Dn. Michael Hyatt: We finished the First Ecumenical Council last week, sort of. Just when you think it’s safe to go outside, then Arianism returns with full force. So, I’ve talked before about this sort of “whack the mole” kind of phenomenon that happens in the Church, and it really happens in the Church now. If you’ve got a Bible though, turn to Revelation 12, because this really describes this period in the Church—not that it was written specifically for this period in the Church, because the state of warfare is going to continue throughout the history of the Church—but John, having a revelation from Christ himself, sees this coming.
And he says in Revelation 12:1: “Now a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet, and upon her head a garland of 12 stars”—talking about the Virgin Mary. In fact, you’ll see in verse 2:
Then being with child, she cried out in labor and pain to give birth and another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on his heads. His tail threw a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth, and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth to devour her child as soon as it was born. She bore a male child. He was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.
Obviously this is Christ. This is the virgin giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God.
And her child was caught up to God and his throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God that they should feed her there for 1260 days. And war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer, so the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world, was cast to the earth and his angels were cast out with him.
Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation and strength and the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ has come for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down, and they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens, you who dwell in them, woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you, having great wrath because he knows that he has a short time.” Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child.
And one of the things you find in Scripture, and particularly the writings of the Fathers is sort of this overlap between Mary the virgin and the Church which gives birth to the people of God, and you see it here. Verse 14:
But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle that she might fly into the wilderness into a place where she is nourished for time, a times, and half a time from the presence of the serpent. So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood, but the earth helped the woman and the earth opened up its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Warfare is the natural state of the Church on earth. And it began immediately after the ascension of Christ into heaven. You know, you see it in the Book of Acts. You see it unfold in the persecutions in the first couple of centuries, the rise of heresy in the first couple of centuries. You see it even at Nicaea in the great battle for the Truth, of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But no sooner had the council been dismissed than the warfare began anew with great rigor and great intensity.
You remember, just to kind of put this back in its historical perspective, the Edict of Milan was 318. And, by the way, parenthetically, it’s kind of interesting that there were 318 bishops who attended that first council, and if you look back biblically, there is a time in which a 318, the number 318, appears. Does anyone remember where it is? Pentecost? I don’t know about that, I hadn’t thought about that, but I do know that Abraham, in the Book of Genesis, sent 318 of his servants to free his cousin Lot when he was kidnapped. And so the Fathers of the Church mystically interpret this first council as being sort of a rescue in essence of the truth from the Arians who had kidnapped it.
But the Edict of Milan: in 318, Christianity is legalized by the emperor Constantine. [In] 325, we have the First Ecumenical Council, and in 326, immediately after this, Arius is exiled. But, get a load of this: by 327, Constantine is having second thoughts. By 327, two years later. I’m going to give you a little bit of the history, and then we’re going to talk about what it all means for us today, because I think there’s much that we can learn from what happened immediately following this.
Constantine was likely influenced by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Now, this is not to be confused with Eusebius of Caesarea who was the great church historian. He was clearly a Trinitarian: Eusebius of Caesarea. But Eusebius of Nicomedia wavered. Even in the council, he only signed the creed and the confession at the very end of the council and after much debate. But in 327, two years after the council, amnesty was given to the Arian leaders by the emperor himself. The Arian bishops were allowed to return to their sees by 328. And then Satan launches this out-and-out attack against the four great pillars of that first council. And this is one of the darkest hours in the history of the Church. Just when they thought that all was well and that they could relax for awhile, the enemy renews and attacks with great vengeance.
Casualty number one—and there’s four of them. Casualty number one: Alexander of Alexandria, who was the bishop in Alexandria. He was that great patriarchate in Egypt, and Alexander had been a stalwart defender of the party of the Homoousians, the people that believe that the Father and the Son were of the same essence, the Trinitarians, the Nicaeans. But he dies in 328 just as the Arian bishops are being readmitted to the Church. Do you remember Athanasius was his deacon?
And so Athanasius succeeds him, and he is ordered by the emperor, under pain of deposition and exile, to grant free admission to the Arians who wish to return to the Church. More about him in a minute. But Eusebius of Nicomedia, he is a close confidant and counselor of the emperor. And he begins to use all the power of the imperial court and the military to force the Church to accept Arianism. And he turns his guns and the guns of the imperial court, so to speak, maybe swords at that time to:
Casualty number two: Eustathius of Antioch. And he was accused of inciting riots at Antioch and disturbing the peace, and he made a huge tactical error. He spoke ill of the emperor’s mother Helen, and he called her a chambermaid. Not a good thing to do. Sometimes people get carried away in their preaching. He was one of them. Not that I would ever do that. But he was deposed from Antioch, and he died in exile in 330. He had played a huge role in the first council. He was a stalwart defender of the Orthodox faith, and he dies in exile in 330.
Now, Eusebius of Caesarea, again: the church historian, the good guy, he was asked to go to Antioch and become the new bishop. But, sensing trouble, he says, “Uh thanks, but no.” So, he doesn’t go. The people of Antioch refuse to accept Eustathius’ successor, and a schism begins in Antioch that basically is going to take Antioch out of the battle for 60 years. So with one swoop, Satan neutralizes the entire Church of Antioch and takes it off the table. So: major, major blow against the Church.
Casualty number three: Marcellus of Ancyra. Probably the staunchest supporter of Orthodox Trinitarian theology in the first council, but also probably supportive because he was really sort of a latent Sabellian, and let me explain what that was. Sabellianism taught that basically this idea of the Trinity was really not true: that God kind of put on different masks as he entered human history. So he appears as the Father in the Old Testament and then he comes in the person of the Son, and then he manifests himself as the Holy Spirit. But God is not three as we understand it, as Trinitarians today, but God is one and just manifests himself in these three pictures. It was modalism. And that was part of the reason that Marcellus opposed the Arians was because they believed that there was a distinction between the Father and the Son. They had a really goofed-up understanding of it, you know, that the Son was born by the Father in eternity past, there was a time when the Son of God was not, remember that was Arianism. That Jesus was created by the Father.
So, Marcellus stood against that, but he kind of fell into the opposite error of Sabellianism. So he began to teach after the first council. He was kind of emboldened by the council and began to teach these doctrines of Sabellius, and unfortunately he caused many of the people who were kind of on the fence about the work of Nicaea to react to it because they said, “Oh, that council was Sabellian, and so we’re going to side now with the Arians.” So this would be an albatross about the necks of the Orthodox Nicaeans for the next couple of generations. But he also made a tactical error. He took his teachings and he put them into a book, and he was so proud of it that he sent it to the emperor. And Constantine, seeing this open Sabellianism so clearly written and defined, had no choice but to depose him in 336, which is not a bad thing, but it also shows some of the waffling of Constantine who can’t quite figure out if he’s going to support the Nicaeans or not support the Nicaeans. So that was Casualty number three.
Then we get to Casualty number four. It’s none other than Athanasius himself. Athanasius is now the successor to Alexander in Alexandria. And Athanasius, if you’ve not read anything by him, he’s truly one of the greatest of all the Church Fathers.
And if you haven’t bought it, I would encourage you to do so, but Athanasius’s book On the Incarnation, if you read it today, reads like it was written today. I have sent it to several even evangelical friends who have read it and re-read it and love it. The version that we have in here which is published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has an introduction by C.S. Lewis which is worth the price of the book all by itself. Have I told you this story before? This is like a rabbit trail, but it’s worth it. Because he says that old books are really valuable and the reason they’re valuable is because, as much as we hate to admit it, we share more in common with our contemporaries than we think. We basically have a very similar worldview. We call ourselves Christians, secular humanists, but we share a lot in common, philosophically, pre-suppositionally, and all of that.
And Lewis says that the only remedy for that is to read books that were written in another time where they didn’t share our presuppositions, our philosophical outlook. He says that that helps us get an objective perspective and to see our time for what it is. And then he says, books from the future would be as helpful, but they’re harder to get. (laughter) So read the old books. And then he says, as a Christian—and I think this is a good rule of thumb that you ought to vow to yourself—for every new book, contemporary book, you ought to read one old book, because it’s a much-needed corrective to the spirit of the age in which we live. So it’s a very short book. It’s easy to read, and if you want to sample the Fathers, and if you’ve never read the Fathers and think that maybe it’s kind of dusty and old-fashioned and not relevant, if you read Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation, it will change your mind.
Well, Athanasius, now the bishop of Alexandria, Alexander’s successor, is accused, among other things, by the Arians of immoral conduct; illegally taxing the Egyptians—which, by the way, was a great fine punishable by death in the Roman Empire, wasn’t always enforced, but he’s illegally taxing Egyptians—supporting the rebels against the throne; punishing dissident bishops, in other words, those that disagreed with him he was punishing; supposedly broke the chalice of a rebellious priest; and they even accused him of murdering a bishop and keeping his severed hand for magical rites. So, Athanasius is put on trial. By the way, if you read the history of the Fathers, this is common stuff where abbots of monasteries, bishops, priests are accused of all kinds of wild and crazy stuff, because, after all, think about it: Satan is the father of lies. One of his fundamental tactics in assaulting Christians is lies. So Athanasius goes on trial, and he successfully refuted the charges. He even brought in the man who was supposedly the guy he murdered, the bishop and displayed his two hands. So, it was a false change. Valerie?
Valerie: Is he accused from people within Church or is he accused from people from outside of the Church?
Dn. Michael: He was accused by the Arians and brought to civil trial.
Valerie: So this is all infighting within the Church?
Dn. Michael: It’s all infighting. That’s right. So, he’s initially exonerated, but then there’s another council or a synod that’s held in Tyre that had his enemies who had just come from Jerusalem, and they’re now in the synod of Tyre, and they convict him also and condemn him, and he’s deposed. It’s a recurring theme for Athanasius. You know, he has the hardest time keeping his job because he keeps getting thrown out just when he gets going. So, he flees to Constantinople, which is now this new city that the Emperor Constantine had built because Rome had pretty much been overrun and was at great risk from the invasion of the pagans and others from northern and western Europe.
So he starts this new capital, and he has this “chance” random meeting with the emperor on the road leading into the city. He personally appeals to the emperor. You know: “Constantine, you’ve been the great defender of the Orthodox faith. You were there at the Council of Nicaea, you saw this firsthand, I’m not teaching anything different than that, and yet my enemies are relentlessly pursuing me and persecuting me.” And so, the emperor basically gives him a pass and exonerates him. So that was the good news. The bad news is that, a few months, later his enemies start accusing him, saying that he was interfering with the flow of grain from Alexandria to Constantinople. Now, understand the economics of this. This is a new and growing city. It’s the new capital. A lot of people are coming in to build it, population swelling. They’ve got to have grain, and so he’s accused of interrupting the flow of grain. Constantine couldn’t allow that to happen, and so he exiles Athanasius to Germany in 336. So once again, Athanasius is on the outs, on the run.
Then the emperor decides to readmit Arius to the Church. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse. You know, and here’s this man that ultimately is canonized in the Church—Constantine, who legalized Christianity, stalwart defender of the faith—and here he falls and agrees to admit Arius back into the Church. Remember, Arius was an Alexandrian. The Alexandrians, though, were clearly Orthodox, and they would not have anything to do with it. They would rebel. Constantine knew that, so he brings Arius to Constantinople where they’re going to have a big readmission ceremony in 336. Think of this: this is 11 years after the end of the Council of Nicaea. 11 years, just a short time after the work of Nicaea. The day before his readmission, though, Arius is found dead of an intestinal hemorrhage in a public restroom. Pretty interesting. So, even when men betray the Church and betray the truth, God is looking out for us and for his own, and I think there are so many lessons here, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Well, then in 337, so just a year later, Constantine—this is kind of a strange thing in history, too—he’s finally baptized for the first time in 337, right before he dies. And, unfortunately, he’s baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was probably an Arian. He certainly led the persecution against the Orthodox Christians. He died, and he was buried in the new Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Fr. Stephen and I were talking about this this week after the service. It’s really interesting that you have somebody like Constantine who had stood strong and then got confused with everybody else, and seemingly, apparently betrayed the Faith, yet he’s still canonized. Fr. Stephen made the comment to me, and I think he’s right: thank God that there are those moments when we have to stand firm and we can be remembered for those. And some of these other things… I mean, we’re going to fail, we’re going to sin, and being sinless is not a criterion for being a saint in the Church. If it were, no one would be admitted, no one would be canonized. But it’s just a reminder, again, that all of us fall. But there comes a time, a moment of truth, when our role is strategic and we have to act, and Constantine did at that moment. Philip?
Philip: I thought we drew a distinction between people who just commit a sin and people who fall into heresy.
Dn. Michael: We do, but I don’t know that you could just— First of all, a heretic, [for] somebody to be a heretic, [he] has to be propagating the heresy. And so, [for] Constantine, I think the most generous view probably is that he was confused at the end of his life. Imagine what it would’ve been like to live in these times. We take it for granted because we have a printed Bible. They didn’t have printed Bibles at that time. They had a bunch of letters that were being circulated. At this point in Church history, even the canon of the New Testament was not agreed upon. They didn’t have the seven ecumenical councils. They didn’t have the advantage of the Cappadocian Fathers, the fourth council, all this stuff. It was a confusing time. And even, you know today is the day of the Sunday of the Fathers of Seventh Ecumenical Council, so last night at Vespers, during some of the hymns, you know there’s a long list of the heretics. You know, this is not how you want to be remembered in the Church. But they were all teachers of heresy.
Philip: Are you saying that Constantine didn’t promote Arianism? He was about to bring the man himself back into the Church.
Dn. Michael: I’m saying I don’t know. I am saying that the Church canonized him, and therefore I have to believe. My presupposition is that the Church did that for a good reason. And so, even though there was confusion, we certainly can’t say he was a heretic, because we don’t canonize heretics. I would say that the most generous view is that he was confused at the end of his life. So, it’s not very satisfying, I know, and, frankly, a lot of stuff you read in the history of the Church is not that satisfying. There are the wheat and the tares, and I think Jesus admonishes us—I don’t remember where it is in the Gospels—to not try to separate the wheat from the tares, lest when we do, we rip up the wheat with it. So, I think there is in this age, in this life, everything’s a mixture. You would like for it to be really pure and really simple and really a clean break, but it’s fuzzy on the edges.
In another context this week, I was talking to my staff at Thomas Nelson, and we’re going through some reorganization and some changes, and some people were saying, “What about this, what about that?” And I said, “Look, any human attempt to organize reality will be about 95% successful at best.” There’s kind of a 5% part of reality that defies organization, that’s just kind of messy, because we live in a fallen world where there’s real sin, and people struggle with that, and some people struggle with it all their lives. If we demand perfection in ourselves or in other people, we’re doomed to a lifetime of disappointment.
Or you will end up in schism like the Donatists, as we looked at a couple of weeks ago, where you basically say, “I’m not going to associate with sinful people, people that have lapsed, so I’m going to separate.” And then what about the people you’re fellowshipping with? Maybe some of those are sinners? So that you end up like the old story of the Amish man who was lying in bed with his wife one night and said, “You know, the whole world’s in error and sometimes I wonder about you.” So, it becomes an increasingly smaller, smaller, smaller piece. That’s not to say that there weren’t the Orthodox faithful, and we also remember them, and certainly there’s a lot more of their examples than there are with the sort of mixed example of Constantine, who, by the way, is not recognized as a saint in the Western Church. Maybe for this reason. Canonized in the East, but not the West. So, for me, I don’t feel the need to make all that neat and tidy or to try to dress it up and make it something it’s not. It just is.
Neal: Sometimes in the Hall of Fame, we have coaches that are inducted, not just the great players. Is there a chance that the contribution to the kingdom, that he was recognized somewhat politically for doing what he did, that it wasn’t just necessarily that he was a great spiritual saint?
Dn. Michael: Yeah, I think he— that’s a very good point, Neal. He’s probably recognized for two things: One, for legalizing Christianity and stopping the horrific persecution, at least for a time, and then, secondly, for then calling the Council of Nicaea which began to sort through all this. I think that’s exactly right. He did these two great things, really important things in the history of the Church, and for that we recognize him, and venerate him, honor him. Robert?
Robert: Well, he wasn’t a bishop in the Church, and you mentioned him being confused. I’d read that the reason he waited to be baptized was because of the mistaken belief that sins after baptism could not be forgiven and that there were other people like him that believed that.
Dn. Michael: That’s true. That was a commonly held belief at that time that you wanted to wait until the end of your life, and several people waited to the end of their lives before they were baptized. Again, under the mistaken notion that sins that were committed after baptism couldn’t be forgiven, so you wait until the last second to try to cross the finish line sinless. But of course, that’s nonsense from our perspective because we’re not saved. We’re not admitted into the kingdom based on our righteousness. It’s not to say that it’s not important. We’re to work out our salvation even as Christ works in us, but it’s not the basis of our communion with Christ.
I want to sort of draw several lessons from this in the remainder of the time we have this morning. First of all, the devil is relentless in attacking the truth. And it comes in a lot of forms. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out lie. Sometimes it’s a diminishment of the truth: to try to make us think that it’s not really important to take a stand. The idea that unity is more important than the truth, ever heard that? A lot. It’s not really important that we agree on all this stuff: can’t we just have unity? And by the way, I will say that this is one of the more difficult things in the Orthodox Church, I think it always makes me uncomfortable, and I serve communion as a deacon so I get faced with [this] periodically where somebody comes to the chalice who is not Orthodox, and they want to commune. And the idea is, this is commonly held, well look, let’s just all partake, we’re all the same and all that. Well, we’re kind of getting the cart before the horse here, because until we can agree on what the truth is, communion has to be on the basis of truth, and I’ve had people say to me, “Well, I believe all the same stuff.” And I say, “Well, then, become Orthodox.” Not that hard. If that’s true, just become Orthodox.
But we have a responsibility to the truth first, and the truth precedes and is the foundation for communion. There can be no lasting unity without truth. It’s tough enough with the truth, as we saw in Nicaea, but it’s impossible without the truth. How can two walk together unless they be agreed? So the devil is relentless in attacking the truth. I think in our age, in our post-modern world, that what the devil’s strategy is is to diminish the importance of the truth and make us think that somehow we can find a unity on the basis of a common experience, not an objective truth. That’s the essence of post-modernism. And I’m not negating that experience is important. Experience is important, but it’s not the engine that drives the train. That’s truth. Our experience has to be based and rooted in the truth. If it’s not, we get led into all kinds of stuff. But how many times have you all heard, “Well, this is what I experienced,” and everybody says, “Well, I guess it’s true. True for you.”
Q1: The truth can’t be what I interpret it to be. The truth has to be interpreted by the Church. So, you can have your truth, which is what you hear a lot of nowadays, you have your truth and your reality, and I have mine, and never the twain shall meet, but we’re going to love each other. So people are throwing “the truth” around a lot, that word a lot.
Dn. Michael: It’s a great point, and what we have to base our fellowship on or the acknowledgment, assent, proclamation even, that there’s an objective truth that exists apart from us. You know, we’re coming on to the stage of history; we’re going to be gone more quickly than we would like. And yet there’s a truth that transcends all, that that existed in eternity past, that came into the world, in the person of Jesus Christ, and now is manifest through the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, and that will endure until Jesus comes back. But it’s apart from our little experience.
I used to argue with atheists. I used to be an atheist, but I realized that the problem with atheism was really a claim that your experience is all-encompassing, that the truth of God couldn’t exist outside of your experience, and yet it does. Our experiences can mislead us, often do. Sometimes there’s a correspondence between how I feel and how reality is, but often not. We’ve got all kinds of stuff we bring to the truth. That’s why, by the way, God has given us the gift of the Church. Because if I’m left with just my own thinking to interpret this, I read this and I interpret it out of my background, out of my experience, out of my tradition, what’s happening in the moment, world history, politics, and all that, I can come to a specific view, a certain view of the Scriptures, that may not be right. So what the Church says is that this book was given, this revelation was given to be interpreted in a community so that there can be checks and balances. So that there could be the affirmation of the people’s “Amen” and the work of the Holy Spirit in recognizing the truth.
We don’t have the option of the Scripture not being interpreted. Once you read it, you have to ask what it means, and so that the answer of the West was the papacy, you know, and “trust that to the magisterium or the Pope.” But unfortunately, so much of the West fell into not the priesthood of the believer, but the papacy of the believer, you know, where as an individual you can interpret the Scripture and decide what’s true on your own. What the Orthodox Church has said [is that] both of those are extremes. What we believe is that the truth is to be interpreted in a conciliar fashion in the whole Church. Iron sharpens iron. We have to come to an understanding and interpretation of these things, not just expansively with the whole Church over the whole world, but throughout time.
So, anyways, that was just kind of the first point in that the devil relentlessly attacks the truth, and Jesus said in John 8:34, he spoke of Satan, and he said he’s a liar and he’s the father of lies. So that every lie ultimately leads its way back to Satan. That’s why deception is such a terrible thing. Yet in our culture we put all kinds of things on a pedestal that are worse than that, but almost every sin has with it a deception. This whole thing, not to pick on this one guy, but Congressman Foley? You know, whatever else that was, pedophilia or some terrible sexual sin, at its core was deception. Here was a man who created some legislation to protect children and yet was guilty and no doubt had deceived himself but deceived many other people. So, now it’s a big scandal. But all these sins have at their root adultery. It’s going to always involve deception; it’s going to always involve a lie, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of reality.
So truth is really important. It’s worth fighting for in our generation. It’s worth standing for. And even if people tell you, as people tell me all the time in my work as a publisher that the truth, you can’t really use that to reach this generation because they’re so experience-based. Well, I’m all for meeting people where they are, but they’ve got to be moved off that, because it comes from a false view of reality, and if we don’t get people to view that there’s an objective reality, there’s truth, first and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ, if we can’t people to realize that that exists outside of them, then the Church is doomed. The Church has been sucked into a board game, basically, that’s not of its own making. We’re competing with the world on its terms, and we can’t win. We have to reframe the game altogether, and we have to challenge the very presuppositions that are assaulting this very truth. Comments?
Q2: Your observation of the weaknesses evident in the Church is absolutely correct. We are confronted with the problem of the arrogance of ownership of the Church in the papacy-type model, but there is just as grave a danger in the myth of democracy in the Church. We pay our tithes, we run this thing, we’ll tell you what to do, we’ll tell you what to say, and that can be and people don’t realize that democracy has been great for America, but I don’t know that it’s been great for the Church.
Dn. Michael: No, I think that’s right. I think this also comes from the Trinitarian model, but there is hierarchy, but there is also all the people of God have an “Amen,” have a place to play. There’s a great article in the current issue of Again Magazine on the priesthood of the laity. But that’s different [from] the democracy of the laity. But it’s worth reading.
Okay, another point, and actually this is kind of a sub-point of the first one. Satan usually attacks the leadership first. He goes after the leaders and he tries to get them to stumble in some way, and I can tell you, part of the reason I’ve survived as a Christian I think for 30 years is that I’ve recognized that leaders have clay feet. And I don’t create an expectation of perfection, and if you do, it’s only a matter of time before you get really disappointed, probably cynical, and your heart is going to grow cold, and you may still be attending Church, but your heart won’t be in it. And I see that happening all the time because we put these people on a pedestal and then Satan knocks them off because they’re the target of his assault and then our faith falters.
That’s why David says, I believe this is in Psalm 118, “It’s better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in men,” because all men, no matter how good they are, will fail us. And so I would rather just assume that our leaders are people struggling with issues like we are, and they’re going to sin like we do, and there’s forgiveness and redemption and grace to leaders just like there is to the rest of us. So what we can do, I think, knowing that our leaders are under assault, that they take the brunt of it, is we can pray for them. I can’t tell you how important that is. I mean that’s critically important. Fr. Stephen needs our prayers. Bp. Anton needs our prayers, Metr. Philip needs our prayers. Spiritual leadership in the Church has to have our prayers. That’s the weapon we have to wield. Valerie?
Valerie: How, ideally, are we to balance submission to the hierarchy with the knowledge that our leaders have clay feet? And I’m not speaking of anything specifically, but you know, say, your priest or a bishop to a priest gives an instruction that they don’t agree with but yet their submission… is it ever appropriate not to?
Dn. Michael: Let’s just say this. You have more power as a lay person than I have has a clergyman in the hierarchy. You know, the laity can speak with impunity. You know there may be repercussions on us as the clergy. We may get reassigned to Lafayette, Lousiana, or something, but if you’re the laity, you can speak up and you should speak up. I will say this, that if a leader is so insecure that he can’t create an environment that’s safe for dissent, something’s wrong. We ought to be able to have dissent. Now, the place we can’t tolerate dissent is as regards the truth. If a leader in the Church or a bishop starts proclaiming heresy, not only do you have the right to question it, you have the duty. I have the duty to question it. Athanasius was a mere deacon when he started to create trouble. And so, if it’s heresy, we have a duty. If it’s not really a matter of truth, you know my own philosophy is, you got to have leadership and so I don’t always have to agree with it.
And I can tell you as a leader of my company, I make some hair-brained, knuckle-headed decisions, and every time I do that, people don’t rise up and throw me out. Thank God. They give me some grace, and we need to do the same with our leaders. Not everything that gets done in the Church, even in our Church, is the way I would do it, but that’s okay. It’s easy for me to submit to Fr. Stephen because he’s a faithful priest. He’s thoroughly Orthodox. He’s humble, he’s gentle, he’s all these things, and even if he wasn’t, unless he was a heretic, I’m pretty much going to go with the flow. If he stands up and starts proclaiming heresy, I hope that, by the grace of God, I’d be among the first to oppose him. We have a duty to do that.
I’m going to give you these quick, I’m going to read these to you: spiritual victories are often short-lived. It’s true in the Church. Ten years, 11 years after the council of Nicaea, the Arians are back in power. It’s true in our own lives. Just when you think it’s safe to go outside—I’ve been victorious over this—you get hammered from some other direction. Which leads me to the next point: the natural state of the Church is warfare. And so again, if you have an expectation that there’s not going to be warfare, you’re going to be surprised and the enemy attacks and you go: “What did I do wrong?” Well, sometimes you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just the natural state of things in the world. You’re in a live battlefield where you can’t always see it, but the missiles are flying, and they’re taking out your friends, and sometimes they take out your kids, and sometimes they take out you, but that’s normal in this life. It’s not good, but it’s normal. And it’s going to be the situation until Jesus comes back. And here’s the thing I want to end on.
Ultimately, the truth wins out. Jesus said, “In this world, you shall have tribulation but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Ultimately, the truth wins out, but it’s only after a long and sustained struggle. So, really as Orthodox Christians, we have to be in it for the long haul. This is not a quick, easy, microwavable victory that we can just sit back on and rest. Instead, it’s a long, arduous fight, and we have to be in this until the end with the confidence that we’re going to win that ultimately the truth will prevail, but not without a struggle.