Human Rights and Orthodox Christianity: Learning from our Differences
John Witte, Jr.

This essay was originally published on November 3, 2023 as a chapter in The Legal Thought of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, edited by Norman Doe and Dimitrios Nikiforos. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, has thought profoundly about the role of law as it applies to the church, to civic life in Europe, to human rights, to religious freedom, and to the environment. In this book, scholars across the world reflect critically on the significance of his legal thought for human flourishing, for Christian social teaching, and for Christian unity. His legal thought is summed up in five key public addresses that he has delivered around the world in recent years, on: church law as an ecumenical instrument; the role of religion in a changing Europe; Orthodoxy and human rights; religion and freedom; and climate change, ecumenical imperatives. In this chapter, CSLR faculty director John Witte, Jr. examines the Ecumenical Patriarch’s views of human rights in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The introduction to the book can also be accessed online by clicking on the “Preview Book” tab under the cover image at this link.


Ontological differences!” In 1997, that was the phrase His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople used to explain the Orthodox Church’s reticence about embracing the human rights reforms that Western churches were advocating for the newly liberated Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “The Orthodox Church is “not a museum church,” the Patriarch explained. “It is a living church which, although keeping the old traditions from the very beginning, nevertheless understands very well the message of every new era, and it knows how to adapt itself.” The “message” of the modern era, however, is Enlightenment liberalism, libertinism, materialism, scientism, individualism, and human rights. While Eastern Orthodoxy has resisted this modern message, Western Christianity has come under its “shadow.” Hence the “ontological differences” between the churches and cultures of the East and the West. “Since the Enlightenment, the spiritual bedrock of Western civilization has been eroded and undermined. Intelligent, well-intentioned people sincerely believed that the wonders of science could replace the miracles of faith. But these great minds missed one vital truth—that faith is not a garment to be slipped on and off; it is a quality of the human spirit, from which it is inseparable.” “There are a few things [the West] can learn from the Orthodox Church,” the Patriarch declared — not least “that, paradoxically, faith can endure without freedom, but freedom cannot long abide without faith.” 

Twenty years later, in his 2017 Berlin Lecture on “Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” Patriarch Bartholomew echoed and elaborated some of these same themes. He continued to argue that human rights were shaped by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its false “optimistic anthropology,” “its forgetfulness of sins, its rationalism, individualism and autonomism.” The Patriarch repeated common Orthodox worries that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a “smug” “humanistic manifesto” and a secular “Trojan horse” filled with dangerous modernist ideas that threatened the heart and soul of Orthodox faith, family, morality, and nationhood. And he repeated recent warnings that the newly liberated Orthodox Churches of the Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe were being forced to compete with Western missionizing faiths in an open marketplace of religious ideas, without having the experiences or resources needed to compete. 

In this same 2017 Lecture, however, the Patriarch also pushed beyond these “ontological differences.” He now stated that human rights ideals of liberty, equality, dignity, and fraternity had been “rooted in Christian culture” before the Enlightenment and could still be “nourished from that deep Christian freedom, freedom through faith, expressed in selfless love.” He stressed that faith and freedom together could “mobilize forces of solidarity in man and spur him on the fight against justice and for a more humane world.” He urged all Christians to embrace “solidarity, peace and reconciliation and … protection of fundamental human rights.” He encouraged his fellow Orthodox Christians not to reject modernity altogether, but to embrace its promise of individual freedom while also demonstrating the “power of social freedom.” He further encouraged the Orthodox faithful not to equate modernity with secularism alone, but to appreciate the diverse “political, social, and economic realities” of the modern world. And he encouraged the Orthodox faithful to look beyond the separatism, secularism, and laïcité of some Western laws and appreciate that some modern Western nations still established Christianity and shared the Orthodox appreciation for “the close relationship between Church, people, and state.” “Human rights will remain a major concern for mankind in the future,” the Patriarch concluded, and it is an “essential priority for our churches, together with their commitment to the implementation of human rights, to be the place of that freedom at the core of which is not the claiming of individual rights, but love and the diakonia, the freedom that is not a work of man but a gift from God.”

Patriarch Bartholomew’s growing appreciation for the mutually beneficial interaction of Christianity and human rights offers new hope for deeper Christian ecumenism and broader religious collaboration in support of human rights around the world. The “ontological differences” between Western and Eastern Christians remain real and require continued conversation to foster better mutual understanding. The next two sections of this chapter take up two areas of difference today and conclude with a couple illustrations of what Western churches and human rights advocates “can learn from the Orthodox Church,” as Patriarch Bartholomew put it.

Baptism, Mission, and Conversion

Ironically, it was the liberation of traditional Orthodox lands in the 1990s that highlighted one area of intense “ontological difference” today – that between Eastern and Western Christian views of baptism, mission, and conversion. Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaigns of glasnost and perestroika in the later 1980s soon led to the implosion of the Soviet Union and eventual dissolution of Soviet bloc lands from the Baltics to the Balkans. Russia and several Eastern European countries threw off their Communist yokes and created new Western-style constitutions and ratified many of the most progressive international human rights instruments.

This rapid political transformation not only liberated local Orthodox and other churches, but also opened these societies to foreign religious groups, who were granted rights to enter these regions for the first time in decades.

After 1990, these foreign missionaries came in increasing numbers to preach their faiths, to offer their services, to share their literature, to build new schools, to establish new charities, and to convert new souls. Initially, Orthodox and local religious groups welcomed these foreigners, particularly their co-religionists abroad with whom they had lost real contact for many decades. 

But within a decade local Orthodox leaders came to resent these foreign missionaries, particularly those from North America, Western Europe, South Korea, and elsewhere who assumed a democratic human rights ethic. Local religious groups resented the participation in the marketplace of religious ideas that democracy assumes. They resented the toxic waves of materialism and individualism that democracy inflicts. They resented the massive expansion of religious pluralism that democracy encourages. They resented the extravagant forms of religious speech, press, and assembly that democracy protects.

A new war for souls thus broke out in these regions — a war to reclaim the traditional Orthodox souls of these newly opened societies and a war to retain adherence and adherents to the Orthodox Church. In part, this was a legal war — as local Orthodox leaders pressured their political leaders to adopt statutes and regulations restricting the constitutional rights of their foreign religious rivals. Beneath shiny constitutional veneers of religious freedom for all and unqualified ratification of international human rights instruments, several Orthodox majority countries in the 1990s and early 2000s passed firm new anti-proselytism laws, cult registration requirements, tightened visa controls, and various discriminatory restrictions on new or newly arrived religions. Those policies have continued in some Eastern European lands today, driving beleaguered religious minorities and foreigners to seek protection from the European Court of Human Rights

In part, this was a theological war between fundamentally different theologies about the nature and purpose of mission. Western Christians, particularly Evangelicals, assume that in order to be saved every person must make a personal, conscious commitment to Christ—to be born again, to convert. Any person who has not been born again, or who once reborn now leads a nominal or non-Christian life, is a legitimate object of evangelism—regardless of whether and where the person has already been baptized. The principal means of reaching that person is through proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. Any region that has not been open to the Gospel is a legitimate “foreign mission field” — regardless of whether the region might have another majority Christian church in place. Under this definition of mission, traditional Orthodox lands, where the Communist yoke had long suppressed the Gospel, are prime targets for Christian witness. 

The Orthodox Church, too, believes that each person must come into a personal relationship with Christ in order to be saved. But such a relationship comes more through birth than rebirth, and more through regular sacramental living than a one-time conversion. A person who is born into the Orthodox Church has by definition started “theosis”—the process of becoming “acceptable to God” and ultimately “coming into eternal communion with Him.” Through infant baptism, and later through the mass, the Eucharist, the icons, and other services of the Church, a person slowly comes into fuller realization of this divine communion. Proclamation of the Gospel is certainly a legitimate means of aiding the process of theosis—and is especially effective in reaching those not born into the Orthodox Church. But, for the Orthodox, “mission does not aim primarily at transmission of moral and intellectual convictions and truths, but at the … incorporation of persons into the communion that exists in God and in the Church.”

This theology has led the Orthodox Church to a quite different understanding of the proper venue and object of evangelism. Traditional Orthodox lands are hardly an open “mission field” which other Christians are free to harvest. To the contrary, this territory and population are under the “spiritual protectorate” of the local Orthodox Church. Any person who has been baptized into the Orthodox Church is no longer a legitimate object of evangelism—regardless of whether that person leads only a nominal or non-Christian life. Only if that person actively spurns the Orthodox Church are they open to the evangelism of others. 

This is the theological source of the Orthodox clergy’s complaints about the proselytizing activity of many Western churches in their traditional homelands. They are not only complaining about improper methods of evangelism—the bribery, blackmail, coercion, and material inducements used by some groups; the garish carnivals, flashy billboards, and expensive media blitzes used by other faiths. They are also complaining about the improper presence of missionaries—those who have come not to aid the Orthodox Church in its mission, but to compete with the Orthodox Church for its own souls on its own territory.

Human rights norms alone will ultimately do little to resolve this fundamental theological difference between Orthodox and Western Christians. “In seeking to limit the incursion of missionary activity we often are accused of violating the right to freedom of conscience and the restriction of individual rights,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II explained in 1997 during the height of the soul wars in Russia. “But freedom does not mean general license. The truth of Christ which sets us free (John 8:32) also places upon us a great responsibility, to respect and preserve the freedom of others. However, the aggressive imposition by foreign missionaries of views and principles which come from a religious and cultural environment which is strange to us, is in fact a violation of both [our] religious and civil rights.” The Orthodox Church must be as free in the exercise of its missiology as Western Evangelicals wish to be. Both groups’ rights, when fully exercised, will inevitably clash. 

The thirty-year war for souls in traditional Orthodox lands requires a theological resolution as much as a human rights resolution. Interreligious dialogue, education, and cooperation sound like tried and tired remedies, but these are essential first steps. Self-imposed guidelines of prudential mission work by Western Christians are essential steps as well: know and appreciate Orthodox history, culture, and language; avoid Westernization of the Gospel and First Amendmentization of politics; deal honestly and respectfully with theological and liturgical differences; respect and advocate the religious rights of all peoples; be Good Samaritans before good preachers; proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. Such steps will slowly bring current antagonists beyond caricatures into a greater mutual understanding, and a greater unity in diversity. 

The ultimate theological guide to resolve the deeper conflict over mission and conversion, however, must be a more careful balancing of the Great Commission and the Golden Rule. Jesus called his followers to mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.…” (Matt. 28:19). But Jesus also called his followers to exercise restraint and respect: “Do unto others, as you would have done unto you” (Matt. 7:12). If both sides in the current war for souls would strive to hold these principles in better balance, their dogmatism might be tempered and their conflicts assuaged.

Church, State, and Nation

A related ontological difference between Eastern and Western Christianity is reflected in the Orthodox Church’s attitude toward the state. The Orthodox Church has no concept akin to the Western dualistic constructions of two cities, two powers, two swords, two kingdoms, two realms – let alone a “high and impregnable wall of separation between church and state.” The Orthodox world, rooted in the ancient Byzantine Empire, views church and state as an organic community, united by faith, blood, and soil, a veritable symphonia of religion, politics, society, language, ethnicity, and national culture.

For many centuries, this organic unity of church, state, and nation gave the Orthodox clergy a unique spiritual and moral voice in traditional Orthodox societies, and unique access to the power, privilege, and protection of the political authorities. It allowed the Orthodox clergy to lead and comfort Orthodox lands in times of great crisis — during the Hun, Mongol, Maygar, and Ottoman invasions, the Napoleonic Wars, the Turkish genocide, the great World Wars, and more.

It allowed the Orthodox church to heal and teach these societies through its schools and monasteries, its literature and preaching. It also allowed the Orthodox clergy to nourish and inspire the people through the power and pathos of its liturgy, icons, prayers, and music. 

But this organic unity also subjected the Orthodox Churches to substantial state control over their polities and properties, and substantial restrictions on its religious ministry and prophecy. It also required them to be obedient and supportive of the political authorities. In return for their subservience, the Orthodox clergy could turn to the state to protect them against religious outsiders and competition. A poignant illustration of this is offered by Joachim, the Patriarch of Moscow at the turn of the eighteenth century. In a 1690 testament, the Patriarch implored co-Tsars Ivan and Peter “never to allow any Orthodox Christians in their realm to entertain any close friendly relations with heretics and dissenters—with Latins, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Tatars.” He further urged the tsars to pass a decree “that men of foreign creeds who come here to this pious realm shall under no circumstances preach their religion, disparage our faith in any conversations or introduce their alien customs derived from their heresies for the temptation of Christians.” “Such was the position of the Muscovite Church,” leading Russian historian Firuz Kazemzadeh concludes, “and such, in essence, it has remained” not only in Russia but in many parts of the Orthodox world today. We can easily read the recent Orthodox church-state alliances in fighting against foreign missionaries and faiths as yet another act in this centuries-long drama. And, in turn, we can see the sad condonation of the current Moscow Patriarchate in Russia’s outrageous war in Ukraine as the necessary price for the Orthodox church to pay for Putin’s ongoing protection and patronage.

With this “ontological difference,” too, simple invocations of religious freedom norms, American-style separatism, or French-style laïcité will do little to assuage these conflicts between East and West. Western Christians must appreciate that their own long history of church-state relations featured a variety of constitutional forms and norms, some of them rather close to the symphonia of Orthodox lands. They must also remember the adage of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that “[t]he life of the law is not logic but experience.” Constitutional laws are not commodities to be imported or exported en masse to other nations. These laws must grow out of the souls and soils of the people who create and live under them, who breathe into them their own cultures and experiences, their own Volksgeist as Otto von Gierke put it. Western formulations of human rights, religious freedom, and church-state relations cannot and should not be fully duplicated or imitated in Orthodox lands. Indeed, the sobering lesson learned during the heady days of glasnost and perestroika was that the full scale importation of these Western constitutional norms created a toxic compound that these long closed societies had little capacity to absorb. The better course for Orthodox lands is to use Western constitutional and human rights norms as a valuable resource and inspiration for gradually reconstructing a better constitutional order for the protection of individual and institutional religious freedom for all their people.

Orthodox Christians, in turn, must appreciate that modern norms of human rights and religious freedom are not creations of the Western Enlightenment nor a ward under the exclusive patronage of its secular liberal values. A veritable cottage industry of recent new scholarship has documented the long history of rights talk before the Enlightenment. We now know a great deal more about classical Roman understandings of rights (iura), liberties (libertates), capacities (facultates), powers (potestates), and related concepts, and their elaboration by medieval and early modern civilians. We can now pore over an intricate latticework of arguments about individual and group rights and liberties developed by medieval Catholic canonists and moralists. We can now trace the ample expansion and reform of this medieval handiwork by neo-scholastic writers in early modern Spain and Portugal and by Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist Protestants on the Continent and in Great Britain and their colonies. We now know a good deal more about classical republican theories of liberty developed in Greece and Rome, and their transformative influence on early modern common lawyers and political revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic. We now know, in brief, that the West knew ample “liberty before liberalism and had many fundamental rights in place before there were modern democratic revolutions fought in their name. It is a telling anecdote that by 1650 almost every right listed 150 years later in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights (1791) had already been defined, defended, and died for by Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.

To be sure, some modern human rights advocates have deprecated and sometimes denied these Christian roots, and many current formulations of human rights are suffused with fundamental liberal beliefs and values, some of which run counter to cardinal Christian beliefs. But liberalism does not and should not have a monopoly on the nurture of human rights. The law of human rights norms is the ius gentium of our times, the common law of nations, which ultimately depends on variety of beliefs and values, institutions and communities that will constantly shape and reshape it, that will constantly challenge it to improve. 

What Orthodoxy Can Teach Us About Human Rights

Among these communities, the Eastern Orthodox have immense spiritual resources, whose implications for human rights are only now beginning to be seen. These spiritual resources lie, in part, in Orthodox worship—the passion of the liturgy, the pathos of the icons, and the power of spiritual silence. They lie, in part, in Orthodox church life—the distinct balancing between hierarchy and congregationalism through autocephaly; between uniform worship and liturgical freedom through alternative vernacular rites; between community and individuality through a trinitarian communalism, which is centered on the parish, on the extended family, on the wizened grandmother (the “babushka” in Russia). These spiritual resources lie, in part, in the massive martyrdom of millions of Orthodox faithful in the twentieth century—whether suffered by Russian Orthodox under the Communist Party, by Greek and Armenian Orthodox under Turkish and Iranian radicals, by Middle Eastern Copts at the hands of religious extremists, or by North African Orthodox under all manner of fascist autocrats and tribal strongmen.

These deep spiritual resources of the Orthodox Church have no exact parallels in modern Catholicism and Protestantism, and most of their implications for law, politics, and society have still to be drawn out. It would be wise to hear what an ancient church, newly charred and chastened by decades of oppression and martyrdom, considers essential to the regime of religious freedom. It would be enlightening to watch how ancient Orthodox communities, still largely centered on the parish and the family, will reconstruct social and economic order and attendant rights. It would be prudent to see how a culture, more prone to beautifying than to analyzing, might transform our understanding of culture. It would be instructive to listen to how a tradition that still celebrates spiritual silence as its highest virtue might recast the meaning of freedom of speech and expression. It would be illuminating to feel how a people who have long cherished and celebrated the role of the woman—the wizened babushka of the home, the faithful remnant in the parish pews, the living icon of the Assumption of the Mother of God—might elaborate the place of women and the meaning of women’s rights in church, state, and society.

Patriarch Bartholomew was certainly wise to remind us that “[t]here are a few things” that Western churches and states “can learn from the Orthodox Church.” We would do well to listen and learn as Orthodox Churches embrace more fully the global ecumenical project, and as Orthodox majority lands come into greater contact with the rest of the world. Particularly on questions of law, religion, and human rights, the world needs new wisemen from the East.♦

John Witte, Jr. is Woodruff University Professor, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and Faculty Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He has published 45 books and 315 articles, including Modern Orthodox Teachings on Law, Politics, and Human Nature (2007) and Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls (repr. ed. 2009).

Recommended Citation

Witte Jr., John. “Human Rights and Orthodox Christianity: Learning from our Differences.” Canopy Forum, November 17, 2023.