Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

“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)

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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)

doublehelixIt 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)

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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)

4440153997_fdf59bed87_nThere 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.

 

Holy And Great Council Woes

Holy Great CouncilVarious reports are indicating the that the Holy & Great Council of the heads of the various Orthodox Churches which is supposed to start its meeting this week, may be post-poned.  Dissension has arisen and some of the heads of the churches have decided not to participate while others are calling for a postponement of the event.  Though this Council was 50 years in the making, the Orthodox leadership is not prepared to meet as planned.   There was a hope that even if it was avoiding most contemporary and controversial issues, it would at least be a display of the unity of the Orthodox hierarchs.  There were efforts made to insure unity by allowing discussion only on topics they believed they agreed upon, and by making sure all issues were in fact agreed upon in advance.  Despite those efforts, the Council has faced recently the fact that there are contentious issues which the various Orthodox hierarchs do not agree on.

I recently read some sermons from St. Basil the Great and in one he addressed the issue of an impending Council in his day which was in serious trouble before the Council began.  St. Basil says:

“After all, it is impossible either to construct a building when what holds it together is missing, or to build up the church to the heights when it is not held together with the bonds of peace and love.”  (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 270)

St. Basil realized if it wasn’t love which bound the Christians together, then they wouldn’t be able to meet in Council to achieve anything.   The hierarchs probably need to go back to that point and consider what the basis of their relationships one to another really is.  Additionally, they have to have some sense of what the purpose of meeting is.

St. Basil lamented the situation of the Church in his day and saw it as the very reason that the frequency of Councils had declined.  For Basil “estrangements” do happen between people, and the purpose of the Council is to help the disputants in face to face relationships to love one another.  He didn’t see conflict as a reason not to have a Council, but a prime reason to have the Council.

“The present spectacle is but a remnant of the ancient love of the fathers.  For its sake they inaugurated the practice of holding these festal assemblies, so that the estrangement that develops over time could be dissipated through person interaction at set intervals, and those who live far away, by gathering in this one place, could use the event to initiate relationships of friendship and love.  This is a spiritual assembly that renews old relationships and provides a starting point for those to come.   For we have not come to make an exchange of salable goods, but to give each other a mutual exchange of love, to give love fully and to receive love fully.  Even though this is the tradition we have received, the present spectacle shows why it has come to an end.  Most of those here are spies more interested in scrutinizing my statements than in being disciples of the doctrines I teach.  Indeed, they attend my discourse not to be edified by being present but to ambush me with insults and abuse.”  (St. Basil the Great, ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 270-271)

We come together in Council, St. Basil says, “to give each other a mutual exchange of love, to give love fully and to receive love fully.”    Love actually is the only commodity the Church has to offer to the world, to negotiate with each other, to influence one another, to serve one another.

But as Basil notes, Christian leaders no longer come together to exchange love and to benefit from their relationships with others and to serve in brotherly love the needs of others.  He saw people attending who were there for no other purpose than to spy on him and use what he says for their own nefarious purposes.   Even without the Internet or mass communications, people were still people.  Technology makes our communications faster, it doesn’t change the nature of how people use communications.  Christians 1600 years after the time of St. Basil are still willing to socially assassinate one another, to disseminate misinformation, to twist words and discussions to their own ends.

Of course today we honor the words and decisions of those church fathers who met in Council in the 4th Century.  Let us pray that our current Church Fathers will realize that whatever decisions they make individually or collectively, it will shape the church for good or ill for the next 1600  years.  May they use peace and love, repentance and forgiveness to maintain the vision of unity and to graciously face their difference.

Viewing the AAC from Where I Sit

Podcasts and some reports from the OCA’s  16th All American Council are now available online.  You can also read about the AAC and some developments at other webpages.

Thanks to the technology of podcasts you can hear what various speakers said and don’t have to rely on the filters of reporters.  So in this blog I don’t intend to simply report what was said, but admittedly I’m running what was said through the filter of what I heard and how I understood what was being said.  That is also the nature of blogging.

Metropolitan Jonah’s opening speech mentioned some of the very difficult problems created by his administration through the past three years, as well described some of the ongoing work of the church, and offered a few goals for the future.  The fact that his speech is available online both in written form and as a pod cast is important because there have been at times notable gaps in the past between what he said and  what he did or said later.  Technology is allowing for some accountability.

The Metropolitan acknowledged that the past three years have been an administrative disaster.  From where I sit on the Metropolitan Council, on the MC’s Ethics Committee and on the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee his words are certainly an accurate assessment of what has happened under his administration.   He did own up to being the source of the problem but also blamed his critics for creating a difficult atmosphere – for me the truth is that much of that poisoned atmosphere was created by himself. He came into office at a moment in the OCA’s history with high expectations that we would be able to put behind us all our past problems, scandals and failures.  There was an overwhelming sense at his election that now finally the OCA would move into its manifest destiny to be the Church in America.  All of that good will and hope was quickly evaporated among those who had to work most closely with him.

Everyone in leadership manages to offend some, disappoint others, and make enemies of some.  One learns that this is a reality in the world of the Fall.  We can have all the intention in the world of doing out best and assuming this will please everyone, but as the old adage says, “you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time”, but if you decide your goal is to please everyone so that they will like you, you have set yourself up for failure and for the ruination of the organization you lead.

The Metropolitan acknowledged there had been a complete breakdown in trust and raised a serious question as to whether at this point that breakdown could in fact be reversed or repaired.  As a step to see whether or not repair and restoration of trust in him as a leader is possible, he mentioned entering into a program of evaluation for clergy beginning November 14.   A lot rides on his willingness to co-operate with this program of evaluation because it will certainly be a test (and not the first one either) of his real acknowledgement that he is responsible for many of the problems which now exist in the OCA’s administration.

For me, again from where I sit, much of what happens next in the OCA is riding on the Metropolitan’s own willingness to cooperate with the process and the willingness of the Synod to not only hold him accountable but upon their willingness to deal with what is learned especially if some of the evaluation provides ambiguous results.  Then the members of the Synod are going to have to deal directly with issues that the Metropolitan and they have been either wrestling with, dancing around or hoping to avoid.

The Metropolitan outlined some of his priorities for the future which are both notable and noble and you can read them in his speech.   Giving speeches as he himself has oft said is something he likes to do, and has often earned him lauds from his listeners.  However, as he also acknowledged his years as bishop have been an administrative disaster, and so there is a huge gap between his articulated vision and the reality he works to create.

I will comment on one detail of his vision for the OCA, you can read his speech or listen to it and make your own judgments about what he says (and how that matches with what he actually accomplishes).  Funding is a perennial discussion in OCA administration and a triennial discussion at AACs!  Various ideas have been proffered through time, some merely name change dressings to the core issue that the central church believes if it had more money it would accomplish more things.  Whatever the truth in that logic, in the midst of his appeal to the funding issue, the Metropolitan advocated moving away from whatever current system we are following to a tithing system of giving to support the church.  Now I have been committed to tithing all of my adult life as a Christian, so I’m a practicing believer in tithing.  But when the Metropolitan says in his pitch for tithing that we must “conform ourselves to Christ through obedience to the Gospel and commitment to living according to the teachings of the Apostles and of the Holy Fathers”, I can’t help but wonder how many quotes could he come up with from Apostolic and Patristic writers in which they actually make tithing the norm for Christians.   Even the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 does not set tithing as a requirement for Christians.

But that issue may be nitpicking when compared to the very serious issues the Metropolitan raised related to his administrative failures and the complete breakdown in trust between himself, the chancery staff, the Metropolitan Council and the Synod of Bishops.

Following the Metropolitan’s report several bishops offered “responses” which weren’t so much directed at the Metropolitan’s speech but actually allowed them to reflect on their life in the church.  Personally I thought their comments were worth listening to because in my mind for the first time ever we heard our bishops in the AAC share anecdotes and thoughts related to their own sojourn as Christians and members of the OCA.   There was something warm and alive in their sharing their thoughts.  Certainly they all expressed a desire for the Metropolitan to fully and faithfully deal with the issues which have crippled his ability to lead and have damaged his relationship with other church leaders both in and out of the OCA.  And there was at least “veiled” acknowledgement that there are some serious problems waiting to be tackled and resolved.

The bishops did take a few shots at the Internet as contributing to making solutions to the internal problems of the OCA difficult.   The Internet however has not created the real problems that exist with the personalities involved.  Leadership has to lead despite the circumstances in which they are in.  The Internet is simply part of the daily lives of Americans.  It can be used for both good and evil.  Certainly there are professionals who can help willing and receptive leaders learn how to navigate through the information/Internet Age.  Leaders can lead even with the Internet attracting and creating attention to itself.  Rather than bemoaning the technology of communications which is now part of the landscape and infrastructure of daily life, we can learn how to deal with it.  Certainly most early Christians viewed the Roman Empire as the greatest threat to their existence and felt there was no possible connection between Rome and Jerusalem.  Yet the Church overcame that Empire and used that Empire for evangelism.  The Internet is not a greater threat to us than the Roman Empire.  We cannot escape the Internet and certainly we will learn even more about its risks, but we can also bring our use of it under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

See also my Parting Thoughts from the 16th All American Council

In the Church, Not of the Church?

This is the 3rd  and final blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse.  The previous blog is Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct.

A lot of the responsibility for ensuring policy compliance starts with and falls upon the bishops.   Our bishops insist that monarchical episcopate puts all power in their hands.   So too responsibility for what happens falls upon them, and it appears that the state agrees with this and is going to hold bishops accountable for abuse committed by their clergy.   Church leaders failing to follow PSP (even on small issues), being too trusting of the accused and not responding to accusations with urgency are going to find themselves facing criminal charges in America.   These are all exact issues which the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee (SMPAC) has been endeavoring to make our bishops aware of.  Bishops according to St. Paul are supposed to be good managers  (I Timothy 3:1-4; Titus 1:7-9) – not just the focal points of liturgical events, but good administrators.   Canon law even requires that bishops have someone help them manage diocesan finances because the bishop is responsible for overseeing (administering) his diocese.  Today, an additional requirement is being asked of them – be effective administrators.   These problems have been brought on not by the world invading the Church but by church leadership not doing what they needed to do within the Body of Christ.  (see Stanley Fish’s Is Religion Above the Law?  for a recent discussion on the complex relationship in America between the church, its doctrines and disciplines and the rights of American citizens).

While some are complaining that society’s interest in clergy sexual misconduct amounts to nothing more than secularism trying to invade the church and destroy it, there is a different reality these folks are ignoring.   What we face in clergy sexual misconduct is that people in the church have encountered evil in the church, hidden under the guise of clerical leadership.  It is abuse at the hands of clergy and then abuse and lies and cover-up from the institutional leadership.  This is a failure of the Church itself.  If there is an invasion of the church by the world it comes in the form of clergy who engage in abuse and misconduct.  We have for reasons inexplicable embraced secrecy and darkness, the devil’s friends, as the very means and methods of dealing with sin.   The world is asking us to lead by allowing light to shine on every operation of the Church.  However, truthfully, Christ is asking us to do the same to protect His flock.  We in the church shouldn’t need the world to tell us to do what is right.  Christ has already told us, but if we don’t listen to Him, He will speak to us through the world.

The Church which is supposed to be a light to the world, which is supposed to convict the world of sin, which is supposed to save people from evil, has shown itself at times  not to be a safe place and has shown itself to be very subject to the effects of the Fall.   This is a stunning failure for the Church; it is a call to repentance for all who have accepted positions of leadership in the church.

And it is not the world attacking the church – the church is being attacked from within, from its leadership which does not resist its own passions and temptations.   People who are or were in the Church and members of the Church  have been abused by institutional leadership.  This is not the world attacking the church, though perhaps Satan, but we have men in the church who are willing to be agents of evil.

Additionally, part of the sickness we see in the Church is that Church hierarchy declares that the Church is equated to and made co-terminus with the institutional leadership.  Thus the leadership no matter how corrupt is the church and so in defending itself and its decisions, the leadership is defending the church (and sinful behavior) against the membership!   The people of God no matter how much Christ embraces them as His own and as His own Body become viewed as a threat to the church (= the institutional leadership).  And so allegations of abuse are often treated as threats to the church.  Rather than the abuse itself being the threat to the church, leadership views the laity making the allegations against the clergy as threatening – as allowing secularism into the church.   It really is sad that the church itself cannot distinguish between what is truly evil and what merely exposes the evil.

Categories of “the church” and “the world” are meaningless in this mess.  The Church is reduced to the institutional leadership and “the world” is expanded to include the laity.

But people in the church who are victimized by clerical abuse are the Church and those who abuse have placed themselves outside of the Church no matter how many panagias they wear.

The church is not under attack from the world, we are not under attack but rather the attack is from within – shepherds who are wolves and who are intent on defending their institutional power and privileges against the people of God.     We are all and each attacked by these offending clergy and bishops; we are not attacked by the victims who expose the crimes. Nor, as a friend added, are we attacked “by the lawyers, investigators, mental health professionals who offer advice on the matter.”   All of these people are working to help and heal the victims and to help the church uphold its high moral standards.

The victims find themselves forced to go outside of the church to find healing, to find safety, to find mercy, to find justice. And again, as a friend noted, sometimes “this mercy and justice will take the form of prosecutions and civil suits.”

That is what is so sick about clergy sexual abuse.   As St. Paul said when one member of the Body suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26).   Sexual abuse in the church is a sickness that affects the entire Body.  And even if there is but one case of sexual abuse in the Church, the entire Body suffers.

What has been decided by the state in charging the Kansas City Roman Catholic bishop is that “ministerial exception,”  which Stanley Fish defines as the case law  that “exempts religious associations from complying with neutral, generally applicable laws in some, circumstances”, does not apply when the abuse of children is involved. Ministers, priests, bishops, clergy are not protected from prosecution in pedophilia cases, and now no longer will clergy supervisors, namely our bishops, be protected if in negligently failing to protect children they do not use due diligence in proactively dealing with abusing clergy.  Churches are expected to have Policy Standards and Procedures which proactively protect children from abuse.  Failure to follow these PSP may now lead to criminal prosecution not only of abusing clergy but of the bishops who have the responsibility to oversee them and compliance to PSP.

We are trying to cure the illness, not just cope with it.  We have to work in the Church, as another friend noted,  to remove  any opportunity for the responsible  leadership to make future excuses about what happened.   We don’t need excuses.  We need to allow the light of Christ to shine into every corner of the Church and into every heart of our church members to expose sin and evil wherever it may be and to perform the healing which is necessary for the church to be the Church.

See Also:  Questioning God about Sex Abuse in the Church and Taking a Page from the Old Coach’s Book

This blog series can also be read as one PDF:  Blog Series (PDF).

State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds

When the NY TIMES reported the story, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse, it caught the attention of many people who are working in their denominations dealing with clergy sexual abuse.  The efforts of law officials in the U.S. to help protect children from sexual abuse in churches has turned to making a concerted effort to hold ranking church officials responsible for what their clergy do.   The Kansas City bishop in this case is not charged with sexual abuse himself, but with not doing enough to stop abuse and an abuser among his clergy.

Historically there had been a standing practice in churches to deal with cases of clergy sexual abuse, especially pedophilia, as quietly (secretly) as is possible and to suppress any publicity of the case.  The supposed justification of this was that such behaviors were absolutely rare anomalies and so there was no use scandalizing the faithful over the behavior of the very uncommon abhorrent clergyman.  Unfortunately in the mix was also the practice of trying to save the clergymen’s ordination.   And in order to avoid having to publicly explain anything (for example why a clergyman was defrocked), churches frequently moved these aberrant clergymen to new locations (no defrocking, no explanation needed) and in effect spread the disease to new communities.  [One wonders why they didn’t see as a means to prevent scandal defrocking these misbehaving clergy.  But somehow having to defrock clergy was more scandalous to church leadership than was having clergy misbehave in new locations].

Of course in their new assignments, the church hierarchy seemed to think it was just fine not to inform the new parishes why the clergyman was being moved to their community.   Thus the parishioners naively and wrongly assumed that the clergy were totally trustworthy and that the hierarchy was looking out for them.

The change occurring now in U.S. law which holds bishops accountable for the misbehavior (and sometimes criminal misbehavior) of their clergy is forcing churches to acknowledge that trying to deal with clergy misconduct through internally secret methods is unacceptable.   If we are going to protect our children and the vulnerable and fragile members of our flocks, then we have to much more publicly deal with clergy abuse and misconduct especially through defrocking the clergy guilty of misconduct and abuse.    In a sense the new laws are going to force churches to live up to the Church’s supposedly high standards of moral conduct for its clergy.

Of course today a motive stronger than high moral standards at work in the church is the fear of devastatingly expensive civil lawsuits.   That has become the motivating factor for many churches to change their lax practices.   Churches are coming to  recognize that no matter how much it hurts the church and scandalizes the faithful to admit to sexual abuse in the church, the pain and damage of having the abuse and its cover up discovered later is far more devastating.  Even in the church money talks.   And though St. Paul condemned civil lawsuits between Christians (1 Corinthians 6:7), such lawsuits have forced church hierarchy to pay attention to those members of their flock injured by the clergy.   Up to this point bishops frequently saw it as their duty to defend the clergy from such allegations, now they have to realize that those members of the church injured by abuse are every bit as much members of the church and as important to the Church as their clergy.

There is another lesson to which priests and bishops need to pay attention:   Law and its standards change.    The bishop in this case and the police chief may want to argue that they were following what had previously been thought of the standards for dealing with these issues.   But because law in a democracy is subject to change based on changing standards and ideals current in society, we cannot comfort ourselves with thinking “we were following our Best Practices” or we were following the current Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP).    Such claims may not be enough if the church’s current Best Practices and PSP are not up to the existing standards of law.   What the new court cases mean is that having correct Policy Standards and Procedures are not enough – SOMEONE (namely the bishop in a hierarchical church) must be practicing due diligence in enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance by all clergy and parishes.

PSPs regarding sexual misconduct are undergoing intense scrutiny and serious change in our country.   People are angry and no longer willing to tolerate what they view as incompetence, negligence, or under reacting by church authorities in cases involving sexual misconduct in the church.   The mood in the country, which is now in law and in the courts, is that the church cannot passively wait for the civil authorities to deal with crime in the church.  The expectation is for the church to actively and aggressively investigate allegations and proactively root out offenders.  This means when warning signs are noticed – the clergyman may not even have broken a law YET – the church is going to be expected to deal firmly with that clergyman, removing them from office in order to protecti children, the vulnerable, and the fragile.    Church leaders are going to have to monitor their clergy more than currently is being done.  For example the background check that Oxford Documents does – looking at credit history, all brushes with the law, driving record – may have to become standard fare in the Church.  Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc.    There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy.   [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed.   If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]

Next:  Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct

Canonical Ordination and Deposition

I read with interest Fr. Alex Rentel’s “A Comparison of the Liturgical Rite of Ordination and the Canonical Act of Deposition” in the St.Vladimir’s Theological QUARTERLY , Vol 55, No 1, 2011.   It seems timely to me, which may reflect the unfortunate fact that in the Church we deal not only with birth but also death, not only with saints but also with sinners, not only with clergy ordinations but also with clergy depositions.

Having myself served for the last several years on the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisor Committee and also on the Metropolitan Council’s Ethics Committee, Fr. Rentel’s article spoke to issues which I have had to contemplate.  I don’t intend to write a review of his article but just note a few points that were pertinent to things I’ve thought about.

St. Basil the Great says:

“On the matter of priesthood, if you fell into a sin of the flesh – fornication, adultery, sodomy, bestiality – and were above 13 years old, even if you didn’t know that these sins are impediments to the priesthood, you are not allowed to become a priest … examine yourself well, and if you fell even once even out of ignorance you cannot become a priest. No matter how great a need the Church has. God will care for His Church. If there are no priests and lay people, then the Lord will destroy everyone. If you have an impediment to the priesthood, you are able by repentance and confession to perform miracles and to become a saint, but not a priest.”

That is a pretty high standard for ordination.   But note, he says such sexual sins are impediments to ordination but not to becoming canonized as a saint.  The criterion for becoming a saint are different than from becoming a priest.  Fr. Rentel notes from the canons:

“Nikodemos the Hagiorite (ca. AD 1749-1809) …. observes that ‘all sins’ that would depose a clergyman, whether committed before or discovered after ordination, also present ‘an impediment to someone becoming a priest.’   ….   1 Nicea Canon 9 says … when some sin committed prior to ordination is discovered, the canon refuses to admit such a man to the priesthood, because ‘the catholic church vindicates (ekdikei) only what is above reproach.'” (p 34) 

“A candidate cannot hope that ordination will simply blot out his pre-ordination sins.”  (p 36) 

The goal of canonical penalties Rentel notes is for the laity or clergy to “withdraw from sin.”  It is not punishment but a help towards salvation.  The same is true of deposition from the clergy which is viewed as part of the cure for the man who fell into sin after ordination or who committed a serious sin before being ordained.

“Apostolic Canon 25…. ‘If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon is caught in fornication, perjury, or theft, let him be deposed.'” (pp 40-41)

And if the clergyman  exercises “‘his own private judgment to the subversion of the people and to the disturbance of the churches’.  Such a cleric, the canon says, is ‘one who…heaps sins upon himself.'” (p 41)

Cyril of Alexandria around 442AD says “that a bishop cannot simply retire to avoid scandal and canonical punishment.  Rather, Cyril says… ‘if they are unworthy, do not let them leave by retiring, rather let them be judged for [their] actions.'” (p 44)

The practice of moving clergy to a new parish assignment after they have committed an action worthy of deposition is just plain wrong.    So too is the practice of allowing disgraced bishops to retire honorably.    There is a reason for these rules in preserving the high standards of the church for it preserves the integrity of the church and helps prevent the types of illicit behavior that were observed in recent scandals throughout the Christian world.

To be Ruled Well is Typical of the Wise Person

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.

See also my blogs:  Adventures in Wonderland and Metropolitan Council: What Were You Discussing?

Christianity and/or Constantinianism

This is the 14th and final blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   We are considering the books by Paul Stephenson  (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) in evaluating Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire.   The previous blog is Constantinople, Constantine’s Legacy.  Did Constantine and the Empire become Christian, or did Christianity become tamed and imperialized by Constantinianism?

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

A number of Christians in the initial centuries of Christian existence wrestled with whether Christianity had any relationship to Athens (pagan philosophy) or Rome (worldly power).  What many of them could not even imagine is what would it mean for Christianity if the emperor himself became a Christian.   So Constantine’s embrace of Christianity caught many Christian leaders – who were far more used to thinking of Rome as that beast which persecuted them –  by surprise.   No one apparently had made provision for this, they obviously did not think it inevitable since they were proclaiming a Kingdom not of this world, and Rome was the worldly power most oppressing them.

There was no precedence for the Christians to shape what it means for the emperor to tolerate let alone embrace Christianity.  What unfolded was the unplanned for and rocky marriage between the Church and the emperor/empire.  Neither side knew exactly how to work it out, and yet the event was upon them.  Some aspects of this marriage worked, and some experiments failed, and what emerged in Constantine’s lifetime was a marriage in progress, not a finished product.

We see evidence of Constantine fully embracing some of the teachings and concerns of Christianity.

Constantine “saw it as his duty as emperor, in Lactantius’s words, ‘to protect and defend orphans and widows who are destitute and stand in need of assistance.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   217)

There was a new attitude even toward things at the heart of what it meant to be Roman – military might and triumphing in the mortal combat of gladiatorial games or in war.   In the early Second Century  St. Justin the Martyr  (who professed that truth was truth, even pagan truth is truth) wrote that as a result of accepting the Gospel,  “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  256).   In Constantine’s day we find similar sentiments expressed in the poets of the empire.   Prudentius (d. 413AD) wrote a poem:

Liberty & Peace

“Whoever would worship God

Properly with the whole burnt offerings, let him above all offer peace.

No sacrifice is sweeter to Christ; this gift alone please him with a pure Aroma when he turns his face toward the holy altar.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   251)

No longer was animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice in the gladiatorial games valued more than peace.   Peace became the official offering and sacrifice to God.  (Which many believe is reflected in the now awkward and uncertain phrase in the Orthodox Liturgy:  “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”)

Constantine’s original tolerance of Christianity came in the form of a general tolerance for all religion in the empire.  But as Constantine became more committed to the values and teachings of Christianity, he also became confronted by the diversity and divisions (schismatics and heretics)  within Christianity.  Prior to Constantine, these divisions were dealt with by excommunications, after Constantine the competing factions asked the empire to intervene in their disputes.   This too was an unexpected and unplanned for affect on how Christians dealt with each other.  Constantine believed it his duty to ensure peace and tranquility in the empire and so naturally assumed he had this god-given role in the church as well.  He tried to use church methods to solve these problems – appealed to the bishops to rule on the disputes, and called forchurch councils to permanently settle the problems.  Constantine also had no precedent to learn from about how to be the Emperor and also be a member of the Church.   So his dealings with church problems show some inconsistencies, fits and starts and changing direction, failure to resolve conflicts, and mistakes.   The record doesn’t show him taking over the church, but being actively engaged in the religion whose God he believed had brought him to power.   He asked for church leaders to solve problems, and then offered to solve problems with the authority only he as emperor had.   It is also obvious in his thinking, that Christian belief had influenced him and he did desire to continue to receive the favor of the God who had brought him to power.

“Once the empire was a creedal empire, heresy could not be seen as a tolerable difference of opinion; it was subversive, an attack on the vitals of the imperial body, and had to be expelled.  Inevitably, then, the empire founded on a monotheistic creed fractured and eventually yielded to a commonwealth of Christian peoples, the Byzantine ‘empire.’

It was not long after Constantine, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, that people of goodwill decided that maintaining justice, peace and civilized life did not require the maintenance of the Roman empire.  Some left for monasteries, while others continued in the empire but not of it.  Whatever Constantinian moment there had been was over, ironically assisted by Constantine himself, who not only failed to prevent the empire’s inevitable collapse but probably helped to hasten it.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  293)

Leitharts’ conclusion is that the very merging of the state with the church in the Roman Empire did bring about great changes in ecclesiology and authority.  Simultaneously however, the issues that were of greatest concern to the church became the problems of the state, and this in Leithart’s opinion weakened the empire’s might and power, and eventually fractured the empire itself.  Constantine’s effort to embrace the church directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.  This in Leithart’s final evaluation is the real legacy of Constantinianism.

The Greek Christians tried to live up to the ideals of the Christian empire that Constantine envisioned and embraced, but found Christianity fragmented by those who rejected centralized imperial power running the Church:  monastics, Monophysites, Nestorians, Latins and a host of others (all the non-Greeks of the empire).    Constantinianism thus failed to take over the church.  Eventually the Roman then Byzantine empire disappeared into the dustbin of history, while the Church continued to carry out its mission to go into all the world, even when and where Constantinianism did not and could not exist.

Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2)

This is the 8th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (1).   This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Constantine was a politician, and a rather successful one at that.  Both Leithart and Stephenson note his default tendency in dealing with internal Christian disagreements was at first to appeal to unity and to push the parties toward submitting themselves to the will of the church as expressed through decisions rendered by bishops in council.

“When Constantine first learned of the dispute (Arian), his first instinct, as usual, was to urge concord.  ‘Do ye both exhibit an equal degree of forbearance,’ he wrote to Arius and Alexander. …  For himself, the emperor considered it ‘wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded,’ since ‘those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear.’   …  Both the one who asked ‘unguarded questions’ and the one who offered an ‘inconsiderate answer’ should seek ‘mutual forgiveness.’”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   167)

Thus Leithart sees Constantine as attempting to follow a path of wisdom in which he recognizes human causes for the divisions which occur in the church – some who cause disturbance by asking questions merely for curiosity or sport and those who quickly take offense at such questions.  Constantine’s solution is to lower the rhetoric and tension and to encourage both sides in a dispute to ask for mutual forgiveness.  Here we see Constantine advocating for Christian morality, rather than relying purely on the force of power that he would have as emperor in settling any dispute which threatened the concord of the empire.  Obviously a Christian vision for the church influenced his thinking on how to deal with conflict within the church.

However when Constantine saw that appeals to reason, to peace, and to Christian unity did not end some of the disputes and that the warring factions continued to appeal to his authority, he was willing to exercise the power he had as emperor to intervene.  Even so, Constantine appeals to theology in the actions he takes; his concern is that the disputing factions are bringing disrespect to the “greatest god” and this is not acceptable as it threatens the entire empire with losing God’s favor.

Constantine wrote: “Those who incite and do things so that the greatest god is not worshipped with the requisite devotion, I shall destroy and scatter.  … those whom I find to be opposed to right and religion itself, and apprehend in violation of the due form of worship, then those without doubt I shall cause to suffer the due penalties of their madness and their reckless obstinacy.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  263)

To the Donatists Constantine said: “Those same persons who now stir up the people in such a war as to bring it about that the supreme God is not worshipped with the veneration that is His due, I shall destroy and dash to pieces.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   84)

Constantine had some sense that there is a correct way to worship God, and he came to see the disputing factions in Christianity as dividing not only the Church but in their opposition to one another calling into question which form of worship was the correct way to approach God.  By causing divisions in the church, the Christians were not able to worship God in a consistent and proper manner but instead were divided into different sects each worshipping God in its own manner.  Constantine interpreted this as a threat to the empire.

Constantine saw in his duty to protect the empire from not only external enemies but also from those within the empire who might offend the one God who had brought him into power and who had bestowed peace and unity on the empire.  Constantine wrote to heretics and schismatics:

“…it is no longer possible to tolerate the pernicious effect of your destructiveness, by this decree we publicly command that none of you henceforth shall dare to assemble.  Therefore, we have also given order that all your buildings are to be confiscated … to prohibit the gathering of assemblies of your superstitious folly.”      …..  Constantine’s professed policy of toleration for all faiths, for which he had fought his last great war against Licinius, foundered on the diversity of Christian doctrine and practice.  In the name of unity he persecuted those whose beliefs were now far closer to his own than those held by worshippers of Sol Invictus, and still more than those of devotees of Dionysius or Asclepius.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 270-271)

Though Constantine pursued efforts to maintain unity and concord within the Church, he became incensed at the stubbornness of certain Christian leaders to resist Church unity/conformity.  In his lifetime his efforts to attain peace and unity are obvious in his wavering of which side in various disputes to support.   Especially when one faction did not back down even in the face of imperial threat, Constantine did switch sides and try to bring the more stubborn party into unity by joining them.  This did earn him the rebuke which we noted from St. Athanasius.

As Stephenson notes, sadly for Constantine, his support of Christianity which led him to decree a toleration of religion bringing an end to Christian persecution, revealed the unexpected divisions in the Christian Church of schismatics and heretics.  Now Constantine’s ideas of toleration and his default tendency toward concord proved ineffective in dealing with divisions within the Church.  His call of the first Ecumenical Council brought together his desire for Christian concord, with his trust that the bishops had the authority to decide on internal church disputes, and with his willingness to put imperial force behind the decisions of the bishops.  Yet all of this did not bring a quick and sure end to disputes.  For imperial authority was not recognized as the final say in church matters, and a spiritual wisdom was valued more than mere force in dealing with theological disputes.  Thus the charge that a Constantinian change took place in the church in which the state simply took control of church life cannot be sustained by the evidence.  Constantine himself was not able to enforce Constantinianism.   The Arian crisis continued despite Constantine’s efforts to end it.

Next:  Constantine, the Church and War (1)

The Effects of the Expulsion from Paradise in Patristic Thinking

This is the 31st blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam’s Expulsion in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom.

The story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise inspired the Patristic theologians to apply the story to a wide diversity of topics from theology, to ethics, to explaining the world as it is. They also sometimes saw the story of the Fall as having practical moral applications.  For example from the desert fathers we have this wisdom attributed to Hyperechius (d. ca 420AD):

“He also said, ‘It was through whispering that the serpent drove Eve out of Paradise, so he who speaks against his neighbor will be like the serpent, for he corrupts the soul of him who listens to him and he does not save his own soul.’” (in THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS, p 238)

Hyperechius finds in the story of the Fall a lesson against gossiping, spreading rumors and speaking against one’s neighbor.  Every community has felt the destructive power of those who whisper secrets against one another.

The Fall was also, according to the Fathers, the explanation for all manners of evil in the world including slavery and other forms of inequality.

“At the fall came hatred and strife and the deceits of the serpent. . . I would have you look back to our primary equality of rights … not to the later division . . . Reverence the ancient freedom … Reverence yourself.”  (St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 391AD), THE HUNGRY ARE DYING, p 150)

St. Gregory Nazianzen blames the Fall for unleashing on the world hatred and strife as well as the inequalities one can observe everywhere – between the rich and poor, between men and women, between races and nationalities.  He believed all humans had an innate, ancient freedom which had been lost as a result of the Fall.  The divisions between humankind which limit the freedoms of some and increase the powers of others are all a result of the Fall, not part of how God intended the world to be.

Interesting, for me at least, is did St. Gregory apply his thinking to all social hierarchy?   For example did it cause him to see the imperial form of government not as natural for humans but purely the result of the Fall – a necessary evil?  I also wonder how he would have applied his thinking to the emerging and becoming rigid notions of hierarchy in the church, especially in the light of Christ’s own condemnation of Christians trying to lord it over one another (Matthew 20:25-28; Matthew 23:8-12; Luke 22:25-27).   It is note worthy that despite the emphasis in more recent times that the Church is hierarchical, in the 4th Century when adopting the Creedal formula regarding the Church, our Fathers in the faith did not include the world hierarchical, but expressed a faith in a one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, excluding hierarchical as the canon for the church.

“Thus in Adam’s case, too, since he had not used his dwelling in paradise to his advantage, he brought him to his senses by expulsion; and his wife, who had enjoyed equal status but proved the worse for it, he made better by slavery and subjection.”  (St. John Chrysostom, COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS  Vol 2, p 155)

Chrysostom sees the subjection of women to men as a direct result of the Fall, not part of God’s original plan for humanity.   However, he seems to accept this subjection as not only normal to this Fallen world, but perhaps even a corrective for women as a whole since apparently all women share collectively in the sin of Eve.   He apparently doesn’t think that Christians living in the light of Christ who overcomes the effects of the Fall should try to undo the inequalities of this world regarding gender.  Was he simply the product of his own time and patriarchal society?  Several Fathers mention slavery and inequality as resulting from the Fall, but almost none advocated abolishing such inequalities.

Next:  Adam’s Expulsion in Later Patristic Writings