The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

It’s Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What is the Difference Between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and Why Does it Matter? History, Theology, and Headlines Collide

So what is the difference between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine? Well, it’s not just a matter of language, it is a matter of worldview. It is a matter right now, in the middle of war between Russia and Ukraine, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

“Why would there be two Orthodox churches in Ukraine?” Well, you say. Looking at the United States, look at how many different Baptist denominations there are. Look at how many Protestant denominations there are. All you have to do to start a new denomination in the United States is basically get some kind of post office address, but maybe now, you would say, “Just a website!”

But when you’re talking about the Christian Church, historically in the East, you’re talking about a very different picture. And that is of course, with reference to what is known as the Eastern churches or what is often referred to in the West as Eastern Orthodoxy. And as you’re looking at this, you recognize there’s a basic distinction between Christianity in the Western Empire and in its inheritor states, we’re a part of that. And that in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire had as its capital Constantinople. Now, the city known as Istanbul, right there at the intersection between Asia and Europe. The capital of the Western Roman Empire of course, was Rome, and that’s why we refer to it most commonly as the Roman Empire. But the shift to the East, of course, with Emperor Constantine led to massive theological, as well as massive historical developments.

Within the early centuries of the Christian Church, the distinctions between the East and the West were already becoming more apparent by the 11th century, in what the Western Church dates as the Great Schism of 1054. That’s the year 1054. There was a formal division between Eastern and Western Christianity, and it was over a theological matter, it was over a credal matter, but we don’t have time to look at that basic argument right now. Instead, we have to look at an argument within Eastern Orthodoxy, indeed within Ukrainian Orthodoxy. And it is a war of two churches.

Ukraine’s President, Zelensky has now called for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be kicked out basically of Ukraine. Now, how did that come about, and why is it such an important international headline? Well, this is where we do have a lot of theology and church history to talk about. And yes, this is really interesting.

We live in what is often described as a secular age, and in particular in Western civilization, it often seems very secular and increasingly secular, but still a secular newspaper like The New York Times, which is published of course, in one of the most secular cities in Western civilization, it ran a headline story in recent days.

Here’s the headline, “Zelensky,” That means Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, “Pushes for Ban Orthodox Church That Answers to Moscow.” Similarly, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline, “Ukraine Curbs Church With Ties to Moscow.” Well, as you’re looking at this, recognize that there are two Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

One of them is known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and it looks to the patriarch of Moscow as its leader, but the patriarch of Moscow is very closely allied, indeed more closely than most Western authorities can understand. Very closely allied with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. And then as you’re looking at the other church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, it looks for its leadership to the patriarch of Kyiv.

And Kyiv of course, it’s the historic capital of what is now Ukraine. And you are looking at the fact that there are two different national churches, they have two different patriarchs, both of them are recognized by the patriarch of Constantinople as he is known. That is the patriarch of all patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy. But you’ll notice that nationalism becomes a key issue here. These are national churches.

The problem in Ukraine, is that there are now two national churches, but one of them looks for its leadership outside the nation of Ukraine. Not only outside the nation of Ukraine, but in Moscow, Ukraine’s sworn enemy and invader.

Now, sometimes I get invited to speak at a historic anniversary for a church. That’s always a very moving experience. Just recently, I’ve spoken at churches that have celebrated 200th anniversaries, even longer anniversaries, and to Americans that seems very, very old, but it’s a category of old altogether of a different scale when you’re talking about the year 1054. But actually this story begins even earlier.

We go back about a century earlier to the 10th century in the year 988. What happened in 988? Well, a significant number of people living in Ukraine as it’s now known, living in the area near Kyiv, they converted to Christianity to Eastern Christianity. This, after years of domination by the Mongols and by others, the Ukrainian Christians, as they then understood themselves, established a patriarchy in Kyiv. A patriarchy eventually accepted by and recognized by the other national patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy. So that is to say, long before anyone in the world was really talking about Moscow, they were talking about Kyiv. And that leads to a very interesting cultural and historical reality.

When you have this conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it’s over territory to be sure. It’s over political advantage to be sure, but it is also over history. And here’s the problem for Russia. Russia has borrowed much of its history from what is now Ukraine. Moscow, has to borrow its authority historically from Kyiv. You understand why on the one hand, if you dream of Russian glory, you must put Kyiv back within Mother Russia.

But history does move in some very interesting ways, and Russia as we know it, as a nation self-consciously Russian, it required, given the theology of the Eastern churches, it required a national church for Russia. And if Moscow was going to be the capital, then there had to be a patriarch of this Orthodox Church there in Moscow.

The formation of the patriarchy of Moscow goes back to 1325. So now you’re talking about almost four centuries after the formation of the patriarchy there in Kyiv, and so it was basically Moscow that was second, certainly in historical succession. And as you are looking at the battle between Russia and Ukraine, understand there is always more here than meets the eye. And it’s important that Christians understand, that if you are talking about two different Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Ukraine’s president says, “We have to kick one of these out because it is actually working against us and against Ukrainian identity.” You’re talking about some massively important theological questions.

History provides some of the answers, as I said, 1054, the split between Christianity in the East and the West. And then of course, even before that, 988, the establishment of this patriarch there in Kyiv and of what will become an Orthodox Church identified with Kyiv. And then about four centuries later in 1325, the establishment of a patriarch in Moscow.

So what are the theological issues here? Why is this so important? Why would The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, be even interested in a conflict between two churches in Ukraine. One of them that looks to Moscow and the other one that looks to Kyiv? Well, it’s because theology matters massively, but in this case, we need to look at ecclesiology. We need to understand that it’s not just that you have these very old church traditions in Moscow and even older in Kyiv, it is that the Eastern churches have a very different understanding of Christianity and culture.

A very different understanding of what we would call church and state than what we think about in the intellectual furniture of those who have been living in Western civilization. We understand a basic distinction between church and state, between the church and government. Now, there are a lot of interesting conversations and indeed headline controversies to be had here in the West, but in the East it is very different.

The theological principle that drives the Eastern churches in this regard is often referred to as symphonia. The doctrinal position of the Eastern churches is that there should be a symphony or a harmony between the government and to the church. And furthermore, this leads to nationalistic churches that are identified by national identity.

That’s why when you’re driving around a major American city, you see perhaps a Syrian Orthodox Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Russian Orthodox Church. Now, as you’re looking at this, you recognize, well, at least one of the distinctions there will be language, but in so many cases, Greek is going to be the underlying language.

Now, the bigger issue there is national identity. These are national churches. This is why if you want to understand Vladimir Putin’s very big ambitions to regain Russian glory, he has done the opposite of what the Soviets did. The Soviets established an officially atheistic state and basically did everything possible to criminalize and marginalize any form of Christianity, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church.

But Vladimir Putin and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church are big buddies. They are bosom pals, and they represent in what can only be described as a very negative sense, the very symphonia that is in principle one of the doctrines of Eastern Christianity. But we’ve been talking about a lot of ancient history after all, 988, 1054, 1325. But let’s go to more recent history. What do you say? 2019.

In 2019, the stress between Russia and Ukraine had reached to the breaking point, when it came to the establishment of these churches. And so the Orthodox there in Ukraine reasserted the importance of the existence of, and even by historical reference in Eastern Orthodoxy, the primacy of the primate of Kyiv, and here’s the issue.

The primate of Eastern Orthodoxy there in Constantinople, he would call it or Istanbul, he recognized the claim there in Kyiv, and that led to a breach between the Russian Orthodox Church and what we might call the Greek Orthodox Church, particularly the primacy of the patriarch there. He’s often referred to as the ecumenical patriarch, meaning that he’s supposed to be recognized as the patriarch of all of these Eastern churches, but here’s where things get even more interesting.

Back in 2019, when I discussed this issue on The Briefing, I simply said this, I said that it is hard to imagine how the stresses that would lead to two rival patriarchs, one in Moscow and one in Kyiv, given Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, could not eventually lead to war. I said this at the time in 2019. I said, “It is hard for most Americans, most Westerners to understand, but in the East, this kind of theological claim is also a political claim, and when you have rival political claims of this importance, it is very easy to see how these two nations could find themselves at war.”

Now, in 2022, it is in war that these nations find themselves. And the headline coming out of Ukraine right now in which Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, is saying that Ukraine must now see the Ukrainian Orthodox Church basically as an embassy of the enemy. The enemy, meaning the patriarch there in Moscow and his henchman friend Vladimir Putin, you have now reached the point where this war has been translated into headline news that is intensely theological showing up in Western secular newspapers. I at least think Christians ought to find that rather interesting.

It’s also important theologically as we think about headline news in this country, that when we think about the importance of Christianity in our culture, it’s just really important to understand that the conversations that Christians have been having. Say in the United States since the founding era, in Western civilization, since the Reformation, these have been conversations that have taken place in an extremely different theological context than the context in which those conversations would take place in the East.

In the West, particularly since the Reformation, there has been an understanding that there can be no symphonia between the church and the state, and there should not be a national church in the sense of what you see in the East, as an overarching ethnic identity because the one thing that certainly the inheritors of the reformation must understand, and we can’t be simplistic about this, that there’s a simple way of understanding how the church is to be related to the state, but here’s the issue.

The church should not be fundamentally, ethnically defined, or to put it in another way, the problem with a Russian Orthodox Church is that in the end, it will be far more Russian than Orthodox or church, and that’s a problem and a temptation that can be found virtually anywhere.

One final thought about that, by the way, symphonia implies that neither the church nor the state should have primacy over the other. There should be with the patriarch and the emperor or the patriarch and the president. There should be a hand in glove kind of relationship. I’ll simply point out, that in a complicated fallen world that never works out very symphonically.

In Russia, the patriarch and the president may be using each other for their various political purposes, but all of that is seen before the world as a cooperation of convenience, and what is not by the way, much discussed in the midst of all of this, is what the church stands for, what messes the church preaches, or even what the church is?

If you identify the church fundamentally within ethnic or a national identity, you’re going to have a very hard time explaining exactly how the church is the church.

Part II

Children Holding Sexually Perverse Teddy Bears and Papers Signaling Child Pornography? How Could Balenciaga Ads Cross Such Clear Moral Boundaries?

But next, we’re going to shift to an extremely different context. This one very much in the West and in one sense about the West and about the decadence of the West. I’m going to talk about controversy that focuses on a fashion house. In this case, the headlines come from Paris, and we’re talking about the fashion house Balenciaga.

Now, Balenciaga has been fairly controversial from the beginning, and by the way, it is a very rich, very elite brand, and it involves many in the fashion conscious class, including brand ambassadors such as American television personality, Kim Kardashian. Kardashian says, by the way, that she’s troubled by the recent controversy about Balenciaga.

Now, what caused this controversy? It was at least two different ad campaigns, and one of them explicitly involved children. It involved very young children who were carrying teddy bears. Now, what can be controversial about children with teddy bears? Well, what if the teddy bears were wearing leather studded with metal in what can only be described as references to sadomasochism and bondage, as in sexual perversity.

Well, it just turns out that that might be controversial. At least we can also recognize that some moral sanity still exists, where at least this brings out some sense of moral concern in Western civilization, but we need to notice a lot of other things right here.

For one thing, we’re talking not just about one campaign, advertising campaign by Balenciaga. We’re talking about two, and this is a firm that’s already tested a lot of limits, but in this case, two different ad campaigns coming at about the same time have certainly broken. They’ve exceeded, they’ve transgressed those limits.

One of them had to do with the children, various young children carrying these perverse teddy bears or teddy bears symbolizing sexual perversity. But you also had, on the other hand, an advertisement in which there was a lot of paper strewn around the room, and someone looking at that paper began to notice something extremely troubling. At least one, if not two of the references in the paper strewn around the room were to child pornography.

At least two US Supreme Court decisions handed down on the sex abuse and pedophilia issue, United States v. Williams and Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. Well, they were actually a part of the paper that was in this advertisement, with paper strewn around the set. In another ad, there was a visual reference to a book by a known Belgian figure, a painter who had often been involved in controversy related to the sexualization of children.

What’s going on here? How could a major fashion house, not only come this close to transgressing, but actually transgress what any morally saying human being has to say, is one of those moral boundaries that must not be crossed, must never be crossed. In what business does it make sense to feature children as the one series of ads for Balenciaga featured children carrying bears in bondage gear? In what universe does that make sense?

Well, here’s where I think a lot of conservatives have missed the boat. They have failed to understand that this is not just about coming up to the limits of transgression. It is about transgressing. And here’s where I want to say, that as you’re looking at art and you’re looking at the leading edge of art, that is almost always where you see this moral transgression take place.

It could be cinema, it could be visual art, it could be any form of what’s often called modern art. And modern art in this case would include fashion, and it is often, by its very shocking value, supposed to announce to us the moral direction, not just the fashion direction, not just the artistic direction, the moral direction the society is supposed to take, because here is a very strange moral reality that Christians need to understand.

The artistic class has over the course of the last several centuries. Indeed, it can be argued, this goes back into ancient history and ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The artistic class has believed itself to be morally superior to the rest of us. Telling us the morality to which we should aspire, showing us by, for instance, their art, or in this case, even their fashion designs, the way that moral boundaries should be transgressed.

And as you’re looking at the fashion industry, many people including many Christians, fail to understand at the elite level, the fashion industry has been an enthusiastic driver of the sexualization of the entire culture for a very, very long time. Back in the 1990s, it was an American brand known as Abercrombie and Fitch, that ran into all kinds of controversy because of its extensive photographic advertising catalogs featuring scantily clad teenagers.

Part III

The Controversy of Balenciaga Raises the Question: Will We Be a Culture That Protects Our Children from Child Exploitation?

Now, in the United States, that would not be acceptable now, at least for now. But when it comes to fashion, the transgression just continues. And in particular, I will say, when you’re looking at the most elite fashion houses and where you see the elite fashions being shown for the future.

I’ve mentioned this on The Briefing before, you often have references in papers like The New York Times, and The New York Times has multiple fashion reporters. Just think about that. You often have references with photographic evidence of the fashion shows of the elite houses in New York. New York, and Paris, Milan, big cities that represent the fashion industry.

And you’ll look at the people who are featured in the designs, the clothing that is featured, and perhaps your first thought is, “I don’t know of a single human being on the planet who would actually wear that dress like that. That looks so foolish and outlandish, sometimes scandalous.” That you’ll say, “Well, I can’t imagine that’s going to show up at Macy’s anytime soon.” But I want to respond to that with two points.

Number one, it really isn’t about Macy’s, and by that I mean middle class America. It’s not really about middle class America. It’s about signaling moral change to the elites in society. This is supposed to transgress because you’re supposed to see liberation in this.

The second thing is to understand that even as you say, “This isn’t going to show up at the local department store very soon.” And I recognize that’s a bit of an anachronism, but nonetheless, there still are department stores and there still are places where the American middle class buys clothing, and you might say, “That’s not going to show up here anytime soon.” Well, that’s where you might be wrong, because if it looks outlandish and unthinkable now, well, outlandish and unthinkable is often a name brand within a period of say, two to three, four to five years.

The other big issue we need to see here is of even greater moral importance because it’s immediate, and that is the sexualization of children. As Allie Beth Stuckey wrote in a piece that we just published yesterday at World Opinions, “It’s the obliteration of childhood innocence, a progressive social experiment directly connected to the decades-long march of the sexual revolution.” Yes, that is exactly what it is. This really is an explicit case of child exploitation, but where’s the outrage in the United States?

It’s interesting to note that the mainstream media has not given much attention to this controversy at all, and it’s explained or dismissed by others as just a bunch of conservatives or conservative Christians who are prudes.

One of the things we need to recognize is that this represents an intentional, sustained effort to try to desensitize an entire civilization on an issue of tremendous moral urgency. If what is depicted in these ads is not wrong, just recognized, we have become a society that has no idea what is right, and what is wrong.

The final issue for today is understanding that the big issue here is not fashion, it’s morality, and the huge question looming over this civilization is not what will we wear, but will we protect our children from this?

That’s the big question, and soon enough, we’re going to know the answer to that question.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter or go to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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