‘For the Life of the World’ — Ancient Faith Ministries Responds

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has published For the Life of the World. It appeared on their website earlier than I expected (I discussed the document in an earlier post). I still haven’t taken the time to read it (I will respond to each section one-by-one on this blog), but the good people over at Ancient Faith Ministries have and published their review on March 27. I want to provide an overview of their response as faithfully as I can, with some—probably too much—editorial commentary from me.

Some background: For the Life of the World was authored by twelve Orthodox scholars (including two women). They were commissioned by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and received the blessing of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As I said in my earlier post, For the Life of the World (FTLOTW) is a document that addresses the question of how Orthodox Christians are to live in an increasingly post-Christian society. It is a social document. As I predicted in that post, conservative Christians—including the relatively conservative editors of the Ancient Faith Ministries blog—are taking a skeptical view of its contents. Their response begins:

[For the Life of the World] is, in a very real sense, the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarchate’s] answer to the Moscow Patriarchate’s “The Basis of the Social Concept” (published twenty years ago), which the head of the EP project referred to as “admirable though rudimentary.” Rather than being an improvement on the MP document, the EP document actually represents a significant departure or hedging on numerous Orthodox Christian teachings, which is unsurprising, considering the list of contributors, all of whom belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and many of whom are well-known to support (whether by teaching or by omission) revision of traditional Church teaching.

In short, the Moscow Patriarchate’s The Basis of the Social Concept is viewed here as a more conservative document (“traditional,” in their language) and a more reliable document, as far as Orthodox teaching goes, than the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s FTLOTW. This is unsurprising, they write, given that the authors of FTLOTW “are well-known to support…revision of traditional Church teaching.” The editors continue: “There is actually also much to agree with here, but given this blog’s focus, we will aim mainly at the heterodoxy among the orthodoxy.” The next section of the review concerns the document’s treatment of Marriage and Sexuality. The editors write:

In §18 and §19 of the document, we get the teaching on sexuality. It prescribes “lives of sexual continence, both inside and outside of marriage,” which sounds good if one defines continence in those contexts traditionally — no sex at all outside of marriage and faithfulness to one’s spouse within marriage. But actually the document does not define continence anywhere, and §20-24 treat sexuality within marriage (therefore being what is included in “continence”) without even mentioning St. Paul’s teaching on abstinence for the sake of prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). One is therefore left with no affirmation that abstaining from sex either inside or outside of marriage is called for but only that there be “continence.” Is sex outside marriage okay? One could read this either way, but based purely on internal definitions, the more obvious conclusion is that it is indeed okay within limits.

Further, while references to marriage are made being a conjugal union of a husband and wife, there is no clear statement that marriage is only possible between single husband and single wife, one man and one woman. In our current day, such an omission is unthinkable if one is to retain the teaching of the Church on this subject. Would the authors sign a document saying “Marriage is permissible only between one man and one woman”? At best, we’re left not knowing. They certainly did not say so here, and if there is anywhere that this should be said, it’s in a document like this.

They continue with critiques of the document’s treatment of clergy remarriage (the authors of FTLOTW are open to it; the editors of the blog are against it); non-abortive contraception within marriage (the authors are open to it; the editors maintain that the subject is “controversial and still-debated”); and pornography (the authors condemn it; the editors, who view pornography as “one of the most pressing sexual sins of our time,” wish they would condemn it more strongly).

For the editors, the subject of sexuality “is probably the subject most lacking in the document.” Their understanding of sexual sin is rooted in their reading of Leviticus 18, which, they argue, teaches that “sexual immorality is bound up in idolatry and results in being vomited out of the land.” (Read Leviticus 18 in the New King James Version here.) This argument seems to hinge on the inclusion of a reference to Molech amid the verses about sexuality, and to the explicit warning that “the land [will] vomit you out” when you defy the sexual laws of God.

My own layman’s reading of this passage of Scripture is a little different. First, I believe that God makes clear in these verses that sexual morality does exist. There is no question about this: one’s sexual behavior is subject to ethical and moral concerns. Sexual sin exists. Second, I do not buy the reading that God has established an intimate relationship between sexual sin and the sin of idolatry. The passing reference to Molech (“And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord”) seems to refer to the brutal ceremony in which children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch. This injunction against “let[ting] any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech” is repeated several times in the chapters surrounding Leviticus 18. Its presence in this chapter about sexual sin would suggest that sacrifice to and worship of Moloch included a sexual component. This seems to be confirmed by Leviticus 20:5, which references those “who prostitute themselves…to commit harlotry with Molech.” Did child sacrifice to Molech involve child molestation (a sin the Bible condemns directly many times)? Were prostitution and orgies part of the worship of Molech? It’s possible. In any event, I do not believe that the text can support the weight of the abstraction required to make a doctrinal link between all sexual sin and the sin of idolatry. I just don’t see it in this passage.

Third, if I take anything away from Leviticus 18, it is that sexual behavior is viewed by the authors of the Torah as cultural. God repeatedly commands that the Israelites not adopt the sexual practices of their neighbors (in defense of the editors’ interpretation, these commands are very similar to commands against adopting the idols of the Israelite’s neighbors). I would argue that insofar as a link between idolatry and sexual sin exists, it is that both sins are national or cultural. Dietary sins also fall into this category. God established a specific sexual ethic for ancient Israel that separated it from other nations. Do these laws apply to the New Covenant? I will not take up that issue here (I’ll address my views in future posts). But I believe that in Leviticus, God defines sexuality as something that differs from culture to culture, and that He wishes Israel to demonstrate its holiness—its separateness—through its sexual behavior. This is a matter that, in my interpretation, resembles circumcision laws and dietary laws, not the sin of idolatry. (If a larger, more abstract and universal connection existed between sexual sin and idolatry, wouldn’t that be reflected in, say, the structure of the Ten Commandments? Just a passing thought….)

Wouldn’t the teachings of the Church Fathers be relevant right about now? Even if Leviticus 18 is ambiguous on whether sexual sin is tied to idolatry, and even if these sexual sins were culturally specific to Israel in the Iron Age, the Church Fathers have certainly taught that homosexuality, pornography, extramarital sex, &c., are sinful. This is beyond dispute. I will address my views on these matters vis-a-vis Holy Tradition and the teachings of the Holy Fathers in later posts. I would note, however, that one of the editors’ critiques of FTLOTW is that it is insufficiently Biblical. They write:

…the authors don’t seem too interested in the Bible. While Scripture is mentioned a number of times, it is of course (as we’ve mentioned above) very out of balance.

They don’t like the word Biblical, though, using it just once in §67 to refer to the command to take care of strangers. Scriptural also gets used just once (§34), referring to wealth inequity. Bible is never used, and Scripture gets used just nine times.

Word counts aren’t everything, of course, but out of 32k+ words, you’d think that the core of Orthodox tradition for doctrine and praxis would get featured just a bit more. The Bible is on the center of our church altars, but not in this document. It is always in the mouths of the Church Fathers as the basis for their theology, but here it is cited sparingly mainly as proof-texts.

As a former Protestant who still retains that tradition’s deep reverence for Scripture, I’m always in favor of Biblically grounded doctrine, so I don’t at all object to the editors’ desire for more Bible in FTLOTW. But I would argue that Biblical scholarship, even Orthodox Biblical scholarship, does not support a reading that links sexual sin to idolatry.

The editors go on to respond to the authors’ treatment of violence. They accuse the authors of overstating the Church’s stance on violence, writing:

While the document laudably condemns violence, in one of its many overstatements, it claims: “In the end, we may justly say that violence is sin par excellence. It is the perfect contradiction of our created nature and our supernatural vocation to seek union in love with God and our neighbor” (§43). But this is simply not true. If there is any sin which the Scriptures condemn as the sin above all others, it is idolatry. Indeed, nearly every statement from God that begins stating His commandments begins with a statement of Who He is and that He expects Israel not to go after other gods. And bound up in idolatry (as we mentioned before) is sexual immorality.

Except for the final sentence, which reasserts the connection between idolatry and sexual sin, I can’t object to this. From a purely Biblical perspective, idolatry, not violence, is sin par excellence. It’s a stretch to say that violence qua violence is even a sin. Of course, idolatry was very narrowly understood in Biblical times, and interpretations of the injunction against idolatry since then have stretched its definition almost beyond recognition. Today love of money is often described as a form of idolatry; I don’t disagree with this at all, but we should always recognize when we’re stepping beyond the Bible’s most narrowly construed and explicit meaning. I doubt the authors of the Torah would have called workaholicism or dependence on narcotics a form of idolatry, as contemporary pastors frequently do. I’m not saying the pastors are wrong, I’m just trying to demonstrate the limits of relying solely on the Bible as a source of doctrine. Nevertheless, idolatry is clearly the supreme sin from the perspective of the Biblical authors.

The proofreader might have also caught this statement: “No moral injunction constitutes a more constant theme in scripture, from the earliest days of the Law and the Prophets to the age of the Apostles, than hospitality and protection for strangers in need” (§66). So now we have the hospitality to strangers as the most constant moral theme of Scripture, which apparently is not the worst offense against God or the sin par excellence.

I’d caution the editors to slow down a bit here. Clearly the injunction against idolatry is the most explicit negative commandment in the Scriptures. Of all the “Thou shall nots,” it’s the, uh, “Thou shall naughtiest.” But one cannot read the totality of Scripture honestly without concluding that the sentence above from FTLOTW is absolutely correct, that “no moral injunction constitutes a more constant theme in scripture, from the earliest days of the Law and the Prophets to the age of the Apostles, than hospitality and protection for strangers in need.” This is the most persistent theme, the most commonly cited positive commandment, in the Bible.

The editors go on to object to the authors’ claim that the Orthodox Church rejects capital punishment; the editors comparing the issue to contraception, arguing that it’s ultimately unresolved. Historically, I have to side with the editors, although morally I side with the authors of FTLOTW. The editors go on to criticize the authors for adopting a extremely strong language to condemn racism, but not adopting similarly strong language to condemn sexual sin. Forgive the long quotation that follows, but I think it’s worth reading:

For instance, the strongest language in the document is used against phyletism/nationalism/racism: “And it must be incumbent on every Orthodox community, when it discovers such persons in its midst and cannot move them to renounce the evils they promote, to expose, denounce, and expel them. Any ecclesial community that fails in this has betrayed Christ” (§11). But where is the call to expose, denounce, and expel those who teach that sexual immorality is permissible, that such are traitors to Christ?

“The Orthodox Church condemns their views without qualification, and calls them to a complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with the body of Christ” (ibid.). Where is the condemnation and call to complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with those who teach sexual immorality? You can find those calls in the Bible, but not here. It might be uncomfortable to the modern sensibility, but God’s abhorrence for those sins is pervasive in the Bible. That does not mean that racism, etc., are not sinful, but are they really at the very top of the sinful heap? There is no condemnation in this document for the things condemned the most in the Bible.

And what are the other things that this document explicitly “condemns”? In §6, it’s “the luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute.” In §9, it’s “every kind of institutional corruption and totalitarianism.” In §20, it’s hostility to marriage. In §32, it’s again about exploiting the weak and poor. In §34, it’s current social conditions. In §38, it’s “moral derelictions in the allocation of civic wealth.” In §39, it’s usury. In §45, it’s violence. In §82, it’s “cruelty and injustice, the economic and political structures that abet and preserve poverty and inequality, the ideological forces that encourage hatred and bigotry.”

While those things are certainly worthy of condemnation from a Christian point of view, what is most notable is what’s missing. There is no condemnation of heresy, of schism, of teaching that sin is not sin, of sexual immorality, etc., things which are pernicious and pervasive in our time. The strong language is put in service of a single view of social justice but not in service of many of the things the Scripture tells us that God Himself condemns.

One might note that the Orthodox Church has nearly split in two in recent years over a question of nationalism (not sexual sin), so perhaps the issue is worth dealing with in jeremiad tones. Further, I would argue that no sin, not even lust, has so pervasively rotten the core of our societies as has greed. “The luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute” is, I would argue, the chief sin of Christendom (such as it is) in modern times. I believe that sexual norms have not changed as radically as some conservatives would have us believe. The sexual revolution came and went and, whatever your view of homosexuality, most people in Europe and North America remain jealously (if serially) monogamous. In any event, sexual sin is not currently filling the Mediterranean sea or the Sonoran desert with the dead bodies of migrants. The urgency and immediacy of the authors’ tone regarding racism, nationalism, and xenophobia is, I think, deeply warranted.

It is impossible not to conclude that the editors of the Ancient Faith blog aren’t objecting to these statements about violence on political grounds. Their emphasis on sexual sin; their quick dismissal of the statements about violence, wealth, and loving one’s neighbor; their views on contraception, the death penalty, and whether racism should be a major topic of discussion all line up perfectly with a theologically, culturally, and politically conservative worldview. Am I not doing the same thing, simply from a theologically, culturally, and politically liberal perspective? I admit that I am, culturally, quite liberal—I hope to demonstrate in this blog that my theological and (insofar as they’re relevant) political views are a bit more complicated than that. In any event, I’m willing to admit that I’m taking the side of a liberal document, FTLOTW. I’ll call this spade a spade: I’m a liberal on these particular issues. I wish the editors of the Ancient Faith blog would admit that they represent a conservative viewpoint, one that is shaped by Scripture and Tradition, certainly, but is also very much rooted in modernity. Their brand of theological conservatism, with its strict attention to questions of family and sexuality, is very much a product of the twentieth century.

This political dimension becomes more apparent, as usual, in the Comments section. One reader of the blog writes that FTLOTW offers a “typical modernist stance on violence, happy to live in countries made stable and protected by violence – first to condemn it.” Another reader writes that “the Patriarchate of Constantinople has long since ceased to exist as such. [FTLOTW is] yet more evidence of the need for its formal abolition.” Another reader approvingly quotes C.S. Lewis (a favorite of conservatives), while a former Protestant writes, “Wow! This wouldn’t even fly in the Traditional Protestant churches I grew up in! The authors obviously have an agenda not based on the sure foundation that is built by the study of God’s word. This is why the Bible repeatedly warns of false teachers.” One could accuse the scholars who wrote FTLOTW of many things, but an unfamiliarity with Scripture is not one of them.

One commenter writes: “[FTLOTW] very much reminded me of a political document from the United States, UN, or EU. I would not doubt that such influences played a part in the EP shaping, drafting, and releasing this. Same spirit and influences that made Vatican II….” Another writes: “It sounds very much as though the [Ecumenical Patriarchate] is aligning itself with Pope Francis’s thinking. Thinking that has had a destructive and divisive effect on the RCC.” Another responds, “One of my first thoughts, while reading this critique, was that this sounds like a modern, Roman document. I felt quite sad at this.” These are, I believe, explicitly and unfortunately political statements. We shouldn’t let the politics of the Roman Catholic Church, with its fierce pro-Franciscan and anti-Franciscan wings, divide us. Bartholomew is not Francis, and their issues are not ours. A more sensible reader writes, “This should be read as intended, a social document and not the rewrite of our dogmas.”

In closing, I want to say that I am a regular reader of the Ancient Faith Ministries blog. Their writings and videos were one of the factors that drew me toward Orthodoxy. I view their ministry positively and find the overwhelming majority of their work edifying. And I don’t disagree with everything in their critique of FTLOTW: like them, I am disturbed by the total lack of emphasis on evangelism, as well as the lack of pastors, bishops, and monastics involved in authoring the document (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “a provincial document,” which they do—scholars are teachers, and therefore possess a degree of legitimate authority). I’m using their response to FTLOTW as a prelude and entryway to my own response, which I will publish over the next week or so.

More soon.

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