“Orthodox Morality” on Sex or an Ethics of Sex? Part One: Dogmas v. Canons and Beliefs v. Ethics

by Aristotle Papanikolaou  |  ελληνικά

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.


Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay.

As this story illustrates, ecclesial ethics on sexuality have been primarily about sex and the criteria for establishing a morally right sex act.

From the start, someone might argue that there is nothing to talk about, as the Church’s teaching on sex has been clear and succinct from the beginning. It must be admitted that the overwhelming body of shared authoritative sources of the Orthodox Tradition—Scripture, Councils, Writings/Sayings of Saints, Canons, Liturgy—does limit sexual activity to marriage, with some even restricting the performance of the sexual act for procreation. This raises the question of what can or cannot be talked about in the Church; it is a question of how we should interpret these shared authoritative sources.

Recently, the phrase “Orthodox morality” has been invoked to name a definitive and unchangeable body of teaching on moral rules, but one cannot find such an expression in any of the languages—Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian—used for the texts that have been constitutive for the Orthodox Tradition.  Some even argue that the word “heresy” was used for moral infractions and bring up as proof the Nicolaitans. The Apostle makes passing reference to the Nicolaitans for both their works and teaching (Rev. 2.6, 15), after which they are mentioned only rarely and linked to Gnosticism (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3.11). They came to be included in the lists of “heretics” as a result of this affinity with Gnosticism and not for the acts of eating food sacrificed to idols or sexual immorality.

For the Church, actions were never labeled with the adjectives of “Orthodox” or “heretical,” only beliefs centered around the Trinity or the person of Christ (the dogma on the icon is an extension of the debate on the person of Christ). As St. Basil argues in his “Letter to Amphilochius, Concerning the Canons,” “by heresies they meant those who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith” (Letter 188). The dogmatic proclamations of the Council were always separate from the canonical proclamations. Morality was codified in the canons of the Church. Yes—there must be a consistency between theology and ethics, between dogma and canons, but while dogmas are non-negotiable, canons are part of the ongoing discernment of the Church.

The notion of oikonomia would indicate as such, because while no one in the Church would ever be allowed to deny the divinity of Christ (dogma), the canons are the result of the application of the Gospel in the exercise of oikonomia, discerning what will bring the human being to the ultimate goal, which is union with God.  There are so many examples in the Tradition of the canons as the result of ongoing discernment, discretion, and reflection, in light of particular situations, that this is axiomatic in our Church; but, there is not one single example of anyone being allowed to deny the divinity of Christ. While the Church has always condemned both beliefs and actions, moral infractions are dealt with through penances: a sanction is imposed for breaking moral rules, whereas rejection of the divinity of Christ qualifies for “heresy.” This also explains why, as is readily evident, there are ample examples of once morally forbidden actions that the Church now allows. One of the clearest examples is usury, but the Church has also revised its guidance on divorce, slavery, consulting Jewish physicians, and other canonical matters.

While the proclamation of the Church in the form of canons, scriptural passages, and patristic statements may weigh heavily in a particular direction on a moral issue (as they did at one time in the acceptance of slavery and even advice to slaves!), these particular directives, which shaped the Church’s own proclamation, are discussable and discernible.  Dogmas are non-negotiable, but they set the parameters for debate; they do not stifle legitimate discussion, which includes the types of practices and actions that would regulate the architecture of the soul in order to make it open to God’s grace, which is always on offer. The whole struggle is, as Vladimir Lossky so eloquently put it, to “live the dogma” (The Mystical Theology, 8).

How can we be sure that our ongoing discernment within the Church is faithful to the Tradition? Some might define this faithfulness in terms of “biblical morality” or in terms of length of time the Church has proclaimed a particular moral principle, moral rule, or canonical prohibition. Phrases like “biblical morality” muddy the waters as it gives the impression that morality is reducible to literal interpretation of injunctions from the Bible. One look at Leviticus would dispel such a way of interpreting the Tradition of our Church, not to mention the New Testament prohibitions that the Church today does not follow to the letter (Mk 10:11-12 [depending on how one interprets this obscure passage]; 1 Cor 11:6, 14:34). Orthodox Christianity is a religion of the person, not of the book, and the Scriptures, which are foundational, authoritative, and sacred, point to the person of Christ who becomes the hermeneutical key for how to read Scripture.

In the end, it is the dogmatic tradition that forms the framework for this discernment. The dogmas of the Church point to the unity of the divinity and humanity in Christ, and this revelation is what also reveals to us that humans are able to experience the divine energies and to become like God, which the Church has defined as theosis (deification). As St. Athanasius says, in what is probably the best summary of our faith, “God became human so that humans can become God” (On the Incarnation, 54.3). This axiom becomes the interpretive lens through which we must try to understand all the shared authoritative sources. (For an excellent example of such an approach to the very difficult passage of Proverbs 8.22, which if taken literally would deny the divinity of Christ, see St. Athanasius, Orations Against the Arians, 2.18-82)

To become God does not mean to become like Zeus or Thor; to become God means to love as God loves—even stranger and enemy—since God is love (1 Jn 4:8). So, when we speak about ethics in the Church, the goal or telos of ethics is to transfigure our lives (Mt 17:1-13) in such a way that we participate more and more in God’s life, which allows us to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and love neighbor as self (Lk 10:27). It is within this framework that we must discern the kind of ethical norms and practices that make possible this type of union with God in this life, which we can experience to a greater and lesser degree. And it is this axiom that eventually pushed the Church to (finally) categorically condemn slavery rather than simply offer advice to the slave or canons on regulating their behavior.

Some might argue that to say that ethical norms and practices are subject to discussion is a form of relativism and a result of being influenced by secular, modern, liberal discourse that is diametrically opposed to Orthodoxy. First, discernment is part of the Tradition of the Church and it does not involve relativism since there is a clear telos in sight for this process of discernment—theosis. Second, “diametrical opposition” is itself a form of dualism that is theologically problematic, since the Holy Spirit is “every present and fills all things.” In fact, all heresies are a form of dualism, and the dogmatic Tradition around the person of Christ resisted this absolute dualism between the created and the Uncreated. Moreover, the Fathers and Mothers of our Tradition have always identified what is good in Greek pagan philosophy. Is recognizing what was right in Platonism a capitulation to Greek pagan thought? The very structure of the soul used by St. Maximus (see part 2) to make sense of a life in theosis is itself an appropriation from Greek pagan philosophy. Does that invalidate the theological anthropology of St. Maximus? Finally, why is discerning ethical norms in light of new information a surrender to a diametrically opposed form of discourse? Could not the absolute rejection of modern, liberal discourse itself be a form of defining Orthodoxy in light of this self-opposition? And if the opposition itself is what is defining Orthodoxy, is this distorted apophaticism—we are what we are not—really being faithful to the Orthodoxy that in the end is about our ascent toward union with God?

Read Part Two: A Theology of the Erotic

Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.