The Ecumenical Patriarchate recently published its document “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church,” a kind of omnibus of positions on the Church’s position toward the world. It is published with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his holy synod.
It is, in a very real sense, the EP’s answer to the Moscow Patriarchate’s “The Basis of the Social Concept” (published twenty years ago), which the head of the EP project referred to as “admirable though rudimentary.” Rather than being an improvement on the MP document, the EP document actually represents a significant departure or hedging on numerous Orthodox Christian teachings, which is unsurprising, considering the list of contributors, all of whom belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and many of whom are well-known to support (whether by teaching or by omission) revision of traditional Church teaching.
We will not give a line-by-line review here, but we will touch on some of the most problematic parts of this document and hope that its drafters will receive this critique and revise their contributions accordingly. That is not to say that these are the only problems with it, however.
There is actually also much to agree with here, but given this blog’s focus, we will aim mainly at the heterodoxy among the orthodoxy.
(NB: This review represents the contributions of multiple O&H blog authors and collaborators working together.)
Marriage and Sexuality
This is probably the subject most lacking in the document, and there is none of the Biblical sense that sexual immorality is bound up in idolatry and results in being vomited out of the land. It also seems (§19) to accept “sexual orientation” simply as a given with no sense that one might be re-oriented, which is what repentance actually is. That is not to say that one can simply revise one’s desires by an act of the will, but ascetical struggle against sinful desires is the essence of sexual morality. None of this Biblical, patristic teaching is present in the document.
Sex outside marriage: In §18 and §19 of the document, we get the teaching on sexuality. It prescribes “lives of sexual continence, both inside and outside of marriage,” which sounds good if one defines continence in those contexts traditionally — no sex at all outside of marriage and faithfulness to one’s spouse within marriage. But actually the document does not define continence anywhere, and §20-24 treat sexuality within marriage (therefore being what is included in “continence”) without even mentioning St. Paul’s teaching on abstinence for the sake of prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). One is therefore left with no affirmation that abstaining from sex either inside or outside of marriage is called for but only that there be “continence.” Is sex outside marriage okay? One could read this either way, but based purely on internal definitions, the more obvious conclusion is that it is indeed okay within limits.
Marriage: Further, while references to marriage are made being a conjugal union of a husband and wife, there is no clear statement that marriage is only possible between single husband and single wife, one man and one woman. In our current day, such an omission is unthinkable if one is to retain the teaching of the Church on this subject. Would the authors sign a document saying “Marriage is permissible only between one man and one woman”? At best, we’re left not knowing. They certainly did not say so here, and if there is anywhere that this should be said, it’s in a document like this.
Clergy remarriage: §22 mentions that the remarriage of divorced clergy is put forth as possible, although described as “exceptions to the canons regarding the remarriage of divorced clergy.” This is almost unthinkable for most of the Orthodox Church, even if a few exceptions have indeed been made here and there. But putting this directly into such a document essentially codifies the exceptions now as the rule. If you want to be remarried as a divorced clergyman, simply apply to the proper office, and we’ll get back to you.
Contraception: It is also notable that contraception (§24) is explicitly condoned within certain limits. While there are certainly many Orthodox teachers today who would agree with that, to state that the Church “has no dogmatic objection” to non-abortive contraceptives is a controversial and still-debated claim. By contrast, the MP document (XII.3) does not outright either condone or ban contraceptives, but is actually more complex here, mentioning that not all contraceptives are abortive and that the best form of “birth control” is abstinence within marriage, and 1 Cor. 7:5 is directly quoted.
Pornography: Despite being one of the most pressing sexual sins of our time, it is mentioned only in passing and not outright referred to as sin, but only as one of “any number of obsessions and addictive fixations” (§70). This may be where the lack of pastoral formation on this document is most obvious.
While the document laudably condemns violence, in one of its many overstatements, it claims: “In the end, we may justly say that violence is sin par excellence. It is the perfect contradiction of our created nature and our supernatural vocation to seek union in love with God and our neighbor” (§43). But this is simply not true. If there is any sin which the Scriptures condemn as the sin above all others, it is idolatry. Indeed, nearly every statement from God that begins stating His commandments begins with a statement of Who He is and that He expects Israel not to go after other gods. And bound up in idolatry (as we mentioned before) is sexual immorality.
There is at least some remnant of this sensibility in this statement from the document: “No offense against God is worse than is the sexual abuse of children, and none more intolerable to the conscience of the Church” (§16). Yet this actually contradicts the statement on violence. How can violence be the “sin par excellence” if pedophilia is the worst possible offense against God and the most intolerable to the Church’s conscience? Does this mean that what is most offensive to God is not the sin par excellence? Maybe the writers just needed a better proofreader.
The proofreader might have also caught this statement: “No moral injunction constitutes a more constant theme in scripture, from the earliest days of the Law and the Prophets to the age of the Apostles, than hospitality and protection for strangers in need” (§66). So now we have the hospitality to strangers as the most constant moral theme of Scripture, which apparently is not the worst offense against God or the sin par excellence.
Another overstatement about violence: “The Orthodox Church rejects capital punishment, and does so out of faithfulness to the Gospel and to the example of the Apostolic Church” (§48). This is yet another controversial and quite debatable statement. The whole paragraph gives the authors’ rationale, but, like contraception, a lot of the history and even current practice in the Church say otherwise.
One might of course take a stand against capital punishment, but one cannot say that “The Orthodox Church rejects” it. That’s simply not true. This is another place where the “rudimentary” MP document (IX.3) takes a more sophisticated and nuanced view, saying both that the New Testament does not abolish the capital punishment established in the Old Testament and also that the Church has often interceded with civil authorities to show mercy.
Asceticism is mentioned in a number of places in the document, and it’s worth seeing what the context of all of them is:
In §5, asceticism is about being unselfish in caring for creation. In §15, it is the same thing. In §20, it is about self-sacrifice in marriage. In §23, it is about self-sacrifice in parenting. In §31, it is about bearing up under illness. §74 is about creation care again. In §78 it’s the same again. In §79 it is used as a synonym for “joyful mourning.”
What is missing here? Asceticism, in the teaching of the Church, is about re-orienting the will toward God, about putting to death the sinful desires of the flesh. It is fundamentally a God-ward action. That orientation toward God is missing here, and the sense that the purpose of asceticism is holiness is also absent. One gets the idea that asceticism just means “don’t be selfish” and possibly also “be brave during crisis.” It does include those things, of course, but that is not its fundamental meaning.
Things to Condemn
There is a severe imbalance throughout this document, mostly a failure of nerve to deal with false teachings that are being promulgated within the Church (some, sadly, by this document’s authors!). But it would be one thing if strong language were never used in the document at all, and we could simply write that off as its style. But the authors have no problem withstanding certain people to their faces.
For instance, the strongest language in the document is used against phyletism/nationalism/racism: “And it must be incumbent on every Orthodox community, when it discovers such persons in its midst and cannot move them to renounce the evils they promote, to expose, denounce, and expel them. Any ecclesial community that fails in this has betrayed Christ” (§11). But where is the call to expose, denounce, and expel those who teach that sexual immorality is permissible, that such are traitors to Christ?
“The Orthodox Church condemns their views without qualification, and calls them to a complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with the body of Christ” (ibid.). Where is the condemnation and call to complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with those who teach sexual immorality? You can find those calls in the Bible, but not here. It might be uncomfortable to the modern sensibility, but God’s abhorrence for those sins is pervasive in the Bible. That does not mean that racism, etc., are not sinful, but are they really at the very top of the sinful heap? There is no condemnation in this document for the things condemned the most in the Bible.
And what are the other things that this document explicitly “condemns”? In §6, it’s “the luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute.” In §9, it’s “every kind of institutional corruption and totalitarianism.” In §20, it’s hostility to marriage. In §32, it’s again about exploiting the weak and poor. In §34, it’s current social conditions. In §38, it’s “moral derelictions in the allocation of civic wealth.” In §39, it’s usury. In §45, it’s violence. In §82, it’s “cruelty and injustice, the economic and political structures that abet and preserve poverty and inequality, the ideological forces that encourage hatred and bigotry.”
While those things are certainly worthy of condemnation from a Christian point of view, what is most notable is what’s missing. There is no condemnation of heresy, of schism, of teaching that sin is not sin, of sexual immorality, etc., things which are pernicious and pervasive in our time. The strong language is put in service of a single view of social justice but not in service of many of the things the Scripture tells us that God Himself condemns.
There is no section on evangelism. The closest one gets is Part VI (paragraphs §50-60), which deals with the Church and other religions. Nowhere in those eleven paragraphs is there a call to preach the gospel to members of other religions or to the non-religious. This is a shocking omission.
If you search on the words gospel or mission, you will find them used to refer to (a laudable) concern for the poor and oppressed. If you search on the word evangelism (or evangelize or evangelical), you will simply not find it.
There is zero commitment or even suggestion here to bring the gospel to all nations, to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you search for the word apostolic, you’ll find it used only to refer to a time period or to episcopal authority. Nowhere is the sense of being “sent out” to preach the good news intended.
If you read the whole of Part VI (especially §55-60), you will see that it begins with a clear statement of the Orthodox Church being uniquely the Church. This is good. If you continue to read it, however, you will see that it is almost a point-for-point rehashing of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.
§56 on Islam is especially concerning, even going so far as adopting the “peoples of the book” language that Islam itself uses. There are multiple statements about finding positive aspects in Islam to affirm, yet the only negative statement in it is disagreeing with Islam’s views of the Trinity and Incarnation. Is there nothing else we might disagree on with Islam? The paragraph is of course not meant to be a full apologetic, but there is plenty to condemn about Islam’s teachings and jurisprudence. Given the document’s lack of reticence in condemning all kinds of other things, would Islam’s treatment of women, minors, non-Muslims, etc., not warrant even a mention?
Missing in Action
Besides having no missionary outlook, the authors don’t seem too interested in the Bible. While Scripture is mentioned a number of times, it is of course (as we’ve mentioned above) very out of balance.
They don’t like the word Biblical, though, using it just once in §67 to refer to the command to take care of strangers. Scriptural also gets used just once (§34), referring to wealth inequity. Bible is never used, and Scripture gets used just nine times.
Word counts aren’t everything, of course, but out of 32k+ words, you’d think that the core of Orthodox tradition for doctrine and praxis would get featured just a bit more. The Bible is on the center of our church altars, but not in this document. It is always in the mouths of the Church Fathers as the basis for their theology, but here it is cited sparingly mainly as proof-texts.
“For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church” is a flawed document with a number of good parts. It’s still worth reading.
The irony of its chief drafter referring to the MP document of twenty years ago as “rudimentary,” however, is that this document is in fact much less thorough (and not only because it’s rather shorter — just 75% of its length while being far more verbose), lacking in multiple categories and major pastoral concerns. That is not to say that the MP document is the last word on these subjects, but the comparison was invited by the EP group. And while the MP document describes itself as explicitly for the Russian Orthodox Church, the EP one is claiming to speak for the whole Orthodox Church.
Far from speaking for the whole Orthodox Church, this limited, provincial document instead positions the Ecumenical Patriarchate as potentially drifting apart from the Church’s teaching on a number of subjects. It is also notable that of all those responsible for creating this document, only one of them has ever been responsible for pastoring a parish, which may be part of what imparts such tone-deafness to it and its many blind spots. There are also no bishops and no monastics involved. In short, the people who are actually responsible for the care of souls in the Church were, it seems, not invited.
We therefore cannot recommend that this document be used for catechism nor as the basis for any authoritative theological statements, and indeed, we recommend that this document not be given to catechumens, parishioners or seminarians for their instruction. It should be read by those who can read theological documents with a critical eye, and further critique needs to be offered.
We commend these comments to the authors and hope that they will bring in pastors, bishops, monastics and Biblical scholars to correct and probably rewrite most of it.