Economy and Canon Law

As Christians, we must respect the fact that not all of our fellow human beings are inclined toward the Christian life. The challenge, for us, is to respect and even love those who have different spiritual and social ideals. For it is only through love that God's grace abounds. The first step in this liberal endeavor is to avoid using secular politics as a means of achieving ecclesiastical ends.
Edward Moore | 16 October 2009

Source: Theandros: An Online Journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy








As Orthodox Tradition developed, a wonderful concept came into play, one that preserved the distinctly co-operative relationship between the divinity and humanity. I am referring to oikonomia or “economy,” as it is usually rendered. The literal meaning of this Greek term – the roots of which are oikos (“home, abode”) and nomos (“law”) [1] – is “rules of the home.” Indeed, the intention of economy within the Church is to foster that sense of intimate relationality subsisting in the home between members of a family, as opposed to the detached, coldly objective civic law of faceless authority that is – even in our own day – largely a product of custom. For within a familial context, where relationships are based on personality and not on convention or custom, the loving father, for example, when faced with an offending son who is truly and sincerely contrite, will waive standard punishment and opt for a more appropriate response – one inspired by love and affection, and not a product of mechanical application of retribution. Moreover, the “rules of the home” are often revised based on circumstance. The rules that apply to a child of six will not apply to a young man of sixteen. Such was the intention of the most inspired of the Church Fathers.


Let us consider St. John Chrysostom’s bold dismissal of the scriptural command to “be fruitful and multiply.” In his Homily 19, “On Marriage,” he writes:


There are two reasons why marriage was instituted: to make us chaste and to give us children. Of these two reasons, the first takes precedence … especially now that the human race has filled the entire earth. … But now that the resurrection is at hand, and we do not speak of death but rather advance toward another life better than the present one, the desire for posterity is superfluous. [2]


If Chrysostom had the penetrating insight to discard a commandment contained in the Old Testament, why do so many contemporary Orthodox hierarchs and even laypersons refuse to discard certain rules of Canon Law? Surely, as Chrysostom certainly would have said, a loving God would never condemn humanity to existence on an overcrowded globe where life is not only not conducive to true happiness, but is actually detrimental to the mental and spiritual well-being of the person. Yet this is precisely what the strict, wooden, and unthinking application of Canon Law to present situations often produces.


In this paper I wish to explore two seemingly differentiated yet, I will argue, intimately related situations that suffer similar effects under the stern application of Canon Law: the matrimonial union of a man and woman outside the paramaters established by the institutionalized Church; and the establishment of an autocephalic Church founded under a difficult socio-political situation. The question to be examined here is such: If, in both cases, those involved are adhering in spirit to the venerable tradition of the Church properly understood, are there any grounds for condemnation? My answer is a resounding NO! And this is not simply based on a consideration of the progression of cultural and socio-political change, but also on theological grounds. And so I proceed to a theological justification of non-ecclesial matrimonial unions (which I will define), and socio-politically expedient declarations of autocephaly.


I. Marriage and Canon Law


In his penetrating essay “Orthodox Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage,” John H. Erickson points out that “the early Church had been more concerned about the character of Christian marriage than about the wedding,” going on to note that the ecclesiastic blessing only became a canonical requirement in the tenth century.[3] The result of this change, according to Erickson, is that marriage came to be defined by “required form” rather than by “the capacity and commitment of the couple themselves.”[4] He continues:


But in the pluralistic world of the twentieth century, can we seriously maintain that marriages blessed by an Orthodox priest in the Orthodox Church according to the Orthodox Rite of Matrimony necessarily ‘count,’ while those not so blessed do not? Yet this is what some Orthodox churches today attempt to do.[5]


This is a lamentable fact, for such practices hinder and prevent many people from experiencing the spiritual and intellectual fruits of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, theological insight is available that will help to dissuade and hopefully banish such wooden legalism to the distant past, where it belongs.


Marriage in the Hellenistic and early Byzantine period was largely a matter of a couple announcing to a large number of people – usually at a planned wedding feast (Cana is a perfect example) – their intention to enter into a devoted, monogamous relationship. Surely there was an element of ceremony involved, but such props were not necessary for the marriage to be considered valid. In the early Church, such unions became Christianized, and presence of a priest at such a ceremony (largely in the capacity of witness) became standard practice. However, as Erickson explains, a marriage was originally judged as valid or invalid based solely on the commitment of the couple to one another – not on the basis of external trappings. This practice indicates an immense respect for the uniqueness of both persons involved, and acknowledgment of the fact that the marriage bond must be instituted by the two persons in love, not by a presiding official, whether secular or ecclesiastic.


That said, the Church, understood as the communal body of the faithful, has the right to recognize a couple as married, or not, based on the traditional values of the Church. But these values should not be understood as objective, institutionalized practices, but as real moral and psychological insights, put into practice by educated members of the Church, both clergy and laity. For example, if the Church witnesses spousal abuse, then it is correct to consider that marriage null and void. This is done so not on the basis of Canon Law understood as firm decree, but understood as the fruits of common sense, inspired by grace, to be applied loosely or strictly, on a case-by-case basis.


This brings us to a consideration of the intentionality of marriage. Is the couple uniting to satisfy family members, the Church, to fulfill their desire for offspring? If so, the marriage is a pseudo-marriage, based on external considerations and not on love understood properly as henosis, true union, two-become-one, yet both preserving their unique personalities … This is a mystery, just as the Trinity is a mystery, and the dual natures of Christ a mystery. And it is for this very reason that true marriage cannot be judged according to external, objective praxis.


This renders marriage opaque to the Church in so many ways. Except in situations of violence, utter apathy and neglect, or flagrant unfaithfulness and adultery, there is no way for the Church to know whether or not a couple is truly in love. Only the persons comprising the couple know. So we may say that theintentionality of the couple renders the union valid or invalid, not the external trappings of ecclesial form. When Christ made the statement that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Mt 5:28 KJV), He was affirming that the marital bond is made or broken by the emotional bond, or lack thereof, of the couple involved. If the heart (kardia) strays, then the bond is broken, and the marriage annulled, regardless of legal forms.[6]


Here we must pause to inquire about the role of God in marriage, authentically understood. If the couple declares themselves married without reference to God, is the marrriage authentic? Surely not, for God is the existential center of all beings, humans especially, who were created in His image, and strive for His likeness. My response to this question, then, is that authentic love always already involves God. The married couple are not only brought together by the providential arrangement of God, but respond to one another in the way God responds to His faithful: in a spirit of mutual care and sharing – the paradigm of which is the union of natures in the Incarnate Christ.


Now let us move on from a consideration of marriage between two persons, and consider the Church, understood metaphorically as the “Bride of Christ,” in light of our discussion thus far.

II. The Autocephalous Church and Canon Law


Turning to another insightful article by Erickson, “The ‘Autocephalous Church’,”[7] I would like to consider the politically charged and often destructive debate over the canonicity of certain independent or autocephalous Churches, and a possible solution to the problem – or at least to articulate a theologically sound response to the wrong-headed thinking of so many of the protagonists. As Erickson points out, “[i]n all this controversy, one should also note the lack of correspondence between spiritual content and canonical forms … Authentic church life may be present yet still ignored or mislabeled. Conversely, authentic spiritual life may be absent yet canonical recognition be extended.”[8]


It seems, to the present writer’s experience, that the latter is the case more often than not. While I am slow to pass judgment, my contact with Orthodox Christians of various jurisdictions is such that the majority of those with whom I’ve held discussions are obsessed – in my opinion – with issues of canonicity and the status of certain jurisdictions, with the legality of marriages, when and how to fast, etc. In other words, with external trappings and not with authentic spiritual content. Further, my contact with certain Protestant and Evangelical Christians has shown me that the opinion often held about Orthodoxy, among such groups, is that we are all form and no substance. Granted, this is simply my own experience, but I daresay my experience is not unique.


That said, I do not wish to engage in a sociological analysis of Orthodox Church politics and clergy attitudes. Rather, I’d like to simply engage in a very basic theological reflection on true ekklкsia – or what constitutes an authentic Orthodox Church – from a spiritual perspective.


As we know, the meaning of the Greek term ekklкsia is best expressed by the phrase “the calling out that gathers together.” The “calling out,” of course, proceeds from God, and requires a hearkening on our part, a reponse and a coming-together. The foundation of a Church is, fundamentally, a response to God. Now just as the love between a man and a woman is the true origin of marriage, and not some external decree, so is the response to God the origin of a Church – not some ecclesiatic hierarchical pronouncement or “recognition.”


Further, just as it is impossible, in the absence of any overt signs (such as abuse), to judge the authenticity of a marriage, so is it equally impossible to judge the authenticity of a Church on anything but extremely visible evidence of corruption or immorality. A Canon is a “rule” or “measure” meant to aid the Christian or, in certain circumstances, to correct his or her un-Christian behavior. As Erickson has explained, Canon Law is concerned with individual behavior, and whether or not such behavior is in accordance with authentic Christian life.[9] For this reason, I would argue, Canon Law does not and should not extend to the founding of Churches. Rather, Canon Law should apply to the members of a given Church calling itself Orthodox, but should not be used to validate or invalidate the existence of that Church. Of course, if said Church is visibly corrupt, then it would be right and proper for authentic Churches to break communion with said Church. However, spiritual judgment must never be passed upon members of a Church – understood as collective body – in the absence of any visible inauthenticity or unspiritual behavior.


The whole issue of autocephaly and canonicity, as commonly approached, is rendered superfluous in light of what I believe is the proper theological solution to the “problem.” This solution involves a simple recognition of the political and geographical necessity of founding Churches that are independent and self-governing. There is no need to go into the reasons behind these politico-geographical exigencies, for often a wide variety of factors are involved. My advocation of the founding of independent Orthodox Churches, outside the jurisdiction of any patriarchy, may seem shocking and quite radical. So be it. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6 KJV). When the spirit calls us out to gather together as a Church, there is no need to win the approval of some distant patriarch sharing an entirely different culture and set of social values. This is especially the case in the United States, where, as Erickson observes, a vigorous Orthodox religious movement is flourishing, yet it is grudgingly tolerated or even actively opposed by foreign patriarchs.[10]


The main problem here, as I see it, is the desire for theocracy – or, at least, the co-operative integration of Church and State. This does not only run counter to Western democratic ideals, but also runs the risk of unethically obtruding upon the existence of those who, for whatever reasons, have chosen not to embrace Christianity. Such individuals still deserve respect and freedom, even if their choices and lifestyles are odious to us Christians.


Stanley Harakas – a theologian whose ideas I hold in very low essteem, yet whom I respect as a person – has argued for precisely such a union or co-operation of ecclesial and secular authorities.


As a general principle, the Orthodox Church has held a position on the ideal of Church and State relations which may be called “the principle of synergy.” It is to be distinguished from a sharp division of Church and State on the one hand, and a total fusion of Church and State, on the other hand. It recognizes and espouses a clear demarcation between Church and State, while calling for a cooperative relationship between the two.[11]


While, in this passage, Harakas is not explicity espousing a theocracy, he does so clearly, yet subtly, in an earlier passage in the same essay.

Decisions of the Supreme Court and State legislatures by which abortion, with or without restrictions, is allowed should be viewed by practicing Christians as an affront to their beliefs in the sanctity of life.[12]


This statement denies that the views and beliefs of others are worthy of our respect and consideration. He is plainly stating his desire for a civil government that abides by the wishes of the Church – in other words, a theocracy. How does this attitude, in its practical effect, differ from that of the repressive mullahs in Iran, for example, or the Taliban? It is virtually identical, and should be shunned.


As Christians, we must respect the fact that not all of our fellow human beings are inclined toward the Christian life. The challenge, for us, is to respect and even love those who have different spiritual and social ideals. For it is only through love that God’s grace abounds. The first step in this liberal endeavor is to avoid using secular politics as a means of achieving ecclesiastical ends. We must realize that when we go to the voting booth, we are engaging in a decisive act potentially affecting our entire nation – a nation of persons with widely divergent religious faiths, not to mention atheists, all of whom deserve respect and freedom.


This is, admittedly, a hard sell for zealous, conservative Orthodox Christians, who still dream of the Byzantine or Augustinian ideal of an imperial “city of God.” I would advise such dreamers to wake up and leave their backyards. Our world is pluralistic, combining a wide variety of ideals and forms of expression into a very loose “culture” that is as malleable as it is stratified. Such ideals and expressions are valid for us Orthodox, for they challenge and inspire us, and demand authentic responses – not wooden applications of Canon Law.


Further, within the context of the Orthodox Church, autocephalous Churches that are responding to a unique political or sociological situation should be encouraged in a spirit of brotherly affection, not arbitrarily condemned or recognized based on unthinking legalities that bear no relation to the spirit. Since we must recognize that an authentic Church is founded in the spirit, such a Church must be approached in the spirit. As I’ve indicated, I think the only reason for resisting such an attitude toward autocephalic Churches is a desire for theocracy. For an autocephalic Church is often the product of some manner of political dislocation or separation from its home jurisdiction. Other times, an autocephalic Church is formed because the home jurisdiction has become corrupt or oppressive. This is why autocephalic Churches should not be looked at askance; rather, an effort should be made to discern the reason for their existence. For just as a man will be judged by the fruit that he bears, so too should we judge a Church by its spiritual orientation and its devotion to the community.



In closing, I would like to add that nowhere should the venerable concept ofoikonomia be more vigorously applied than in socio-political situations involving the founding of Churches. For in our present day, the globe is a divided and dangerous place. Countries sharing, for the most part, a common culture, are divided and bickering, while countries of vastly differing cultures are either mutually hostile or openly at war. The cultural artifacts of once-glorious nations and empires are being destroyed in the conflict, while the heirs to those bygone realms have lapsed into unthinking, fanatical devotion to an inhumane religion – or else into unthinking, fanatical devotion to a murderous, inhuman dictator. In either case, the result is the same.


There is division in our own country as well – and much contradiction. For example, our president, a deeply Christian man, nevertheless supports the death penalty, and policies that threaten our environment. And while religious life in our country is more vigorous than the present writer has witnessed in his relatively short living memory, there is also much inter-denominational hostility – a lamentable fact, to be sure.


Since such is the case, is it not all the more exigent that the Orthodox Church overcome its own divisions, so as to become an example for all? Instead of urging Orthodox Christians to get involved in politics in order to establish a theocracy – (the objectionable program of S. Harakas) – we should be urging each other to get involved for the purpose of instilling values that are universal, i.e., not reducible to either a secular or ecclesiastic ethic, but endemic to both! In this endeavor philosophy, the ‘handmaiden of theology,’ is most useful. For philosophy allows the man of faith to understand the ontological implications of his decision to believe, and makes clear to him his ethical obligations to the world; and it forces the atheist to come to terms with the emptiness of his position, with it’s utter ethical bankruptcy – and while philosophy may not change the atheist’s mind, it will at least convince him of his indebtedness to religion, for all the rights and privileges he holds most dear derive therefrom.


In closing, I would like to offer a quote from the great Russian theologian and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev that will help sum up my position.


[The] social aspect of religion distorts the spirit, subordinates the infinite to the finite, makes the relative absolute, and leads away from the sources of revelation, from living spiritual experience. … Personality must be God-human, whereas society must be human.[13]


As Berdyaev explains earlier in the text, personality is never collective, but always unique to the private individual. In other words, the Church, understood as a collective body, could never possess personality.[14] Yet the Church is the mediator between persons and their communion with one another.

Understood as an organizing principle, the gathering of those who have been called, the Church as an institution must strive to preserve uniqueness in all its forms, whether the uniqueness of a loving bond between a man and a woman in marriage (authentically understood), or the response of a newly formed Church to the call of God.


So the institutional, worldly Church will always be human, therefore it must remain ever open to the God-humanity of unique and unrepeatable persons.



All Scriptural references are from e-Sword Bible Software version 7.0.5 © 2000-2003 Rick Meyers.


Berdyaev, Nicolas, “Personality,” from Slavery and Freedom (Scribner’s 1944), tr. in W. Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians (New York: Doubleday 1958).


Erickson, John H., The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1991).


Harakas, Stanley, “The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues”:


Thayer, Joseph H., Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament(Hendrickson 1997).


End Notes


[1] See entries in Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament(Hendrickson 1997).

[2] In Migne, Patrologia Graeca 51, col. 213, tr. in John H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1991), p. 41.

[3] J. H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past, pp. 46-47.

[4] Ibid, p. 48.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In Mt 5:32, Christ goes on to state that fornication or adultery is the only acceptable grounds for terminating a marriage. This implies that He understood erotic love in a transcendent manner, and as a gauge of a couple’s devotion, not as a mere buffer against unchaste behavior, as Paul would later claim. Though in fairness to Paul, authentic marriage makes unchaste behavior unthinkable.

[7] J.H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past, pp. 91-113.

[8] Ibid., p. 111.

[9] J.H. Erickson, “The Orthodox Canonical Tradition,” in The Challenge of Our Past, pp. 9-21.

[10] Ibid., pp. 110-111.

[11] Stanley Harakas, “The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues”: What I find most objectionable is his title, suggesting that he is speaking for the entire Orthodox Church … hardly.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nicolas Berdyaev, “Personality,” from Slavery and Freedom(Scribner’s 1944), tr. in W. Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians (New York: Doubleday 1958), p. 129.

[14] Ibid., pp. 118-119. 


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