Different Groups, Different Rules?

My post at Acton generated an insightful response from a reader (go here to read it). The commentator raised a number of very good points, all of which I wish I had made! Let me focus here on one point specifically, the difference between family/tribal rules and national rules.

Strictly speaking oikonomia is less a principle of jurisprudence and more a reflection of the Church’s prophetic character. Further, and again unlike American law, in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, an act of economia doesn’t set a precedent. Instead economia makes room for the movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Since at least the early days of the Church at Corinth’s we’ve seen that this freedom can be abused. We are wrong when we seek to exercise economia in a manner that is contrary to the dogmatic tradition and/or the canons themselves. Such activity is an abuse of our freedom in Christ.  So economia is not freedom to do whatever one wants. Rather it is the fruit of the bishop’s disciplined (i.e., personal and ascetical) freedom exercised within the context of those living relationships in Christ which constitute the Church.

Seen in this light economia is an example of familial law presupposing as it does a real and substantive intimacy between free persons. It is not a matter of applying general and abstract legal principles but of a bishop’s discernment of the will of God for a particular person or group. We can even call the whole of the bishop’s stewardship of the local Church an act of economia, of a wise stewardship of the myriad gifts God has given the diocese. Practically speaking, economia is only responsibly exercised within the context of a personal relationship and the formal sacramental, dogmatic and canonical limits of the Church.  Anthropologically what economia reflects and protects is not absolute but situated human freedom.

Viewed through the lens of sociology, the Orthodox Church is a community—a highly cohesive social group with clearly defined boundaries that situate it relative to other social groups. These boundaries serve both to distinguish and separate the Church from what is not the Church. At the same time these boundaries highlighting the points of contact between the Church and those outside the Church. Within the Church, there are concrete behavioral expectations for members. While sociology doesn’t exhaustively describe the nature of the Church as divine AND human community, we can nevertheless say that what is sociologically true for the Church is sociologically true for every community.

The second group which concerns us, the nation (for example, the United States), is both very broad and (relative to the Church) very narrow in those it can embrace. It is very narrow because, in Christ, the Church embraces the whole human family even if the whole human family doesn’t embrace the Church. The nation is very broad in that it (in principle at least) it is able to embrace a wide range of social groups, some of which are mutually antagonistic. For this latter reason compared with a community such as the Orthodox Church, as a nation the United States has relatively porous social boundaries and can have concrete behavior expectations for its members. Finally, while both the Orthodox Church and the United States are based on a creed the American creed is simply a broad anthropological statement (“All men are created equal,” etc.) while the Nicene Creed is very specific in the theological beliefs that it enumerates.

Rules that work within a community (like the Orthodox Church) aren’t appropriate for a nation. The Church can function as leavening agent (as “yeast in the dough,” see Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20–21) by how it shapes the characters of those who share membership in both the Church AND the State. Likewise the Church can provide the State with a critical perspective from which to examine the justice of its civil law (as “the light of the world,” or “the salt of the earth” see Matthew 5:13–16). But the Church’s tradition can have only an indirect influence on content and application of civil law. The only way (I think) you can do the kind of “scaling up” from Church to State is by sacrificing the uniqueness of both.

While canon law might offer a helpful perspective for secular law (and vice versa), a direct application of one to the other is to court confusing the rule of law (canonical or civil) with ideology. At its core this ideology seeks to impose an intimacy that does not, and cannot, exist on a national level. My fellow citizen is not (necessarily) my friend or a member of my Church. Applying rules from these intimate relationships to our relationship as fellow citizens is, well, frankly a sin against chastity. Likewise, in the Church our relationships are more intimate, our lives more emotionally and spiritually interdependent and so require a greater degree of delicacy and deference and formality than what is required of us in the Public Square as citizens.

None of this means that Orthodox Christians (or other religious believers) can’t argue in the Public Square for laws that reflect the tradition’s moral sensibilities. Law has a powerful pedagogical character—what is legal is seen as morally correct, what is illegal is seen as immorally wrong. Given this, it is not surprising that laws not only shape personal and natural character but also affect the broader social context of the Church’s ministry. For good and ill, civil law also affects the internal life of the Church. When abortion is legal, or the definition of marriage is seen as plastic, the Church has to expend resources countering the false moral and anthropological claims implicit in these laws and the social practices that they foster. We do this in fidelity to Christ but also for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This internal mission, however, doesn’t exhaust our obligations to Christ. We also have both an evangelical duty to preach the Gospel to all nations and to “seek the peace of the city … , and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (see Jer 29:7). It is for this reason that as Christians who are also citizens, we can—and should—argue for laws that are more in keeping with the will of God. Doing so will necessarily put us into conflict with others, even sometimes our fellow believers, but this is a discussion for another time.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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