Canons Concerning Rape in the Orthodox Church 1: Canon 67 of the Holy Apostles (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: Many years ago, an Athonite Ephraim gave a homily about a teenage Greek girl. After her mother had died, she was raped for a duration of time by her father and brothers. She later went to confess to this Elder and started her spiritual journey. The Elder used this story and example to show that even though she went through such a traumatic experience, she did not blaspheme or blame God, abandon the Church, etc. In the Greek world of male preachers, there are numerous stories of the “heroic women” who have been raped, yet endured the cross they was given to bear with thanksgiving and did not blaspheme God. One story tells of a woman in Greece who became pregnant from her rapist and kept the baby because she refused to sin against God via abortion.

“If anyone is keeping a virgin whom he has forcibly raped, though she be not engaged to another man, let him be excommunicated. And let it not be permissible for him, to take another, but let him be obliged to keep her whom he has made his choice even though she happen to be indigent.”

In the Orthodox Church, it is taught that nothing happens without God’s Providence. Sometimes, it is not His primary will for an individual, but secondary will which he condescends to allow. Thus, rape, pedophilia, human sex trafficking, etc., is not God’s primary will, but He allows it for reasons known only to His wisdom. In the Orthodox Church, one is also taught that they must bear all things, no matter how painful the temptation, with thanksgiving.

In the early Church, some Fathers taught that it was permissible to commit suicide to prevent one’s body from being defiled through rape, etc. There are even some early martyrs commemorated in the Orthodox Church who died this way. However, that teaching was later retracted.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite interprets the Canons that deal with rape and how the victim of rape is to be penanced in his works,  the Rudder and Exomologetarion. Below is his interpretation of the 67th Canon of the Holy Apostles which deals with “Rape and Fornication.” These penances are still applied today in the monasteries:


The Canons of the Holy Apostles:

Canon 67

If anyone is keeping a virgin whom he has forcibly raped, though she be not engaged to another man, let him be excommunicated. And let it not be permissible for him, to take another, but let him be obliged to keep her whom he has made his choice even though she happen to be indigent.
(cc. XXII, XXIII, XXV, XXVI of Basil.).


The present Canon ordains that whosoever rapes a virgin by force and violence that is not engaged to be married to another man, and is keeping her in his house or at his home, shall be excommunicated for this forcible rape, and he is not to be permitted to take another woman instead of her, but, on the contrary, is to be obliged to rest content with this same girl, whom he himself chose, even though she be one of humble birth and poor.

“If they were raped forcibly, though they did not offer their ravishers any excuse on their part, yet they are responsible because on account of their other sinful acts, either past or present, or future, they have been compelled by God to suffer such pollution.” St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite


With reference to the subject of the present Canon St. Basil in his cc. XXII and XXV ordains that the man who forcibly rapes a virgin shall be allowed to have her as his wife, but shall nevertheless be canonized with the penalty attaching to fornication. That is to say, to be deprived of the right to communion for four years. But in his c. XXVI the same saint says that those who commit fornication first and marry later had better be separated; or in case they will not consent under any circumstances to their being separated, let them be left united. Nevertheless, in the case of a matter of this kind consideration must be paid to what God says in the twenty-second chapter of Deuteronomy (25-27); that is to say, there must be an investigation as to whether the virgin happened to be found in a desert place, and whether she yelled and no one came to her rescue. For then she would be free from responsibility … “there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death,” it says; “for as when a man riseth up against his neighbor, and slayeth his soul, even so is this matter: for he found her in the field, and the damsel shouted, and there was no one to save her.” But when it all happened when she was not in a desert place or in the wilderness, and she did not yell, it appears that he ruined her with her consent (see also footnote 1 to c. II of Gregory the Miracle-worker. It should also be ascertained whether the man who raped her has parents living (or whether he is married); and likewise as to the virgin who has been raped: and whether they or their parents are disposed to consent to their marriage, according to c. XXII of Basil. There must be no coercion in this matter. According to the civil law (Armenopoulos, Book 6, Title III), if the man who raped the girl is rich, he shall give her a pound of gold, but if he is poor, he shall give her half his entire property. But if he is without property, he shall be cudgeled, shorn, and exiled. But if any man should ruin a girl before she is of proper age, that is to say, before she has become thirteen years old, he shall have his nose cut off, and shall give half of all his wealth to the ruined girl.

“There must be an investigation as to whether the virgin happened to be found in a desert place, and whether she yelled and no one came to her rescue. For then she would be free from responsibility.” St Basil


It is a matter to be wondered at that the present Apostolic Canon as well as Canons XXII and XXV of Basil permit those who forcefully violated women to have them as wives; whereas in Canon XXVI the same Basil says that those who have become joined by fornication are to be separated. With a view to solving this question, Balsamon says that in the above Canons Basil is speaking of a virgin that has been violated and consequently, unless she accepts her violator as her husband, she will be left dishonored and worthy of mercy; for no one else will take her as a wife because of the fact that she has been raped. But in his Canon XXVI concerning fornication, he deals with the case in which a girl after having been raped by a man has later been enticed into fornication by another man.

For even though such a woman does not take as her husband the man who induced her to commit fornication with him, she will not be undergoing any loss or damage, nor will she be wronged nearly so much as would the one above. Hence it is also better that such persons be separated. But inasmuch as Zonaras says no such thing, and inasmuch as Basil the Great calls even the rape of a virgin fornication in his Canon XXII, that opinion of Balsamon’s does not appeal to us, as it does not seem to consist with right reason and the saint’s aim. So by way of solving this problem we venture to say that after Basil the Great said that which he did concerning a man and a woman who dispose of a case of rape by resorting to marriage, in his Canons XXII and XXV, he lastly comes round in his Canon XXVI to a more general and universal view concerning all those who join in fornication, whether the girl in question be one who was a virgin and undefiled or one previously defiled by another man, so he [Basil] writes: “Fornication is not marriage and neither is it the beginning of a marriage, so that if it be possible for those who have entered into marriage in this manner after premarital fornication to be separated, this is best.” But why is it best for them to be separated? Because, according to the Apostle,“marriage is honorable and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4), whereas such a marriage as this, entered into after and as a result of fornication, is in consequence no marriage at all. And such a bed not undefiled, but is defiled and unclean. For it was not God who joined such persons together, as is written, “whom God hath joined,” nor the words of God and His blessing through the priest, but lasciviousness and wantonness. (Matthew 10:6). Besides how can it be said that when it comes to being blessed, such persons deserve to have a or crowns placed on their head, which is a symbol of victory, in indication that those joined in wedlock have not been defeated by hedonic pleasure, but on the contrary, have remained invincible, according to St. Chrysostom (Homily IX on I Timothy). On the contrary they being overcome by wantonness and hedonic pleasure have been utterly vanquished.

St. Pelagia of Antioch, threw herself off a building to avoid being raped.
St. Pelagia of Antioch, threw herself off a building to avoid being raped.

Or how can it be said that they deserve to commune in the Divine Mysteries in the Church after being blessed, as is the order in our holy Church, when they are under a canon for fornication? Secondly, because if such persons are not separated, a door to perdition will be opened for all destroyers and intemperate to ruin girls first and to be blessed with them afterwards. Many men, indeed, will on this account be induced to defile girls first in order to be able to take them as wives whether their parents are willing or not, because of the fact that they have been defiled. But on the other hand, in the event the two are separated, the separation will act as a bridle, and especially as regards the girls and women, to prevent them from betraying themselves to men in order to get themselves defiled first, since they will remember that if this should happen, not only will they fail to receive as husbands the men who defiled them, but instead they shall have to remain dishonored and despised throughout their life and all they will have gained is sin and hell. For these reasons then it is better and stricter for those joined after fornication, not only not to be joined together and not to be blessed to start with, but even after they have succeeded in getting themselves joined together and blessed, but to be separated despite themselves. For this is what the word separation denotes as used by the saint.

He goes on to say, however, as a matter of permissiveness and of adjustment, that in case the ones who have been joined together after fornication are inexorably determined to insist upon being wedded, and will in no way consent to be separated, that they are to be penalized as fornicators, but are to be left united, in order to avoid having something worse ensue in other words, they should commit suicide because of their being unable to endure the pangs of erotic passion would be tempted to fornicate and commit adultery secretly even after being separated, according to Zonaras. Hence it seems to follow that the present Apostolic Canon is speaking in a similar mood of permissiveness and adjustment, though at the same time with a view to restriction of the evil.
As a matter of permissiveness, lest anything worse should happen, and this defiled virgin, wishing to have as her husband the man who ruined her, but being kept away from him and unable to endure the disgrace and reproach, she could be urged to commit suicide as have many other girls actually done under such circumstances. This might be especially so in view of the fact that she was forcibly raped by the man, and not defiled willingly with consent, a thing which appears to her unbearable. For although it says “whom he has forcibly raped”, yet Basil fails to add this word “forcibly” or “force” in his Canon XXV, but only the word “defile.” But restrict the evil done, in order that rich men who rape poor girls forcibly and against their will may be compelled by this Apostolic Canon to marry them; and similarly rich women voluntarily allowing themselves to be defiled by poor men, and being compelled to wed them, men as much as women are dissuaded from doing such things when they consider that they will have to marry such poor and humble girls, or such poor and humble men, a thing which seems to them to be completely undesirable.
That the Canon appears to definitely speak of such rich people is plain from what it adds, i.e., “but let him be obliged to keep her whom he has made his choice even though she happen to be indigent.” So much for these matters. But as for anyone that should take as wife a woman that has been ruined by another man and that is a prostitute, without there having been any fornication between them previously, I simply cannot say how great a good he is doing by gathering up a lost sheep and saving a soul which would otherwise have gone to perdition.
I can only say that such a man becomes an imitator of God, who took as His bride the prostitute and sinful nature of human beings, without considering its previous sins, as we have already said in the footnote to Apostolic Canon XLVIII.


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