Editor’s Note: This essay was originally delivered as part of a panel session on For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church at the 2024 annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics.
There could hardly be a context more distant from the Orthodox Church than the McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University. A 30-year-old seminary in the Atlanta suburbs, McAfee began as a project of Southern Baptist exiles, banished from their teaching posts in the newly fundamentalist dominated SBC world.
Today, McAfee reflects the character of the free-church Protestant world in Atlanta—and now beyond, as online teaching with a nationally and even globally distributed student body occupies an increasingly important part of our work. Our students are mainly Baptist, Pentecostal, and nondenominational, lean disproportionately female and somewhat older, and just over 50% are African American. The SBC is in the rearview mirror, and most of the students lean progressive in their politics and theology.
Weren’t these students surprised, then, when I decided to assign For the Life of the World (FLOW) as a required text in my ethics survey course this fall. It appears that the students universally had no prior experience with Orthodoxy overall and certainly none with Orthodox Social Ethics. However, having come to a very favorable impression of FLOW from my first reading once our colleague Perry Hamalis introduced the document to me, and just then rebooting my ethics survey course, I decided to add it to the reading. It joined the Womanist Theological Ethics reader edited by Katie Cannon and friends, Raphael Warnock’s Divided Mind of the Black Church, my own ethics text, and the recommended Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and Sondra Wheeler’s Minister as Moral Theologian.
I used FLOW by following the handy structure that the document itself provides, assigning entire sections on specific days—such as the remarkable section II. The Church in the Public Sphere (more below)—or more often, assigning one or two of the 82 numbered paragraphs as appropriate to the day’s topics. The remarkable brevity of the document, especially when considering just one numbered paragraph for a topic, made the text exceedingly user-friendly for the students—and their teacher. I often started with the FLOW assignment when leading a class session. This was not just because it was far more digestible than a long textbook chapter, but also because I came to believe that FLOW provided an intellectually sound, doctrinally serious baseline on just about every topic that it addresses.
Let me expand on that, as a way to get into a substantive discussion of the document.
One reason I assigned FLOW was because I became convinced that it would indeed provide that doctrinally serious baseline—to be more precise, that it would both offer serious theological grounding for Christian ethics, and then serious, substantive Christian social ethics itself, not in a novel form, but as a long tradition passed forward through the centuries. Sometimes I have used Catholic Social Teaching documents in classes for the same reason—I want the students, one might say, to meet the Tradition, capital T. I want them to understand the legacy of Christian ethics as it comes down to us through the centuries.
There is a massive lacuna in the intellectual and religious development of the kinds of Protestant students that I teach. They often report no serious teaching of Christian ethics in their entire religious formation. If they have been taught anything that might be called Christian ethics, either they have gotten a kind of biblicist reading, where ethics consists of “applying” biblical texts to specific issues on their own or under the very strong influence of an authoritative (or authoritarian) pastor, or they have defaulted to the kind of progressive liberalism that is simply in the air in certain cultural and religious spaces. The populist Protestant ignorance even of the concept of a Christian teaching tradition is a malformation that then yields further malformations when underprepared ministers are set loose in the churches.
I surmised that encountering the sturdy but not impenetrably massive FLOW text would at least expose the students to a tradition—one might dare to say The Tradition—of which they were unaware. Even if the students found themselves disagreeing with certain parts—as many did—at least they discovered that what they were disagreeing with is the bulky mass of the majority Christian moral tradition. They also discovered that they were going to have to learn to make arguments against the parts of the tradition that they did not like, rather than just dismiss it as not in keeping with current attitudes. This encounter was reinforced if they also managed to read the Catholic Compendium of Social Doctrine as well. FLOW helped me teach Protestants that there is a broad Christian moral tradition and that they are not ready for ministry if they do not know it.
The substance of FLOW offended my most ardently liberal students in ways that will not surprise anyone very much. “The course of a human life on earth…begins in the moment of conception in the womb” (§15) is a statement with implications not terribly popular for some who favor abortion rights. But, interestingly, the culturally polarizing issue of abortion is not emphasized in the paragraphs that follow. Instead, the document emphasizes protecting the innocence of children, preventing their abuse in church, guarding them from overexposure to social media driven by relentless market pressures, and “the general improvement of childhood conditions” (§16). Only later does abortion receive its own discussion—admittedly, a conservative position is taken.
Similarly, the discussions of sex and marriage stake out traditional positions, evoking student opposition, but the text avoids culture-warring. Marriage is described as between a man and a woman, but no condemnation of same-sex marriage is articulated (§20). The focus of the discussion of marriage is its sacramentality, the union of the partners that “mystically signifies the love of Christ for his Church,” and therefore the theo-ethical norm of marital indissolubility. However, a later paragraph (§22) offers the nuanced recognitions that divorce may be necessary for “the protection of the family’s most vulnerable members,” that “marital life is sometimes ruptured beyond repair,” and that “the Church also allows for remarriage, albeit acknowledging in its rite for second marriage that this is an accommodation, not an ideal.”
It should also be noted that FLOW offers a very careful acceptance of the concept of diverse sexual “identities” (quotes in the original). The document accepts, in a labored sentence, that “many of the inclinations and longings of the flesh and the heart to a great extent come into the world with us,” but then argues more strongly that it is “ a basic right of any person—which no state or civil authority may presume to violate—to remain free from persecution or legal disadvantage as a result of…sexual orientation.” The document also calls on “all Christians” to “resist all forms of discrimination against their neighbors…Christians are never called to hatred or disdain of anyone” (§19).
Thus, on the marriage, sex, and abortion issues, FLOW holds to traditional positions, but with nuance and without any enemy-bashing. Meanwhile, the document is full of happy surprises and challenges in other areas. Let me name two of the most interesting and important:
- The introduction of the document offers a lovely grounding for “a social ethos of the Orthodox Church” that would be worthy of imitation in any ethics text. The account begins with humanity being made in the image of God and being made for loving communion with the Triune God, and “with their neighbors and the whole cosmos” (§1-2). Each human being is described as “unique and infinitely precious…a special object of God’s love” (§3). Theosis, an Orthodox emphasis, is described as the “ultimate destiny…to which we are summoned” (§3), not just individually but collectively. That is not my preferred language, but it is important for readers to encounter it here. An emphasis on seeking the Kingdom of God (§4) and obeying the teachings of Christ (§6) are welcome additions to this foundational theological and biblical grounding for social ethics. FLOW also offers a fundamental emphasis on the early Apostolic Church as a “new kind of polity, set apart from the hierarchies of human governance and all the social and political violences…upon which those hierarchies subsist” (§6). This sets the foundation for a steady emphasis on the Church in its Eucharistic life as “the true Christian polity” (§8) and as setting the standard for what human community is supposed to be. FLOW also offers a brief natural-law grounding for ethics, citing Greek fathers rather than Aquinas, rather rapidly moving to how our covenant with God in Christ “does not abolish the natural law, but rather enlarges its range and makes its demands upon us absolute” (§7). All of this introductory work is done in barely eight pages of text.
- I think FLOW’s support for democracy and rejection of all forms of Christian nationalism is especially significant. It comes in Section II (§8-14), which offers a very rich overall account of “the church in the public sphere.” That account clearly distinguishes the Kingdom of God from all human kingdoms and instructs believers to put our hope in the former (§8). The Church acknowledges that “Christians have lived under diverse forms of government” in its history, and that Christians can live with integrity under various political systems, though always being “to some extent an alien presence” and always being ready to dissent or disobey if obeying God requires such (§9). FLOW says “it would be irrational and uncharitable of Christians not to feel a genuine gratitude for the special democratic genius of the modern age,” and calls on Orthodox believers to support democracy rather than “surrender to a debilitating and…fantastical nostalgia or some long-vanished golden era” (§10). YES! This then prepares for the following: “It is absolutely forbidden for Christians to make an idol of cultural, ethnic, or national identity. There can be no such thing as a ‘Christian nationalism’ (§11). The text intensifies its language even further as it goes on condemn the revival of “racialist ideology” in some circles today, a noxious ideology which fundamentally contradicts the Orthodox social ethos. If found among the Orthodox, such racist extremism must be renounced and its adherents “expose[d], denounce[d], and expel[ed].” Here, it seems to me, we encounter language of Barmen Declaration quality and timeliness.
The interlocutors have been requested to pose a question or two. Here are mine:
- Did the authors purposefully craft their language so as to downplay culture-warring and potentially defang any tendency toward right-wing extremism growing among the Orthodox, in the US and elsewhere?
- In light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the defense of that invasion in shocking terms by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, do the document drafters wish to make any comment on the applicability of FLOW in this new context?
I congratulate the drafters of For the Life of the World for this fantastic document, which is on my class reading list again this spring.
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