Decision-Making in the Church


by Will Cohen

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on ecumenical relations.)

For Orthodoxy’s ecumenical relations as for all ecumenical relations in the early 21st century, an important question is what means there are within one’s own communion – and in others – for rendering a decisive ecclesial judgment capable of being accepted as binding. This is different from having a teaching that has been passed down and is therefore binding.  Most such teachings handed down by tradition were, themselves, at one time, forged in the crucible of internal ecclesial contention. The church has perennially passed through periods of controversy in which it had no ready-made answer to whatever the question confronting it was; it arrived at an answer. This is not to say that the Gospel changed, but that its authentic application and embodiment in each new context had to be discerned.

In the contemporary Christian world, virtually every confession has had some of its longstanding moral teachings challenged by voices both outside the church and within. It might seem that present-day fissures within Christianity over moral issues have rendered the older ecumenical topics of sacraments, ministry, and church structure secondary, even arcane.  But one has only to survey the ecumenical landscape to see how, in fact, every communion’s attempt to come to a decision about newly pressing moral questions brings all the more clearly into the open the significance and implications of its own ecclesial polity and structure. These supposedly secondary issues of ecclesiology turn out to have enormous bearing on whether a given communion is capable of speaking and acting as a unified body.  Where opposing groups within the same communion are unable to arrive at a common mind, typically there are three possibilities:  (1) schism; (2) the opposing groups agree to disagree, i.e. resign themselves to inhabiting, in effect, parallel moral/spiritual universes; or (3) a decisive judgment is made – at a ripe moment, one hopes – that is recognized by all within the communion as binding.

Orthodoxy has known some of all three of the above in its history. Of particular importance ecclesiologically and ecumenically is the third of the three: the capacity to render a decision received by all as binding. Within Orthodoxy the moral issues other confessions have struggled to resolve regarding gender and sexuality have yet to come to a head; it remains possible they will. But there exist within Orthodoxy other persistent tensions, e.g. regarding canonical territory and primacy. The tradition itself admits of different interpretations here. The question therefore arises how they can ever be settled. Orthodox rhetoric sometimes portrays the ecclesial propensity for settling things, for resolution, as almost a shortcoming of Roman Catholicism but this is to neglect Orthodoxy’s own history of judging precisely for one position over against another: homoousios over against homoiousios, icon veneration over against icononoclasm, etc. In this regard the trope of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is illuminating: it says that Orthodoxy does have it in its history and its blood to make a binding ruling affirming the teaching of some over against the teaching of others within its fold.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.