The Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues

JULY 1, 2011


by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas (from the GOARCH site)

The Formulation of the Church’s Stand

nicaeaThroughout its history, the Orthodox Church has dealt with controversial issues by a process which addresses the “mind of the Church.” When an issue arises for which there is no clear-cut, widely and readily acknowledged tradition, and about which there is honest divergence of opinion as to what view genuinely expresses the teaching of the Church, a process begins which may eventually lead to the formulation of an official Church teaching. A classical example from the early period of the Church is the formulation of the Church doctrines about the person of Jesus Christ, which began with the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (325) and concluded with the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787).

Over this four hundred and sixty-three year period, the Church clarified its understanding and teaching of the revelation regarding Jesus Christ. At the center of this process stood the Ecumenical Councils, which constituted the final and most authoritative agent for the formulation of doctrine, pending the acceptance of their decrees by the entire Church. For the Orthodox Church, this meant that such issues could not, and should not, be solved by appeal to a single bishop or leader, no matter how honored and respected he might be. It meant, rather, that the Church set its mind to resolving the issue through a corporate approach which drew on the whole tradition of the records of God’s revelation.

In practice this meant reference to the Bible and to the living Tradition of the Church by persons seeking to comprehend how the tradition spoke to the new questions being raised. Questions were never raised just for intellectual curiosity nor for the sake of systematic organization. They nearly always were raised because in one way or another their outcome would bear on our salvation and the truths of the Faith. A response would be made whenever a new teaching seemed to be at variance with tradition in one way or another, and consequently not in harmony with the received tradition of revelation, even though the response might have to deal with yet undefined topics. Thus, the great Fathers of the Church, such as Athanasios, Basil, the Gregorys and Chrysostom, not only criticized the false teachings of heresiarchs such as Arius, but proposed formulations of the truth as well. These became the subject of study, debate, and finally, the decisions of Councils on every level – local, regional, provincial and ecumenical, all guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Present Stand of the Church

Many controversial issues presented to us during these days of rapid change have reached the earliest stages in the process of dealing with controversial issues. People are beginning the search for answers – either with respect to attacks on the faith and practices of the Orthodox Church, or to new and previously unimagined problems – that can be formulated so as to preserve our salvation in Christ and to reflect the truths of the Faith. Often, since new issues arising from the rapid development of technology affect not only individual church members, but society as a whole, the attempt to answer the question for and within the Church also provides a basis for addressing these same questions on the public scene.

In some cases the controversial issues can be addressed from long-standing doctrinal, ethical and canonical traditions. Where this is the case, there is little or no debate in the Church. One example is the Church’s position on the legalization of abortion on demand. Since the Church went through the same debate in the early fourth century, it is not difficult to determine “the mind of the Church” on this issue, and to apply it to the current discussion.

Complications from Technology

The process, however, is not so easy in reference to the many issues which deal with the concerns arising from the amazing development of medical technology. How, for example, would the tradition of revelation address the issue of artificial insemination? The first question it would ask is if there are any implications in it from the perspective of salvation and the truths of Faith. In this case, since it clearly impinges on marriage, family, the relation between spouses, and the lives of human beings, there is an obvious connection. In order to understand that connection, it is necessary to examine the whole tradition of revelation in the sources of the Church’s teaching in order to clarify the impact of the new technologies. Then, solutions seeking to embody that tradition are offered to the “mind of the Church.”

If the membership of the Church finds them in harmony with the tradition, and if they are not widely challenged, the formulation may remain at that level, and become part of the teaching ministry of the Church. If it is challenged and debated, it may become the subject of conciliar decision. Only very few topics would ever reach the level of consideration by a regional or pan-Orthodox council.

The Content and the Stand of this Article

What follows in this section represents this process in dealing with controversial issues. It seeks to express “the mind of the Church” on these issues, either by defending against attacks on the Orthodox Church’s teachings and practice, or by providing ethical guidance concerning issues that arise from our highly technological age. Very few claims to uncontroverted teaching can be made. Most positions of the discussion should be understood as the current consensus, sincerely and widely held, and representing the mind of the Orthodox Church on issues discussed. At this early stage, this is the most that can be presented. In practice, it serves today as the teaching of the Orthodox Church on these controversial issues:

1. Worship

The most characteristic aspect of Orthodox Christianity is its worship. Though rich in tradition of doctrine, morality, canon law, social concern, personal faith, and monasticism, to name only a few of its objects, the core of Orthodox Christian life is to be found in its worship. Consequently, Orthodox Christianity has been perceived by some to emphasize worship so much that the other aspects of church life appear to be submerged and even lost.

Orthodox leaders would strongly deny the characterization that the Orthodox Church is only a Church of worship, while continuing to accept and justify the centrality of worship in the life of the Church. Worship is central to the life of the Church because it is the place where the most important relationship for human life occurs: the relationship with God.

Worship includes the chief means by which God has revealed Himself to humanity: Scripture and the living Tradition of the Faith. No worship service in the Orthodox Church is without the use of the Bible. Furthermore, worship brings all of life into the life of the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox Church orders its worship so that time is sanctified, as are all aspects of human life. For example, when Orthodox Christians open a new business, it is customary for the priest to bless it with sanctified water; when a newborn baby reaches its fortieth day, he or she is brought to the Church by the parents for the “churching.”

Worship also makes alive and present for the believer all of the mighty acts of salvation history. Most feasts are presented in worship services as occurring now, “today.” The chief example of this is Holy Week, which serves to help the faithful relive the events of Christ’s death and resurrection.

More important, however, is the sacramental aspect of worship, through which the saving work of Jesus Christ is mediated by the Church to each person. Baptism introduces the believer into the life of the Kingdom. Holy anointing or Chrismation grants the gift of the Holy Spirit for growth in the image and likeness of God. The Eucharist realizes the Kingdom of God everywhere it is celebrated, and unites the communicant with the very body and blood of the Lord. The sacrament of Penance serves to grant and assure the penitent Christian of God’s forgiveness. Marriage unites a man and a woman, incorporating the natural union into the life of the Kingdom, “in the Lord.” Ordination sets aside a small number of the believers for special service to the altar. Unction mediates healing and forgiving grace to believers. It is around these worship experiences that the Orthodox Christian lives his or her Christian life. Hence worship cannot be other than central to the life of the Church.

2. Marriage, Divorce, and Mixed Marriages

Marriage is one of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians who marry must marry in the Church in order to be in sacramental communion with the Church. According to the Church canons, an Orthodox who marries outside the Church may not receive Holy Communion and may not serve as a sponsor, i.e. a Godparent at a Baptism, or as a sponsor at a Wedding. Certain marriages are prohibited by canon law, such as a marriage between first and second cousins, or between a Godparent and a Godchild. The first marriage of a man and a woman is honored by the Church with a richly symbolic service that eloquently speaks to everyone regarding the married state. The form of the service calls upon God to unite the couple through the prayer of the priest or bishop officiating.

The church will permit up to, but not more than, three marriages for any Orthodox Christian. If both partners are entering a second or third marriage, another form of the marriage ceremony is conducted, much more subdued and penitential in character. Marriages end either through the death of one of the partners or through ecclesiastical recognition of divorce. The Church grants “ecclesiastical divorces” on the basis of the exception given by Christ to his general prohibition of the practice. The Church has frequently deplored the rise of divorce and generally sees divorce as a tragic failure. Yet, the Orthodox Church also recognizes that sometimes the spiritual well-being of Christians caught in a broken and essentially nonexistent marriage justifies a divorce, with the right of one or both of the partners to remarry. Each parish priest is required to do all he can to help couples resolve their differences. If they cannot, and they obtain a civil divorce, they may apply for an ecclesiastical divorce in some jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church. In others, the judgment is left to the parish priest when and if a civilly divorced person seeks to remarry.

Those Orthodox jurisdictions which issue ecclesiastical divorces require a thorough evaluation of the situation, and the appearance of the civilly divorced couple before a local ecclesiastical court, where another investigation is made. Only after an ecclesiastical divorce is issued by the presiding bishop can they apply for an ecclesiastical license to remarry.

Though the Church would prefer that all Orthodox Christians would marry Orthodox Christians, it does not insist on it in practice. Out of its concern for the spiritual welfare of members who wish to marry a non-Orthodox Christian, the Church will conduct a “mixed marriage.” For this purpose, a “non-Orthodox Christian” is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, or one of the many Protestant Churches which believe in and baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity. This means that such mixed marriages may be performed in the Orthodox Church. However, the Orthodox Church does not perform marriages between Orthodox Christians and persons belonging to other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any sectarian and cult group, such as Christian Science, Mormonism, or the followers of Rev. Moon.

3. Questions on Sexual Issues

The teaching of the Orthodox Church on sexual questions is strongly determined by the Church’s attitude toward marriage and the family. A representative Orthodox statement which shows the centrality and importance of the family in Orthodox thinking is found in an encyclical letter by former Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, issued on the occasion of National Family Week in 1972. He stated:

“Home and family life is the bedrock of our Greek Orthodox life-style. The spirit that binds us together as a people finds its deepest roots in the home where the tenderest values of human existence, love, compassion, forbearance and mutual helpfulness thrive in abundance.”

Over the centuries and throughout most cultures and civilizations the family has been proven to be the unifying unit of society. Today we find the family under attack both from within and from without. Outside forces would have us believe that the family as we have come to know and cherish it is no longer necessary. From within, the erosion of spiritual values and emphasis upon materialism has created for many families confusion and uncertainty where commitment and dedication once reigned. Marriage is holy. The home is sacred. Birth is a miracle. In these we find the very meaning of life itself.

One aspect of the “commitment and dedication” of the holy state of marriage and family is cast in terms of sexual behavior. Most moral questions relating to sex are generally best understood in the light of this high regard for marriage and the family. Some of the questions on sexual issues addressed by the Orthodox Church are the following:

a. The Orthodox Church remains faithful to the biblical and traditional norms regarding premarital sexual relations between men and women. The only appropriate and morally fitting place for the exercise of sexual relations, according to the teachings of the Church, is marriage. The moral teaching of the Church on this matter has been unchanging since its foundation. In sum, the sanctity of marriage is the cornerstone of sexual morality. The whole range of sexual activity outside marriage – fornication, adultery and homosexuality – are thus seen as not fitting and appropriate to the Christian way of life. Like the teaching on fornication, the teachings of the Church on these and similar issues have remained constant. Expressed in Scripture, the continuing Tradition of the Church, the writings of the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils and the canons, these views have been restated by theologians, hierarchs and local Orthodox churches in our own day. For example, the Decalogue prohibits adultery. In the tradition of the Church, the second-century Epistle of Barnabas commands “Thou shalt not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such.” The fourth-century Church Father St. Basil wrote against the practice (Canons 35 and 77); and the Quinisext Council (A.D. 691) repeated the same condemnation in its eighty-seventh canon. All major Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have had occasion to repeat the condemnation of adultery.

b. Generally statedfornication, adultery, abortion, homosexuality and any form of abusive sexual behavior are considered immoral and inappropriate forms of behavior in and of themselves, and also because they attack the institution of marriage and the family. Two representative statements, one on abortion and another on homosexuality, from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America follow. They are from the Twenty-Third Clergy-Laity Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976.

The Orthodox Church has a definite, formal and intended attitude toward abortion. It condemns all procedures purporting to abort the embryo or fetus, whether by surgical or chemical means. The Orthodox Church brands abortion as murder; that is, as a premeditated termination of the life of a human being. The only time the Orthodox Church will reluctantly acquiesce to abortion is when the preponderance of medical opinion determines that unless the embryo or fetus is aborted, the mother will die. 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.

The position of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality has been expressed by synodicals, canons and patristic pronouncements beginning with the very first centuries of Orthodox ecclesiastical life. Thus, the Orthodox Church condemns unreservedly all expressions of personal sexual experience which prove contrary to the definite and unalterable function ascribed to sex by God’s ordinance and expressed in man’s experience as a law of nature. The Orthodox Church believes that homosexuality should be treated by religion as a sinful failure. In both cases, correction is called for. Homosexuals should be accorded the confidential medical and psychiatric facilities by which they can be helped to restore themselves to a self-respecting sexual identity that belongs to them by God’s ordinance. In full confidentiality the Orthodox Church cares and provides pastorally for homosexuals in the belief that no sinner who has failed himself and God should be allowed to deteriorate morally and spiritually. Psychiatric reconciliation is bound to prove short-lived.

c. The possible exception to the above affirmation of continuity of teaching is the view of the Orthodox Church on the issue of contraception. Because of the lack of a full understanding of the implications of the biology of reproduction, earlier writers tended to identify abortion with contraception. However, of late a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and thinkers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health.

4. Euthanasia

The Church accompanies its faithful from even before birth, through all the steps of life to death and beyond, with its prayers, rites, sacraments, preaching, teaching, and its love, faith and hope. All of life, and even death itself, are drawn into the realm of the life of the Church.

Death is seen as evil in itself, and symbolic of all those forces which oppose God-given life and its fulfillment. Salvation and redemption are normally understood in Eastern Christianity in terms of sharing in Jesus Christ’s victory over death, sin and evil through His crucifixion and His resurrection. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia.

Euthanasia is understood to be the view or practice which holds that a person has the right, and even the moral obligation, to end his or her life when it is considered to be – for whatever subjectively accepted reason “not worth living.” Euthanasia advocates nearly always include in this assertion the right and duty of others, including medical personnel, to assist the person in fulfilling this purpose. Needless to say, the Orthodox Church rejects such a view, seeing such behavior as a form of suicide on the part of the individual, and a form of murder on a part of others who assist in this practice, both of which are seen as sins.

Thus the Orthodox Church, in the words of 1976 Christmas encyclical of former Archbishop Iakovos, considers “euthanasia and abortion, along with homosexuality … a … moral alienation.” Modern medical practice, however, has affected another part of the Church’s perspective. The Church does not expect that excessive and heroic means must be used at all costs to prolong dying, as has now become possible through technical medical advances. As current Orthodox theology expresses it:

“The Church distinguishes between euthanasia and the withholding of extraordinary means to prolong life. It affirms the sanctity of human life and man’s God-given responsibility to preserve life. But it rejects an attitude which disregards the inevitability of physical death.”

This means that the Church may even pray that terminally ill persons die, without insisting that they be subjected to unnecessary and extraordinary medical efforts. At the same time, the Church rejects as morally wrong any willed action on the part of an individual to cause his or her own death or the death of another, when it otherwise would not occur.

5. The Church and Politics

Though there are many names by which the Orthodox Church is known, perhaps the most hallowed name is that which is used to designate the Church in the Nicene Creed – “… One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Orthodox hold that this phrase precisely describes the Orthodox Church. What each of these words means in its fullness is the subject of many deep and thoughtful theological articles and books.

The word “catholic” in this name of the Church has provoked many such efforts at understanding. It can and does mean the universal perspective and outreach of the Church, which transcends national, racial and cultural boundaries. It can and does imply, as well, the outlook of the Church toward the created world and toward human affairs, which refuses to accept a compartmentalized self-understanding that restricts the interests and concerns of the Church to a narrowly defined “religious sphere.”

The Orthodox Church, throughout its history, has both used and encouraged the arts, culture and education, and has addressed the whole range of social and public phenomena. Among these have been its relationship with government in general, and the exercise of civil power in concrete circumstances, i.e., politics. 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.

It is readily admitted that even when conditions for the implementation of such an ideal were most favorable, the ideal was not always fulfilled and realized. However, the historical example for the principle of synergy in Church and State relationships is the model of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted over a thousand yeas (324 -1453). Recent scholarship has rejected the older viewpoint that in Byzantium the Church was subservient to the State, and now recognizes that the view of the Byzantine Church on this question was misunderstood by earlier researchers. In the practical area of political life, it is nearly always impossible fully to realize the principle of synergy, but the Church has supported a range of attitudes which allow it to become involved in the political process on the one hand, while retaining its clear distinction from, and transcendence to it, on the other.

Briefly stated, these are some of the guidelines which direct the Orthodox atti