Members of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Bilateral Consultation in the United States, having met since 1965, have examined openly, in a spirit of Christian faith and fraternal charity, a wide spectrum of theological questions judged to be crucial for mutual understanding between our two churches.
One topic which has been discussed with particular interest, especially during 1975 and 1976, has been oikonomia or ecclesiastical "economy." Because of the possible relevance of economy to the question of mutual recognition of churches, this topic, which has been important for the Orthodox, has received increasing attention among Anglicans and Roman Catholics in recent years.
In its discussion of economy the Consultation considered an introductory report prepared in 1971 by the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission for the forthcoming Great Council of the Orthodox Church. Some Orthodox and Roman Catholic members were dissatisfied with the interpretation it gave to certain texts and historical incidents but found it a useful beginning for further discussion.
Our investigation has shown:
The wealth of meanings which economy has had over the centuries;
Some weaknesses in recent presentations of economy;
The significance of economy for our ongoing ecumenical discussion.
At the most basic level, the Greek word oikonomia means management, arrangement, or determination in the strictly literal sense. A few overtones add to this basic meaning. Oikonomia may imply accommodation, prudent adaptation of means to an end, diplomacy and strategy and even dissimulation and the "pious lie." But oikonomia can also have highly positive connotations. It suggests the idea of stewardship, of management on behalf of another, on behalf of a superior.
In the New Testament the word oikonomia occurs nine times: Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1:10, 3:2; 3:9; Colossians 1:25, and 1 Timothy 1:4. In the Parable of the Steward, Luke 16, the word refers generically to stewardship, house management. In other New Testament usages such as Ephesians 3:9, the word is used to refer to God's purpose or prothesis, the economy of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.
Also in Ephesians 1:8-10 we read that God "has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time (oikonomian tou pleromatos ton kairon) to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." This usage is closely related to the patristic idea that in and through his person the incarnate and risen Christ brings to fulfillment all of creation (anakephalaiosis). The Pauline corpus of letters uses oikonomia to refer to Paul's own ministry or pastoral office to make the word of God fully known.
These New Testament usages of oikonomia are further expanded by the fathers' understanding as summarized by the Interorthodox Preparatory Commission's report which states:
Apart from the meaning which concerns us here, the term oikonomia also denotes the divine purpose of prothesis (Eph. 1:10, 3:9-11), the mode of existence of the one Godhead in Trinity through mutual indwelling (perichoresis), its broad action in the world through the church, divine providence, the savior's incarnation, the whole redeeming work of our Lord Jesus Christ and all the operations through which human nature was made manifest in the Son, from the time of his incarnation to his ascension into heaven.
God is seen as arranging all for the purpose of man's salvation and eternal well-being; and man fashioned in the image and likeness of God is viewed as being called to imitate this divine activity.
The word oikonomia later acquired additional uses in ecclesiastical contexts, in particular:
The administration of penance, the arranging or managing of a penitent's reconciliation to the church;
The reception of those turning to the church from heresy or schism;
The restoration of repentant clergy and the reception of heretical or schismatic clergy as ordained.
In all these areas, however, the understanding of economy as responsible stewardship, imitating the divine economy, is maintained, excluding arbitrariness or capriciousness.
Recent presentations of economy often have included the following elements:
Economy understood as a departure from or suspension of strict application (akribeia) of the church's canons and disciplinary norms, in many respects analogous to the West's dispensation.
Economy applied not only to canon law and church discipline, but to the sacraments as well. In this context, it has been argued, for example that all nonOrthodox sacraments, from the point of view of strictness, are null and void but that the Orthodox Church can, by economy, treat non-Orthodox sacraments as valid. These views imply that the application of economy to the sacraments may vary according to circumstances, including such pastoral considerations as the attitude of the non-Orthodox group toward Orthodoxy, the well-being of the Orthodox flock, and the ultimate salvation of the person or groups that contemplate entering Orthodoxy.
These recent interpretations do not, in the judgment of the Consultation, do justice to the genuine whole tradition underlying the concept and practice of economy. The church of Christ is not a legalistic system whereby every prescription has identical importance, especially when ancient canons do not directly address contemporary issues. Nor can the application of economy make something invalid to be valid, or what is valid to be invalid. Because the risen Christ has entrusted to the church a stewardship of prudence and freedom to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit about today's problems of church unity, a proper understanding of economy involves the exercise of spiritual discernment.
We hope and pray therefore that our churches can come to discern in each other the same faith, that they can come to recognize each other as sister churches celebrating the same sacraments, and thus enter into full ecclesial communion.