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Ask an Eastern Orthodox Christian: Can I disagree with the church on some issues?

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By Nicholas Damascus

Is it possible to disagree with the church on certain issues, such as ritual purity laws (i.e., prohibiting of Eucharist during a woman’s monthly cycle or after manslaughter)?

Is it possible to disagree with the Church on specific issues? Absolutely! It is possible for anyone to pick and choose what they want to believe or practice and create their own theology. Do Orthodox Christians strictly adhere to every canon and tradition? I think not, rather, most of us are a work in progress.

The Orthodox faith is not a religion, it is “a way of life” with guideposts to aid in each person’s journey of theosis. Theosis is similar to the western meaning of salvation but not the same. The will of God for us is to participate in and be transformed through His grace and mercy: to become what He is by nature.

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:4, NIV)

The Eastern Orthodox Church is a living, breathing organism that is not confined to a corporate legalistic set of rules carved in stone. The guidelines for the faith are spelled out in the canons. A “canon” is defined in the Greek as “likened to a measuring stick,” and as a standard that expresses a principle that is true.

Even though a canon may dictate a certain path, it is up to the Church to apply it in a way that is most beneficial and yet preserves the principles and spirit of the holy canon. The Church does this, when necessary, by a practice called “economia” which may determine that people’s salvation is achieved by a less strict or exact application of the canons of the Church.

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NIV)

In regard to receiving the Eucharist (communion), let me first define it as the principal sacramental mystery and centerpiece of the Orthodox Church. It is not a simple memorial of the Last Supper which is only occasionally observed, but the holistic experience of communion with the Living God.

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:53-54, NIV)

The Eastern Orthodox Church, according to the teachings of Scripture and Tradition, believes that in the chalice is the presence of Christ and the Body of Believers (the Church), which we receive in the sacrament of communion.

Ritual purity laws concerning a woman’s monthly cycle

There are certain canons which limit or exclude women in some areas of liturgical participation, such as taking holy communion, by the concept of them being impure once a month during menstruation and for a period of 40 days after giving birth. Examples of ritual purity laws can be found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Judaic spirituality exerted a strong influence on the development of early Christianity.

In 262 A.D., St. Dionysius of Alexandria wrote in his second canon: “If one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he should not approach the holy mysteries.” I do not read this as referring to bodily hygiene, but to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

Despite what St. Dionysius says, ideally one should approach the Chalice as a repentant sinner, knowing that the grace and mercy of God overcomes all sins. One’s natural functions should not prohibit in the participation of communion.

There were other theologians and church fathers who addressed these issues. Some use the example of the woman who had the flow of blood and touched the garment of Christ, found in Matthew 9:20-22, to support their position. This woman was not scolded for approaching Christ while “unclean.” The “Didascalia Apostolorum” is very strong in prohibiting Christians to observe any Levitical laws. It excuses menstruating women to be able to receive the Eucharist, based on the reasoning that the Eucharist is consecrated through the Holy Spirit and since Christians are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, why would anyone be denied receiving the Eucharist?

Around 600 A.D., St. Gregory the Great Pope of Rome said, “It is the property of pious souls to see sin where there is none.” He also says:

A woman should not be restricted from going to church and receiving the Eucharist. Now the option of a woman who does not want to receive should be praised. However, if she wants to live religiously and receive Communion out of love, one should not stop her.

So how does the Church approach these issues? Canons are modified through the process of economia, which was discussed earlier. Since the concept of sin has everything to do with will, a woman cannot be blamed for menstruating, which the body does naturally and involuntarily.

There are disagreements among the jurisdictions on this matter. It is my understanding that the Antiochian Holy Synod ruled some time ago that women experiencing their monthly periods should not be excluded from the Eucharist. In other synods, this question is left up to the spiritual father, and in many cases, to the episcopal guidance of a bishop or metropolitan of the diocese or jurisdiction.

Ritual purity laws concerning manslaughter

The priest should consult with his bishop or metropolitan as to whether the person in question should be granted economia concerning manslaughter. Priests are often left to their own decision-making because giving immediate attention can be imperative.

St. Basil indicates in Canon 13 that those who come back from war and have taken a life should voluntarily exclude themselves from receiving communion for a period of three years. Killing is always sinful and breaks the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” even if it’s in self-defense.

Herein is where we must rely on the sovereignty of the Almighty God. As we approach Him with a repentant heart, doesn’t His divine providence protect and cover all things ultimately? Where we lack, God by His grace, mercy and unconditional love for us, fills in to make us whole. God loves you, He really does!

Blessings.

Nicholas Damascus

About Nicholas Damascus

Nick Damascus is one who seeks to discover and apply the proverbial question of what is truth and wisdom, to fill that gaping hole, to become complete and to become realistically and synergistically functional. In an attempt to live the Christian life, which he says is a definite work in progress, he has discovered that he's created the Christ that fits his lifestyle and agrees with his ego (and boy what an ego, he says), carefully avoiding what God intended him to be.

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