In both historical and theological literature, the principle of oikonomia is often referred to to illustrate the particularly Byzantine ability to interpret the law arbitrarily to suit political or personal purposes. Such a use betrays an obvious misunderstanding of the term, and is an injustice both to the principle itself and to its proper application. The term oikonomia does not belong originally to legal vocabulary; meaning “household management,” it designates in the New Testament the divine plan of salvation: “He 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 [oikonomia] for the fullness of time, to recapitulate all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ep 1:9-10; v. also 3:2-3). But this divine plan for the management of history and of the world has been entrusted to men. For Paul, preaching of the word is an oikonomia, entrusted by God (1 Co 9:17), and, therefore, we should be regarded as “servants of Christ and stewards [oikonomoi] of the mysteries of God” (1 Co 4:1). More specifically, the “management” or “stewardship” belongs to those who fulfill the ministry of leading the Church: “The Church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office [oikonomia] which was given to me for you” (Col 1:24-25). In the Pastorals, the oikonomia belongs particularly to the episkopos: “For a bishop as God’s steward [oikonomos] must be blameless” (Tt 1:7).
Among the Greek Fathers, oikonomia has the standard meaning of “incarnation history,” especially during the Christological controversies of the fifth century. In a subsidiary way it is also used in canonical texts, and then, obviously, places the pastoral “management” entrusted to the Church in the context of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. Thus, in his famous Letter to Amphilochius, which became an authoritative part of the Byzantine canonical collections, Basil of Caesarea, after reaffirming the Cyprianic principle about the invalidity of baptism by heretics, continues: “If however, this becomes an obstacle to [God’s] general oikonomia, one should again refer to custom and follow the Fathers who have managed [the Church].” The “custom” to which Basil refers was current “in Asia,” where “the management of the multitude” had accredited the practice of accepting baptism by heretics. In any case, Basil justifies “economy” by the fear that too much austerity will be an obstacle to the salvation of some. In the Latin versions of the New Testament, and in later ecclesiastical vocabulary, the term oikonomia is very consistently translated by dispensatio. In Western canon law, however, the term dispensatio acquired a very definite meaning of “exception to the law granted by the proper authority.” The text of Basil quoted above, and innumerable references to oikonomia in Byzantine canonical literature, clearly interpret it in a much wider sense. What is at stake is not only an exception to the law, but an obligation to decide individual issues in the general context of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Canonical strictures may sometimes be inadequate to the full reality and universality of the Gospel, and, by themselves, do not provide the assurance that, in applying them, one is obedient to the will of God. For the Byzantines—to use an expression of Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos (901-907, 912-925)—oikonomia is “an imitation of God’s love for man” and not simply an “exception to the rule.”
Occasionally, oikonomia—whether the word itself is used or not—becomes part of the rule. Canon 8 of Nicaea, for example, specifies that Novatian bishops be received as bishops whenever the local Episcopal see is vacant, but they are to be accepted as priests, or chorepiskopoi, when a Catholic bishop already occupies the local see. In this case, the unity and welfare of the Church are concepts which supersede any possible notion of the “validity” of ordination outside the canonical boundaries of the Church, and oikonomia—i.e., God’s plan for the Church—represents a living flexibility extending beyond a legalistic interpretation of sacramental validity.
Oikonomia, on the other hand, plays an important role in Byzantine marriage law. This law, as we shall see later, aims fundamentally at expressing and protecting the notion that the unique Christian marriage, a sacramental reality, is projected—“in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ep 5:32)—into the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage, therefore, is not simply a contract, which is indissoluble only while both parties remain in this world, but an eternal relationship not broken by death. In accordance with St. Paul (1 Co 7:8-9), second marriage is tolerated, but not considered “legitimate” in itself, whether it is concluded after the death of one partner or after a divorce. In both cases, it is tolerated twice only “by economy,” as a lesser evil, while a fourth marriage is excluded.
Of its nature, oikonomia cannot be defined as a legal norm, and practical misuses and abuses of it have frequently occurred. Throughout its entire history, the Byzantine Church has known a polarization between a party of “rigorists,” recruited mainly in monastic circles, and the generally more lenient group of Church officials supporting a wider use of oikonomia, especially in relation to the state. In fact, oikonomia, since it permits various possible ways of implementing the Christian Gospel practically, implies conciliation, discussion, and, often, unavoidably, tension. By admitting representatives of the two groups in the catalogue of its saints—Theodore the Studite, as well as the patriarchs Tarasius, Nicephorus, and Methodius; Ignatius, as well as Photius,—the Church has given credit to them all, as long as it recognized that the preservation of the orthodox faith was their common concern. In fact, no one in Byzantium ever denied the principle of oikonomia; rather everyone agreed with Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria (581-607) when he wrote, “One rightly can practice oikonomia whenever pious doctrine remains unharmed.” In other words, oikonomia concerns the practical implications of Christian belief, but it never compromises with the truth itself.
* This excerpt is from “Byzantine Theology” by Fr. John Meyendorff