One of the Orthodox Church’s greatest strengths is the pastoral care used to nurture the faithful. The authority to offer spiritual care is vested in the bishop and extended to the local community through the parish priest; the spiritual father of a particular flock. Through the sacrament of Holy Confession, pastoral counseling, and living among his people, the local parish priest nurtures the flock entrusted to his care by his bishop.
The philosophical idea that grounds pastoral care are the principles of Oikonomia and Akriveia.
Based on these principles, it is the spiritual father’s pastoral responsibility to apply the canons, disciplines, and liturgical life of the Church for the spiritual good of his flock. The spiritual father may feel that, after speaking with an individual who is seeking guidance, that Akriveia, such as a period of time for repentance and abstaining from Holy Communion, is the proper “medicine” to help the person in need of spiritual care. At other moments, and possibly for the exact same issue, the spiritual father may choose Oikonomia, such as the encouraging of fasting and the frequent receiving of Holy Communion as the best “medicine.” As is the case with doctors who try to find the best remedies for their patients, it is often true that even when the patients have the same illness, the identical prescription or treatment does not work the same for each person. Doctor and spiritual father strive to find the customized remedy that best benefits the individual.
A look at Oikonomia for the majority and Akriveia for the minority in a particular situation. Approximately 95% of the population is heterosexual and 5% is homosexual. In addressing an ethical or moral opinion on the subject of marriage and the subject of homosexuality, Christ clearly speaks only about marriage and does not utter a word about homosexuality. Regarding the sanctity of marriage, Christ says specifically that the only legitimate reason for divorce is adultery (Matthew 19:9).
Nevertheless, the Church has taken these words of the Lord, looked at the human condition, and concluded that Oikonomia must be applied regarding marriage. Thus, the Church allows for up to three Church marriages and two Church divorces per person. In America, one can find various lists of multiple reasons, in addition to adultery, to obtain a Church divorce throughout the various Orthodox jurisdictions. This is an official position of the Church and not the occasioned practice of a spiritual father. Since ~50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, Oikonomia is commonly offered to those in heterosexual marriages. It is also true, of course, that the 95% need, have access to, and enjoy Oikonomia in many other respects related to marriage, intimacy, pre-marital relations, etc.
Regarding homosexuality (not gay marriage, but the “good standing” of the gay Orthodox Christian), the exact opposite is true. Christ does not speak about homosexuality. The Church, however, has chosen to apply the canons with Akriveia to the gay Orthodox faithful. Meaning, that the only way to be gay and in good standing in the Orthodox Church is to be celibate and not to ever hope for a physical-meaningful relationship and marriage. If the gay individual does date, is in a relationship, or legally marries, the person is entirely separated from the sacramental life of the Church. Akriveia is the policy of the Church in such cases.
It is true that the gay Orthodox Christian can search for a pastor who is embracing and receive the sacraments of the Church and even take on leadership roles in the Church. That means, however, that the gay Orthodox Christian is at the mercy of trying to find an embracing priest/bishop, “knowing the right people,” or living in the shadows and quietly receiving communion by blending into the communion line and being anonymous to the priest. All of this can and does frequently happen.
It could be argued that the official position of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America regarding heterosexual marriage/divorce is a very clear application of Oikonomia, while its official position regarding the sacramental “good standing” of gay people is a very clear application of Akriveia.
If Akriveia were applied to the heterosexual population of the Faith, the Church would probably soon cease to exist in great numbers as the 95% majority would most likely not stand for such austere treatment. What organization would willfully cut itself off from 95% of its membership? However, because the Church is dealing with a 5% minority of gay faithful, it is easy to dismiss them out of hand and “throw the book” of canon law at them. Hence, the need to accommodate the majority, even if that means a re-interpretation of the words of Christ, while at the same time disregarding the minority.
It is common knowledge that the Hebrew Scriptures, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers speak against homosexual acts. When reading St. Paul, though, we see that he constantly “lightens” the burden of the “Law” in favor of “Grace in Christ.” So too, with the Church Fathers as seen especially with regard to marriage.
One way of embracing the love and the concept of “making all things new” in the “New Covenant” and the putting away of historic social prejudices would be to accept gay love as sacred and as holy as heterosexual love. Even if that does not happen, Church leaders should recognize that its approach to Oikonomia and Akriveia is inconsistent when it comes to dealing with heterosexual and homosexual love. All human relationships are in need of the medicine of sacramental grace of Christ as found in His Church.
Every person in the Orthodox Church has a family member or a friend who is gay. If Oikonomia can be extended in love and understanding to the 95%, why not to the remaining 5%? If Akriveia was applied to all, one would be certain that the communion lines would be much shorter.
Let us be thankful for those shepherds who embrace, love and nurture the gay Orthodox faithful.
John Heropoulos (M.Div., Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology) was a clergyman of the GOA for 19 years. After leaving the priesthood, he became involved in not-for-profit work, becoming Vice President of the Children’s Tumor Foundation in NYC.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.