When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:12-17)
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
Leading by example is the Christian way of leadership. It is the way of giving a sermon without using words. However, historically as the Christian Church saw its bishops as hierarchs, primates, prelates and masters rather than as shepherds and pastors it tended to rely less on the difficult way of leading by example. Leaders were those giving directives and enforcing rules. Pastors became police. The shepherd of old walked in front of the sheep and the sheep followed the shepherd – followed the shepherd’s voice to where the shepherd was going. The pastoral image was one that was more amenable to the notion of leadership by example. As the Church grew in numbers it was tempted to rely on authority and force to keep people in line. Besides, leadership by example can be extremely frustrating because people don’t always know what the leader is modeling, nor what part they are to imitate or how to do what they think they are supposed to do. Any parent of a large family of children who has tried to lead prayer before a meal only by his/her example quickly experiences the downside of not requiring all the children to pay attention.
Early monasticism and the desert fathers had their own ideas about Christian leadership which is sometimes counter-intuitive. But it recognizes that leadership by example doesn’t always succeed and then the leader has to decide what to do. St. Mark the Ascetic offers this advice to those in positions of Christian leadership:
If someone does not obey you when you have told him once, do not argue and try to compel him; but take for yourself the profit which he has thrown away. For forbearance will benefit you more than correcting him.
For St Mark, the Christian leader does not try to compel people to obey and does not threaten or argue with others or try to guilt them into doing things. You tell them once and then it is up to them whether they will act or not. Exasperation is not Christian leadership.
When the evil conduct of one person begins to affect others, you should not show long-suffering; and instead of your own advantage you should seek that of the others, so that they may be saved. For virtue involving many people is more valuable than virtue involving only one. (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 4100-4105)
The only time St Mark thinks a Christian leader should not be overly patient is when one person’s evil conduct begins to badly influence others. Then one has to consider how many souls may be lost if the evil person is allowed to go unchecked. So if someone is simply disobeying me, I should ignore that, but if they are trying to lead others in evil, then I have to oppose them. The issue then is not my authority or position, but concern/love for others. If I’m being disrespected, that I am to ignore. Christian leadership is walking a find line – the straight and narrow way of Christ. We sing two hymns during the Bridegroom Matins for Holy Monday which remind us of Christ’s explicit teachings:
“Let your power over your fellow-men be altogether different from the dominion of the Gentiles: their self-willed pride is not the order that I have appointed, but a tyranny. He therefore who would be the first among you, let him be the last of all. Acknowledge Me as Lord, and praise and exalt Me above all forever.”
O Lord, teaching Your disciples to think perfect thoughts, You said to them: “Be not like the Gentiles, who exercise dominion over those who are less strong. But it shall not be so among you, My disciples, for I of mine own will am poor. Let him, then, who is first among you be the minister of all. Let the ruler be as the ruled, and let the first be as the last. For I Myself have come to minister to Adam in his poverty, and to give my life as a ransom for the many who cry aloud to Me: Glory to You.”
“‘Apart from the bishop, let no one do anything pertaining to the Church. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by a person appointed by him. Let the people be present wherever the bishop appears, just as the catholic Church is wherever Jesus Christ is. Apart from the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a Eucharist, but whatever he may approve is also pleasing to God, so that whatever you do may be sure and valid.’ (St. Ignatius of Antioch – d. 107 AD)
It was perhaps in the eucharistic liturgy that the leading role of the bishop could best be discerned. Ordinarily he alone presided. As he prayed aloud at the altar, the presbyters stood silently on either side of him, while the deacons assisted him in such matters as the distribution of the consecrated bread, or saw to it that order was maintained in the church. From his cathedra, the chair that was the symbol of his teaching authority and that was usually situated at the center of the back wall of the sanctuary, and flanked by the presbyters’ benches, he was accustomed to preach. This was the bishop’s most important task, and, until about the beginning of the sixth century, it was only infrequently that priests and deacons preached.” (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 115).
“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:27-28) “Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.” (Amos 5:13-14)
I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course. He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine. Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop. He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church. The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions. He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty. As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe. However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues. He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings. He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic. He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true. The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach. He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence. Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books. Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:
An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed. (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)
It is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile. Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith. He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings. Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking. And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues. Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching. The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.
Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom. Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.
We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.
The Prophet Job cried out: “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom! Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips. Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God? Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man? He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality. Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you? Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.” (Job 13:5-12)
God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.
After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends… (Job 42:7-10)
There are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world. The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason. While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.”
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28)
“Those who bear the ministry of administration, the pastors, are also representatives of authority without which the ministry would be impossible. Authority is part of the life of the Church, which has this ministry of administration. But the ecclesial authority ought to conform to the nature of the Church and not be in conflict with it. If such authority claims to be superior to the Church then it must also be superior to Christ. This is why neither the Church nor its authority can ever be founded upon a juridical principle, for the law is external to love. Such authority cannot belong to the vicars of Christ on earth, since God has not delegated his power to anyone but has put all people in submission to Christ, ‘put all things under his feet.’
In the Church, which is love, there is only the power of love. God gives the pastors not the charism of power but that of love and, through it, the power of love. The bishops who exercise the ministry of administration are the bearers of the power of love. The submission of all to the bishop takes place in love and it is only by love that the bishop submits to the faithful. All submission of one another is realized through the mediation of the love we have for Christ. The submission of all to the bishop is actualized by the love he has for all and by the reciprocal love of the faithful for him.
There can be no other foundation of power in the Church, for Christ is the only foundation of power in it. The pastors are able to have only that church Christ gives to the Church.”
Last week the Orthodox churches throughout the world gathered at the Holy and Great Council in Crete, or were at least aware of the gathering and had participated in the preparation for the Council. The Council had been discussed among Orthodox hierarchs for at least half a century. Being a hierarchical church, bishops in Orthodoxy have a responsibility for making such councils happen and succeed. Bishop alone however do not constitute the Church, even though sometimes one gets the impression that even conciliarity in the Church is the prerogative of bishops and doesn’t necessarily extend to other clergy let alone the laity which constitutes the vast majority of Church membership. Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev writes about the essential interdependency of laity and bishops in the church – without which the Body of Christ is dead. The Holy Spirit differently gifts laity and hierarchy in the Church.
“Not having the gift of administration, the ‘people of the Lord’ have a gift of discernment and examination which is a special kind of ministry not entrusted to particular members of the Church but rather to all the people of God, i.e., to all the members of the Church in their common action. ‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern what is said’ (1 Cor. 14:29). ‘Test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess. 5:21). The people have discernment and examination concerning everything being done in the Church. The bishop together with presbyters does not govern the people of God in his own name. Neither does he govern them on the basis of law as the one who received his power from the people or through the people. Rather he governs the people in God’s name, as the one ordained by God for the ministry of governance.
Having the charism of discernment and examination the people witness that everything done in the Church under the guidance of the pastors is done in accordance with the will of God revealed by the Holy Spirit. In the early church all ecclesial acts, such as the celebration of the mysteries, the reception of the catechumens and penitents into the Church, excommunication, and so forth, involved the people’s participation. In the early church the people’s testimony concerning the the revelation of God’s will had the character of ‘consensus’ with what was about to happen in the Church and their reception of what was accomplished as corresponding to God’s will. It would be a mistake to suppose that the people gave their consent as a result of a vote, just as it is custom in the popular assemblies of the Greek cities or in the representative institutions nowadays. The consent and reception by the people did not mean that the people expressed their own private opinion or wish concerning one or another ecclesial act. The ecclesial authority in the person of the bishops were not bound by the will of the laics, just as the people were not bound by the will of their presiders. Neither the will of laics nor the will of bishops is per se sufficient for the action in the Church. The Church lives and acts not by the will of man, but by the will of God. Consent and reception were the witness of the Church through the witness of the people that the presiders act and govern in agreement with the will of God.” (Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, pp 60-61)
“The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
“For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and 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 1:5-9)
The office of bishop (Greek: episkopos) has changed through the long history of the Orthodox Church. In the apostolic age, the bishop was the leader of the local, Eucharistic community. This is the idea found in the Pauline letters referring to the office of the bishop which we read above. At first, the bishop and elder were probably the same office, but in time the role of the bishop became more clarified as the presiding officer at the Eucharistic assembly. As the Church grew exponentially, especially after the conversion of Constantine, the position of the bishop changed to reflect the new realities caused by the rapid growth. Ideas about the bishop’s office also changed to reflect the new realities. The Church needed leadership in positions to help unite all of the local churches in an area, and the bishop’s office morphed from being the local pastor, to being a supervisor over all the local parishes in a district. With this change, two other things happened – the idea of “local” changed from meaning a community in one town, to referring to a diocese – a territory with many local Christian communities.
Today, when the Orthodox speak about the heads of “local” churches it refers to patriarchs who preside over many dioceses, or over an entire national church. And with the changing role of the bishop, the priest emerged as the head of the local Eucharistic community. Today, the parish priest is really filling the role originally envisioned of the bishop in the Apostolic age. The priest does not ordain, that has remained the prerogative of the bishop, but the priest functions in the role of the leader of the local Eucharistic community as described in the Pauline letters. Fr. Thomas Hopko reflects on the original idea of the episkopos (bishop):
“The term episkopos, in the ancient world, actually referred to a slave who oversaw other slaves, who was a caretaker for a property, or who supervised the household as the chief servant. So it is interesting that the term for a chief slave is given to Jesus. He is the Episkopos, the Chief Servant. To be an overseer or a caretaker, one first has to be a servant. He is the Servant of all the servants; He is the Servant set over the other servants, because all the members of the household of God are servants, slaves of God, and the slaves become sons by the grace of God through Jesus. Jesus said to His disciples, ‘No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15). In Galatians, St. Paul writes, ‘So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir’ (Gal. 4:7). The slaves become friends and sons. That is very important, but the servant element still remains. We begin as servants, and we always recognize ourselves as servants. Jesus is the Servant of all servants. He is the Suffering Servant.” (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 5346-5355)
All Christians are servants of God, though we also are by God’s grace, His children. However, we always are guided by the spirit of being servants of one another. Among the servants of God, one serves as the overseer among the servants, this is is the office of bishop within the Christian community.
“The episkopos, the chief servant, is not the master, the despotis, nor is he king or vasilevs, nor is he lord or kyrios. He is a servant, a slave, a doulos, but he is in charge of everything that belongs to the master and the lord. He is in charge of all the master’s servants, goods, and property. He has all the master’s power and authority. He has everything that belongs to the master. He functions in persona, ‘in the place of’ the master. When you see him, you see the master. When you hear him, you hear the master. When he commands, you hear the command of the master. When he orders you to do something, you obey him as you would the master. But he is not really the master; the real master is the master.” (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 5361-5366)
At least according to Fr. Tom, originally the bishop was thought of as being “one of us”, a servant of God, like the rest of us. He had a unique role in the community, but he wasn’t “over” the community, but represented the Master from within the community, to remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that we all are brothers and sisters (see Matthew 23:1-12).
However, as the bishop’s role became more that of an administrator over an entire district of local parishes, the bishop became seen as less part of the local community, and more as a distant ruler over the community. Through the centuries the bishop was understood less as a pastor and shepherd and more as hierarch, a despot. Fr. Lawrence Farley describes in his book how this transformation took place especially in recent centuries. Here we can read about three changes in the dress of the bishop which occurred in history and how these changes reflect the changing role of the bishop.
“Canon 27 (14) of that council [of Constantinople IV in 869–870] decreed, ‘Bishops who have been permitted to wear the omophorion at certain times must not abuse so great and honorable a garment through pride, vainglory, human conceit, and self-love, by wearing it unnecessarily throughout the Divine Sacrifice.’ This canonical legislation could not withstand the rising tide of sacralization, and the omophorion was indeed used after the episcopal entrance during the ensuing sacramental celebration. ( Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1245-1248)
In the 9th Century, the omophorion was originally to be worn only by certain bishops granted that honor, and even they were not to wear it throughout the liturgy since that practice was thought of as showing “pride, vainglory, human conceit, and self-love.” Now, the omophorion is worn as a sign of holding the office of bishop. The concerns of the Church Council are ignored. The omophorion shows the unique position of the bishop and represents power over the community. Fr. Lawrence continues:
We note next a number of appropriations of imperial ritual by the bishop. First is the acclamation “Eis polla eti despota,” “Many years, Master!” This was not found in any Greek pontifical before the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It had its origins in the popular acclamations of the emperor at imperial processions and civil festivals. In the earlier form of the episcopal acclamation used in the early fourteenth century, the bishop is hailed with “Many years, Father!” but this later changes to the episcopized form “Master.” ( Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1257-1260)
The bishop’s office in later centuries takes on more imperial trappings as he is portrayed and perceived more as power above the church communities. He is treated more as royalty, than as a pastor. No longer is the bishop understood as one of the servants, slaves, of the household, but clearly is the master over it.
“Finally we note the wearing of the episcopal miter or crown. Perhaps nothing else suggests and visually embodies the imperial role of the bishop like his crown. The Greek miter now worn by all Orthodox bishops was introduced into the Russian church by Patriarch Nikon in 1653. The wearing of the miter was originally a privilege given to the patriarch of Constantinople and extended to all bishops after the fall of the city in 1453. Indeed, Symeon of Thessalonica writes in the early part of that century that although the patriarch of Alexandria and many others wore miters, “the more binding” custom was for bishops to serve bareheaded.” (Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1266-1270)
Some feel we can never go back in time and recapture earlier understandings of the Church. They feel the “received tradition” has superseded all previous understandings and we can never go back. It is obvious though if we read history, that in past generations the Church did not have our understanding of the office of the bishop, or of tradition. The understanding of the bishop’s office has changed as circumstances changed. Even in the Canons of the Church it is noted that requiring celibacy for the bishops was a change in tradition. The canons note that celibacy for bishops was not the received tradition, but was being adopted because of the change in historical circumstances. Thus, our received Tradition is that traditions can be changed as historical circumstances change.
That the Church can change and adapt to historical circumstances is part of the Tradition of the Church, which we should never give up or otherwise the Church is doomed to be petrified, ossified and moribund. We know the Church has altered, adapted and changed many things through its history. We have the ability to understand why. The received Tradition of the Church includes the ability to change practices to meet current needs. The Church today is in a very different position than it was in Byzantium. Historical circumstances have changed radically. God has swept away the Byzantine world into the trash bin of history, but the Orthodox Church has survived, and now needs to again assess its place in the world. The Church is supposed to proclaim the Gospel, not be a museum of Byzantine imperial ideas. A bishop in imperial robes, being addressed as “Master” – does this help proclaim and witness to the Gospel to 21st Century Westerners, or does it only make the Church a museum of Byzantine practice? We have the wisdom and authority from God to continually witness to the Gospel in an ever changing world. The Gospel remains the same as does Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever. We in the Church can follow our Tradition and the way of the Fathers by changing church practices/traditions in order to best reflect the unchanging Gospel to the world. The early Church did not lament the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but viewed it as part of an old dispensation which was passing away. We do not need to lament the disappearance of Byzantium or 19th Century Russia either, for we have before us the world, ripe for harvest and the coming Kingdom of God to which we ought direct our attention.
“Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
“This idea can be expressed as follows: in the body of Christ, the hierarchy is not so much a power as a function and a ministry which exists alongside other functions and ministries. Therefore, one must first of all accept that, in this sense, the whole church, from top to bottom, is hierarchical, for the chief apostle said: ‘Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people’ (1 Pet. 2:5,9). Only on the basis of the principle of universal royal priesthood, of the hierarchism of the whole Church, can one understand and accept the distinction of the hierarchical functions. and avoid that exaggeration owing to which a clerical absolutism creeps in. This clericalism subverts the very principle of ecclesiastical hierarchism and divides the Church into two parts: the rulers and the ruled, the teachers and the taught, those who command and those who obey. It is to justify such a conception that dogmatic fictions of the vicariate of Christ and of the ‘apostolic succession’ as power and the organization of power arise, contrary to the Lord’s direct testimony:
And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. (Luke 22:24-26)
For Scripture it is not the institution of the primacy of Peter, or the apostolic primacy of the episcopate, but service, determined by the place of each member in the Church, that represents the fundamental norm of universal priesthood. This is the authentic ‘apostolic succession’ in the Church, and denies any basis for clerical absolutism or ‘monarchic episcopatism’ as manifestations of ecclesiastical hierarchism.”
Christ washing the feet of the disciples is a model for Christian leadership. Christ is the High Priest who we are to imitate in the church. He did not think equality with God was something to be grasped, but rather became a servant.
Each year around the American Independence Day holiday I read a book on American history just to remind myself of the great effort it has taken to create “America.” This year while on vacation I read David Von Drehle’s Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year. A good summary of the book is found in the book’s epilogue where Drehle writes:
“The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of the slaves who were to be freed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of students who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined.” (Kindle Loc. 6866-71)
Abraham Lincoln was a great man, and so a good book on a great man is a winning combination! I really liked the book which traces the development in Abe Lincoln’s thinking during the course of 1862 on the issue of slavery, how to carry out the civil war militarily, and what it meant to preserve the union. I felt while I was reading the book that I was inside Lincoln’s heart and head, listening to the opposing voices feuding, feeling the pressure rising as the decisions loomed ahead, and agonizing over how to hold the union together while at the same time resolving the very issue that made union impossible. The varying, 0ppositional viewpoints and the building pressures on Lincoln were unrelenting. Really, one wonders how he survived it all – the reports of his acquaintances were that it took a tremendous toll on him physically and emotionally. How he worked to hold it altogether was amazing; somehow Lincoln guided the nation through very treacherous and tumultuous waters. Lincoln who frequently offered pithy wisdom said:
“To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence.” (Kindle Loc. 4834-35)
Lincoln wrestled with issues of the divine will, the will of the people, idealism about what “America” meant and is. There were countless forces over which he had no influence let alone control, and he mused over the nature of life frequently.
“Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk one day in September, “his mind … burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind. All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.” He put down his pen. Perhaps he was interrupted, or ran out of time, because he seems to have stopped abruptly. The final period at the end of his meditation was jabbed with such velocity that it looked more like a dash. Clearly, he wasn’t finished, because the last sentence led so obviously, so irresistibly, to the next question: Why? Toward what end was this uncontrollable force moving? Nicolay and Hay, who discovered this unfinished rumination long after the president had folded it in half, and half again, observed that it had not been intended for others; it was Lincoln’s way of ordering his own thoughts. Yet these few lines suggest a first draft of what would become Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In that magnificent speech, delivered two and a half years later, he completed the chain of his logic. The contest proceeds, the president declared then, because “American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” And because the offense was too large and too grave to be removed without suffering, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.” (Kindle Loc. 4839-67)
Such was the nature of the thinking of the man who held the presidency during this period of great trial for the United States. Lincoln took diverse and irreconcilable ideas and weighed them in his mind ever searching for what the right path was for the country. He made choices in the most difficult of circumstances. He was not always right but he labored hard and carefully through all of the issues put before him while also dealing with a number of personal failures in those around him.
An example of Lincoln wrestling with what is right and with the will of God:
The president had already told the delegates that he was accustomed to hearing from religious leaders on the topic of slavery, and he found it strange that while clergymen held every variety of opinion, all of them claimed to know “the Divine will.” Why, Lincoln now wondered, didn’t God take the forthright approach and reveal his intentions “directly to me, for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” The attending stenographer did not record that a pause followed, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. Then Lincoln continued on a less declarative note: “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.” (Kindle Loc. 5134-41)
Lincoln had an awareness of the historical significance of the decisions he faced and the profound impact his decisions would have on the future of the country. Facing the issue of the curse of slavery of the slaves, Lincoln weighed the issues for a long time and only very slowly and deliberately came to the conclusion that there was no choice but to emancipate the slaves as the only way forward to save the union. Drehle writes that Lincoln
“… understood, more than many of his contemporaries, that his actions on the first day of 1863 would be far more significant than any earlier promise he had pledged and kept. As he would put it later, the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” for it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” Here was the “new birth of freedom” he would speak of so brilliantly at Gettysburg.” (Kindle Loc. 6692-95)
It is rare to find a man with Lincoln’s depth of thought and power to weigh and analyze diverse opinions and to discern a path forward for the entire nation. Today’s presidents face just as complicated issues and challenges, and are in need of the same powers to analyze and form decisions. Lincoln was a giant among men. Few other men have Lincoln’s gifts of deliberation and analysis, and few have the knack for bringing together rivals as advisors that he had.
Our presidents need Lincoln’s wisdom and understanding. That is why they each also need our prayers.
A Prayer for our Nation’s Leaders
O our God, whose mercy is inscrutable: Grant unto Your servants, our country’s rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, so that they make give glory to Your Holy Name.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, offers an interesting contrast in understanding ‘power’ in the church and how it is displayed by church leaders. Within the book there is a parable told by Ivan Karamazov, a rationalist atheist, to his younger brother Alyosha, an innocent believer in God. The parable is known as “The Grand Inquisitor.” While it is set in an earlier age in Roman Catholic Spain during the time of the inquisition, one has to wonder to what extent Dostoyevsky also meant the story to be a cryptic critique of his own Russian Orthodox Church. Certainly Dostoyevsky saw the unbridled power of the imperial Russian Church in his life time. Dostoyevsky had been taken to the gallows as an enemy of the state, only to be pardoned at the last minute. So he knew better than to directly criticize the state Church. It was safe and even sanctioned, however, to lambast the Roman Church of which most Russians would have had a negative view anyway.
In “the Grand Inquisitor”, Christ has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, a time in Dostoyevsky’s thinking when the Church had absolute power over everything. Dostoyevsky first introduces Christ in the story:
“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. . . . The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments.” (Kindle Loc. 5031-35)
The power possessed by Christ is love and compassion, to which the people respond with the recognition of rational sheep seeing their trusted shepherd. As the story unfolds the unnamed Jesus by His divine life-giving power lovingly raises a child from the dead. This is the power of Christ – to defeat death, and to love all. It isn’t a matter of merited reward, but graceful and unconditional love of God.
Dostoyevsky then introduces the Cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – who like Jesus possesses power as can be seen by the crowd’s reaction, and yet he is the antithesis of Christ:
“… at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on.” (Kindle Loc. 5044-52)
The Grand Inquisitor though vested with all the authority of the Church, in contradistinction to Christ the Life Giver has only the power of death. His power is limited to this world and the signs of his power are worldly – imperial and despotic. Those gloomy souls who side with him are even described as slaves.
The crowd does fear him and they part, moving away from him. Yes indeed, the people submissively cower before the dark power of the Inquisitor. He has power over them, but only in this world. His powers are not eternal though he believes them to be so.
The real power of the Church is the love of Christ, and to love others as he loved us. The dissimilarity and incongruity in the images of power which Dostoyevsky so brilliantly puts in the text could not be more stark. The Son of God enters the world in a lowly cave meant to be a shelter for animals and is placed in their feeding trough. There is no palace for Him. The King of kings rejects all the power of the world’s kingdoms when offered them by Satan. God the Son rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem so that He can be recognized as king. Christ is glorified by being hung on the cross. Christ’s power is His humility and His love. These are the only images of power which belong to the church and its leaders. It is how church leadership imitates Christ. It is not imperial vestments which make a man recognizable as an image of Christ, but rather the humble willingness to set aside all trappings of power and to gird oneself with a towel and to serve the disciples by washing their feet as did Christ the Lord.