January 16, 2021

Fr. Ernesto: Oikonomía, a better way to pastor


Note from CM: Today we welcome a longtime friend of Internet Monk, Father Ernesto, who shares with us how we might learn from ancient Orthodox tradition to help people with better pastoral care. Pastors, ministers, priests, and chaplains, I’d especially love to hear from you today, but I think it will also be important to process what Fr. Ernesto has to say from the standpoint of the non-ordained in the church. In my mind, it all goes back to Jesus, who critiqued the religious leaders of his days and told them, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

• • •

Oikonomía, a better way to pastor
by Fr. Ernesto Obregon

There was God’s Will to consider, and God was understood often to give people not what they wanted but what they needed. He dealt with people not according to fixed principles of justice but in ways that would best bring about each soul’s salvation. The Byzantine term for this was oikonomía, and it is still an important aspect of Orthodox Christian pastoral theology.

• Brian Patrick Mitchell,
Byzantine Empire—or Republic?
The American Conservative, August 7, 2015.

• • •

Oikonomía is a term that is difficult for many Orthodox to understand. But, I do not think that it is just us Orthodox. It is a concept that has been hard for both Old Testament and New Testament believers to understand. From Jonah saying to God that he just knew that God was going to forgive Nineveh, to Habakkuk being horrified that God planned to use incredibly evil sinners to discipline Israel, to the shock of those who expected Jesus to condemn the woman caught in adultery (or be accused of breaking the Law and be stoned himself), believers keep being shocked at what God decides is the best way to bring someone to Himself.

The author of the article points out the reason when he says, “He dealt with people not according to fixed principles of justice but in ways that would best bring about each soul’s salvation.” Americans have a strong built in idea that God is a law and order God. There is only one problem. That is not really what God seems to do in Scripture. He does support principles of justice. The prophets constantly rail against injustice. But, God’s purpose is to bring people into his kingdom. And, if a law appears to interfere with bringing someone into the Kingdom of God, then God has no problem in putting that law aside. Thus, the woman caught in adultery is forgiven outside the law because that unexpected forgiveness is precisely what she needs to hear in order to bring her into the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, this does not mean that God will always ameliorate punishment. The principle of oikonomía is also carried out if God chooses to be tougher on someone. Thus, in the Book of Habakkuk, the prophet finds that the best way to bring Israel back to obedience to God is for God to choose to use a thoroughly evil empire to attack Israel, destroy the majority of Israel, cause intense pain and suffering, and leave the country devastated. In some pastoral advice that Saint John Chrysostom gives, he tells the priest that they must judge the discipline that is applied to a sinner. Some sinners, he says, need to have their discipline lightened, lest they faint from weariness and leave the faith. But, some, he says, are hard-headed so that the only way to get their attention and bring change is for the pastor to apply a much harsher discipline than that which is specified by the canons. In all cases, the canon serves only as a guideline and not as a mandatory punishment. While it is true that in most cases Saint John Chrysostom urges a lightening of penalties, yet he makes it clear that some cases require the strengthening of penalties.

Oikonomía is hard to understand because it is not a simple reliance on written laws and guidelines, rather it is a reliance on a relationship based administration of godly guidelines. God understands people and God understands what will best work to give the best possibility that a person will truly come to him and be saved. In the same way, the bishop and his priests and deacons are called not to simply apply the canon, but to so come to know the person involved that when they apply the canon, they will do so in the way that is most likely to preserve that person’s salvation. Thus someone may be ordained much sooner than expected. A discipline for a sin committed by a church member may either be lightened or strengthened. But, at bottom, whatever action is taken must be based on a knowledge of a person and what will most help their journey to salvation.

Oikonomía is often challenged by people who think that if one is never sure how a canon will be applied that this will give too much liberty to a bishop or priest and that this will lead to unfairness and favoritism. What they fail to understand is that a strict adherence to a canon is precisely what will lead to something worse than unfairness, it will lead to death for all too many who fall under that canon. Even if unfairness creeps in, yet the practice of oikonomía will lead to more salvation than to too much unfairness. It is amazing how often people use the phrase, “it’s not fair,” to justify strict adherence to law and canons, even when such adherence leads to more death and less life.

Ultimately, the principle of oikonomía is a higher principle than the principle of law and order. Or, perhaps a much better way to phrase it is that the principle of oikonomía encompasses law and order as an ideal guideline that is modified as necessary in its application in order that the maximum number of people are saved. Sometimes it is modified and applied with much less strictness than the canon specifies, but sometimes it is modified with much heavier discipline than that canon specifies. In all cases, oikonomía looks only at what will bring that person to salvation. And that is a very hard concept for American to understand.

Please note, oikonomía does not allow a priest or bishop to do anything they wish. A woman may not be ordained a priest. An elective abortion may not be approved or blessed. Unjust wages may not be declared moral. Oikonomía is about salvation, not about permissiveness or lawlessness. That is why it is hard to understand.


  1. petrushka1611 says

    I think I get the concept, and I tend to think it lines up with how God works.

    But within the context of Eastern Orthodoxy, what kind of punishments (or maybe disciplines, rather) are we talking about? What is a common, concrete example of sometime a priest would deal with and prescribe discipline for?

    • This is a really hard question to answer, because our relationships with our spiritual fathers and mothers are so individual.

      The single hardest thing my own ever said to me was, “Tokah, I don’t want to take this piety away from you, but /don’t/ be stupid.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “Don’t be stupid” (or the Hurricane Katrina version, “Don’t get stuck on stupid”), is generally a good idea.

    • I once banned a woman in an adulterous relationship from communion for six months. She could only attend. On the other hand, I have sometimes sighed and told other people not to commit a particular sin again. One of them changed his life and is now in seminary.

  2. God is free, and God uses his freedom in establishing relationship with his creatures, because he desires relationship. I don’t find it hard to understand this principle at all.

    On the Orthodox side, perhaps this must also be understood to mean that God uses the multiplicity of different churches, not just Orthodox, but Protestant and Catholic, to bring people to him, as is suitable for each individual to best bring about their salvation.

    • It seems to me that once you acknowledge this principle of oikonomía, once you see that this is the way God in his freedom works, you should never be surprised anymore at being surprised by the prodigality of God’s dealings with humanity.

      • Nouwen writes, “The father of the prodigal son is not concerned about himself. His long-suffering life has emptied him of his desires to keep in control of things. His children are his only concern….”

        I, being an imperfect father, only can hope to be like the father of the prodigal son. And having said that, I do not treat each of my children the same; they are individuals, they have different interests and respond differently to incentives. What motivates my son would make my daughter respond with indifference and vice versa–why should we expect God, the perfect Father, to treat us all the same?

        This principle of oikonomia makes perfect sense to me.

    • Robert,

      Orthodox do not limit God’s work with people. We say that we know where the Church is, and will not comment on where it is not. That being said, it is also the case that the Christian Church is in a situation, because of all the splits that have happened, that is “irregular”, and I’m not talking about the ideal being some kind of enforced organizational unity (the Orthodox Church is conciliar, and boy does that slow down getting things done…). All non-Orthodox have some kind of relationship with the Orthodox Church, even if it is simply being a part of the whole of Mankind which has been joined to Christ by means of his Incarnation and Passion. That’s not nothing.

      At the risk of sounding arrogant (which was how I thought about Orthodox people for a long time), there is only one “best” way to help people to salvation (complete healing, and union with God in the fullness of each person’s humanity). God loves and cares for all, and will do whatever a person will allow in his/her life to bring them to himself… and there’s only one “best” of anything. I didn’t seek entry into the Church in order to be “in the best Church,” or to hold Being Orthodox over anyone’s head; I was so tired of the doctrinal one-upsmanship that I saw in Protestantism, and I was In a place in my life that was over “needing to be right.” I became Orthodox because that’s where the path I was on led, and was I ever surprised and more than a little put off when that became clear to me. But there it was. Because Orthodoxy sees judging others as just about the most detrimental thing there is for a person’s soul, I have been more challenged than ever in my life – in the best way – to love people who are “not of my tribe”, and to be grateful for their prayers.


      • Dana,
        For my part, I’ve come to recognize that I wouldn’t know what is “best” with regard to the way of salvation if it came up and hit me in the face like a revolving door. I expect its likely that we’ll stay in the Protestant world for the rest of our lives, though my wife and I have had some halting and fractured conversations about her interest in Roman Catholicism (however that turns out, we will be together in whatever ecclessial destination may ultimately be ours). I’m willing to learn from every Christian tradition, and from non-Christian traditions, too, but I’m not anxious to change location. Truth is, I’ve grown fond of the Lutheran church where we spend our Sundays mornings (though we’re not members), for all its imperfections. In fact, what little I’ve learned of God’s ways from my Bible reading tells me that he tends to use the very imperfect, the least, the broken and compromised, and sometimes the “worst”, to accomplish his purposes, rather than the “best” and most whole; I intend to trust in that.

  3. Who was it who said to never let your sense of morality prevent you from doing the right thing?

  4. I liked the part where you assured us that bishops couldn’t use their authority to ordain women.

    “Don’t worry, the principle of “oikonomía” could never be used to do something truly righteous.”

    • Low blow, man.

    • You went right for the jugular…

    • The blog post was originally written with fellow Orthodox in mind. It was ported to Internetmonk. Nevertheless, I would still support that statement for the following reason. The change of a doctrine is not encompassed in oikonomía. Oikonomía is about the discipline of the Church, not the doctrine of the Church. When doctrines must be clarified, or discussed, or settled, it takes place at the level of an Ecumenical Council or a Pan-Orthodox meeting. It happens that, if all goes well, a Pan-Orthodox meeting will be taking place in 2016 for the first time in several centuries.

      Having said that, I will point out that neither the Roman Catholic nor the Orthodox Church allow for the ordination of women as priests. If you look at the numbers, this means that 62% of world Christianity (according to the Pew Research Center) belongs to groups that do not permit women’s ordination. Even among the 30 some percent of Protestants, various also do not permit women’s ordination.

      While being in the majority does not make me right, it does make me somewhat immune to snappy comments.

      • Though I support the ordination of women, I must say, Well played, Father Ernesto. The Pope doesn’t ordain women either, but he’s given plenty of respect around here, nevertheless.

      • “While being in the majority does not make me right, it does make me somewhat immune to snappy comments.”

        This article and comments was worth it for that line alone!

  5. (S)trong built in idea that God is a law and order God. There is only one problem. That is not really what God seems to do in Scripture. He does support principles of justice. The prophets constantly rail against injustice. But, God’s purpose is to bring people into his kingdom. And, if a law appears to interfere with bringing someone into the Kingdom of God, then God has no problem in putting that law aside… In all cases, the canon serves only as a guideline and not as a mandatory punishment.

    Small wonder that the Reformed have had so little to say about, and so little regard for, Orthodox theopraxis. It runs counter to the very idea of “foundational, eternal, transcendent moral principles applicable in any and all circumstances”. 🙂

  6. Some years ago, my cousin signed me up for a monthly Seventh Day Adventist mission magazine (long story). One missionary wrote a desperate plea in place of the usual chipper report. He was posted to New Guinea, to people who lived at a subsistence level. In addition to the Gospel, the missionary was required to bring Adventist dietary laws. Tree kangaroos are not approved food for Adventists. The missionary was asking what to do. Did people really have to starve in order to be saved? I could tell it was a crisis of faith for him. I never saw any reply.

    Years later, I heard about Orthodox priests in Alaska cheerfully adjusting the meat-free Lenten fast for Inuits, since Inuits had little but meat to eat anyway. The principle of oikonomia was sensible and merciful in this case.

    • “Lord, please send me to a place where my religious beliefs match up with the culture you’re sending me.”

      • Rick, I wonder if I can fall on my religious beliefs to mandate indoor plumbing? Yep, I knew there was a reason I wasn’t called to the mission field!

        Here was a interesting observation about religion from R.C. Sproul:

        “The term religion describes human practices—practices of worship, of cultic involvement, of belief in a god, and of obeying certain rules that come from the god or gods . . . There is a religious aspect to Christianity. We do worship, and we are involved in certain human activities, such as prayer and Bible studies and devotions . . . But Christianity is much more than a religion; it’s life.

        Christianity itself can degenerate into being merely a religion; that is, it can have the external formal activities and sociological practices without the substance that motivates all these things—a profound love and devotion to God Himself and a profound trust in Christ’s work.”

        Sproul makes this very bold statement which might be the antithesis of the principle of oikonomía:
        “Our religious activity may at times be insulting to God.”

        “The very fact that a person is religious does not necessarily mean that he is pleasing God; the primordial sin of man is idolatry, and idolatry is the worship of something that, in fact, is not God. The worship of idols involves the practice of religion. This is exactly what Romans 1 is speaking about; God is not pleased by any and all types of religious activity . . . “

        • “Christianity itself can degenerate into being merely a religion; that is, it can have the external formal activities and sociological practices without the substance that motivates all these things—a profound love and devotion to God Himself and a profound trust in Christ’s work.”

          And the difference is so, so subtle. I heard someone at my church the other day say that “we are being persecuted because we love the Bible.” No, we’re not being persecuted and Christianity is not about loving the Bible–it’s about loving the One the Bible points us to and letting His love flow through us to our neighbors.

          Many, many in evangelical Christianity “love’ the Bible and “love” God’s truth. J.R.D. Kirk says that if you start with “truth” as your goal “This sets us off on a path in which any actions we perform in guarding, establishing, defending, and preserving the truth as we understand it are valid expressions of Christian devotion to God. Next thing you know, we are burning heretics in the name of Jesus. And those bearing the sign of the crucified have become the crucifiers.”

          And so, in the name of God’s “justice” and “truth”, we impose the same standards on all and thereby fail to properly extend the love of Christ to those in need.

          • I would argue that it is a wonderful thing to love the Bible and to love God’s truth. In many ways truth ought to indeed be our goal. If it were not, then the Early Church Fathers would not have held several Ecumenical Councils. Whenever someone comes to Confession, they come acknowledging that they have missed the mark, they have not quite been true to God’s calling to become like him. Sin cannot be defined without truth. Saint Paul in Romans talks about how he would not have known sin without the Law.

            But, pastoral care involves how best to return someone to a true way of life. The Orthodox believe that God is willing to either be merciful or to be severely just, whichever approach will return us to true life. So, as I pointed out in the post, sometimes the Law slips by as you forgive the woman caught in adultery, and sometimes the severity of God’s judgment falls as the only way to call Israel back to life. In both cases, you are upholding truth.

        • Trish,
          I read the Sproul quote you offered a little differently. Sproul seems to conceive of God as always ready to take offense, always counting every little infraction against transcendent morality, as a deadly transgression against his dignity and honor. We are supposed always, especially, to tip-toe around our own spiritual lives afraid that we are actually engaged in idolatry instead of worshiping Jesus. I can’t imagine a conception of God more likely to generate a scrupulously religious consciousness, always anxious to be certain of exactly what God wants one to do in every circumstance, and to know the exact obligations one needs to meet to avoid angering this easily offended God, and to avoid stepping into the idolatry threatening on every side.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I doubt things ended well for the SDA guy. (Especially if he had to tell the truth in his Missionary Sponsor Letters instead of the normal Always Victorious in The LORD appeals for money.)

      You see, SDA advocates vegetarianism (though it calls it “Avoiding Flesh Foods”). Or at least it used do, as of 40-50 years ago. This reflects its 19th Century American origin, as a LOT of offbeat religions of the period latched onto Vegetarianism as Godly (and a way to tell themselves they were really Saved plus show their moral/spiritual superiority over all the apostates).

      As for the Alaskan Orthodox, given how strict Ortho-Lenten fasting restrictions are, the special dispensation for the Inuit was quite an exception. But shows much more flexibility to local conditions (like the only food source for the Inuit being game meat) than the SDA.

      • Whenever I point out the origin of some of these sects and doctrinal positions, people often acknowledge the origin but then double down on “so what, it’s still true (because I believe it, so it has to be).”

        19th century American origins influenced many to latch on to Vegetarianism as Godly. Just like 17th century tribal customs and feudal practices caused many to latch on to other ideas as Godly.

        We interpret based on context. Ours.

  7. A lot depends on the competence of the pastor; not all are equally competent, and some, no doubt, are incompetent.

    • Robert, you probably know this, but in case you don’t: the person who provides your personal pastoral care is not necessarily the pastor of your local parish. (This is obviously true for the priest’s family members!)

      Also, sometimes it is not about overall competence vs incompetence, but the right fit. I can think of one situation off hand where an orthodox couple has some direct pastoral care from their bishop, their own unique spiritual fathers, and none of those three men is the pastor of their local parish.

      There are also checks and balances available within the overall hierarchy, topping out with full ecclesiastical courts. Thankfully, if both parties in a pastoral relationship approach it with humility and prayer, that doesn’t come up very often!

      • Tokah,
        Actually, I don’t know much about how this happens in the Orthodox church. Is it really common for parishoners to receive pastoral care from someone other than their parish priest? Do many parishoners avail themselves of the provisions made within the Orthodox church for their pastoral care? Is the person who provides pastoral care also one’s confessor?

        • It is common for some in every parish to receive their pastoral care from someone other than the parish priest. The person is supposed to let the priest know and the priest is supposed to approve of the relationship. Most often, it really does work that way. Why would I want to counsel someone who has trouble hearing me, for whatever reason? Let me rather be thankful that God has guided them to a counselor to whom they will listen. In practice, it seldom causes problems because the system has been around for centuries.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Robert, I would share your concerns about pastoral competence.

      • In my lifetime, I haven’t met too many people in pastoral positions who were actually much good at understanding people, and adjusting their approach to the individual with whom they were dealing. I find it hard to imagine that it’s much different among Orthodox clergy who fill pastoral roles.

  8. I completely understand this concept and see this is how God works in our world. Yesterday’s post comments tried to either put God in a box , explain his thinking, or in light of difficult passages claim they didn’t belong in the bible. God desires relationship and will do whatever he wants to bring us into his kingdom. Even if we don’t understand now ,someday it will become clear. My ways are not your ways declares the LOrd.

    • In other words, “Insert standard Christian answer here…”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Without even needing to engage any neuron above the brainstem. I saw this from Calvary Chapel bots all the time.

        Oh, and that should be “LORD”, all caps and pronounced like it’s spelled with two Os.

        • Hug just because you don’t agree with me does not mean you have to act superior with your condescension You are one of the reasons I will stop commenting on this blog

          • He is a bit rough around the edges. But don’t let that send you away; you have things to say, say them, and to…heck….with the critics.

    • David, I appreciate your comment, but I do have some problems with the general “My ways are not your ways” statement. If as Christians we believe that Jesus was God, or the son of God, or the closest thing we’ll ever see to God — however an individual phrases it — then God’s ways are Jesus’ ways. We *do* have a guide and model for God’s thoughts and ways; they are *not* utterly beyond our comprehension. That was the point, or a point, of the Incarnation, was it not?

      I’m not trying to put you, David, on the spot, but just voicing a concern I have with those who reply smoothly with “My ways are not your ways” when I protest that surely God did not intend for ten thousand African kids to die of starvation today.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “My ways are not your ways” = Christianese for “In’shal’lah…”?

        • It’s a thought, conversation stopper. It falls apart easily under some scrutiny.

          Then you just hear it louder, and louder, and louder…

      • I agree with what you’ve said here, H. Lee. When we see Jesus, we see the character of God; there’s nothing of God that contradicts that character hidden in the shadows, so to speak. We can trust that God is Jesus.

        I think, though, that what Jesus reveals to us of God’s character does not mean that we can know all of God’s ways. From Jesus we can be sure that God loves us and reaches out to us to save and redeem; but the wind, the Spirit, still blows where it will, and we can never anticipate, or always recognize, where it is at any moment, or how it’s shaping things. This requires us to be humble; or, more exactly, it should humble us.

        • Yes, you’re right, Robert. More than sometimes, I get to feeling that God needs a bit of instruction from me!

          I suppose, or actually believe, that instead of protesting that God doesn’t want the African children to die today, I should take whatever steps I can, right here, right now, with what I have, to help one of them, however feebly, and trust God to multiply my efforts as we hear He did with the loaves and fishes.

          But Righteous Indignation *feels* so good! 🙂

          • God bless you, H. Lee. Though we’ve never met in person, and though it may be presumptuous of me, I consider you a dear friend. And others here at iMonk, too. God bless you all.

    • Clay Crouch says

      My ways are not your ways… I’ve heard that for years and years. Please explain to me just what the hell you think that means.

    • God put himself into a box. Namely one with human dimensions and features.

      And he’s the only God worth following.

      • You can’t put God into a box is basically de facto denying the Incarnation.

        I’m done playing that game.

        • The human body has major apertures at both ends; it opens out onto the rest of existence, as does the human soul. The Incarnation was not a box, but a permeable membrane.

  9. Thus, the woman caught in adultery is forgiven outside the law because that unexpected forgiveness is precisely what she needs to hear in order to bring her into the Kingdom of God.

    Did she come into the Kingdom? The text does not tell us whether she did or didn’t. When Jesus healed the ten lepers in Luke, only one responded in gratitude to his mercy; when Jesus said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, I don’t think we can assume that all he asked for forgiveness for came into the Kingdom on the basis of the text.

    • The text also doesn’t tell us how many people in need of healing he walked past without meeting their need. Did he heal everyone?

      • Well, since there are no ancient documents heralding worldwide healing of every person in need of physical healing during Jesus’ (or any) lifetime on earth, we can assume he didn’t. I’m sure such an event would have been widely reported and preserved in the histories. Can you imagine!

        • All of which were recorded decades later based on remembered eye witness testimonies or stories passed down in communities…same with healings in the book of Acts, like shadows just healing people once, or something…

          Basically, I wonder how much of the pre-crucifiction accounts are written from a pre-gospel mindset. It’s easy to backdate things into the text, like forgiveness of sins outside of the Law. Yet we look at chronology, while the authors probably looked at story.

          • The witness to Jesus offered by the New Testament texts were all written from a post-resurrection perspective. We have no way of getting behind that witness to know what “really happened”; there just isn’t enough historical information. After all, Jesus was a nobody living on the edge of an Empire that didn’t pay much attention to Galilean carpenters. Such people are passed over by God and history, or so it was thought.

  10. Ronald Avra says

    I was unaware of this concept and would have never imagined it to find a home in Orthodox tradition.

  11. I guess I understand oikonomía best as operating in the spirit rather than the letter. It was only on reading the referenced article that it dawned on me that oikonomía is related to our words economy and economics, both of which I know enough about to realize I know very little, tho I do get that they are only incidentally about money. Perhaps closer to oikonomía in concept for me is economical, which I’m better at doing, the best bang for the buck. Do I fix my car once again or do I finally replace it.

  12. Hi Fr Ernesto,

    A question regarding the woman caught in adultery. Looking at Patristics, I think Irenaeus holds the view that Christians honour the Decalogue as it is an eternal revelation of God’s natural law, but reject the “law of Moses” as it was a “punishment” on Israel alone. An example of this view is give here: http://www.ecclesia.org/truth/different_laws.html

    So the command of “death for adultery”, was part of the law of Moses but the Decalogue itself doesn’t specify any punishment. Wouldn’t that mean she was forgiven in light of the “Golden Rule”, which Jesus was “in the flesh” ? He had the power to forgive His neighbour as He was to become “sin for us” & this was ushering in the way of the Kingdom.

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