St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) wrote:
“Therefore no one is chosen to rule over a community of brothers, unless, before he himself exercises authority, he has learned by obedience how he should command those who will be subject to him and has understood from the institutes of the elders what he should pass on to the young. For they declare that to rule well and to be ruled well is typical of the wise person.”
St. John was writing about choosing the leader of a monastic community, but in the church his thoughts apply well to the selection of a bishop as well. Abbots and bishops are commonly thought of as the ordained leaders of Orthodox communities; persons to be obeyed by virtue of their office.
According to Cassian we learn to command through the humble practice of being obedient. If we haven’t spent years in the church experiencing that humble obedience, we are not prepared to become Christian leaders. St. John says NO ONE is chosen to rule over a community who has failed to learn by obedience the wisdom of discipleship. Obviously in the modern age such wisdom is seen as an ideal for indeed men are put in leadership positions – as abbots, priests and bishops – who have not had the years of experiencing learning the wisdom of discipleship. We ask them to lead when they don’t understand the very people they are to lead – disciples, because they didn’t spend sufficient time in that role.
Cassian’s wisdom is that before someone can be put in a position which demands obedience of others, they must first learn to live in obedience and learn the value of obedience. A failure in Christian leadership is often the chosen leader has not in fact ever lived for years in obedience learning the wisdom of that life. Instead they are put in positions of power and demand obedience without any understanding of how obedience is an act of voluntary love and a way to follow Christ – to be His disciple. The Christian leader is first of all a servant, imitating Christ’s washing the feet of His disciples, and fulfilling the life of self-sacrificial love as well.
Without living for years in obedience as an act of love, no Christian leader will be able to imitate or exhibit the love Jesus had as leader, Master, Messiah, God’s Son. It seems in America at least monks can start monasteries and live as abbots without ever having spent years voluntarily serving others. So they have no sense whatsoever about what Christian leadership means because they have never learned what constitutes being a disciple. Some in fact seem to be self appointed abbots, starting monasteries without having lived in them.
Both ruling well and being ruled well are signs of the wise person say St. John.
Cassian had it right that the wise man knows how to be ruled – knows the importance of the other brothers and sisters in Christ, and as St. Paul says, that person must do whatever they do in love. For St. Paul at least such love means taking into account “the weaker ones” no matter how correct the leader might think he is.
St. John Cassian laments that men “declare ourselves abbas before we profess ourselves disciples.”
That is of course the path of unpreparedness for any who want to be bishops.
Before many a man ever lived as a parishioner, he wants to be bishop over parishes. Before he has learned to be a disciple, he wishes to be master, despot.
Remember the Twelve, they too jockeyed to sit at the right hand of Christ, and debated which of them was the greatest. Their concerns earned them serious rebuke from the Son of God.
There is a reality about the Church which is sometimes forgotten. To enter the Kingdom of Christ, we must be Christian. One can enter the Kingdom without being a bishop. But in the Kingdom all must be Christians – disciples of the only Master and only Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. When one shows that he has not learned to be a disciple, has not learned the wisdom of obedience, then not only is he no real bishop, his own salvation is put at risk. It is far more loving and merciful for the church to take away the title of bishop from someone so that they can learn to be a disciple, than to try to preserve their episcopacy but cause them to lose entrance into God’s Kingdom.