Religious Freedoms from the Orthodox Christian perspective

Protodeacon Radomir Rakic, Serbian Orthodox Church


It is not in the spirit of Eastern Christianity to formulate relations between people primarily in view of certain rights and obligations. The Orthodox prefer to speak about relations that are “appropriate and corresponding”. These relations originate from a common experience of Christians as members of Christ’s Kingdom. They express our common understanding of the Kingdom of God, and in life they are implemented by the growth of the person according to the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) into the condition of deification (Greek  Theosis) becoming more like God.

1. The first thesis statement of our expose is that the ethical style of Orthodox Christianity is more ethos than nomos, more moral character than a collection of behaviors in a legalistic manner. We need to understand them as “appropriate and corresponding” to our manner of behavior. This behavior Christians practice when they dutifully and willfully communicate in accordance with the rights of their neighbors and in everyday situations and common associations. In that way, the rights are just demands that others place on our behavior and just demands that we place on the behavior of others towards us. And conversely, duties are firm regulations of the Christian way of life, which have to do in most cases with fundamental, routine, and usual aspects of life that are created by the rights of others. Rights and obligations are two aspects of the same reality that arise out of a common human experience, and whose fundamental fact is that we are all together created in the image and likeness of God, in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

2. Therefore, the Holy Scriptures, the Bible does not use the phrase “human rights” or “religious freedom”. Such freedoms were proclaimed during the French Revolution (18th Century), which in its essence was a secular revolution and dealt exclusively with an earthly man and the world in which he lives.

According to biblical teaching, freedom is God’s greatest gift to man, it is that which sets man apart from all other creatures. Apostle Paul sent word to Christians: “You are called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13); “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore” (Galatians 5:1); “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). But the same Apostle warned: “We have freedom in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:4). This means that Christian freedom is Christ-centered: to be able not to sin: “I can do all things in Christ who is my strength” (Philippians 4:13). Holy people have been able to observe this throughout history – saints, who serve as a model for us in our everyday public and private behavior.

Our famous poet Njegos said: “God created freedom for man”. Freedom is an essential aspect of the human character. Without freedom we would not be human beings. Henceforth, to deny the freedom of others is to deny an element of our own human nature and humanity.

3. However, there are limits to freedom, although inside these limitations it is necessary to have true ethical freedom, so that man can realize his own potential. Man’s freedom is limited partially by the rights and obligations of others. They also must have freedom to practice their rights as well as to perform their obligations.  In the same way, the taking away of an individual’s freedoms without moral foundation attacks a fundamental dimension of justice, human rights, and human dignity.

Freedoms themselves are often limited voluntarily, however, as a result of many different conditions of life. Thus, we limit our own freedom when we enter into personal relationship (i.e. marriage), when we commit ourselves by an agreement (i.e. monasticism) or take on institutional obligations. In the same way, freedom of husbands and wives have certain limitations, precisely because they became husband and wife one to the other, with all obligations and duties that marriage entails. A similar restriction of freedom exists in the relations of parents to their children and children to their parents, employers and employees, students and teachers, and in many other relationships in society.

The Bible at the very beginning speaks of the limitation of the freedom of the first man, while still in paradise. God told Adam: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

Nonetheless, within the framework of these parameters freedom must be respected. In public life, the freedom of expression of human thought must be supported and constantly respected. For the most part, people respect this right. Many civilized societies at list pay lip service to it. Difficulties emerge when the line should be drawn between authentic freedom and its limitations, such as are imposed on socially destructive practices (different sectarianism when the freedom of confessing a religion is in question), speech, and teaching.

4. From this follows the question of censorship bans. However difficult it is to convey this in a pluralistic society, censorship, in some aspects, cannot be escaped. But it should never be necessary to impose censorship which would result in the abolition of basic freedom. For example, the Church/religious community insists on the freedom of religion, and many other freedoms exist which would not need to be obliterated in a good, well-ordered society. Christian ethics rejects the totalitarian suppression of freedom.

However, not even civil freedom can be without limitations. A man cannot shout “Fire!” in a packed theater just because he is free, because there will be incalculable consequences, such as people wounded during the stampede out, maybe even deaths! That kind of act we judge in the light of potentially destructive consequences.  If someone has AIDS, and he is free, not married, is he free to be able to enter without caution into a marriage with a healthy individual? In a similar way we look at certain Satanist sects which from their adherents demand an annulment of their personalities, the freedom of choice, the freedom to carry money and the right to live from one’s own work. Not to mention victims who, somewhere, were necessary for sacrificial rituals, or temples of prostitution, of the use of drugs to be a part of a cult.

The question of censorship has not been resolved either in a free or a controlled society. Censorship further remains a problem, and it finds application in public life. This is an issue related to pornography, prostitution, some scandalous television programs (with erotic acts, black magic, fortune-telling, horoscopes, recruiting for cult movements, satanic sects), the rights of homosexuals and lesbians. In Christian ethos itself the same dilemma exists. However, immoral and self-destructive behavior often has a serious and negative influence on the well-being of our neighbor in society. This dilemma exists, but there are other criteria to take into consideration.

One of these criteria is that some provable, not just assumed, destructive consequences to society justify restrictions on public behavior. Sometimes self-destructive behavior, for example, by drinks or gambling, can lead to court decisions about treatment or reparation.  These destructive consequences have to be clear and evident, and should not be taken out of a wider context of interwoven values. This process of estimation we notice in the discipline of Christian development and growth towards the height of Christ’s example: “But grace has been given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s” (Ephesians 4:7). We are all invited to “grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10), i.e. to grow in deification. In this process of becoming real Christians we often put restrictions on ourselves because of the common welfare of the people in general. Examples of this are the prohibition of smoking on buses, planes, and elsewhere; and laws against pornography.

5. A Christian has the responsibility to limit his own freedom inasmuch as it helps carry the burden of others in the faith or weakens their trust in the Gospel of Christ. Apostle Paul showed how to exercise the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and, on the other hand, not to exercise that right considering the scandal of other Christians (see 1 Corinthians ch. 8). For this reason he was able to say: “Everything is permitted, but not everything is for my benefit” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

When Christians act and work, their behavior is not exclusively personal. Each of their sins is not only drawing them out of their personal growth into the image of God, but also from the total Christian ethos and integrity of the life of the Church. Unbecoming behavior on the part of Christians gives an incentive and an easy opportunity for others to justify their own disbeliefs.  Apostle Paul gives an important example: “Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling into sin, I will never eat meat, so that I will not cause him to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13).

For this reason, one of saints, John Chrysostom (407) teaches us: “We should live in such a way that the name of God should not be reproached”.  A Church writer Tertullian, even in the third century, observed that for the Christians people used to say: “Yes, those are Christians”, seeing how they lived such distinguished lives. Therefore, the Christian call to grow in the image and likeness of God is one aspect of our responsibility for the well-being of others.

6. Theologically, this acknowledgement of every man’s freedom to come to his own decisions is founded in the Scripture (the Bible), where God acknowledges man as a free being. Jesus Christ seeks faith from man, but He does not force him (see Matthew 9:28; “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”; Mark 9:23; John 6:29.67).

Freedom of religious expression belongs unconditionally to the freedom of conscience. Man has to have an opportunity to do that which his conscience asks of him (in which the State has no role), and he must not be compelled to act contrary to his conscience.

The freedom of religious association (i.e. the freedom that one can join any religious community or leave it) belongs inseparably to the freedom of conscience. In the same way, a freedom to create associations with religious and charitable intentions generally rests upon the social justice of man and on the principal of support for one another.

Freedom of churches/religions/religious communities results from the freedom of conscience and freedom of association. Regarding such, one should keep in mind that the church/religion is distinguished from the State by origin, by structure, and by main purpose. So from the nature of things there is no right of the Sate over the Church/religious community; but even more, laws and State structures should be limited to their own functions and be kept away from the area of Church/religious community and conscience.

The freedom of a religious community implies a freedom that it can perform its mission. The state is not competent regarding questions of the position of a religious community, for that is the area of the sacred. Religious communities themselves have a task to develop their activities outside of any pressure and outside of all dishonorable means.

7. What are religious freedoms?

Under the term “religious freedom” it is understood that the freedom of religious questions, whose guarantee and protection are required from the State, will be respected for individuals, social groups, churches and all other religious communities (Second Vatic an Council). The demand for this respect has been put forth by individuals separately and by their associations (churches, religious communities, and religious groups).

Religious freedom embraces the following elements:

a) The freedom of conscience – a man requests as his natural right to be respected and protected by the State, so that he can enjoy freedom from outside pressures while investigating the religious truth, when accepting or rejecting religious faith, in private religious and non-religious behavior.

b) The freedom of religious practice, including the following:

- freedom of expressing religious convictions: religious education in families, public profession of religion, spreading of religious truth, public attitude towards modern questions through the religious prism;

- freedom of churches/religious communities: freedom in their own fields of work (creating a constitution, teaching and the organization of community life, inner discipline, educating and appointing officials, relations between religious workers and priests, communication with religious communities and religious authorities in other countries, acquisition and disposal of their own property), and freedom of the Church/religious community from abuse by the State for its own purposes.

The State guaranties that it does not control things that have to do only with the religious community itself, but also for the people who live in that religious community (the state and society are not just equal); sacred matters do not belong to the State. By establishing religious freedoms in its constitution the State widely limits itself.

Statement of the Orthodox Church in America

(1983) Our holy Church cares about questions of justice, human rights, and preserving order between states and nations. On one side, the Church prays for ‘all those that are in authority’; on the other hand, it identifies itself also with ‘the poor, convicts and captives, with those who are indicted (on trial), those in forced labor, in exile, banishment, and in every kind of trouble, suffering and pain’ (Liturgy). Our world is full of human misery, which is very often the result of selfishness of the rich and of force imposed by certain ideologies.

To us Orthodox Christians it is clear that such conditions in the world do not exist simply because of contemporary and changing political conditions…

However, in civil society, where we enjoy our rights to freedom of assembly and association, action and voting, we have to practice all rights considering our faith and in love towards every human being, especially in the name of victims of injustice and oppression.

(1986) This Church gives “voice to the voiceless”, regardless whether they are under pressure from either left or right sides. “We express our Christian solidarity with all people who suffer from genocide, terror, and war … and everywhere where human rights are misused or violated, destroying life and stripping humans of their dignity…”

“We believe that states and governments, who are responsible for acts of repression and terror, must be publicly revealed and called to change their behavior.

Under religious freedom belongs the struggle against abortion no matter how this right might be criticized by modern feminists…*

*Lecture held at the Second Interfaith Dialogue Indonesia-Serbia in Jaкarta, Indonesia, 23-25 October 2013