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Over at Internet Monk, Father Ernesto has written a brief introduction to oikonomia, a prominent feature of pastoral care in the Orthodox tradition. It basically boils down to dealing with people as if the goal were not to “fix” them but to bring them to God:
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.
It should be noted, however, that although oikonomia can involve lessening the prescribed penance for sin, it could in some circumstances mean a hard-hearted (or headed) sinner might require a more severe penance in order to bring him to his senses. The bottom line is to deal with each personal individually rather than blindly applying the canons:
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.
So, oikonomia involves fulling admitting that rules and structure can be positive—and that there is such a thing as sin—but being willing to address these matters as if there were something more important than written laws and guidelines. It almost sounds like something Jesus would do, doesn’t it? 🙂