Peace and War in Eastern Orthodoxy

War is not acceptable in the Orthodox Church.

Everywhere we look, we see nations at war. Some of these wars we may be tempted to believe are “just”. And while they may serve a just cause, wars themselves are unjust by their very nature. War, as the antithesis of peace, belongs to the realm of human sin. Therefore, as a sin, war can never embody the justice, righteousness, and peace that are the very essence of reconciliation between God and humanity. Let’s explore this a bit more…

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Offensive vs. defensive war

Orthodoxy makes clear that offensive war and violence are never the means by which God achieves justice. Even in the case of a defensive war, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople states that the Church only forgives “forgives an armed defense against oppression and violence” in a few specific cases (Cosmic Grace – Humble Prayer, 2003). Therefore, regardless of the type of war we fight, we perpetrate injustice by spilling the blood of our brethren. And it is indeed better “to be treated with injustice ourselves than to do injustice to others” (ibid.) Likewise, Saint John Chrysostom teaches that changing the minds of our enemies and bringing about a change of soul is far more wonderful than killing them.

While it is our moral obligation in this fallen world to defend our nation when threatened, any action that takes the life of another is a sin worthy of repentance and penance. Saint Basil the Great’s Canon 13 enumerates this well: “Homicide in war is not reckoned by our Fathers as homicide; I presume from their wish to make concession to men fighting on behalf of chastity and true religion. Perhaps, however, it is well to counsel that those whose hands are not clean only abstain from communion for three years.” (Canon 13 of St. Basil, The Rudder).

War is a sin that requires penance

Those who are familiar with the divine services of the Orthodox Church know that “peace” is mentioned quite frequently. Most major services contain the “litany of peace,” which begins with, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord”. It continues, “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls . . . for the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Orthodox faithful hear repeated petitions for peace, in its personal, social, and global dimensions.

To an Orthodox Christian, peace is not merely the absence of warfare and conflict. Rather, it is an active state of harmony and well-being. Peace is the divinely ordained state of humanity. Therefore, every form of conflict and strife – especially war – is the antithesis of peace, a manifestation of sin.

However, in the same services, we see petitions commemorating the armed forces, in which we pray they obtain “victory over every enemy and adversary.” Yet, Orthodox canon law prescribes that soldiers who kill in warfare must undergo a penitential period of separation from the eucharist (e.g. excommunication). The taking of human life is always an objective evil, even when done in the pursuit of a “just cause.” As such, it has the effect of rupturing one’s communion with Christ and thus requires repentance.

A bit of a contradiction?

It can seem a bit contradictory. Orthodox Christians pray for the peace of the world, while also praying for the armed forces and their victory over enemies. How can we reconcile this?

In Orthodox ethics and canon law, there are two unique applications: akrievia and economia. Akrievia represents the strict application of the gospel principles embodied in canon law. Economia, on the other hand, is a dispensation from the strict requirements in view of human weakness and life in a fallen world.

To understand how this works, let’s take a look at divorce. According to akrievia, there is one marriage for life, and divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery. This is a direct word of the Lord, and the expectation for all Christians who marry in the Church. Regardless, the Orthodox Church blesses the remarriage of divorced persons in certain circumstances as an act of mercy.

Similarly, peace, in its very nature, embodies the gospel. War by nature is a manifestation of sin, and therefore, can never be “just.” We must avoid war at all costs, and we must pursue peaceful resolution without restraint. However, because of our fallen world, there are times when the peaceful resolution is not possible. For example, a hostile enemy attacks and attempts to deprive peace-loving Christian citizens of life and liberty. In such situations, a pacifistic position may indeed attract and beget violence because of its public refusal to defend even the innocent against violence and murder.

Evil vs. Lesser Evil

When we cannot reach peaceful resolution and must wage war, doing so is a “necessary evil”. Why is it necessary? Because we must protect the good and innocent. Why is it evil? Because the protection of the innocent requires the taking of human life, which is reprehensible.​

Contrary to popular belief, the Orthodox Church is not pacifistic. Though in its practices, the Church does encourage governments to always pursue peaceful resolution to conflict. The Church does, however, recognize that governments cannot be held to the strict requirements of the gospel because we live in a fallen world. At times statesmanship fails. Governments will call on their Christian citizens to defend their commonwealth by means of war. Failing to do so would result in an increase of evil in the world, rather than a decrease.

Keep Reading: Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?


The teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ tell us to live in harmony with God and with one another. They instruct us to return good for evil, leave retribution to God, and “turn the other cheek”. Despite our reluctance, Christ would much rather we suffer injustice ourselves than be the cause of it. We must deal with injustice righteously and seek ways to peacefully influence the enemy to change and repent. If we cannot, the most we can do is defend ourselves, without seeking to harm the enemy beyond what is necessary to stop the attack. In summary, the Orthodox Church teaches that war is a necessary evil, and that those who take life should repent, confess their sins, and abstain from Holy Communion for a time.

Read More: Turning Prayer Into Action

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