When Bishops Disappoint
September 09, 2009 Length: 54:36
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been moments of scandal and disappointment with various hierarchs of the Church. How are we to respond as faithful Orthodox Christians? Fr. Tom shares his reflections.
It is not a secret that in the Orthodox Church today, in the churches in North America, and indeed just about every place, that there are divisions in the churches and sadnesses and sorrows and scandals of various sorts, that have to do with the behavior and the actions of the church leaders, especially of course, in the first place, the bishops and the priests, the clergy.
And so we would like to just think about this for awhile here today, and to try to understand what is happening, and hopefully, to think together about how believers, how the faithful people, are to handle schisms and divisions, and particularly, very unfortunate and sorrowful troubles that exist, particularly, when it seems, or at least appears, that these are due to the leadership, particularly to do with how the bishops and the priests relate to each other, relate to the faithful, how they understand their ministry, and how it really can seem that many questions can be raised about how and why things are done and in what spirit and to what end.
But one thing is for sure: It is chaos, it is confusion, it is a time of deep sorrow, and certainly it is a time of scandal. Scandal—scandolon technically, it is a biblical term. It means “stumbling blocks”—obstacles that are put in people’s way, of glorifying and loving God and loving each other, and these scandals, or stumbling blocks, are brought by the Church’s leaders.
The Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, in Scripture says that it is inevitable that scandal would come. He said, “But woe unto those through whom it comes” (Mt 18:7). He said it would be as if a millstone would be tied around their necks and they would be thrown into the ocean if they scandalized one of the least little ones. It does not mean just children. It just means people generally.
The only scandal in the Church that is of God is the scandal of the Cross. Saint Paul speaks about the Cross of Christ being a scandalon 2:52—a stumbling block to certain people who want God to be a certain way and He does not behave the way that they would like Him to. He says the Cross of Christ is a scandal to those people. And of course it is foolishness and ridiculousness to other people.
But there is a scandal, the scandal of the Cross, and the scandal of holiness, the scandal of goodness. In fact, in the meeting of the Lord in the temple, Simeon the Elder, when he took the little baby Jesus in his hands, he said, “He would be a stumbling block, He will be a scandal, He will be for the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34). So there is that sense in which those who are of God are a scandal to other people.
But what we want to think about now is what happens when the people who are supposed to be of God, who are supposed to be the very icons, presence, servants, images, and bearers of God in this world, are themselves behaving scandalously and become stumbling blocks and obstacles to people’s glorification, love and service of God?
To reflect on this, probably a few things could be said right from the beginning. One is that it is not a new thing. It is a very old story. It is not a new story. Anyone who reads Holy Scripture, anyone who reads the Bible, the way that it is written, anyone who knows the least little bit about church history—certainly about the Gospel of Christ Himself and about how it was lived out, and the Christians’ behavior among themselves in the earliest times down to the present day—knows very well that scandal, division, schism, heresy and all kinds of vice were existing among the believers, within the people of God, and not excluding the leaders. In fact, sometimes even in the first place, among the leaders.
Let us just consider, to begin with, the of the Old Testament, the assembly of God in the Old Testament. It says in the Torah that God chose the people to be a royal priesthood, that they were chosen to be a kingdom, a nation of priests and prophets unto the Lord God. But we know that that did not happen, and we know that the shepherds of Israel, the kings, for the most part, the great majority of them did not obey God. They followed their own heart. They did their own thing. They looked out for their own interests. They had their own desires of power, possessions, pride, properties, and all kinds of things. And they did not care for the flock. They did not care for the people.
And sometimes the people, it says in Scripture, would even have it that way. They looked for prophets and priests and shepherds and pastors of their own liking. So they made common cause in evil rather than common cause in serving God. Some of the most violent sentences of the prophets are exactly in this regard.
For example, in Jeremiah 23 you have, “Woe to the shepherds”—the shepherd kings, the pastors of Israel—“who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture, says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for My people. You have scattered My flock. You have driven them away. You have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.”
So the Lord is against the shepherds when He says, “I will attend to you for your evil doing.” He says very simply that they have scattered the flock, driven them away and not attended to them.
Now of course, what we have to see here right away is that the shepherds—and certainly in the New Covenant in Christ, the bishops and the priests, who are the arch-pastors, the arch-shepherds—that their main task is the flock, the people, to care for the people, to attend to the people, not to scatter the people.
And here, or course, we know how Jesus himself said that the field is ripe for harvest and the people are there, but they are without a shepherd. They are wandering to and fro, without a real leader, without those who can guide them in the proper way—shepherds are interested only in themselves.
And it was not only the shepherds and pastors, but also the prophets and the priests. In the same chapter of Jeremiah it is written concerning the prophets:
My heart is broken within me. All my bones shake. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of His holy words. For the land is full of adulterers, because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil and their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly. Even in My house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord. (Jer 23:9-11)
Then in the same chapter it says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts. Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesied to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer 23:16). And then he said, “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran. I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jer 23:21).
So you have this in Jeremiah that the prophets and the priest and the kings—and by the way, the word “shepherd” usually means the kings—they are not following the will of the Lord. If we read exactly the books of Kings and the Chronicles, we see how few of those kings and shepherds and pastors were actually following God. Some of them sinned and repented, like David. Some of them started off great, but ended up horribly, like Solomon. But only a handful, like Hezekiah and Josiah and Jehoshaphat—most of them are following their own mind. They are worshiping the idols, not keeping the law of God, and they are doing awful things.
Ezekiel is probably the strongest against the prophets and the shepherds. Ezekiel 34 says this:
The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to them, even to the pastors. Thus says the Lord God. Lo, shepherds, pastors of Israel who have been feeding yourselves.
Listen to that: “You have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ez 34:2). “Feed the sheep”—it is wonderful, when you hear those words you think of Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel reinstating Peter to the apostolate, even as the chief apostle, saying to Him, “Do you love me? Feed My sheep. Tend My lambs. Feed My sheep.” That is the duty. That is the job. That is the task. It is all about the people. It is all about the sheep.
But then Ezekiel continues:
“Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat. You clothe yourself with the wool. You slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened. The sick you have not healed. The crippled you have not bound up. The strayed you have not brought back. The lost you have not sought. And with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered. They wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth with none to search or seek them.” (Ez 34:2-6)
Thus says the Lord, behold I am against the shepherds. I will require My sheep at their hand, and put a stop to the feeding on the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue My sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. (Ez 34:10)
Then you have this fantastic prophesy:
For thus says the Lord God. Behold, I, myself will search for My sheep. I, Myself will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so I will seek My sheep. I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I, Myself will be the shepherd of My sheep and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the crippled. I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong among them, I will watch over. I will feed them in righteousness. As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God. Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats. Behold, I, Myself will judge between the sheep and the goats… But I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David. He shall feed them. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God. And My servant, David, shall be prince among them. I, the Lord, have spoken. (Ez 34:11-24)
Now Christians believe that in Christ, God, Himself, has come to shepherd His people. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God incarnate, is the good shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. “I lay down My life for My sheep.” He said, “The sheep know My name. They follow Me. I know them. I know them by name. Hirelings and people who do not own and love the sheep, they flee away. They let the wolves take care of them. He said, “But I give Myself for the sheep.” And then Jesus himself becomes the Lamb of God, identified with the sheep, laying down His life for the sake of the sheep.
Now this is what the Christian pastor is supposed to be. In the Christian church, we believe that Christ Himself is the only prophet, the only priest, the only pastor, the only shepherd, the only judge, and the only king. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is given to the people of God in Christ, the Christian Church, and that from among the people certain men—and they are only men, in the Christian faith, according to the Orthodox understanding of scripture—who are to be the leaders of the people, making present Christ, Himself, its only leader and head. It is only Jesus. Jesus is the only high priest. He is the only prophet, teacher, king, judge and pastor.
But sacramentally, there is a laying on of hands for certain members of the Church who are called apart by God Himself, with the consent of the people— and with the consent of the people—they give the consent, it is part of the ordination ceremony, “command,” as we say in English. That command is given by the people. Some members—very few, according to the Saints and according to the Scriptures—for example, in the writings of Saint John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, Gregory of Rome, Ambrose of Milan, they all speak about this. They tell us that very few, only tested people are to have this function, duty and ministry for the sake of the Church.
But what we see is that even in the New Testament, already in the New Testament, we see that there were troubles with the Church leaders. There were troubles, and not only troubles because of heresies and schisms. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, “When you gather as Church, I see that there are schisms and heresies among you.” In the RSV, it says, “factions and divisions.” But originally the terms are heresies and schisms. And he says that it has to be so. He says that it is inevitable that it would be so. He said, “... so that those who are genuine among you might be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19).
The RSV says this: “For in the first place, when you assemble as Church, I hear that there are divisions among you and I partly believe it. For there must be factions among you—schisms, divisions—in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
Actually, if you translated that more literally, it would say, “So that those who have been tested and proved to be genuine…” —who have been tested and approved, dokimoi in Greek,—who have been tested and approved, who are the genuine members, “may be…”, it says in Greek, “...revealed, manifested, shown forth.” So the way that the genuine in the Church are revealed is that they are tested in times of schisms and divisions.
And so it is right in the Scripture itself that that is how it is going to be, right from the very beginning—it is nothing new. We read from the Old Covenant—we read Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and there is plenty more to read in the Old Testament if we wanted to. But also in the New Testament, itself, you have this difficulty.
Now in the New Testament there are also in the so-called Pastoral Epistles—that would be 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—you have, very clearly written, who and how these leaders of the church should be, who they should be and how they should be. It tells what is to be done in the way that they are chosen and selected.
Saint John Chrysostom says that there is nothing that brings more sorrow, scandal, division and chaos to the Church than the irresponsible way in which the clergy are chosen and ordained and appointed. Nothing brings greater trouble. And then among them, he says, nothing brings greater trouble than their ignorance of the Scripture, ignorance of the faith. Ignorance is a huge enemy of Church life, especially when the leaders are ignorant.
And then Basil the Great points out that the greatest sin, it seems, among the bishops and the priests, is envy. Basil comments on how it even says that the high priests and the presbyters and the lawyers and the scribes surrendered Jesus to the Cross and gave Him over to crucifixion—out of envy they delivered Him up, because it seemed like people were following somebody else. People were liking Him, people were following Him, and they did not like that. Jealousy and envy is the very, very worst sin of the Devil, and according to Basil, it is really what kills the leadership of the Church more than anything.
And then where does the envy and jealousy come from? It comes because there is an envy about power, possessions, property or position. Even in modern language, you could say there is envy about presbeia in Greek—that status of honor. Who holds first place? Who holds second place? Who holds third place? What order should they be in? Who is the first? All of this is so contrary to the Gospel.
And so what the New Testament wants to make sure of is that the leaders of the people would be Christians, that they would really follow the Gospel of God in Christ Jesus. And it can be said that there is no greater sadness in the church, and no greater source of trouble and division and scandal, than when the leaders themselves are simply not Christians.
And here, I think, that deserves a little further comment. You know, there are plenty of people around who are not Christians, but they are not necessarily super bad. They are not necessarily super evil, super wicked. They are just normal people who are not too good, not too bad. They probably would not lie or cheat. Many of them would not commit adultery or do sexual fornications, or whatever. But they are still not Christians. They are still not taking up the Cross. They are still not suffering with Christ. They are still not members of a new creation. They still belong to this world, whose image is passing away.
So when we say that the problem of Church leadership, especially the clergy, when they are not Christians—we are not saying that they are necessarily terrible sinners, but that they do not do things according to the Gospel. They do not do things according to the way that the Church of Christ ought to be. They do not do it in the manner in which God wants it for those who belong to Jesus. They use secular, worldly, conventional ways of behavior of human societies, or human businesses, but not following the way of the Gospel, the way of Christ, Himself.
Now in the New Testament, you see that this was already a problem in the first centuries. By the end of the first century, it was already a terrific problem. Why would you have letters to Timothy and Titus saying how the bishops and the presbyters ought to be if this was not already being violated? There would be no reason to stress it unless there were troubles because of it.
By the way, the same thing exists in regard to the church’s canons. You would not have certain canons unless violations of Christian behavior existed that required the Church to formally make a norm. And almost all the canons—I guess about two-thirds of the canons in the Orthodox Church—have to do with bad behavior on the part of the clergy—the bishops and the priests. The other half have to do a lot with marriage and with lay people, but they have to do with greed, power, possessions, jealousy, envy, trouble-making, ego-centrism—they have to do with the sins and betrayals of the leaders of the Church.
Well, you see this on the pages of the New Testament. For example, in 1 Timothy 3, you have this written: “The saying is sure. If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.” So someone can aspire to be a bishop. Why not? It is a noble task.
But then he says, “Now a bishop must be above reproach.” That is the first thing that is said. It was so interesting what John Chrysostom commented on this. He said that this means that a bishop or a priest not only should not do anything evil, or do anything contrary to Christ and the Gospel, but he should not be able even to be accused of doing something wrong. He has to protect himself even from the possibility of people thinking that he is acting in a wrong way. He cannot say to people, “Mind your own business. Who are you to judge me?” No, no no—not at all. He has to be open to the people, that they would not be able to reproach him for anything.
And then it says, “...the husband of one wife.” This is very clear. You cannot be a presbyter or a bishop if you have two wives, or even if you have had two wives in your life. Even in Timothy it will say about an enrolled widow, that she had to be a woman who was the wife of one husband, even though her husband is dead.
So you have the teaching that the bishop has to be a celibate, totally pure, virgin man, or having been the lawful, wedded spouse of only one woman. That is in there. Temperate—that means in control of himself—sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher. An apt teacher—he has to know what the faith is.
Do you know that there is a canon law of the Seventh Ecumenical Council that says that you cannot be consecrated a bishop in the Orthodox Church unless you can recite the entire 150 psalms by heart? That is actually a canon. And the commentary says, “Because how can you teach the people of God if you are ignorant of the Holy Scripture?”
And of course, all of the great commentaries—from Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Gregory the Great of Rome—they all say that the bishops should have memorized the New Testament. They should know the Gospels by heart, backward and forward. That is what they have to do and teach. They have to be apt teachers. They have to teach sound doctrine. They have to know what that doctrine is. They cannot be ignorant of it.
And here, there can be people who are ignorant of the Christian faith, but they are not necessarily bad or evil people, they are just ignorant. To be ignorant is not necessarily a sin. If you are an ignorant person, it may be for good reason. Maybe you did not have a chance to study. Maybe you were not taught. Maybe you do not have sufficient abilities in your brain to be an apt teacher. It is possible. But it is not a sin.
But to be a leader you have to be an apt teacher. The line from the letter of Timothy that is used in the Divine Liturgy is that you have to rightly divide the Word of Truth. It means to slice the truth properly, to distribute it properly, to know what it is, and to know how to apply it. That is what you have to do.
Then it says, “Not a drunkard”—not given to alcohol. We could say today, nor addicted to sex, drugs, or food. One priest, Father Alexander Atty—I’ll quote him on the radio—he gave a retreat at our seminary once when I worked there. He had a spiritual father on Mount Athos, and Father Alexander was pretty heavy at that time in weight. He went to Mount Athos and said, “I need some advice from you, from some holy elder, about how to be a good priest.” The first thing the elder said to him was, “You have to lose 50 pounds.” He said, “What?!” And then Father Alexander quoted the elder, who said, “A fat priest is no priest.”
So we have to have control over our bodies, our food, and our drink. No drunkard. “Not violent, but gentle.” We cannot be a rage-aholic either. Not only not an alcoholic or a drug abuser or a sex-aholic or a food-aholic—we cannot be a rage-aholic. We have to have some who is peaceful, not flying off the handle all the time.
In his comment on the shepherd, Saint John Climacus, also known as Saint John of the Ladder, said there is nothing more ugly and despicable than an angry pastor, someone who loses it. God forgive us all, I am one of those, God forgive me. But you have to fight against that.
Not violent, but gentle. Gentle, meek, overcoming evil by good. Not quarrelsome, not argumentative, not wanting to fight all the time, not having a chip on your shoulder; having nothing your own so there is nothing to fight about.
And here the Holy Fathers would be very clear following Scripture. To be a bishop or a priest, you have to be really poor. You have to be poor like Jesus. You have to say, “Nothing is my own. I do not have anything. I do not own anything. It is not mine.” “Mine,” John Chrysostom says, is the cause of all the trouble. My church, my diocese, my properties, my retreat center, my—God knows what. My cathedral—my, my, my. That just destroys everything. It is just not Christian. It is just plain not Christian. The first Christians held everything in common, and certainly the bishops hold all things in common.
“No lover of money.” There you have it. No lover of money, which Saint Paul says is idolatry. Covetousness, love of silver is idolatry.
He must “manage his own household well”—his wife, his children. His household—meaning his servants, the people who help him, his ecclesiastical household as well as his natural household—“keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way,” including his spiritual children. Respectful, submissive—“a man who does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?”
“He must not be a recent convert.” There is something for you. Not a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.
Moreover, he should be well thought of by outsiders. We have to care about what outsiders think. We cannot just say that we do not care about what the world thinks. No, we have to care. We have to care what the lady across the street thinks, the grocer in the store and the policeman on the beat. We have to care what people think about us and our leaders and our bishops, otherwise they may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Deacons, likewise.
And then he says, “They must hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.” They must be tested first and prove themselves blameless. The women deacons as well, it says here. “The women likewise…”—it meant the women deacons in that time (there were women among the deaconate).
This is what is there. The presbyters and the bishops, in the same letter he says, “They should be an example to the believers.” They should set the believers an example. And then it says the following things: “In speech”—conversation that means—“conduct”—behavior—“in love, in faith, and in purity.” And by the way, in the Russian Orthodox tradition, that line is printed on the back of the first cross that a presbyter, a priest, receives on the day of his ordination: “Be thou an example to the faithful—in conversation, behavior, love, faith and purity, cleanliness” (1 Tim 4:12). A clean man.
So this is what the Holy Scripture says. Why does it write all of this? Because maybe there were some in the office who were not that way. The letter to Titus says exactly the same thing. It is just a repetition:
The bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not quick-tempered, not a drunkard (addicted to alcohol), not violent, or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, self-controlled. He must hold firm to the sure Word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine, and also to confute those who contradict it. (Titus 1:7-9)
This is what it is to be a bishop and a presbyter.
Now we know also that the very term bishop—episcopos—it means literally epi-scopos. Epi means over, scopos is to see. So it is a superintendent, or an overseer, literally, over-seer.
And we should know that this term was the term for a chief servant or chief slave in a household, in a household that has to be managed. Is it not interesting that the Church leaders were given the name of a slave, of a servant? The chief leader, episcopos, is the name of a servant.
Now in the ancient world, in an ancient household, the episcopos was also, as we just heard in Titus, a steward. He is called the “steward of God’s varied graces”—economos (1 Pt 4:10).
So you have episcopos and economos. Economos means the one who cares for the household. Oikos is a house. The economos cares for the economia of God, distributing God’s disciplines to people. But economos was also the name of a slave, it was the name of a servant.
So the heads of Christian churches had names of slaves and servants. Now they were top slaves, to be sure. For example, the episcopos, the bishop, using the modern English term, was the presence of the master. He was the literal presence and icon of the master, of the lord of the manor. He spoke in his name. He had his authority. He cared for his property. He dealt with his subjects and his servants. He managed his household. He distributed the gifts and needs. He took care of the sick, he cared for the needy and the crippled. He did all these things in the master’s name, in the name of the lord, himself.
But he was not the lord. Another was the lord. And this is all used in the Christian Church, because the Lord is Jesus Christ. God is the Lord. The Lord is God. Christ is God with God, the Father. They are the Lord. “The Lord said to my lord, sit at My right hand” (Mk 12:36 and elsewhere). The Holy Spirit is the Lord also, and the giver of life.
So the leaders of the church are sacramental icons and images and presences and servants of the Lord, Himself, but they are not the Lord. And it is kind of sad that in English we have now followed the British and the European practice of calling the bishop “lord”—the kyr. Well, that is from a feudal period. We have to be careful with that. It really can be very, very misleading. And certainly the word despot can be very misleading.
No, no. The bishops and the priests are servants of the flock. They care for the flock. That is their only function. And they cannot do it unless they are above reproach, unless they are not quarrelsome, not angry, unless they are not addicted to alcohol or any other kind of addiction. They have to be free. They have to be blameless. They have to manage things well.
That is what they have to do. And we believe that it is the grace of God that that can happen. And all the members of the Church, the members of the household, have to help and serve our bishops and priests to help them have that happen.
But what we know is when that does not happen, then we have scandal, division, sorrow and sadness, because our leaders are not doing their jobs. They are not Christian leaders. They may be leaders, they may even be great leaders as far as tribes of this world are concerned, or ethnic communities. But they are not Christian leaders.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the very first century, said that the bishop is the icon of God Himself—eikon tou theou Saint Cyprian of Carthage who spoke about this, said that the bishop, the priest, is an alter Christos, another Christ, a presence of Christ in the community. He has to be Christ-like.
And Christ was poor, humble, meek, and serving. He came not to be served but to serve. We do not serve the bishops, the bishops serve us. We do not serve the priests. I am a priest myself. God forgive me, we are supposed to serve the people! We exist for the flock. Remember Jeremiah, remember Ezekiel, remember what Saint Paul says.
And so you have this already in the New Testament. It is not only in Timothy and Titus. You find it in the letter attributed to the apostle Peter. In 1 Peter it says, “I exhort the presbyters among you.” By the way, in the early church, presbyter and bishop were interchangeable terms. Only later did the chief presbyter begin to be called the bishop, and then those who assisted were called priests, or presbyters.
Actually, the term priest, heiros was not used until very late. The names in the Bible for the church’s leaders are episcopos, presbyteros, and diakonos—which means overseer, elder, and servant—that is what they mean literally.
But it says here, “the presbyters—and I am a synpresbyteros ”, he says, “a co-elder with you—a witness of the suffering of Christ, as well as a partaker of the glory to be revealed. He says this: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge.” It also is added in some texts, “...exercising the oversight,” the episcope—exercising your oversight, your superintendence.
And this is what it says: “Not by constraint, but willingly.” And some texts add, “...as God would have you.” Isn’t that amazing? Exercising your charge, your duty, your oversight, your episcope —not by constraint, but willingly. Not for shameful gain, but eagerly. And listen to this: “...not as domineering over those in your charge (your episopae, your superintendence), but by being examples to the flock. “...so that when the chief shepherd”—that is Jesus Christ, the archipoemen—the arch-shepherd—“is manifested, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you that are younger, be subject to the older. Clothe yourself, all of you, with humility to one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
So pride, property, possession, position, prominence, pre-eminence—all of these things are antithetical to the leadership in the Christian community, to being a bishop and a priest.
Now we can ask the question, “What do we do when those in leadership positions do not seem to be exercising their stewardship—their economia, or their diakonia—their service, ministry—properly, in the Christian way?” What do we do when they are not being what they should be? And here you could say, if you want to try to summarize it, “What should they be?”
They should be the enablers, the empowerers, the up-builders, the encouragers and the consolers of the people of God. The apostle Paul in the letter to the Corinthians speaks about edification, exhortation and consolation. So nice—it rhymes. In Latin—edificatio, exhortation, consolatio. Even in Slavonic it rhymes. It sounds so nice.
Edification—up-building, it means. Exhortation—that means encouragement. Consolation—that means comfort. This is what the prophetic leaders are supposed to do. The apostle Paul said that, himself. He has become a slave, he said—a doulos. That is a bonded slave. And we should remember the bishops and priests are slaves—servants. Saint Gregory the Great said. “...the servants of the servants of God.” God’s douli. God’s servants have servants. Their leaders are their servants.
Saint Paul speaks in the ninth chapter of the letter to the Corinthians (which is actually read in the Orthodox Church at the Great Vigil, the Divine Liturgy of Basil, on the eve of Epiphany, when Christ is revealed to the world) about how the leaders of His Church ought to be, how the bishops and the priests ought to be.
He says this: “...even though I am free, free from all people, because I do not take anybody’s money” (1 Cor 9). He says that the servants of the Gospel could be cared for by the people who hear the Gospel. He said that it is right for the people to take care of those who care for them—to give them a salary, to pay them, to help them. But Saint Paul said, “I myself, I am not taking any of this, because I do not want anybody to say that I am doing it for base gain, for filthy lucre, for money. I am not going to do that. I am going to go radical with the poverty.”
But he says that he could do it if he wanted to. He says that he is free to do it. He said, “But nevertheless, I have enslaved myself to all people” (1 Cor 9:19). It is a fantastic expression—isn’t that amazing? “I have become a slave to all—the servant of all.”
Then he says: “...in order that I might gain the more of them. To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order that I might gain Jews. To those under the Law, I became as one under the Law, even being myself not under the Law, in order to save those under the Law. To those without the Law, I became as one without the Law, even though I am myself under the Law of Christ, in order that I may gain those who are anomos—without the Law. I have become to the weak, weak myself, in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people in order that, in any case, I may save some.”
He says, “And I do all these things gladly,” because we are co-communicants, holding in common all of these things together” (1 Cor 9:23).
So this is what the leaders of the church have to be. They have to be servants of the unity of the Church, because the Church is One—the holiness of the Church, because the Church is holy—the catholicity of the Church, because the Church is full, complete and has nothing lacking in fullness of God, fullness of life, fullness of truth, fullness of grace—and they must be servants of the church’s apostolicity, being sent into the world for the same reason that Christ Himself was sent—to bring God and the Word of God for the salvation of people.
So they guard the unity, the holiness, the catholicity, the apostolicity of the Church, the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This is what they do. And so they are servants of the Church’s unity, identity, solidarity, integrity, continuity in space and time, and harmony. This is what they do, guiding that which is entrusted, the paratheke, the paradosis—the traditions, the deposit of faith, the rule of faith—guarding these things, and building them up among the lives of the people. And they can only do this if they, themselves, are free from all that belongs to this world.
Now that does not always happen, and we suffer because of it. But what can we do? Well, obviously the first thing that we can do is to look at ourselves. Every one of us has to look at herself or himself. We look at “myself.” Who am I? What do I do? How do I live? How do I express the faith? And then ask the question, “how do I do that in my ministry?” Because everyone has a ministry. Every single person on earth has a ministry. A retarded child has a ministry, to bear witness to Christ, to the Kingdom of God. “How do I do that?”
And then, if I am ordained—and I myself am ordained, I am a proto-presbyter. Wow. I am a presbyter of the Church, 46 years already. What do I do? How do I behave? How do I act? How do I interact? How do I interact with the bishops themselves? How do I interact with the other priests, with the deacons, and with the people? What do I do?
Every one of us has to first look at himself. Am I completing my servanthood, my ministry, my diakonia, what God wants from me, my leitourgia, my common act for the sake of the action of the whole body. What do I do? We have to look at ourselves first of all.
And then when we look at others, what do we do? Well one thing is for sure, we do not judge anybody for anything. We show the mercy of God. We pray, we intercede. But we have to do other things than that. When we pray, we do not just pray for God to do stuff. We pray to God to show us what we have to do. And then we have to know when to speak, and when to be quiet—when to act, when not to act.
Jesus taught this. We have to be wise as serpents, meek as doves. Jesus says that no one enters into battle unless they have the troops. No one tries to build a tower unless they have the bricks (Luke 14:28 ff.). You cannot become a fool.
In the service of the Three Hierarchs—Basil, Gregory and John Chrysostom—it says, “...sometimes silent and sometimes shouting—sometimes affirming and sometimes hidden—sometimes open.” We have to ask God to show us what to do. And we have to not be afraid to confront our bishops and our priests. They should want to be confronted. They should want to listen.
But we confront with love, with charity, with meekness. You cannot overcome evil by evil; you can overcome evil by good. As Saint Paul said: “I have given up underhanded ways” (2 Cor 4:2). I do not do things by deceit or cunning. I am not into diplomacy, negotiations, business tactics and marketing skills. No, but by an open statement of the truth, “I commend myself to every man’s conscience in the fear of God” (2 Cor 4:2). That is what the apostle Paul says.
But the lay people of the Church have to confront their leaders. You have to tell us what you want from us. You have to point out our weaknesses. You have to show our sins, even. You have to help us to be what God wants us to be. And we are all in this together, and we all have to do this together. And we have to do it in God’s way, in God’s name. As Saint Paul says, “...for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:23).
And how sad it is that the Gospel is very often the last thing that is considered. Look at our church life. It is not a lie or a prevarication or an exaggeration to say that so much is done in our churches—in patriarchates, in archdioceses, in dioceses, in parishes—that has nothing to do with the Gospel. It has nothing to do with the salvation of souls and the wellbeing of people. You might even say, referring to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it has nothing to do with the flock. There is no care for the flock, the flock is supposed to care for the leaders. It is not that way, it is just the other way around.
So we have to admit this. We have to face this. We have to handle this. The most important teaching is that we have to love. The apostle John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Fear has to do with punishment. So we cannot be afraid. And the most repeated commandment in Holy Scripture is, “Fear not”—do not be afraid.
So we have to not be afraid to try to speak the truth in love. In fact, that expression, which gives the name of our podcast, you could even translate it as, “Do the truth in love.” It is truth in love. It is “be truthing in love” is how you would translate that literally. It is a present pronoun made out of a verb, “to do truth.” Do truth in love. In fact, Isaiah often says, “We must know righteousness and do truth.” I love it, because we usually think of saying, “Know truth and do righteousness.” He says we have to know righteousness (tzedekah) and do truth (aletheia).
So we cannot be afraid, but we must do it in Christ’s way. If we want our leaders, bishops and priests to act in Christ’s way, we all have to act in Christ’s way—all the members of the people of God, the klironomia of God. It is so interesting that in Scripture we are all members of the royal priesthood, we are all members of the klironomia and we are all members of the laos.
Nowadays we speak of laity coming from the term laos—people—and clergy coming from the term kliros—the separated—or the klironomia—the inheritors. That is not helpful at all, in fact, that is very misleading. We are all of laos and we all of klironomia. We are all of the laity and we are all of the clergy, technically speaking, in a New Testament way, as members of Christ’s body, the Church.
As that wonderful book about the Church by Father Anthony Coniaris puts it, we cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We all need each other. We are all members of one another. We belong to the same body. And the Church is not the clergy, the church is all of us together. Read Father Anthony Coniaris’ wonderful little book. It is perfect. Just read it, and you will see how we should understand these things.
And we have to fight for it. It is not just going to happen, we have to fight. But we have to know how to fight. We have to know when to engage, when to retreat, when to speak, when to be quiet, who to speak to, how to put the troops in order—we have to know all these things. We have to have wisdom. All of us together have to have it, and we have to help each other to have it as well.
And while we are doing that, we must be merciful. We cannot overcome evil by evil. You cannot. It can only be overcome by good. Falsehood can only be overcome by truth, ugliness can only be overcome by beauty, darkness can only be overcome by light, and death and corruption can only be overcome by life, and life in abundance.
So, may God help us, because we are in very difficult times. We may be in the last times, as a matter of fact. According to Holy Scripture, I believe it says that the last times come only when the Christians themselves apostatize. The last times do not come when there are atheists who imprison, beat up and shoot and kill Christians. No, that is the penultimate time, that is not the last time.
The last age is when the Christians, themselves, apostatize. As Saint Paul says, when they hold the form of religion but deny its power. When the forms are there, but no substance, no reality. When we still have church structures, patriarchates, metropolias, archdioceses, parishes—we have bishops, priests and deacons, but they are not what they are supposed to be. There is an apostasy, there is a pseudo-morphosis. It just is not what it is any more.
And here, it might very well be the truth, that humanly speaking, the institution of the Church follows the laws of all institutions. You know there are laws of human institutions. The law is this: An institution is formed for performing a mission, completing a task, and attaining a goal. And then as time goes by—sometimes even years and centuries—the mission is forgotten, the task is betrayed, and the goal is unknown. And then the institution only exists to perpetuate itself as a human, fallible, fragile, even sinful institution. God forbid that that would happen to the Church of Christ!
But we have to be honest. Speaking the truth in love, it really looks like that is happening pretty powerfully, when you can have speeches given about the Church that do not even mention God and Christ and salvation and people—man, we are in trouble.
So we are in great trouble. But the Church is always in trouble. Elijah, who thought he was the only one, was called the trouble-maker of Israel, but even God told Elijah, “Don’t get so hot, man. There are seven thousand among you who have not bowed the knee to the Baalim, who have not served the idols” (see 1 Kings 19:18).
And there are holy people in the Church all over the place. And what are they doing? They are loving God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are adoring the Trinity, One in essence, and undivided. And they are loving, in trying to follow the scriptures, the church services, the sacraments, and the Saints. And that is all we need—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, scripture, services, sacraments, and Saints. But that is what the structure exists for, too.
So may God give every one of us a Church, and especially a Church with leaders, who care only about God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who follow the scriptures, who do the services, who perform the sacraments, and who emulate, and preach, and follow the way of the Saints. May God grant it.
But it cannot be granted unless it begins with each of us, personally, in our own little hidden, humble, modest life that God has given us. So let us, each one of us, try to serve the living God and follow the Lord, follow the Gospel, and when we do that, then leaders will appear. Leaders will appear from among the people who are worthy, axios, of the calling to which they have been called. There is an old Russian saying, “You get the priest you deserve.” Because our priests and leaders come from us. They come from our homes, they come from our parishes, our churches, our monasteries.
So let each one of us be who God wants us to be, do what God wants each one of us to do, and then the rest will take care of itself. But in the meantime, let us pray hard, and let us work fervently, and let us beg God for wisdom to know how to handle the situation—this awful situation—in which we find ourselves in these last days.
"Circumstances meant that I would take up residency in North Carolina but miles from any local parishes. Thanks be to God I discovered that I can bring the beautiful sounds of Orthodoxy right into my home any time at all, and hear the voices of a few old dear friends too."