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By Tom Woodle
March 15, 2022

While most of the world is looking at Vladimir Putin as an evil, murderous monster, why is it that so many Russians stand firmly behind him? Surprisingly, Putin declares himself to be a devout Christian. He was secretly baptized by his mother at 18 months of age in Petersburg at the Cathedral of the Martyrs Alexandria and Antonia of Rome on the holy day of St. Michael and All Angels. This was at a time when Christianity was still basically outlawed (for all practical purposes) in the Soviet Union.

He was taught the Orthodox faith growing up and constantly wears a cross given to him by his mother on a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. He often tells the story of a house fire that destroyed his home when he was younger. He was devastated because he had left the cross on his bedside table and assumed it was lost forever.

However, it was found, in perfect condition by fire investigators. He considered this a miracle and a revelation to him, and since that time he has been unwavering in his commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church.

As he assumed power in Russia, he renounced, on behalf of Russia, the previous atheistic culture and has done more to spread Orthodox Christianity in Russia than any other head of state. It is said by biographers of Putin that he keeps his deep religious faith internally so as not to make a show of it.

He has taken religious pilgrimages over the years and spends his vacations attending small, rural churches so as not to be hounded by the media. I have seen numerous videos of him in in Russian Orthodox Churches and he flows smoothly through the rituals and liturgy, indicating that he is comfortable and at home with the practice of the Russian Orthodox faith. He has deep ties with Russian Orthodox Patriarchs and the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole.

So, all of this considered, how do we make sense out of the brutality that we see that has come from him militarily in the past, and in particular, what we see of him in the invasion of Ukraine?

First, it is important to remember that the Russian Orthodox Church is deeply nationalistic. Here in America, this would be somewhat akin to our thoughts of "God and Country." Except that in Russia, there seems to be no distinction between the two.

Secondly, it is even more important to realize that devotion to a church does not in any way mean that one is actually a born-again Christian. We have that problem here in the United States, where many people feel that if they faithfully attend church, that's enough to save them, when they have actually had no life-altering experience with Jesus Himself and really know nothing about the Bible.

I have often said to my congregation that sitting in a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. Putin reportedly sees himself as a "Defender of the Faith", which in this case would mean, a defender of Russian Orthodoxy, which would in turn mean, a defender of Russian nationalism. In Putin's mind, as in many others in Russia, it is all the same. And many people in Russia, especially older Russians, see Putin as a father-figure and trust him completely.

And the problem with Ukraine? Everyone knows that it is Putin's desire to see the Old Soviet Empire reunited. Everyone knows that he believes that if Ukraine is united with NATO and the West, that will be a threat to Russia. What everyone doesn't know is that in addition to all of this, several years ago, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, which reportedly made Putin and the Patriarchs in the Russian Church livid. So now, as misguided as it is, Putin believes that he is on a holy crusade that is God's will for Russia and her people.

Any holy war is a truly frightening scenario, because the key players often believe that they are doing God's will. And, this is what happens when devotion is given to a particular church without a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.

All churches have their problems, but some are more detrimental to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than others. Jesus said in Matthew 24, "Let no one deceive you."

Any church doctrine should line up solidly with scripture, particularly those of the New Testament. That's why it is not enough to just be an admirer of Jesus and an attender of church. It is important, as we navigate through these spiritually dark and perilous times, we read, mark and inwardly digest the Word of God for ourselves. otherwise, we run the risk of deception and doing more to harm Christianity than to help spread the gospel.

The Rev. Tom Woodle is rector of Well by the Sea in Myrtle Beach, SC. He is a priest/Musician and teaches religion and counseling in a university.

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