We Orthodox are in great need of a distinction in our religious discourse between what is essential and what is accidental. For some of us, confusing these two things leads to confusion and to value judgments that take others out of the range of sound teaching, sometimes to the point of accusing them of heresy or of undesirable innovation. Within churchly circles, this confusion has reached a point that raises anxiety and alarm since it has ballooned and occupied areas that had remained remote from it until today.
Our Orthodox theology is based on a respect for diversity in non-dogmatic matters. The source of this is faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three hypostases. The theological belief affirming that faith in the Most Holy Trinity is faith in unity in diversity and diversity in unity remains in our hearts and minds. The gifts of the faithful must be according to the image of the Most Holy Trinity: one of them does not cancel out the special characteristic of another or its individuality. Love and its pinnacle, the life-giving Cross, remains the bond that ties us together for the sake of building up the group and its salvation.
On the basis of this theological principle, the Church has known the distinction between set dogmas, apart from which one exits the Church, and theological opinions, which if the faithful differ about them no one can judge those who disagree about such an opinion as having left the Church. This is because theology is concerned with upright belief and faith, which is established in the dogmatic teachings that the Church agreed upon in the ecumenical councils. As for what the Church has not dogmatically determined, there is no problem with a multiplicity of opinion about such matters. In this diversity lies the power of the Church and the freedom that was granted to her by Christ, her Lord and Redeemer. In this diversity also lies a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity compared to other religions.
If, for example, we take the question of universal salvation, we find a diversity of opinions among the fathers both ancient and modern. All agree that the essential matter in this question is that Christ alone is the savior and no one else and that salvation can only be achieved through Him exclusively. As for how salvation is achieved through Him and which people receive it, one cannot determine this with certainty. This matter is for Him alone and it is not for us to have anything to do with it except to hope. Those who argue for universal salvation have their sound biblical and theological proofs and those who claim that salvation is only for those who deserve it also have their own proofs that are no less sound. On this matter we could cite a number of fathers in favor of both sides.
In our present time, there are many matters that are less important than the question of salvation, but despite this we see an intensification of discussion about them. If we take as another example the “outpouring of light” at the Holy Sepulcher on Holy Saturday, its importance varies among both the faithful and theologians. Some of them consider it to be proof of the true faith and find fault with those who do not believe in it and some pay no attention whatsoever to the phenomenon, considering it to be a popular belief with no connection to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.
Distinguishing between what is essential and what is accidental is necessary for the preservation of the unity of the visible Church and in order to prevent chaos that would shake the faith of the simple, who naturally are not stupid. What is essential is that Christ rose from the dead and granted life to those in the tombs. As for the question of the “outpouring of light”, it should not exceed the bounds of something that is accidental and incidental. If it did not occur, it would not add or take away a mustard seed’s weight of faith in the Resurrection. There is an anxiety that results here from giving the accidental priority over the essential, relegating the essential to the level of something secondary or marginal.
A lack of distinguishing between what is essential and what is accidental has led to the appearance of a class of “market policemen” who pursue those who hold differing opinions in order to judge them according to how they interpret to be correct with them and incorrect with others. “Market policing” or “compliance” as it is called in some Islamic countries, is not a behavior that our Church has known in the past but rather something new that is making inroads today. There are those who judge people for opinions that they have written or spoken or for their doing away with certain phenomena that have no connection to Orthodox tradition, such as in questions of dress and beards, or in the question of menstruating women participating in the sacraments or their placing a scarf over their head when they receive communion…
Respect for diversity is what makes the Orthodox Church unique. All individualism or unilateralism in teaching goes against the essence of this Church. Diversity begins with the absolute distinction between what is essential and what is accidental. “Market policing” is a new and alien innovation for our Orthodox tradition and it contradicts the basic Orthodox dogma, the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity. It is an innovation that contradicts the words of the divine Apostle, “You know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” In closing, we believe that the appearance of this class of “policemen” is an expression of a profound crisis that takes them captive and puts them in a state of constant fear of the world that Christ called us to face without fear, even if it persecutes and oppresses us.
— Fr Georges Massouh