( skip to main content )

Publications: Articles - Biblical

Are We Bound by Moral Laws?

Introductory Remarks

The answer to the question is “No”. Now, this will almost certainly shock some people. I can hear cries of : “What of the Ten Commandments?” “What of the Church canons?” “What of the just fulminations of hierarchs against the sins of wayward flocks?” I can almost hear the cries of “Heresy! Fetch the faggots, light the fire and be done with this libertarian Pom”. So, before arrows descend upon me from the skies,let me hasten to explain.

The Gospel message Orthodoxy grounds its approach to morality firmly in the teaching of the Gospel. Christ taught not that the Jewish law was abolished, with His coming, but rather that it was subsumed under, and reinterpreted through, the New Commandment of love of God and love of one’s neighbour. When the Pharisee lawyer tested Christ by asking Him the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Christ replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40 RSV).

A new Commandment

Love of God and love of one’s neighbour are the two sides of the same coin. If you sincerely love God then you will also love your neighbour, because your neighbour is in God’s image. If you love your neighbour then you will love God, because in your neighbour you will see the face of Christ. In Luke’s account of the New Commandment, the lawyer puts the question to Christ: “And who is my neighbour?” And Jesus answers him by means of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luk. 10:30-37). Every person with whom we come into contact or are in a position to help is our neighbour. At the Last Supper Christ says to the Apostles:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one
another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one
another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

Christ Himself frequently violated the letter of the law to make the point that the law was given for the benefit of humanity and should be followed in its spirit rather than letter: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”(Mk. 2:27). Christ died to free us from bondage to the law and give us the freedom of sons of light in union with Him. Christians are bound by the spirit of the law, “interpreted by love”, but not by the letter. Paradoxically, it is by being yoked to Christ that we become free of the law.

Freedom from the Law

Paul’s Message For Paul, the Jewish law was a dividing wall which stood between humanity and God, indicting of sin those in bondage to the law (Eph. 2:14-16). This partition Christ has broken down. Now Christians can have a direct personal relationship with God by virtue of being clothed in Christ through their baptism into His death and resurrection (Gal. 3:27). Christians, as a consequence, have been freed from the obligations of the law: “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful.

“All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything (1 Cor. 6:12).

The connection between baptism and freedom from the law is clear from the verse immediately before the one just quoted: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Now the only law for Christians is the law of love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). But obedience to the over-arching New Commandment of love does not entail a lesser demand on us than the keeping of the Jewish law entailed but a greater.

We do not belong to ourselves, we belong to Christ. If we are true followers of Christ, it is not we who make decisions as to what is right or wrong according to individual reason or inclination, the dictates of the ego, or to public or even ecclesiastical morality, but Christ who is within us and owns us. Our moral freedom is a consequence of our enslavement to Christ: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). And Christ Himself says: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matt. 11:29). But the Mystery is deeper even than this. By freely accepting enslavement to Him, Christ not only frees us from bondage to the law and enslavement to “the elemental spirits of the universe”, but bestows on us, if we will but accept it, the ultimate gift, the perfect freedom of sons of God (Gal. 4:3-7).

The person who knows “the mind of the Lord”, Paul says, cannot be judged or instructed by another: The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:15-16).

The Christian Moral Life

Having fulfilled the Jewish Law, it was certainly not Christ’s will that His disciples should erect a body of Christian law to replace it. As the Christian matures in the life in Christ, moral rules should be allowed to fall away and moral action determined by the indwelling Saviour. We are justified not “by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galations 2:16; see also, 16 through 21).

The person born again into Christ is Christ’s slave and no one has the right - no Pope, Patriarch or Council - to intervene in that personal relationship, any more than anyone had the right to intervene under Roman law in the relationship of master and slave.

For those living in Christ the law has been totally absorbed into the New Commandment of love. The New Commandment is not, however, a new law added to or replacing the Deuteronomic Law or its summary, the Ten Commandments. In fact, it is not strictly a moral law at all but, in philosopher-speak, a meta-ethical law. That is, a directive that tells Christians by what criterion they should make decisions when confronted by a moral choice. Is this a recipe for moral anarchy? It is not. For while Christians might enjoy absolute moral freedom in Christ, they are at the same time members of the Good Shepherd’s fold, the Church. No Christian is an island. In the view of Orthodoxy, the Christian life can only be led within the body of Christ. The committed Orthodox Christian is immersed in and guided by Holy Tradition in its entirety –the Scriptures, the theological consensus and spiritual wisdom of the Fathers, the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils, the teaching of the holy icons, the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Moreover, they will give heed to the teaching of those appointed as earthly shepherds of Christ’s flock and to the counsel of spiritual mothers and fathers.

The moral teaching of the New Testament finds its liturgical expression in doxology, as is the case with its dogmatic teaching summarised in the Creed. It is interesting to note that at the precise place that the English Reformer, Archbishop Cranmer, introduced the recitation of the Ten Commandments into the Prayer Book Communion service, the Orthodox Church, in the Divine Liturgy, chants the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) as part of the Typica. (Regrettably, in modern Greek usage antiphons usually replace the Typica.) For Orthodox, the moral exemplar liturgically set before them is not the proscriptive Ten Commandments of the Old Dispensation but the liberating doxological
Beatitudes of the New.

For Orthodoxy, then, Christian morality is right thought and behaviour learnt through the life in Christ within the worship of the body of Christ, rather than through subjection to an exterior moral law. The only law is the law that is no law, the interior law of love. But does our moral freedom in Christ mean that we can totally dispense with all rules, laws and commandments? Of course not.

Commandments, Civil Laws and Canons

St Paul says that the Jewish law was a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:23-26). By this he means that the covenant of Sinai and the Deuteronomic law provided a God-given moral education to the Jews. With the incarnation of Christ, and the proclamation of the New Commandment, there was, however, no further need of the schoolmaster since Christ Himself was now the moral guide of mature Christians.

The sacrament of baptism is only the start of the full life in Christ. Each one of us has to mature in Christ. While our personhood develops, and we (hopefully) struggle to conform our lives to the Spirit of Christ working within us, we need the help and discipline of moral rules. And obviously in the bringing up of children we need to inculcate in them moral principles such as those of the Ten Commandments, though this is better done through example than by the imposition of rules.

But, for a Christian, moral rules must always be construted as expedients to help us along the path to theosis; till that day when we can have no further use of a rule book. Two dangers in particular must be carefully guarded against in relation to moral rules. Firstly, any notion that one size fits all. Secondly, any notion that breaking this or that rule is necessarily wrong. The law of love, the New Commandment, over-rides all rules. Christians are not bound by rules governing personal morality, but they are not the only kind of rules. There are civil laws and Church laws, canons. Proper discussion of such laws would require two further articles; so topics to which we might return. Suffice it to say here, our obligation to obey civil laws is governed by Christ’s pronouncement, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). It is only when Caesar, that is the State, usurps that which belongs to God that the Christian conscience might dictate the disobeying of the law of the land.

Thus, early Christians suffered martyrdom because the refused to offer a pinch of incense to the genius of the, supposedly divine, emperor. The defining of the line between what belongs to Caesar and what to God is, of course, by no means always an easy matter. The primary function of canon law is to secure proper order in the worship and governance of the Church, the ministry of the clergy, and the regulation of monasteries etc. Canon law thus reflects St Paul’s constant concern that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

True there are canons that stray into the domain of personal morality, but the Church has never understood such canons juridically. Canons do not have the same authority as dogmatic definitions, being attempts to apply dogmatic teaching to prevailing conditions in accordance with current knowledge. If conditions or background knowledge change, a canon might become redundant or be in need of revision. In any event, canons must always be administered with economy; that is, taking into account particular circumstances, level of spiritual development, evidence of contrition, or prevailing social and political conditions etc. The Church has never construed its body of canon law as a Christian replacement of the Old Testament law. Moral canons have always been understood therapeutically rather than legalistically.

Guy Freeland teaches hermeneutics and liturgical
studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.

< Back to the articles list