Ecclesiology, Orthodoxy and Modernity

Eastern Orthodoxy and Church Reform

Published on: August 10, 2023
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“Church reform” has always been a taboo in the Orthodox Church; it has a negative connotation in some traditionalistic circles. Actually, there are many elements that strengthen stagnation and promote anti-reform tendencies, such as the claim of unity, stability, identity, psychological and spiritual factors, catholicity and universality, synodality, solidarity and collegiality, sameness, traditionalism, and others. These are grave obstacles to change attempts in the Church in various personal, congregational, pastoral, theological, liturgical, and organizational fields, without which any comprehensive theological background and sound reasoning become impossible.

Change dynamism is neither new in God’s work in life nor in church theology and history. Creation, perfection, incarnation, repentance, purification, illumination, deification, renewal, restoration, transformation, and transfiguration are among the several terms to describe a certain type of change. Thus, the word reform is preferable to be used as an “umbrella term” that covers all forms of ecclesiastical change that the Orthodox Church has witnessed over the centuries, such as adaptation, development, discontinuity, improvement, innovation, metamorphosis, and modification, along with several re- terms, such as rectification, reformation, reinterpretation, renewal, renovation, restoration, and revival.

Reform is urgently needed in Eastern Orthodoxy in order to maintain the rightness of both opinion and praxis in this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous [VUCA] world of our digital era and highly complex social order. People are always faced with questions they cannot ignore. These questions involve such predicaments that they have to change or wish that they need to be changed, in words and deeds, such as the questions of modernization, human rights, sustainable development, newness, innovation and creativity, pluralism and diversity, digital transformation and technological change.

Empirical studies on reform initiatives in Eastern Orthodoxy are rare. Thus, it is important not to ignore, in initiating effective reforms in the Church, the secular knowledge and experiences about change and organizational leadership, management, and development, or to disregard the fields of psychology and sociology, in leading the Church in this world. Actually, it remains of little weight not to look at the Church as an organization that functions, suitably or improperly, according to various management styles, despite the various theological connotations of the Church as the “Body of Christ’ and the “People of God.” Likewise, it is paradoxical to undermine the various non-Eastern Orthodox reform initiatives.

Church Reform may be feasible as long as both Church members, leaders and followers, clergy and laity, are (a) deeply aware of the urgent need for change; (b) seriously committed and involved—efficiently and effectively in any reform initiative; (c) truthful, patient and persistent; (d) able and capable to stand up for their principles and beliefs, overcoming pressure, fear, doubt, frustration, anxiety, uncertainty, marginalization, rejection and abuse; and (e) financially independent. Church Reform must be institutional and orchestrated “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). A good Church reform is neither destructive nor chaotic. It should be based on three major pillars: (1) living the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23); (2) possessing valuable intelligences (e.g., emotional, social, cultural, moral) and resources—tangible and intangible; and (3) turning words into action, successfully, and being inspired by the Parable of the Sower beforehand. It is to be noted that reform initiatives will often lead to healthy conflicts—mainly with Church authorities, that are essential in spreading awareness about the need for Church reform.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas clearly stated the following: “I’m cautious about reform (Gr.μεταρρύθμιση) though I’m in principle in favor of the reform of many things … Those who deny reform are certainly wrong, because without reform, the Church will die. But even those who want reform, they must be careful, because they may make a reform that will harm the person… The reform is in the life of the Church… It must be done with theological criteria.” Zizioulas’ statement is remarkable since it comes from a renowned hierarch and theologian.  His remark about the theological criteria may raise lots of critical questions; their respective answers may orient the Church, clergy and laity, theologians and others, in facing the major obstacles to reform. Within this context, two main questions may be raised: First, is it enough to emphasize that Church reform should be faithful to the Bible and the Church Fathers? Second, how can the living, critical, creative, dynamic, pioneering and experimental Tradition (with capital T), as classified by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, liberate the Orthodox Churches from their traditions’ (with small t) captivity?

Church reform is not merely about diagnosing the current situation and designing the desired one; it is also about (a) leading, managing, and implementing projects and tasks, complex or simple, at various micro, mezzo, or macro level; (b) considering different contexts; (c) synergizing various resources and capabilities; (d) sustaining competitive advantages; (e) formulating a winning strategy along with its action plan and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-framed) goals that take into consideration their respective and detailed SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) of Church reform; (f) developing a sense of urgency; (g) communicating frequently the vision and the plan of the reform; (h) creating a sustainable reform culture in the church; (i) empowering and supporting reform leaders and agents, (j) conducting dialogue with various senior church members in order to persuade them and help them move from resisting to supporting reform; (k) dealing with serious challenges related to reform, such as conflicts and tensions, skepticism and fears, oppressions and censorships, and failures; (l) generating short-term wins; and (m) reinforcing momentum by producing more reforms and advertising them. Towards this end, dealing with (i) “how” to effectively initiate reform, (ii) “how” to courageously face resistance and reaction to reform, and (iii) “how” to successfully overcome obstacles of reform, are vital elements in adapting to new circumstances, situations, and manifestations of Church culture.

In conclusion, Church reform is inevitable. It is not about being in tune with the times; however, it’s about putting words into action, maintaining the ark and navigating it amidst the various waves and storms of life, and trying to reform the fallen world and restore the image of God in humankind. As a starting step in a journey of thousands of miles towards reforming Eastern Orthodoxy and its various dimensions and components, the Orthodox faithful, clergy and laity, need to create a ripple effect and to have a paradigm shift; i.e., a change of mind, a change of heart, and a change of practice in their living of their faith, individually and collectively, “here and now.”

A version of this paper has been presented at the second mega conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association [IOTA], in Volos-Greece, on January 12, 2023.

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About author

  • Berge Traboulsi

    Berge Traboulsi

    Associate Professor of History, Religion, and Intercultural Studies at Haigazian University

    Berge Traboulsi is an Antiochian Orthodox theologian and Associate Professor of History, Religion and Intercultural Studies at Haigazian University, Beirut-Lebanon. He holds a Doctorate in Theology (Major: Church History) from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens-Greece (1997); his dis...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University