Christianity: Eastern Orthodox

Law and Ethics

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Canon Law

Canon law refers to the canonical legislation that governs the life of the Eastern churches. Although generally referred to as ‘canon law’, the Eastern tradition tends to use the phrase ‘the tradition of the holy canons’. Canon law differs from law in its purpose (human salvation), time (beyond one’s current life), place (the rules that govern the Church) and scope (including ethics). The canon law of the Eastern Church has not been codified, meaning that it is not universally applicable or accepted across all churches.

Ecclesiastical Court

An ecclesiastical court is a tribunal established by religious authorities to address disputes or religious matters. The functions of the ecclesiastical court are largely restricted to religious issues and church property. The tribunals of the Eastern churches are governed by canon law and members of the court are those trained in understanding and implementing canon law.

Guiding Ethical Principles

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21), are believed to be divine laws that establish the foundation of ethical and worship practices. The Ten Commandments institute ethical rules relating to: respecting God and other authority figures (such as parents); honouring the holy day of rest (Sabbath); and a prohibition on killing other human beings, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and coveting.

Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ was an address to a large crowd of listeners, instructing them on how to live a life based on love (Matthew 5-7). One of the fundamental principles in Christian ethics is known as the ‘golden rule’, which states “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Many of the most familiar Eastern sayings and prayers are found in the Sermon on the Mount, such as the Lord’s Prayer.


A major ethical concept that underpins Eastern is sin, which generally refers to the breach or violation of religious law or ethical norm through an individual’s omission or commission. Sin is conceptualised in multiple ways. For example, original sin refers to the sinful nature of humanity due to the actions of the two original humans. Meanwhile, actual sin refers to acts, thoughts, words or deeds that transgress God’s will. In the Eastern tradition, sin is seen as a force that separates humans from God, leading the former to live an existence marked by death as opposed to a life in God’s glory. Freedom from sin is believed to be achieved through baptism, experiencing the sacred mysteries and unity with God (theosis).

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce

According to the Eastern tradition, human sexual activity should occur within the institution of marriage between one man and one woman. These ideals shape the Eastern Church’s position towards family, sexuality, marriage and divorce. However, individual practices and perspectives by lay followers may vary from a church’s official position.


Eastern traditions view sexuality in the context of the sacred unity between a man and a woman. Accordingly, acts outside of this context are usually considered to be a transgression from God (sin). Refraining from sexual acts outside of marriage (known as chastity) is highly valued.

Other sexual acts typically not supported from the standpoint of Eastern include fornication and homosexual activity. The latter is usually understood as a form of fornication rather than a sexual orientation. As such, across the diverse spectrum of Eastern practice and thought, homosexual activity is usually considered incompatible with Eastern theology. Nonetheless, expressions of homosexuality exist and individual views vary on the topic.

The Eastern Church accepts the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purposes of protecting health, enhancing the expression of marital love, and family planning.


In Eastern , marriage is a sacred union of a baptised man and woman, known as the sacrament of matrimony. Unlike the Catholic tradition where the sacrament is seen as an indissoluble union, the Eastern tradition insists on its sacramental eternity. This means that the remarriage of divorcees or widows is permissible. However, remarrying a fourth time is generally not accepted.


Remarriage after a divorce is permitted in the Eastern Church. The first marriage is seen as a holy union, blessed by the Church while second and third marriages are usually imposed with a penance. Widowed spouses may remarry without repercussion, with the exception of the clergy who are not permitted to remarry.

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