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Thoughts On Religious Tolerance In The Orthodox Church
By Fr. Andrew Harrison

Religious tolerance is one of the major issues faced by the Orthodox Church in America today. When the word orthodox is used as a noun it describes the Orthodox church as a faith group or organization as in Eastern Orthodox Church or Greek Orthodox Church. The word orthodox implies intolerance when it is used as an adjective. The word means true worship or true belief. This means then that other faiths are not true. The Orthodox Christian church is the only church which is true or orthodox. This is basically the official teaching of the world Orthodox Church. So the Orthodox Church can be accused of being intolerant.

Intolerance is expressed in certain practices. Orthodox Christians are not permitted to receive Holy Communion in non orthodox churches and other Christians can not receive Holy Communion in an Orthodox Church. Only Orthodox Christians can be Godparents. Marriages by Orthodox Christians in non Orthodox churches, are not condoned. Non -Orthodox Christians can marry an Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox church if they have a recognized baptism. The church does not condone marriages with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain cults. Orthodox clergy are not permitted to con-celebrate in other Christian churches. Woman priests, gay priests, and same sex marriage are discussed but usually in defense of intolerance.

In writing this article, I read an article by a professor of Judaic studies suggesting that the origin of religious intolerance came from Monotheism. The God of Israel is the only God and all others were false gods. The first commandment banned any form of religious tolerance. The first commandment is quite specific. 'I am the LORD your God…' You shall have no other gods before Me.' In the article he does point out statements in the Old Testament and other Jewish writings which tend to support tolerance. “More over there is more to Jewish law than its letter Leviticus 19:18 says ‘love your neighbor as yourself”.

In biblical times, Jews were not permitted to intermarry or participate in other non Jewish rituals. Only Jews were permitted in the ancient Temple services. There are many other restrictions described in detail in the Old Testament. The early Christians were persecuted by Jews because of their unorthodox belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Jewish intolerance ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion in 70 AD. Jews then became victims of intolerance by both Romans and later Christians. According to the author of the article, Jewish intolerance was renewed with the establishment of the modern state of Israel. (See Monotheism and Roots of Intolerance by Stanley N. Rosenbaum in Religious Traditions and Limits of Tolerance, Edited by Hammann and Buck, Anima Publications, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. 1988)

The Christian church is rooted in Judaism. The early Christians did not see themselves belonging to a different religion. They were Jews who had accepted Christ as the Messiah. Christians continued the tradition of religious intolerance when they emerged as the dominant religion in the later Roman Empire. This tradition is still expressed in the Christian Church today. There are different degrees of religious intolerance and the Orthodox Church could be classified as being very intolerant.

In order to fully understand the Orthodox Churches stand on religious tolerance, it is necessary to clarify the kinds of tolerance the church accepts. Doctrinal intolerance is concerned with the amount of divergent belief permitted before a member would be classified as a heretic and removed from membership. Moral intolerance would be the related to a persons behavior. It is the general rule that any behavior considered sinful requires reconciliation with the Church as the body of Christ. No one is permitted to receive the sacraments if he/she openly practices sinful acts without due repentance and reconciliation through confession. Legal intolerance would be official decisions made by church leaders which direct a state to enact laws which compel people into Christian beliefs and practices. Certainly the Orthodox Church along with other Christian bodies have practiced legal intolerance.

The entire question of legal religious tolerance is an American concept. It developed out of necessity when the country was founded. The colonies were practicing religious intolerance. Each colony had its own establish expression of Christianity passing laws which favored the established faith group. Only Pennsylvania prided itself as having a degree of tolerance.

In order to form “one nation under God”, the founding fathers had to find a way to bring all faiths together. The answer came in the adoption of religious liberty which rejected any form of established state religion. It was based on an enlightenment philosophy called pluralism. Pluralism as defined on Wikipedia as a “concept that two or more religions with mutually exclusive truth claims are equally valid. This posture often emphasizes religion's common aspects.” Legal religious tolerance became codified with the passing of the first amendment to the Constitution. Although a radical concept in its day, Americans have become so accepting of pluralism that it is expected that all faiths, religions and nations practice it. The United States has used its political influence to impose it on other nations. It is written into the constitution of the United Nations and is considered a human right. Much of the conflict with Islam is related to religious tolerance. Islam like Judaism and Christianity has a tradition of intolerance. We could say that America has become intolerant of any country which does not practice religious tolerance.

For the Orthodox Church today in America, all doctrines as expressed in the Creed and later doctrinal definitions by Ecumenical Councils must be accepted as truth. Anything not defined is open to speculation and not required for membership. Christian morality, as described in the New Testament, is the norm for member behavior. Any member stepping outside the norm can be reconciled to the Orthodox Church through confession and absolution.

In relations with other Christian faith groups and religion, the Orthodox Church accepts one of the other Wikipedia lesser definitions of pluralism. “As the name of the worldview according to which one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions.” Dialogue with other Christian faith groups is an ongoing process with a hope for eventual Christian unity. With other religions there are discussions centered on issues of mutual benefit. This position is supported by in an article on tolerance by an Orthodox Christian writer in the same journal (see above) which defines the love of God in the Trinity as a dialogue between the lover and the object of that love. “ For there to be a phenomenon of love, there must be two poles of the lover and the beloved. For there to be a dialogue which is the very process God has chosen to reveal himself…(see On the Art of Belonging by Anthony Ugolnik)

In Orthodox liturgical services, prayers for peace are offered for civil authorities so “we may lead a calm and peaceful life.” The church encourages its members to be good citizens, vote, and support laws which protect and defend Christian morality because these practices are good for a well ordered state. How much the Orthodox Church should officially take a stand against laws it deems questionable is still under debate. One example is the abortion on demand laws. Official statements against these laws are not universal among all Orthodox Churches although some leaders do participate in public demonstrations for repeal.

The position of the Orthodox Church, I believe, teaches limited tolerance based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He always tried to persuade people into the kingdom of God and never used coercion. He did not tolerate hypocrites and vehemently spoke out against them. He commanded his followers to love everyone, including unbelievers, the immoral and even enemies. When faced with infractions in civil law he taught that all power is from God and should be honored but not necessarily obeyed. This is what Jesus taught and practiced.

I found this article difficult to write in the atmosphere of political correctness. I recommend the journal quoted above as helpful in the ongoing debate about Religious tolerance.

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