arians, others were Semi-Arians, Acacians, and others Eunomians. Likewise, the iconoclasts were not all one group. Some were Strict Iconoclasts, others were Semi-Iconoclasts like Charlemagne, some were aniconists like the Nestorians, some simply opposed depicting anyone ever, such as the muslims. In the same sense, the heresy of phyletism is not limited to its synodal definiton.
In fact, there are six types of phyletism:
- Strict Phyletism: This is phyletism as it applied to the Bulgarians in 1872. This phyletism demands territorial organization of the Church according to an ethnic, racial, or cultural basis so that within a given geographic territory, there can exist several Church jurisdictions, directing their pastoral care only to the members of specific ethnic groups. Nowadays, such beliefs are not explicitly proclaimed, but it is in practice by those who invade the jurisdictions of other canonical Churches without a blessing to care for their own ethnic flock.
- Dependence Phyletism: This is the idea that Orthodoxy can only be preserved by a particular people group or nation. That the future of Orthodoxy depends on the prosperity of a specific group, without which, Orthodoxy cannot survive.
- Exclusive Phyletism: This is often the form of phyletism you see professed by those who express discontent that many members of a particular nation are converting to Orthodoxy. This phyletism sees Orthodoxy as being tainted by the converts of a particular nation, and that Orthodoxy would be better preserved if those people did not convert to the Church of Jesus Christ. This form of phyletism is employed by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who prevents anyone who is not a member of the all Greek Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre from becoming or voting for the Patriarch. Fear that the Patriarchate would not become ruled by Arabs was expressed in the 1930’s when Patriarch Timotheous said “Our flock is fairly large, but all Arabs. We must be careful to look after them, in order to avoid here what happened in Antiochia (The Patriarchate of Antioch recently had been electing Arabs as Patriarchs).”
- Independence Phyletism: By far the most damaging form a phyletism, as it has produced many schisms from the Church which cause discord in the lands in which they inhabit. This form of phyletism sees the ecclesiastic independence of their group or any particular group as vastly superior or more important to being in the Orthodox Church. This is professed by the schismatic “Macedonian Orthodox Church (MdOC)” which schismed from the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC)(with assistance from the Communist authorities of Yugoslavia). The primary reason for not returning to the Church is a dispute over naming, as the MdOC demands to keep “Macedonian” in its name while the Greeks and Serbians demand it return to its original name of the Ohrid Archdiocese. There is also the schismatic “Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MnOC)” which was established by a defrocked Archimandrite who was never consecrated as a Bishop. This organization is a foreign import to destabilize the SOC in the Balkan region, leading to more instability. The MnOC has made the acquaintance of communist holdovers in the Montenegrin government, such Milo Đukanović, seeking their assistance in delegitimizing and persecuting the canonical SOC, which remains the largest religious group in the country. There is also the “Abkhazian Orthodox Church” which overtook and helped to expel Georgian clergy from the Abkhazian region. This phyletism is also the case for the existence of most Ukrainian Uniates, as they are more concerned with not being Russian than they are with being under the foot of the Pope and his mad delusions. This phyletism is professed also by Epiphanius Dumenko, head of the schismatic “Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” who says that invoking anathemas for schism is “too Russian.”
- Chosen People Phyletism: This phyletism is the idea that Orthodoxy in its purest form is professed or practiced by a specific nation or ethnicity, and that all others must take after their example because the others profess or practice a less pure version of Orthodoxy.
- Cultural Phyletism: This phyletism is dependent upon foreign languages, as it is the belief that the usage of that language in the liturgical life of a parish or diocese is critical to the cultural preservation of the flock therein. Despite the harm in not using the vernacular of the land in which you reside (especially in the case where the whole flock knows the vernacular), adherents to this see the cultural preservation of the flock as being uniquely tied to and inseparable from the language, and more important than the missionary effort of the Orthodox Church.
The importance of being knowledgeable of the different forms of phyletism and how they are applied can give us greater insight and forewarning to dangerous situations which will be the avenue of approach employed by the devil and his angels. It can be good to know in case one feels discouraged by wolves in sheep’s clothing who attack you or others on a phyletist basis. The lesson is to focus on Jesus Christ before all things, lest you fall victim to the temptations which direct your attention towards the ethnicity or nationhood of a person rather than them being made in the image of God.