The Bishop and the Diocese

“‘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).

 

Bishops: Ordained for the Ministry of Governance

Holy Great Council Photo

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.

2016 Holy Synod

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 Bishop in History and Tradition

“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)

Bishops John Chrysostom & Ignatius of Antioch

“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)

Bishop Gregory of Nyssa

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.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

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)

Apostolic Succession and Church Hierarchy

Christ and the Apostles

“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.”

(Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, p 279)

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.

St. Silouan: What is a Bishop?

Since the OCA‘s Diocese of the Midwest Special Assembly this past week nominated  Fr. Paul Gassios to become our next bishop, it is a good time to think about what a bishop is or should be.  St. Silouan the Athonite (d. 1938AD) says this about a bishop:

St. John Chrysostom

“The Lord calls His bishops to feed His flock, and gives them freely of the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is said that the Holy Spirit stablished the bishops in the Church, and in the Holy Spirit they have the power to bind and remit sins. And we are the sheep of the Lord’s flock whom He loved unto the end and to whom He gave our holy pastors. They are heirs to the Apostles, and by the grace accorded them they bring us to Christ. They teach us repentance; they teach us to keep the Lord’s commandments. They proclaim the word of God, that we may know the Lord. They guide us along the path of salvation, and help us to climb the heights of the lowly spirit of Christ. They gather the afflicted and straying sheep of Christ into the Church’s fold, that their souls may find rest in God. They pray to God for us, that we may all be saved. As the friends of Christ they are able to entreat and be heard of the Lord, attaining humility and the grace of the Holy Spirit for the living, forgiveness of sins for the dead, and for the Church peace and freedom from bondage. They carry the Holy Spirit within them, and through the Holy Spirit forgive us our sins.

Three Hierarchs

By the Holy Spirit they know the Lord, and like the angels they contemplate God. They are strong to tear our minds from the earth and attach them to the Lord. They grieve when they see us grieving God and preventing the Holy Spirit from dwelling in us. All the troubles of the earth lie on their shoulders, and their souls are carried away with love of God. They pray without cease, beseeching comfort for us in our afflictions, and peace for the whole world. By their ardent prayers they draw us, too, to serve God in a spirit of humility and love. For their own humility and love for the people, the Lord loves them. Inasmuch as they continue in great toil and struggle, they are enriched by the wisdom of the Saints, whose example they seek to follow in their own life. The Lord so loved us the He suffered on the Cross for us; and His sufferings were so great that we are unable to apprehend them because we love the Lord so little. Likewise do our spiritual pastors suffer on our account, although we often do not see their sufferings. And the greater a pastor’s love, the greater are his sufferings; and we who are His sheep should understand this, and love and revere our pastors” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pp 400-401)

The Bishop: Lover of the Poor

As the Diocese of the Midwest prepares to nominate a candidate to become the next diocesan bishop, we can consider what role a bishop is to have in the life of the Church and in the world.

“…In the late antique period, that is, between the years 300 and 600 of the Common Era. […]The Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence: ‘A bishop who loves the poor, the same is rich, and his city and region shall honor him.’ But not only bishops were expected to be ‘lovers of the poor.’ To be a ‘lover of the poor’ became a public virtue. It was a virtue expected of Christian emperors.” (Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, p 1)

In nominating a man to become our bishop we attempt to discern the will of God for our Diocese and Church.   The bishop sits not as judge but to help incarnate the Lord’s love and wisdom in the diocese.   His is not supposed to be the image of secular power.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

The bishop is called to serve, as described in the Pastoral Epistle to Titus.

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 1:7-9)

May it be so in our Diocese!

The Power of the Bishop: The Power to Serve

Fr. Paul Gassios
Fr. Paul Gassios

The Diocese of the Midwest is in the process of selecting  a new bishop.  God-willing at the Diocesan Assembly on October 7 in Cleveland it will nominate a man in order to present him to the OCA Synod of Bishops for them to elect him as the head shepherd of the Diocese.  I just ask for all the faithful of the Diocese to pray for our Assembly that they can discern the will of God in this matter.  Pray also for Fr. Paul Gassios, the current Diocesan Administrator, who is being considered for the office of bishop.  Fr. Paul in accepting consideration for this office has shown himself to be a faithful and obedient son of the Church.  He has not sought out this office, but has made a humble gesture to accept the office if it is the will of the Diocese.

Here are some thoughts from Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev on the ‘power’ of the bishop, the power to serve others so that all can do the work of salvation:

“The idea of power as diakonia, that is ministry or service, was first formulated by St. Paul, who based it upon Christ’s own teaching. Paul’s famous words addressed to Rome state that ‘those who have authority (hoi archontes) are ministers of God (leitourgoi Theou)’ (Rom 13:6), This approach was alien to the Roman mentality. In republican Rome power was honor and in imperial Rome, the power was divinity. These words of St. Paul were not heard at that time since Roman power did not wish to consider itself as a ministry. Only such an understanding of power, though, would be acceptable to Christian consciousness. The power, as divinity, was the ‘infernal beast’. Nearly two centuries later, Origen again used this Pauline approach to the subject of power with respect to the presiders of the churches. I think he ought to be called ‘guide’ (hêgoumenos), the one we call ‘bishop’ in the Church. He ought to be the servant of all in his ministry, in order to be of use to all in the work of salvation.”The Church of the Holy Spirit, p 270)

Discerning God’s Will: Electing Bishops

On November 13, the OCA will assemble at the All American Council to elect a new metropolitan.

Theologian Nicholas Afanasiev says that it is not the church nor the bishops who pass on or give the gifts of the Holy Spirit to its members and leaders. All the church or bishops can do is recognize that a person possesses the gifts of the Spirit and then they (the bishops) ask God to bless or confirm this person. What the church prays is that God will show that the person elected for office indeed possesses the gifts of the Spirit and that we have discerned correctly. Obviously, sometimes the discerning process fails, but that is our fault, not the fault of the Holy Spirit.   Afanasiev writes:

“The divine will cannot depend on the human will or be subject to it. God sends the gifts of the Holy Spirit not upon those chosen by the bishops or the people of the Church but upon those whom He himself chooses. The bishop has the grace to celebrate the sacrament of ordination, but this does not mean he manages the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Even to a lesser extent does it mean, as scholastic theology claims, that at the ordination of the presbyters and other clerics the bishop passes on to them the gifts of the Holy Spirit… Grace is not something to be passed from one to another and the bishop is not the one who has a depository of grace in order to distribute it to anyone he wills. Grace is a living gift of the Spirit who dwells in the Church…

In the Church God himself ordains people for particular ministries just as God ordains everyone called into the Church to his ministry of king and priest. ‘And God has appointed (etheto) in the church’… (1Cor. 12:28), ‘and he ordained some to be apostles…’ (Eph. 4:11). Neither a bishop nor a council of bishops nor the people of the Church, but God himself, ordains apostles, prophets, teachers, and pastors. God ordains these individuals for the ministry in and not outside of the Church, and for this reason the ordination which is from God is accomplished within the Church and with the participation of the Church…

God chooses every one of his ministers in the Church. The ancient church testifies to this its conviction through the words of the ordination prayer: ‘You who know our hearts, Father, grant that your servant, whom you have chosen for oversight, should shepherd your holy flock and should serve before you as your high priest…’ The Epitome uses the expression hon exelexô, ‘ whom you have chosen’ – just as in Acts 1:24: ‘and they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen (hon exelexô)…

The election by God, manifest through the ordination of the bishop, presbyter, and deacon, does not exclude a possibility of their election by the Church itself. ‘Let the bishop be ordained, having been elected by all the people.’ Election by the local church is one of the ways to discover God’s will, for it is not the one who is pleasing to the people that is elected but the one who was already appointed by God for ministry. The election was the people’s testimony concerning the will of God revealed in the Church and at the same time the expression of their consent to the ordination of this particular person who was elected, in fulfillment of God’s will, for this ministry.”

(Nicholas Afanasiev in The Church of the Holy Spirit, pgs. 94-96)

St. Nicholas, Pray for us!

Happy St. Nicholas day!

GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT;

WORKER OF THE VINEYARD OF CHRIST:

YOU HAVE BOTH BORNE THE BURDEN OF THE DAY,

AND INCREASED THE TALENT GIVEN TO YOU.

YOU HAVE NOT SHOWN ENVY TOWARDS THOSE COMING AFTER YOU,

THEREFORE THE GATE OF HEAVEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO YOU:

ENTER INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD AND INTERCEDE FOR US,

SAINT NICHOLAS,

FOR IN THE COURSE OF THIS TEMPORAL LIFE

YOU HAVE RUN THE RACE TO THE PRAISE OF THE LORD

WHO HAS GIVEN YOU GLORY IN THE TRUE AND HEAVENLY LIFE.

SINCE YOU HAVE BOLDNESS BEFORE HIM, 

PRAY THAT OUR SOULS MAY BE SAVED!

(Litya Hymn, Feast of St. Nicholas)

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?