A Dialogue on Orthodoxy and Society


Ernst Benz, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church (an Anchor paperback, now out of print), numbers among Orthodoxy’s weaknesses its tendency to align itself with the State, and its lack of significant social mission.


Concerning this particular book, it is extremely dated and it has hardly been considered by Orthodox Christianity as a “benchmark” of Orthodoxy, precisely because it contains many comments, such as those you note, that are not exactly true.

While the Church had been aligned with the State, often against the Church’s wishes—Peter the Great, for example, reduced the Church to a department of state and abolished the Patriarchate, giving the Church no alternative—it was precisely because of its connection to the state that the state often relied on the Church to open and operate hospitals, orphanages, and in general conduct social services in place of the state. Even a casual familiarity with the situation of the Church of Russia in the 19th and early 20th century reveals that the Church operated schools, orphanages, hospitals, temperance societies, and in general every social institution one could imagine. Of course, during the communist era, the Church was prohibited from doing anything other than conducting worship services within the walls of officially registered church buildings, so the lack of such social involvement during that era is hardly a “flaw” of Orthodoxy and surely is not a sign of the Church’s alignment with the state but, rather, the Church’s total marginalization by the state, which aimed at destroying it.

During the Byzantine era, it was precisely the Church which operated hospitals, orphanages, etc. This, too, is well documented, even in casual studies and histories. Again, after the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the marginalization of Christianity therein, the Church was also restricted in its social involvement, likewise pointing to the fact that Orthodox Christianity is not exactly involved with the state but, rather, utterly hampered by the state.

Today, the situation is quite different. In the former communist countries, it is precisely the Church that has spearheaded the opening and operation of orphanages, social services in hospitals—the Church, for example, staffs the nursing team of City Hospital No. 1 in Moscow, and immediately began to do so even before the fall of the Soviet Union—while in Greece the Church has maintained a wide variety of social ministries.

Last year, the Moscow Patriarchate issued a lengthy and much-heralded “Social Doctrine” of the Russian Orthodox Church which deals precisely with the establishment or reestablishment of those ministries and services which Benz claims the Church has not engaged in.


He notes that, in the West, Christians led the way in movements for social betterment (e.g., the abolition of slavery), while, in the East, such efforts have usually come from non- or even anti-Christian groups.


While the Church is primarily involved in the salvation of souls and is not a “social-welfare society or organization,” Benz’s observations here are indeed a bit slanted and are not borne out by a serious, or even casual, study of Orthodox Church history. If the Church, during the 500 year Ottoman period or the 74 year communist era, was unable to spearhead such movements, it was not because the Church was intimately tied with the state; rather, it was because the Church was completely marginalized by the state.


Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that, while the Orthodox build many churches and monasteries, they are not—-unlike Western Christians—-noted for founding hospitals and orphanages.


I believe I have already corrected you.


“Faith without works is dead,” the apostle says.


This is a fundamental tenet of the Orthodox Christian Faith and life.


Do the Orthodox limit “works” to mean “works done for the benefit of other Christians”?


Hardly. I don’t know of a parish that doesn’t have some sort of neighborhood outreach ministry, mininistries to community food pantries, homeless shelters, etc. In the parish I serve, for example, we are the only church in town to conduct and fully staff literacy programs for the many immigrants in the neighborhood, regardless of their religious background, and this is hardly a rare instance at this point.

I could write volumes about the social outreach programs conducted in Greece, Russian, Poland, Romania, the Middle East, and other lands as well, which are well documented, and not only within Orthodox circles.

I would caution that jumping to such a conclusion based on what Benz wrote several decades ago would be quite unfair to Orthodox Christianity in general and today’s parish life in particular.

I would also point out that such organizations as International Orthodox Christian Charities, the humanitarian aid organization of Orthodox Christians in North America, has been at the forefront of countless programs in war torn regions of the world, and not exclusively traditionally Orthodox lands. While IOCC has and continues to serve the needs of individuals, regardless of ethnic or religious background, in such diverse places as Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Alaska, Ukraine, Romania, and elsewhere, it has also offered massive assistance to Central America, Haiti, the Far East, and other places. In fact, IOCC was one of the first organizations to provide counseling and training in the wake of the 11 September attacks, and continues to train individuals, clergy and lay alike, for ongoing programs for one and all.


Orthodox Christians under Communism gave many heroic examples of witness in the face of unspeakable evil. In all charity, and meaning no disrespect, it seems to me that they might have been spared much of this suffering— and spared millions of others —if they had emulated their Western brethren and done more to promote justice in their own societies, even if that meant cutting ties with the State.


The fundamental error you make here is in your assumption that the Church had ties with the state during the communist era, which as is well known was hardly the case. How would the Church of Russia, for example, which had been reduced to less than 100 functioning parishes and two bishops by 1939—there were some 54,000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops prior to the Russian Revolution—have been able to challenge the Stalinist regime any more than it had? If western Christianity had indeed provided the answer to that question, surely the Church would have been more than happy to receive their assistance.

What Benz, and many others in the west, completely refuse to recognize is that while the Church was being persecuted by the communists in Eastern and Central Europe, western Christianity generally turned its back on the Orthodox world, and there are well-documented instances of Protestant hierarchs and clergy buying into the communist party line on “freedom on conscience,” thereby denying before the world that persecution was taking place at all! The most well-known example of this came in the early 1980s, when Billy Graham returned from Russia and announced that he saw no evidence of religious persecution in the Soviet Union. Surely that did not help the Church in the midst of persecution!!

Further, one could well argue that had the Orthodox world had “emulated their Western brethren and done more to promote justice in their own societies,” as you assert, Orthodoxy would be in the same boat today as the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, the Anglican Church in Great Britain—where the average Sunday participation, by the Anglican Church’s own admission, is less than one million people per week!!—the Catholic Church in France, and so on. While much of the Christian west was indeed involved in promoting justice in their own societies, the Church does not exist primarily as to advocate social justice. Of course, peace and justice issues are an integral part of the Gospel, but they are not the soul of the Gospel, and many of the social issues with which the Christian west has aligned itself and continues to align itself are hardly Christian causes in the first place. We must never forget that, when Judas protested the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with costly ointment, stating that the ointment should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, Christ rebuked him and reminded him that the poor will always be with us. The money derived from the sale of a single vial of ointment would not have had little effect on stamping out world hunger.


I’m an Episcopalian who finds himself leaning toward Orthodoxy; but, this (apparent) tendency of the Orthodox to be “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good” troubles me deeply.


I would hardly base my opinions on the life of the Orthodox Church on Benz’s books, nor would I be troubled by it. Indeed, the Church is “heavenly minded,” as the Church’s fundamental purpose for existing is to continue the saving mission of Jesus Christ, Who was not primarily a social worker, but the Savior and God of all.