Authority in the Church
Many Years ago, my friend and youth ministry mentor had me read a book called "A Tale of Three Kings." In essence, it is a story intended to speak to the brokenhearted Christian who has been hurt by fellow Christians - specifically in the context of authority. It's forward mentions the "authoritarian movement" as being the inspiration for the books existence. I was never overtly a part of such a movement, as an evangelical, but none-the-less I think anytime you end up in an environment where there is a highly charismatic pastor and an adoring fan base, you have the potential for authoritarian-like leadership. And for people to get hurt...deeply.
For us Orthodox Christians, in a hierarchical Church, things function somewhat differently than in evangelical circles in that our authorities are overtly identified as such. One could fairly easily say that we ARE an authoritarian Church and make no apologies for it - but don't think things are quite that simple as we will see. We do not guess who is God's anointed, nor do we elect our leaders (at least not from the general membership). Our Church's organization is ancient, and it exists now in radically different times than it has existed in the first say 1600+ years of the Church. In these modern "enlightened" times, the notion of excluding women from official ecclesiastic authority is one example where we are considered "out of step." (I say official because we all know better than to assume that women do not act as leaders albeit without cool "official" headgear.) And of course, the other way in which we find ourselves at odds with contemporary sentiments can be seen in the title we give our Bishops observed principally (though surely not exclusively) in song: "despota."
This of course brings up images of our modern understanding of the term despot or despotism which is a form of government in which all power is concentrated into the hands of one person (or a small group of people.) It is a profound mistake to confuse this modern understanding of the term with its usage for our Orthodox Bishops. The Greek term δεσπότης was commonly used in ancient times as a sign of profound respect and could be alternatively translated as either Lord or Master. Still, two terms we modern folks are apt to want to refrain from using - when is the last time you have heard anyone call someone else "master" outside of the context of the Orthodox Church? (This actually reminds me of a funny story Archbishop BENJAMIN once told me in which he was with my friend Subdeacon Elias from Uganda running errands in San Francisco and the subdeacon kept referring to him as "Master" and the Archbishop had to beg him to stop because, as one might imagine, it simply did not look good to have an African man referring to a white man as such.)
In general, we are not big fans of such honorifics - especially us Americans. I, personally, admire that about us, but only so in the context of the secular world and in the context of secular authority. Inside the Church and in the context of Christianity, I believes things are different. Protestants, I believe, have mistakenly taken the widely recognized modern belief that "all men are created equal" and expanded it to also mean that all men remain so forever and that . Simple common sense (much lost these days) has taught the ancient Church, of the rightness of honoring our Saints who have through great labor (and often suffering) conformed themselves to the image of Christ. We honor them as examples and in so doing we are actually honoring Christ in them. Additionally, in keeping with ancient traditions, we also offer honor to our leaders - whether they personally deserve that honor or not.
We use the various titles (often lengthy) and we kiss the hands NOT because the individual has necessarily garnered such respect, but because of the office they hold and our understanding of the roles they play in our lives. This office and the roles they are supposed to play comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility that extends far beyond what we see or what one may expect from secular leaders. In pious tradition, a lay person's last judgement is often portrayed with their father confessor being present and acting as an advocate and being judged themselves for their role in our lives. In other words, priests and bishops bear a responsibility for the salvation of the flock they oversee...they are not simply sacramental vending machines in a social club and those that behave as such imperil their own souls. And because of this tremendous burden they bear, it is absolutely right to honor those who undertake the task given to them. Furthermore, one need only look at our hymnography, iconography, hagiography, and other writings of the fathers and mothers of the Church to see that we understand the dangers of the burden and the honorifics and the very real potential for the unworthy to hold these noble offices. In those writings, songs, and icons we can frequently see hell populated or being populated (e.g. the Ladder of Divine Ascent) by monks, priests, and bishops...but never deacons...ahem....
In his monumental speech at the 15th All American Council November 12th of 2008, then Bishop JONAH referenced something Archbishop BENJAMIN apparently often said about the effects the office may have on a person when he rhetorically asked: "What happens to a guy— you put him on a stand in the middle of the
church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor, and you tell him to
live forever?" It's a fair question indeed....but the individuals who should be MOST frightened of the answer are the ones wearing the mitres., St. John Chrysostom is popularly believed to have said that the road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that guide the way, and while no one knows for sure if he actually did say or write this, the sentiment is surely not foreign to Orthodoxy.
Now, back to the book I mentioned. The author, Gene Edwards, expels no ink criticizing the evangelical authoritarian movement itself, but instead retells to us the story of King David through which he focuses on three major time points in David's life: his experiences in the court of King Saul, as a King himself, and finally his experiences with his son Absalom. But in reality, the story is entirely dedicated to the examination of the heart of YOU the reader and proposes an overarching theme that a leader may be after the order of King Saul or of the order of King David and that no one can ever know who is who except God, and "He never tells." Wasting your time trying to figure out who is a good King after God's own heart and who is a bad king serving their own heart's interests is completely missing the point.
Now, I will say this: if one is involved in a truly abusive sort of mind-cult, then the message of this book is fuel on a fire. It's intended for the context of a truly Christian environment - though naturally imperfect. The message is genuinely Christian, albeit very difficult to swallow...ummm....as if that is something novel for us and our understanding of the teachings of our Lord.
David served a mad King, but he was the King none-the-less. The mad King threw spears at David and yet despite every inclination to do otherwise, David refused to throw spears in return. He was eventually banished and lived in hiding for fear of his life. Through it all, he learned the way of a broken heart. This is the ONLY way one can become a man after God's own heart. We cannot begin to comprehend God's ways, until our own are utterly undone. David learned this and additionally never learned to throw spears. Yes, he would sin profoundly, but he also repent profoundly. He would be a King. A good King; God's anointed. And sometimes in our own lives we will be blessed to have leaders who are also brokenhearted and as such are readily able to be seekers of God's own heart.
God has a university. It's a small school. Few enroll; even fewer graduate. Very, very few indeed.
God has this school because he does not have broken men and women. Instead he has several other types of people, He has people who claim to have God's authority...and don't - people who claim to be broken...and aren't. And people who do have God's authority, but who are mad and unbroken. And He has, regretfully, a great mixture of everything in between. All of these He has in abundance, but broken men and women, hardly at all.
In God's sacred school of submission and brokenness, why are there so few students? Because all the students in this school must suffer much pain. And as you might guess, it is often the unbroken ruler (whom God sovereignly picks) who metes out the pain. David was once a student in this school, and Saul was God's chosen way to crush David.
Unfortunately, we can never know for sure if our leaders are Kings after the order of Saul or David. We may guess and we may assume and we may gossip, but we will probably never know for sure (barring overt behavior such as actual crimes or immoral behavior). As this treasure of a book makes clear: only God knows, and He never tells. It really is no different than the judgment we are so profoundly warned about passing on our brothers and sisters in Christ. Put a mitre or a cassock on a man and this suddenly changes?
For evangelicals, this unknowing is a tough road to travel. For us Orthodox it may even be harder, but I think as we maintain our belief in the Church as an article of Faith and we consider the grand scheme and our connectedness to history and to the future then we may realize that our road is surely different. Protestants may always second guess the "election" of their leaders, but for us Orthodox I suspect it ought to be a very different approach. In my mind, it renders the message of the book even more applicable. Will we cry out "AXIOS!" to unworthy men? Of course we will. Not being omniscient, we cannot ever know the true worthiness of a man. We cannot know if a Bishop (or a priest or a deacon) will be a "king" after the order David or Saul, but what we can know is how we must properly respond to or deal with any given situation. Maybe the Bishop will throw spears at us...maybe we NEED to have spears thrown at us? Maybe not. Who can be sure?
Our history is replete with Bishops and Priests failing very profoundly. We rarely hear of their smaller scale personal failures, being of little account in the great playing out of history no matter how devastating to those present at the time, but we do have plenty of examples of heretics (or worse) wearing mitres. One thing that differentiates us from Roman Catholics is that we have no qualms with any of our leaders falling into heresy, whereas the Roman's cannot abide the notion of there ever having been a heretical pope - though we know there was at least one. But that is neither here nor there, what do we Orthodox make of our leaders' failures? Do we assume that their elevation to the priesthood or episcopacy was a mistake? Were we wrong in allowing this person into the ranks of clergy? My answer is simple: I believe "mistakes" in ordaining some men are
certainly possible, since I am one presently being considered for
ordination to the diaconate and I am presently undergoing a fairly
extensive psychological evaluation that did not exist for clergy as
little as a decade ago (perhaps less). This tells me that the Church
feels that mistakes HAVE been made in the past and that they are
now trying to avoid that. But are all such mistakes indicative of God's
will being thwarted? That's a much deeper question which channels into some serious theology where human freewill meets up with God's providence.
Do we truly believe that the
Holy Spirit guides every decision a bishop or a synod makes? Does
history give us cause to believe that? When they announced Metropolitan JONAH's election they began the announcement by saying: "It seemed good to us AND TO THE HOLY SPIRIT..." and I assume this is standard protocol originating with the account given to us in the Acts of Holy Apostles. The statement assumes the Holy Spirit is guiding the decisions made by the council and the Holy Synod. Whatever the reality of the situation, we know that human freewill somehow interweaves itself into the greater will of God...day to day or even year to year may be shrouded in mystery; in the greater scope we can see how God has clearly guided His Church.
I'm not one to advocate for a "don't touch God's anointed" attitude. Far too many crimes have been ignored or left undisturbed because of this. Clearly there are examples of leaders who we may rightly judge, such as pedophiles or thieves. But others we may be less sure about, such as those who some may perceive as being more like arrogant tyrants than loving fathers. I have never personally experienced an overtly "mean" Bishop, but I have had heard stories about them. Stories of poor clergy shivering in their vestments for fear of what the Bishop may do or say to them next. I must confess, I have a VERY difficult time understanding these stories and the behaviors described...but then I can see in my own life many times when my kids no doubt perceived me more as an arrogant tyrant than a loving father.
Overall, I think God's lessons to us are surely less about learning how to throw spears and righting perceived wrongs (like Bishop's losing their temper because a Dikirion was misplaced), and more about never learning to throw spears at all and seeking to have our hearts shattered and rebuilt so as to be a people whose goal is God's own heart.
The Sauls in our lives (though we cannot always clearly identify them) may be there for the express purpose of destroying the Saul in us. You see, we spend all of our time looking for Saul in those around us - particularly our leaders - but God is FAR more interested in us looking for the Saul that hides in the marrow of our own bones. David, we are told in the "Tale of Three Kings" book, might well have become Saul the second, if Saul the first had not thrown spears at him and driven him into the wilderness where David learned the songs of the brokenhearted.
I've been writing this post now for about a month or more...adding bits and pieces as I have had time. Much has happened in that time. Metropolitan JONAH has resigned and accusations are flying in all directions. I want to clarify that nothing I've said here means we should ignore overt wrongs committed by our leaders, not at all. However, I would urge extreme caution in coming to such determinations without a great deal of REAL evidence. And by that I mean at least as much evidence as would be required in a court of law.
I've experienced a great deal of local scandal and controversy in the last few months (which originally inspired this post) and if I've learned anything, it is this: the "truth" is out there, but good luck finding it. When you are dealing with human emotions and motivations as the primary "truth" needing to be discovered then I think you MUST confess that omniscience may be required to really ascertain that truth. Sure we can look at what someone literally did and easily grasp the facts of that act, but to discern WHY they did something is a different matter entirely. I mean let's be totally honest with ourselves here and admit that half the time we have trouble discerning our own rationale for what we do, let alone the rationale of others for what they do. Furthermore, we are REALLY adept at deceiving ourselves in not only what our motivations are, but even for what we have factually done. There are instances where a criminal will actually convince themselves of their innocence to such an extent that even after being show video evidence of their crime they will maintain their innocence. They've completely convinced themselves of a reality that simply is not so. It is NOT an uncommon experience for us to conveniently forget facts about ourselves that we find unpleasant.
Beyond this, even "facts" with regards to acts themselves can evolve. We've all played the "telephone" game of whispering a phrase and watching it evolve into something utterly different as the phrase is passed along from person to person. It's a lesson about gossip of course and we all know it...and yet gossip remains a sin into which it is terribly easy for us all to fall. These partial truths, half truths, or outright falsehoods evolve in order to bolster a particular meme and once it does that, it becomes nearly impossible for any of us to resist it. At that point, it explodes and spreads uncontrollably.
Naturally some will take what I have written above about authority and gossip and assume that I mean we should all submissively accept whatever we are told by those in authority as both fact and truth. I've communicated no such thing. Instead I'll reiterate what I've said (and I quote): "When you are dealing with human emotions and motivations as the primary 'truth' needing to be discovered, then I think you MUST confess that omniscience may be required to really ascertain the truth."
There is a time and place for justice to be sought. The OCA recently came through a time of patently awful fiscal mismanagement (the extent of which I simply do not know...I've seen enough nonsense come from some websites to have a healthy degree of doubt about all the chatter and about anything any one person may offer up as the ultimate truth of all those events - but it was obviously extensive enough to rightly end some careers. Math says enough sometimes), and we looked to +JONAH to be a new dawning day for our little jurisdiction. Alas, it clearly was not to be so. Why?
Well, read the official announcements, read the now increasing news articles, read the remainders of the now-defunct OCAnews.org, read OCAtruth.org, read Facebook, read all the other blogs and listservs, and when you have done all of that (and your soul has managed to survived intact) you will finally know the truth. It will all be clear. Right? Clear as mud. Again, I am drawn back to the book's repeating phrase: "God knows, and He never tells."
For me, I take this to mean that I am not going to enter the fray where there is far more heat than light. The internet in particular is like a magnifying lens for opinionated passions to run wild and be amplified. There's something about it that (perhaps it's viral and airborne) infects us all and encourages us to become trolls causing injury to our brothers and sisters and to the truth (wherever it - or should I say He - may be found). I say this as one who has allowed himself to be sucked into it time and time again and have found myself causing pain to myself and others because of my loud typing. I might have even learned my lesson.
I originally wrote this as a very personal reflection while wrestling with the difficulties we have faced in our Parish community and the controversy surrounding that event - the details of which I will in no way discuss here. It has been (and perhaps continues to be) one of the hardest things I have had to deal with in the context of church life. Gossip abounded and many were readily questioning the emotions and motivations of all parties involved and this eventually and naturally leads to the question of authority in the Church and what could possibly be offered to those who feel their Bishop might be a "king after the order of Saul?" I can say this much with certainty: if I had ever been a true student of brokenness, I would be spending far more time with tears in my eyes before my icons than I would with anger in my heart before the keyboard of a computer posting on Blogger or Facebook.
I guess I'm not really offering much in the way of answers, except to suggest that it is very likely that no one but God has the answers to the many questions we may have regarding people's motivations, their emotions, and their true "leadership worthiness." Anyone still reading this convoluted post?