Lord's Voice | Diakonia | Links | Baptism | Multimedia


The Social Character of Orthodoxy

Savvas Agourides, The Orthodox Ethos, ed. A. J. Philippou,
Oxford 1964, Holywell Press, σελ . 209-220

For the first three centuries of the Church's life, during which it was subject to persecution, the meaning of Christ's kingdom and the sacramental life of the Church were understood in relation to a consciousness of the transient nature of the present world and of the forms of society. Christian prophetism, conditioned by this sense of transience, was expressed in many demonstrations of love and neighbourliness to all men, but especially to those within the Christian community. After the recognition of Christianity by the Roman state as a legal religion, a sense of responsibility for the present world and for human society began to grow up in the Church. Standing in this new relationship to society, Christianity continues to live in expectation of Christ's kingdom, and to foretaste its riches in the worship and sacramental life of the Church, but as things are it must face up to society, not, of course, as a perfect and eternal institution, but equally as something less temporary than it had once considered it. This new attitude, whereby the Church works with patience for the transformation of society, is expressed in the theological and social work of the Fathers of the Church. Against this background, the great social problems of our age and the doubts and discussions among both heterodox and Orthodox about the social character of the Eastern Orthodox Church make the study of this theme timely and interesting.

Too many theologians in the West, and indeed some Orthodox theologians and intellectuals, assert that Orthodoxy has no social character - that it looks only to the salvation of the faithful as individuals, and is indifferent to the social conditions under which they live. According to this view, Orthodoxy is nothing more than a koinonta latreias, a society or communion of worship, with no other function. The Byzantine Liturgy is the only means by which Orthodoxy educates its flock, never having felt the need to adjust to new conditions, created by new needs.

Certain heterodox theologians like to associate Roman Catholicism with the apostle Peter, Protestantism with the apostle Paul, and Orthodoxy with the apostle and evangelist John. Roman Catholicism, they say, has a special flair for anything connected with ecclesiastical order and discipline, and attaches particular importance to the value of works for man's salvation. The legalistic spirit which characterizes Roman Catholicism is related both to the legalism of ancient Rome and to the original Judaeo -Christianity, which emphasized the importance of the works of the Law for salvation. Among other things, Protestantism's characteristic teaching of salvation through faith and divine grace, in opposition to the legalistic Judaistic views of Roman Catholicism on the attainment of salvation through works, gives it a special connexion with the apostle Paul. Finally, Orthodoxy is considered by these heterodox theologians as the incarnation of the mystical, static spirit, and of the dogmatic-liturgical character of the theology of the evangelist John, and as essentially a negation of the principles of prophetism .

Regardless of the correctness and accuracy of their observations, it is clear that Roman Catholicism is essentially characterized by a worldly dynamism, which expresses itself in the organizational nature of the Church, in the idea of the kingdom of God not as something coming in the future, but as something already present, in its emphasis on works, and in its ecclesiastical activity. The responsibilities of the western Church for the assimilation and civilizing of the many tribes and peoples which flooded Europe after the period of the great migrations, very soon produced this tendency towards a worldly dynamism, as well as the other features we have mentioned. After its struggle against the excesses of Papalism had abated, Protestantism, which like Roman Catholicism has it roots in medieval western Christianity, showed unlimited interest in the affairs of this world and, particularly from the eighteenth century on, played an important part in social reform. Of course, competition between these two great confessions of Christianity in the West was itself a factor in the expansion of their social and philanthropic work. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, then, are distinguished by the same secular dynamism which they have in common, and which, indeed, distinguishes them from Orthodoxy. Naturally, this observation applies to the two great confessions of the West in general, and does not deny the existence of other tendencies within their folds. The question before us is whether or not Orthodoxy is actually-as her doctrine emphasizes and as she appears to the heterodox by reason of her wealth of ritual- a mystical, static 'communion of worship', without dynamism, without prophetic breath, without any wish to take part in the reshaping of the social environment in which her faithful live. Is Orthodoxy really cut off from the roots of prophetism ? This question becomes even more serious when we remember that there are Orthodox intellectuals who maintain that the essence and the glory of Orthodoxy is that it raises man from earth to heaven in an atmosphere of mystical exaltation. For them, every social declaration and every effort by the Orthodox Church seriously to concern itself with the great social problems of our time constitutes deviation and adulteration. They express a fear that the Church's interest in worldly matters will diminish her interest in the heavenly; that her concern for the material, intellectual, and social needs of her flock will be to the detriment of prayer, the life of worship, and the practice of and delight in devotion. For this group of Orthodox, social concern on the part of the Church means the secularization of Orthodoxy.

These views of certain Orthodox intellectuals on the nature and witness of Orthodoxy were first expressed after the relatively recent appearance of a lively interest in social matters in certain circles of theologians and intellectuals. The attempt to awaken the Church's interest in social matters began only a few decades ago with the work of certain professors of the Theological School of Athens; more especially, however, the rich activity of a large group of Christian intellectuals set the pace for this movement. A whole series of periodicals and publications, the slogan about 'Christian Civilization', and the Institute for Mental Health, were important fruits of this endeavor. However, despite the praiseworthy zeal of its champions, this movement did not succeed in becoming an integral part of the Orthodox theological and liturgical tradition, and for that reason, perhaps, did not succeed in awakening the interest of the leaders of the Church to any considerable extent. At the same time it failed to clear itself of the charge leveled against it by its antagonists, that this movement for the socialization of Orthodoxy did not spring from Orthodox roots but was copied from Roman Catholic and Protestant models. This suspicion of western influence was confirmed by the fact that the sermons and organizations promoting the modernization and socialization of Orthodoxy were originally connected either with movements that came to this country from the West (for example, the Y.M.C.A .), or with people who had lived in a western theological or ecclesiastical environment. The problem which some Christian intellectuals of our land have faced, then, is this: How can the prophetic movement for the socialization of Orthodoxy, originally based on foreign presuppositions, succeed in arousing a genuine prophetism in the Orthodox conscience? But is there such a thing? In other words, does Orthodoxy have social principles and aims? Is a concern for social affairs one of her fundamental characteristics, or is she essentially a static 'communion of worship', which pursues only the heavenly aims? And if Orthodoxy has a social character, what is the nature of this, and why has it not been expressed in eastern Christianity in the same way as in western Christianity?

The social concern of Orthodoxy can be properly understood only in the light of its connexion with prophetism, or, in other words, with the preaching or kerygma of the prophets of the Old Testament. Not only the existence but also the nature of social concern, whether in eastern or western Christianity, depends on its connexion with prophetism . The roots of Judeo-Christian social concern are generally seen in the words and fiery visions of the Hebrew prophets. They require the people of God to express its faith not only by sacrifices and offerings in the temple and by keeping the ceremonial ordinances of purification, but by uprightness of heart and by justice. The passion of the prophets for the social application of faith and more especially for justice has remained unsurpassed in religious circles throughout the ages. While the Israelite priesthood believed that the sacrifices, the gathering around the Temple and the sincere worship of the people ensured the goodwill of God and national security and prosperity, the prophets proclaimed that only the moral application of faith could bring about good things.

The history of the Christian religion is nothing but the renaissance and deepening of prophetism . The teaching about the kingdom of God in the synoptic gospels and the Pauline epistles and the teaching about 'eternal life' in St. John's gospel are expressions of this same prophetism . Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and the parables of the kingdom put forward new principles for relationships between men within a new society. Paul describes these principles as the necessary consequence of the metamorphosis of man through the grace of Christ; in the synoptic gospels and in Paul it is Jesus as Messiah or Son of God who makes these principles attainable, and the human will is not represented as though it were capable by itself of achieving them. The apostle Paul, more especially, emphasizes that, bounded by misfortune, obsessed by the fear of death and decay, haunted by insecurity and in bondage to every evil, even when man wants to do good and desires the kingdom of God, he can not bring it about with the powers at his command. He may be deluded into thinking that he has built the kingdom of God with his own hands; when he comes to his senses he will realize that he has built only the kingdom of the devil. Prophetism underwent a deepening and a maturing within Christianity. Mankind wrongly supposes that it is enough for somebody to know the good in order to bring it about. This childlike optimism characterized Hebrew prophetism as well as ancient Greek thought.

Man's future cannot be built on empirical man, as we know and experience him. Only the unique and ineffable love of God for man, as it is conceived of in the doctrine of our redemption by Christ, can be the guarantee of man's future. Man, too, has many important contributions to make to the creation of the new life; but all of these things put together, even though they are essential, add up to nothing if they are not based on the belief that God wants and can create a new life for man and a new society for mankind. For Christianity the kerygma about new relationships between men, about love, justice, and the kingdom of God, is not based simply on the sublimity of these ideas, nor on the fact that God commands them; it is based on the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection. A person must believe in the possibility of the metamorphosis of man and society, as this metamorphosis is expressed in the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, or his efforts for the building of a new world will be wasted. In all man's work on earth there is an interaction between God's grace and man's effort. In other words, Christian doctrine as a whole, and not simply the ethical teaching of the Gospel, is the fulfillment of the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament. It is Christian doctrine which guarantees and protects the essential meaning of the prophetic kerygma, lifting it out of the realm of a dream and setting it on its way towards realization. Christian doctrine itself has a prophetic character.

The essence of prophetism is seen in the first three gospels and in the epistles of Paul. We must now consider whether or not prophetism also appears in the theological teaching of the apostle and evangelist John with the same power and clarity. This matter is of prime importance to us, in as much as Orthodoxy is thought to embody the spirit and the piety of the Johannine tradition. Intellectualism and mysticism are considered to be common characteristics of both the Johannine and Orthodox traditions. But modern research into the works of John has shown that no lofty theological enquiry or theoretical mysticism is intended, but essentially a kind of practical Christianity, a kind of Christian life that puts the doing of God's will above all theological knowledge and above all mystical theory. According to John, the criterion and proof of truth is found in action: 'He who hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me' (John xiv, 21). The evangelist often speaks of 'truth', but this 'truth' has no connexion with Greek philosophical reasoning; it is not related to the mind, but, in the Hebrew way of thinking, to right action. The commandments are the 'truth' of God: 'But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God' (John iii, 21). 'If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth' (John i, 6). The 'truth' in John is not the simple verification of a thing, but is something which is 'known' with direct practical results: 'And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free' (viii, 32). It is the same with 'faith', in John. It does not mean simply a recognition of Jesus as the one sent by God, but above all obedience to the word of Jesus (viii, 55; viii, 51; v, 24; iv, 50; ix, 7, etc.). The moral element which characterizes 'faith' also delimits the meaning of unbelief: 'and this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil' (iii, 19). And finally 'love', the 'new commandment' of love, which is stressed so frequently in the works of John, is not meant to be understood in an emotional and general sense, but in a moral and definite sense. The new element in the commandment of love is precisely the redemptive sacrifice, which, far from attracting or comforting us, reproves the wayward and sinful world.

Thus all the aspects of the Christian mystery which we encounter in the New Testament, either in the synoptic gospels, or in Paul, or in John, present the biblical view of man's relationship with God. According to this view, the road to God always leads past one's neighbor. This is the basic teaching of the Bible. Every relationship with God which ignores one's neighbor leads to a kind of individual piety centred on a God who is not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but a creation of the wishes and phantasies of man.

These basic principles of Christian prophetism in the New Testament imbue all the theological thought and life of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In spite of her respect for doctrinal truth, Orthodoxy has never taken refuge in sickly intellectualism. For her, doctrinal truth is not something which has satisfied, or is able to satisfy, the demands of our logic. It consists principally and above all in the apostolic tradition preserved through many dangers and many struggles; in other words it is the new way of life contained in the meaning of the Christian Gospel and incapable, for its very richness, of being fitted into any logical system. So, then, in the last analysis, the 'truth' or 'Orthodox tradition' of the eastern Church is life; it is the realization of the life of Christ, not only within us but also among us.

The prophetic and social character of Orthodox life is dependent on certain basic doctrines of Orthodoxy. These are the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection, the doctrine of the Church and the expectation of the age to come.

All the Christian confessions believe in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. In none of them, however, has the meaning of these dogmas been emphasized and developed as it has been in the East. The reason why the eastern Fathers and the Liturgy of the Eastern Church gave such a prominent place to these doctrines is that in them is expressed the need for the metamorphosis of man and of the world. Both these doctrines have a pre-eminently prophetic character. We will understand the matter better if at this point we compare the views of East and West. While the West bases its Christian social principles mainly on Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God and on the moral lessons of the Gospel in general, Orthodoxy believes that the metamorphosis of the world cannot be achieved through commandments which man does not have it in his power to keep; it is principally and above all the result of God's taking upon Himself and transforming the sinful and decadent nature of man. This means that if a person believes in such a metamorphosis, and thinks that it is worth pursuing for himself and in his environment, it can be achieved only through faith in a God who by the incarnation and resurrection of Christ makes such a thing attainable. We must note this last point carefully, for it is precisely here that our difference with the West lies over what we call the social character of Christianity.

Western theologians, especially Protestants, have often expressed the idea that the eastern Fathers, while they based the metamorphosis of man on the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, also conceived of the thing metaphysically from the point of view of man's material nature, in accordance with the Platonic philosophical views of their times; while the West, they argue, conceived of the thing in terms of volition and the moral order in the world. Hence the emphasis on metamorphosis in the East necessarily led to asceticism and to indifference to the material conditions of man's life. Some western theologians maintain these views.

These ideas, however, while they seem plausible at first sight, prove to be mistaken when examined a little more closely. In the first place, the eastern Fathers did not conceive of anything according to the Platonic views of their time; everywhere they reason and theologize on the basis of the soteriological -historical presuppositions of the Bible. They do not find evil in the material part of man or in the materiality of the world; neither do they find it simply in man's will. They verify a dialectical connexion between the individual will and the rest of the world. There is a tension between them, but a reciprocity, too. Man's choice of good or evil influences the rest of the world; and the rest of the world exerts an influence on the choice made by the will. Evil lies not only in the wrong choice that our will can make. It is also a condition of the world, many times more powerful than our choice for good. There is no comprehensible moral perfection in a world full of fear, agony, decay and death. These are the verifications which give the social message of the eastern Fathers a unique character. In their doctrinal teaching they preserve the aims and the characteristics of the prophetism of the Old Testament; they do not at all doubt the possibility of a new life and a new world; they seek it in all their thought and work. Where they differ from the Old Testament prophets is in the emphasis which the latter placed on the will. The prophets believed, in a rather simple way, in the power of man's will, and had no full and clear consciousness of the corrosive power of evil, objectively understood. The Old Testament prophets, then, could be considered as the direct ancestors of Christian socialism in the West. It is the eastern Fathers who carry on the prophetism of the Old Testament as it was purified and developed in the New Testament and the tradition of the early Church. The fact that the Fathers lived in an age of social decadence, in an age when Platonic ideas about matter and man prevailed, in other words in an age of retreat from and denial of the world, brings out even more clearly the social character of their kerygma about the metamorphosis of man and of the world in accordance with the doctrines of Christ's incarnation and resurrection. In this way they wanted to give the people of their time faith and hope, in order that they might found a new society. The recognition of evil in the world, which is not a matter of the choice made by the will, but rather a condition, neither detracts from nor alters the social character of patristic theology. Its teaching on the reciprocity between man and the rest of the world increases man's responsibility for himself and others. The doctrinal emphasis on what God did for man in Christ, in the face of all the opposition that the world offers to man's will to change, does not mean that the world is abandoned to its fate; on the contrary, the emphasis on the divine factor which upholds the change constitutes the presupposition for it, while at the same time it puts the responsibility for effecting it on man.

Next, in the doctrine of the Church as the family of God, Orthodoxy expresses most profoundly the social character of its message. We do not find this family character of the Church only in the theology of the Fathers, but also in Orthodox worship and art. We can therefore say that, from the Orthodox point of view, Christian society is a great community. It should be remembered that when Orthodoxy encountered the resistance of the world in its attempts to create a Christian society, it took refuge in monastic communities, where, on a small scale, it put its ideal into practice.

Finally, in a rather paradoxical way, Orthodoxy also expresses its social character in its teaching about the last things. In no other Christian confession has such a vivid expectation of the Second Coming been preserved as in the East, above all in Orthodox worship and painting. This eschatological character of Orthodoxy is itself an expression of Orthodox prophetism . Orthodoxy, by its preservation of the hope in the Second Coming and by its asceticism, gives expression to those prophetic powers within it which protest against the present state of things. This introduces into the body of the Church not only a tension but also a moral dynamism of inestimable worth. From the first centuries of Christianity Orthodoxy has preserved these elements, which are the outcome of the severe demands our doctrine makes upon us.

If we conclude, after all we have said, that Orthodoxy has a social character, we must now explain why its social character has not been manifested in works of applied Christianity to the extent that one would expect. Everyone knows about the social action of Basil the Great and of all the Great Hierarchs of the Church. The noteworthy philanthropic action of the Church at various times, and especially of certain monasteries in the Byzantine period, is also well known. One should not fail to note also the social action of the Church in the years of Turkish occupation and in the subsequent free kingdom. Yet it must be admitted that, in spite of this, Orthodoxy did not succeed, in either the Hellenic or the Slav countries, in expressing the social character of its doctrine and moral teaching, which we previously insisted that it has, in a social philosophy or in large-scale social works. How can this phenomenon be justified?

When one examines the situation carefully one notices two things: (1) In time of difficulty, of war or foreign occupation and slavery, when the government either could do nothing, or was inactive, or did not even exist, the Orthodox Church developed an independent course of action of a social nature, to which there is no equivalent in normal times. (2) At least until the liberation of the Greek kingdom, when monasticism continued to flourish intermittently, the monks tried by their lives to preach the social ideals of the Church and made up, one might say, its social army.

Both of these observations lead us to the same conclusion: what prevented both Hellenic and Slav Orthodoxy from developing social theories and programs was the initial subservience of the Byzantine Church to the state in certain matters, and its assimilation by it. The close co-operation of the Church with the state during Byzantine times did great harm to the Church, because it did not allow it to bear witness to the Gospel in all areas of life. In this situation, which western theologians accurately or inaccurately call ' caesaropapism ', the state took responsibility for nearly all aspects of her life, and left the Church to care mainly for the things of heaven. Thus the Church, which had begun to show a lively interest in social matters, beneficial to the people and even to the state, in the time of the Three Hierarchs, was confined by that state to works of philanthropy during Byzantine times. Only that section of the Church which maintained some independence of the state - only the class of monks - succeeded in expressing, rather more emphatically than the rest of the Church, the social message of Orthodoxy. If eastern Christianity failed to resist the pressure of the Byzantine state, it was for the same reasons that Christianity in general has not yet succeeded in overcoming the obstacles of evil and wickedness in the world.

Besides this, besides the Church's confinement by the Byzantine state within narrow frames of social action, the Church was forced by the circumstances, to the benefit of the state and often of the people, to take part in activities which originally formed no part of her plan-. Her participation in the Empire's resistance to continual attacks by various enemies provided an opportunity for the Church to serve the people. It must be acknowledged that the Church's contribution in this sphere was so rich and so important that it has won universal recognition. In the East the Church never enjoyed the leisure or the independence which it had in the West to develop social theories and programs. Irresistible need constantly drained off her social energies.

When the Empire was broken up and the Church took upon herself the leadership of the nation in order to serve her people, then, despite the unfavorable conditions of foreign occupation, not only do we see purely social action by the Church richer than anything we know of in previous periods, but we ascertain once again what a rich social dynamic the eastern Church had at her disposal. It should be noted that, while during practically the whole of the Byzantine period this social dynamic was expressed almost exclusively in the Empire's resistance to attacks by both infidels and heterodox Christians, under Turkish occupation, in the face of another irresistible need, this dynamic inspired sermons and prophecies about the liberation of the enslaved Orthodox peoples from the heavy yoke of unbelievers. Thus once again Orthodox prophetism was translated into burning sermons and fiery visions, the principal content of which was not the new life of the Gospel but the free fatherland of the enslaved.


It is a fact that in the course of her history Orthodoxy had to express her prophetic and social character in forms which she did not herself choose, but which were imposed upon her by the particular circumstances of the people which she had to serve. Just as the people emerged from long slavery bloody and wounded, it was the same and worse for the Church; for her troubles did not end with the liberation. Millions of Greeks still remained under a foreign yoke and they, too, awaited their liberation. This story has continued right up to the present day. All who follow local Church matters closely know that in some areas it is only a few decades since the Church has started to recover from her wounds. That a great many things remain to be done goes without saying.

It would appear, then, that Orthodoxy does not lack a social character. In her doctrine and moral teaching the prophetic tradition of the apostles and the early Church lives on. It has been the historical conditions and vicissitudes of the Orthodox peoples which have restricted the expressions of the social dynamic of Orthodoxy to certain fields, and have dictated the forms which these have taken. Those heterodox or Orthodox theologians and intellectuals, who believe that Orthodoxy has no prophetic or social message for its people, and that it is only a 'community of worship' with purely heavenly aims, are being unrealistic. As we have seen, in her course through history Orthodoxy has many times been forced by the circumstances to struggle for whole centuries for objectives which had no connexion whatsoever with the things of heaven. Orthodoxy is not merely a 'community of worship'. Those theologians and intellectuals who are trying to express the message of Orthodox tradition for contemporary man are right. Orthodoxy has a social character, and modern man needs her message. What we have to watch is this: the message must be the message of Orthodoxy and not of Christianity in general. The prophetic message of Orthodoxy must come from our own roots, for our people today. To copy foreign examples is anything but a contribution to the work of our ecclesiastical awakening. Western Christianity, because it understood the prophetic character of Christian doctrine differently and more or less separated doctrine from the moral and ecclesiastical order, did not base its social action on proper Christian foundations. The secularization of the Church in the West, and its departure from the doctrinal principles, compromised the social action which the independence of the Church had allowed to develop with such praiseworthy zeal and industry. Today a great number of western theologians realize the worthlessness of such social action by the Church, when they see it degenerating into a variety of political forms and miscellaneous organizations for political action, without being able to cope effectively with the great social problems of our age. The secularization of the Church in the West and its subsequent departure from dogma made the formulation of genuine Gospel social principles impossible.

Orthodox social principles are based on the doctrine of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, on the doctrine of the Church as the family of God, and on the Orthodox teaching about the last things. They are expressed faithfully and consistently in the tradition of the moral lessons of the Gospel.

The past has left Orthodox prophetism with problems which our generation is called upon properly to deal with. It is called to a stronger effort to change the family of the Church, to which we belong, into the family of God. This change cannot come about through a simple recognition of her present need; it is possible only on the understanding that it is a self-evident requirement of our faith. What we do is not unrelated to what we believe and how much we believe. Nobody can say, 'I believe, but I can not practice'.

Our acts are always the measure of our faith. The life of a Christian, like the life of the whole Church, is not judged by the measure of theoretical faith but by the measure of moral action, which expresses the things believed theoretically. These are the basic principles of Orthodoxy, and in them lies her social character.

For receiving news, offerings and in general any actions regarding the Organization please fill in the next fields. For protection of data see here.

{ technical support        contact