In Christianity, human relationships can become more than human relationships, and can be transformed into relationships binding man to God. Human relationships can be formed as mysteries in which God becomes present in the relationships to enable humanity to tangibly relate to Him. The formation of these relationships is effected through the Mysteries of the Church, in which each person involved becomes a living icon of the relationship of man to God.
What is meant by these statements? In what way are human relations transformed into relations with God? What does this mean about human relationships, and how we are to engage in them? These are some of the questions to be addressed in this article.
God is not a mere power or force, nor an object, but rather a being, or the being, of mind, and reason, who is able to express this in Word, that is, to communicate. He is able to love and to relate. We know this from the testimony of the Scriptures and from our own abilities as humans. Yet, God is not accessible to humanity through the senses, and so we cannot have a relationship with Him in a manner accessible to our nature.
However, through the Incarnation such a relationship becomes possible through Christ. Man can relate to God through the humanity of Christ. However, having become man, Christ was only accessible in one space-time location, so this did not permit all humanity to relate to Him in other space-time locations. His human accession into the heavens, that is, transcending space-time, has opened the potential for Him to be present in all space-time locations. Yet again, His spiritualised humanity still needs to be brought into the present limited space-time of the fallen world: this is achieved through the Mysteries. Chiefly, this has been recognised in the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, yet this food is not an end in itself; it is to eaten so that those consuming it can be united to Christ and He can be present in and with them. This is not the relationship in itself, but only the precondition of a relationship with God.
Due to the unlimited nature of God, one can only relate to God in God because there is no exterior to God. Yet, God is One and pure, and so being in God is only possible in perfect union with God. This is also true for humanity in God, so that those being in God must be in God without division in mind, action, or body, both with God and with each other. Thus, for relationship with God, one needs to be united to God through Christ and in the Church, His Body. There is a residual relationship with all Creation after the Fall, otherwise it would cease to exist, but this relationship is limited and unable to grow to fulness outside Christ, due to the reasons stated.
Having established the preconditions for a relationship with God, one still needs to have the relationship of God and man properly expressed through humanity. This is achieved with asymmetric relationships in which one person takes the place of presenting God and the other(s) of humanity in relation to God. This asymmetry is effected in two primary ways. The first is through natural human relations in which all mankind participates to a degree. These are the relations of social governance to those governed, the relation of master (employer) to slave or servant (employee), and also that of parent to child. Then there are relations established by the Mysteries of the Church. These are more symbolic in form, and are more specific forms of relationship only within the Church in the particularities of their structure. These include the role of bishop or presbyter to the laity, that of abbot or abbess to monks or nuns, respectively, and that of husband and wife. These roles, being symbolic, are effected in an iconic manner to reinforce that the relationship is one primarily with God through man rather than merely a human relation.
So that these relations can be effected through all nations, the chief iconic form used in these relations is that of the male being in the image and glory of God with the female being the glory of man. Thus, the male form is that which takes the place of God and the female that of man. The forms cannot be reversed such that a woman takes the role of God in respect of a man, because the mystery of the presence of God through Christ needs to be manifest through physical reality, which includes specific form. Even clothing should be such that it reinforces the distinction of form, and head-coverings are an important symbol of the relationship.
This form is also realised in God’s own choice of names, which are also not open to variation or alternates: Father cannot be replaced by Mother or a gender-neutral term. The restriction of form establishes a true incarnation of the presence of God, and not a merely abstract presence.
Relations of a presbyter to male laymen or an abbot or abbess to monk or nun is one that is established through ordination, such that the authority of that position is given by God and not merely a human authority. That a male can lead a male is true to show that in the eternal life all are bound to the one will of the Father. The right of woman to lead woman is that man partakes of the headship of God so a woman, as man, can participate in relation to other women, but not over men which would imply leadership of man over God, which is theologically impossible.
In marriage, the relationship can only be one of male and female, that of God and man. God does not join to God nor man to man to effect salvation; so neither can male join to male or female to female, because these fail to allow a true relation to God, and so fail to bring humanity into union with God.
The asymmetry of the relationship is effected through one in the place of man being in free obedience to the other in the place of God. This obedience is given in all things such as obedience is given to God in all. Obedience here is understood to mean the act of uniting one’s mind to another freely, so that it is not a forced control of the one obeying, but an expectation that if they wish to unite in one mind with God then they will accept God’s will as their own will. Thus, the one in the place of God never forces the obedience of the other, but may exhort it and at times there may be appropriate consequences for disobedience aimed only to generate repentance and not to the destruction of the other, at least not until the judgement of God. The one in the place of God also treats the other with love and responsibility to draw the other into union with God through leadership in action and word. This is done respecting the other as in the image of God and so respects their freedom, reason, and own authority. This last point is important. Each human being in the image of God requires authority to realise the likeness of the image and this must be free authority. This is managed through means of jurisdictions based on space-time and the level of those under one’s authority.
So, in the case of husband and wife, there is a certain jurisdiction of the wife over the home and children that must be respected by the husband and also the children over a certain space or possessions of their own, so that the image of God is respected within them; in this, while it benefits a slave to stay a slave to gain from the obedience, it is better for the master to ensure a level of freedom and self-autonomy for the slave. Also, man will co-rule with God, so some place of co-rule through consent is proper to all relations and it is not one that is merely autocratic.
These relations are necessary for all humanity, which is why they are realised at the private level of marriage and monastic life as well as at the ecclesial level. At the ecclesial level, they are needed to establish the authority of God, as Father, in begetting and sustaining sons, through ministering the Mysteries.
They also allow all relationship structures to unite into one as expressed through the synods of hierarchies moving to one see. The synods are needed to reflect the equality of various orders with a head recognised to provide unity to them. The heads then unite to further heads who recognise one as first among them, although at the head, the hierarchy does not end in one on earth, least it be reduced to a human hierarchy; but there remains a small group of heads directly under Christ as true head of the Church.
Again each synod is limited in jurisdiction by space-time limits, such as territorial limits and non-interference in the proper jurisdiction of those below, unless the behaviour of one under them is such that it is contrary to the actions of Christ. No hierarch may have universal immediate jurisdiction over all the churches, because such would deny or overlap that of those under them and so deny the unifying quality of that jurisdiction to bring those under it into one by having two heads.
The reason for the relations is to enable unity into one by bringing all freely into one mind and one body: without this there can be no unity with God. There can only be unity through union of mind, which needs to be tangibly expressed through tangible relations realised through human relations. Also, because relations with God are eternal, these relation structures are also permanent, at least until death inevitably ends them for this present age. The only exception to this permanence is where the actions of one party deny that one’s ability to perform their role in the relationship or take another away from unity of God rather than towards it. Obedience is only required as consistent with obedience to God, so a wife is not obliged to obey her husband should he, for example, command her to sacrifice to idols, but otherwise obedience is due, even if considered rather odd. The obedience in private relations is more encompassing than that in public ecclesiological relations because each in a public office is acting himself in the place of God, and those higher are limited in their authority, so that his own authority is not compromised within his own jurisdiction.
So, human relations not only permit but require man to relate and unite with God. These relations are asymmetrical, iconic, jurisdictional, synodal, and permanent, so that union with God and man can be properly realised in them. Relationships that do not meet with the forms and structures given are not beneficial to establishing relationships with God, and may rather distort such a relationship. Relations need to be properly formed through the Mysteries with those who are also part of the Body of Christ, so that the grace of God can truly realise them into union with Himself and each other. Relations beyond those established through the Mysteries are ineffective in this process and rather damaging. Even natural obedience to government and parent is reinforced by the commandments of God and by the appointment of God.
Alternate human relationship structures such as unmarried couples, marriage with non-Orthodox, male to male and female to female “marriages,” anarchy, multi-partner, schism, and heresy are strictly forbidden, because they fail to unite man to God and rather bind man to his fallen condition and so to death.
Rev. Dr. John (Patrick) Ramsey holds a PhD from the University of Winchester. He is a hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia in the UK, and tutors for the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. He has published two books, The Minor Clergy of the Orthodox Church: Their Role and Life According to the Canons and The Place of St Peter: A Perspective, Inspired by the Areopagite, of the Hierarchal Structure of the Church. The latter comprises his doctoral dissertation revised for publication.
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