A Call For Reform
by Michael Rhodes
Recent crises in the OCA and the AOC have gotten folks thinking and talking about problems in these Churches. I think a fair bit of this has been quite healthy, though very long overdue. And there’s one basic reason I think this. It is that "ou gar ed?ken ?min o theo pneuma deilias alla dyname?s kai agap?s kai sophronismou, ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind’ (2 Tm 1.7). In my opinion, living by the power, love and sound-mindedness given to us by the Holy Spirit means that, while we should be obedient to those who lead us (cf Hb 13.17), we should not shrink from our responsibility to ‘not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (cf Rm 12.2). But we must do this in love (agap?n) ‘which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Cl 3.14).
It does not take much for us to see that there is a lot that is not ‘good, acceptable and perfect’ in the Orthodox Church. Regarding these recent crises, we have had helpful descriptions, insightful warnings and an enormous amount of heart-rending facts, accusations and innuendo. Some are now asking ‘what do we do?’ Others, it seems, are just waiting for something to be done. And many are doing what has become habit for most: they’re trying to ignore the mayhem.
Indeed, the norm in such instances in Orthodoxy is a ‘say-nothing-wait-for-the-dust-to-settle-then-say-nothing’ strategy, in a (passive) effort to maintain the status quo. I fear that this approach will continue to prevail. Regardless of recent developments in the OCA and calls for transparency and accountability, etc, I suspect much of the muck is going to be swept under the proverbial rug. In that case, nothing will have been accomplished, except the buying of a little bit of time, perhaps.
And, in the meantime, compromise, again, will continue to be the preferred method of coping. This, in particular, has a deadening effect on us and makes us zombie-like. The terror and shock we experience in these scandals awakens in us a deep desire for peace and normalcy, and we do what we have to, to attain it. But compromise only allows a false sense of peace and an errant normalcy.
The question that needs to be addressed then is ‘how can we avoid this?’ Accountability and transparency will help indeed, and in some instances a newly installed bishop or two might also. But much of this may end up being little more than lip service and Sysiphus-ness. More drastic measures appear to be needed as well.
It is my view that there is far too much recurrent and inexcusable worldliness in the Orthodox Churches. It is so bad at times that distinguishing between the world and the Orthodox Church, which should never be an imposing task, is nearly impossible, except of course for the smells and bells and what not.
But if that’s all that separates us, then this thing we call Orthodoxy is pitiful indeed, and there really is nothing to fight for. Moreover, if this is all that makes us different, then we need to consider seriously what Paul says about ‘having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power’ (cf 2 Tm 3).
The Church is supposed to be the bride of Christ, and so she is, according to the Word of God. Too often though, the Orthodox Churches seem like something else. They appear too often to be burdened by weights that hinder and sins which easily beset (cf Hb 12.1), singular only in their shocking adeptness at self-destructive and soap-opera-like ways. They seem to lack spiritual radiance and beauty, that vital in-this-world-but-not-of-it kind of existence (cf Jn 17. 16, 18), which is characteristic of ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jd 3). If the Orthodox Church is the presence of Jesus Christ on earth though, then things should be very different. These Churches should not be mired in corruption as a matter of course, due to the pastoral incompetence of its bishops and priests.
There is too much to recount here in a brief manner. And, anyway, I think I can reasonably assume that you have a fairly good idea of the sorts of things I have in mind, at least as regards the OCA and the AOC. So rather than recounting specifics, I’ll speak about these various crises in general.
There are two general issues in my view. The first is scandalous use of power. And the second is scandalous pastoral involvement in, and insensitivity to, illicit pleasure.
Power has exercised an unusual attraction in the governing ranks of the Orthodox Churches. Pursuit of illicit pleasure, and horrendous instances of pastoral abuse, from both abusers and those who are protecting them, has been problematic too. But in the hierarchy these latter things are often exacerbated because they are parasitic upon the former. For the pastoral insensitivity and abuse that too often attends instances of sexual misconduct, for example, is possible only because bishops have the power they do. Abuse of power in the Church, however, is as old as the Christian faith itself. Very early in the life of the Church, the Apostle John is critical of the behavior of Diotrephes, for example (cf 3 Jn 9 – 10), because he was rejecting apostolic authority. He says he had written something to the church all ’ o philopr?teu?n aut?n Diotreph?s ouk epidexetai ?mas, ‘but Diotrphes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept us (ie, ‘what we say’)’.
Before you get the wrong idea, let me go ahead and say what I am not proposing. I am not making a case here for the necessity of moral perfection or sinlessness as the (or even a) criterion for a healthy hierarchy. We are all called to perfection (cf Mt 5.48), yet we all stumble in many ways (cf Js 3.2), too. But there is a difference between an instance of human sin and a systemic problem that promotes it.
What I am concerned with here is what I see as one systemic problem. It is not the only one in my view. But it is the one that is perhaps most relevant to some of the recent problems we have been suffering through.
Let me also add that in my view it is not plausible to argue that ‘no church is perfect’, or, a common variant of the same reasoning, ‘every church has its problems’, in an effort to downplay the severity of such crises. For the Orthodox Church, in theory at least, is the Church, the one, true Church, in fact. It is not just another church, merely one amongst the myriad.
Moreover, this should just be manifest –not merely something believed as a bit of doctrine but hardly observable in practice– both to its members and to the world at large. I do not hesitate to say, however, that these profound crises, and their commonness, seem to be posing significant challenges for many in the Orthodox Church, so that this no longer seems as believable as it once did. Likewise, to the world at large (and this should be of utmost importance since we have a solemn responsibility to evangelize, to go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in (cf Lk 14.23), but, unfortunately, it is basically a foreign, even ‘Protestant’, notion that, to our detriment, is not much in evidence in Orthodoxy these days) Orthodoxy must often appear bereft of the life-changing power of God, yet quite full of moral improprieties and corruption, amidst its holy-looking rituals.
Nor is it acceptable for Orthodox to act like the Orthodox Church is just one of the many churches when it is convenient to do so. This is simply not consistent with the ‘Orthodox phronema’. There are no grounds for offence in the face of criticism that is calling her to be what she claims to be. Nor is there any virtue in pretending she is just another church when evidence seems to indicate deep-seeded, difficult ecclesial problems. Ducking and dodging is cowardly and only serves to indicate that her claim to ecclesial exclusivity is false.
These recent scandals revolve around one pastoral lacuna, in my view. What I’m referring to is the abundant evidence of poor –incomprehensibly poor– pastoral care. That is, in my judgment, the inability to provide proper pastoral care, i.e. to lead in the power, love and sound-mindedness of the Holy Spirit with conviction, integrity and fortitude, is behind the two issues I presented above. The responsibility given a bishop is one of care for the household of God. He is to be a servant-leader, a shepherd, not a pseudo-emperor.
I mentioned 3 John because abuse of power in the Orthodox Church is similar to what John designates with Diotrephes. However, it is more nuanced in my judgment. I think this because we are not dealing here and there in these various crises with mere instances of Diotrephes-like behavior in our leadership. That is, we don’t just have problems with ‘problem bishops / priests’. Rather we have problems with systemic Diotrephes-like beliefs and practices that are part of ‘Holy Tradition’ and are, in some instances at least, the contributing causes of ‘problem bishops / priests’.
Don’t get me wrong. There are problem bishops / priests, and we need to deal with this too. But there is something more basic, which marks not simply one man, but rather the whole Church as Diotrephes-like.
The particular systemic Diotrephes-like belief and practice that seems to be most related to these crises is the celibacy of the bishopric. For many centuries now, the Orthodox Church has had no way of responding apostolically to the question Paul puts to Timothy: 'if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?' (1 Tim 3.5). The implication of Paul’s reasoning is that someone who cannot manage his household cannot care for God’s church. The Orthodox Church has removed from the notion of episcopal candidacy the issue of marriage and family, and so also the issue of managing one’s household. The reason the Church has no way of responding apostolically to Paul’s query then is because it maintains the newer development of celibacy rather than the apostolic tradition of marriage and family (cf 1 Tim 3. 2, 4). The correct and apostolic reply is negative, as I indicated. This is consistent with two criteria set forth by Paul in his first letter to Timothy. One criterion for a candidate for the office of the bishop is that he dei. . . mias gynaikos andra, ‘must be the husband of one wife’ (v 2). Another is that he tou idiou oikou kal?s proistamenon, ‘must manage his own household well’ (v 4). We know this. But since the Orthodox Church teaches otherwise we learn to cope with the inconsistency through a series of ad hoc and anachronistic lines of reasoning and, thus, tiny compromises. The truth of the matter, nevertheless, is that the Orthodox Church received the tradition of a married episcopacy, but has not maintained it and has not passed it on.
Celibacy of the bishopric is closely related to these various crises because in each of them what we are not seeing is good shepherd-like care for the ‘sheep’. Rather what we have seen is worldliness of the sort that should not even be mentioned amongst us. We have experienced abusive, deceitful, and, in a word, unchristian leadership. This is the result, in part at least, of our having bishops who cannot care for God’s Church well since they have not learned the discipline of kal?s proistamenon, ‘managing well’, in the context of marriage and family.
Jesus Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees and scribes seems to apply in this case. “‘This people honors me with their lips,’ he said ‘but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. . .You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (Mk 7.9).
But why should we view the celibacy of the bishopric as a systemic Diotrephes-like issue? Because it is a rejection of apostolic authority, just as was the case with Diotrephes. With this issue though it is not just one person’s belief and practice that is the problem, but rather the belief and practice of the Church in general. But why do I hold this? Again, it is because apostolic authority is being rejected by the Church and not just by one or more amongst the leadership. Since the seventh century the Church has systematically and habitually rejected apostolic tradition on this issue, upholding instead a particular interpretation of canon 12 of Quinisext Council 692, which ratified an already existing, but by no means definitive, practice. In fact, Nicea 325 had already rejected a similar requirement. This is an instance where ‘Holy Tradition’ contains competing ideas, and the Church has opted for being ‘canonical’ rather than apostolic and scriptural. That is, precedence has been given to ‘conciliar’ authority rather than to what has been received. My view is that this is unacceptable because it means that, at least as regards this issue, the ‘Holy Tradition’ of the Orthodox Church is inconsistent with apostolic tradition, and because, at the end of the day, it therefore seems like we just have ‘a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep’ our own ‘tradition’. As I have already indicated, I think this is an instance of disobedience. Therefore, I also see it as an issue that is displeasing to God, and even grieving to the Holy Spirit, by whom we have been sealed for the day of redemption (cf Ep 4.30). Moreover, I think the disorder and sheer scandal that is often so definitive of the Orthodox Churches in general (viz.: quarrels, contention, selfish ambition, dissension, jealousy, etc [cf Gl 5.19 – 21]) is rooted in part in this particular form of institutional disobedience.
It is my view that the Orthodox Churches need to reform themselves according to the Word of Truth. They need to return to apostolic belief and practice. This will not solve all their problems, but it will be a good step toward healthy reform and obedience. For then we might be able to have men serving as bishops who are both married and cable of managing their own households well. And in that case, we’d have reason to hope that they’d also be able to care for God’s Church. The training ground for the bishopric is marriage and family, according to apostolic tradition. It follows that the legitimate governing paradigm then is management of the household. If we want the Church to be governed well, then we need to reinstitute the married bishopric.
Some have hoped that this topic, among other things, would be dealt with at a future ecumenical council. But waiting patiently for the next ecumenical council is something like expecting pigs to fly. It has been more than 1200 years since the last ecumenical council, and things have changed radically since that time. Moreover, the Church’s current divisions are simply not conducive to very much conciliar cooperation. To be brief, the probability of another ecumenical council is nearly nil.
This seems to put us, as I’m sure many recognize, in a rather awkward position. Our hands seem to be tied, as it were. So if we want to reinstitute the married bishopric, what do we do? Here is what I’d like to suggest. First of all, we must call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for wisdom and expect that he will give it through the person of the Holy Spirit who has been given unto us. Second, we must work together in love, resisting falsehood when necessary (for example, the current view that ‘the ministry of the episcopacy is a vocation of monastic discipline’) and promoting the truth always. Third, we must find amongst ourselves good men who meet the apostolic criteria for the office of the bishopric and, after a process of discernment perhaps, demand in love that they be ordained.
But, even though I believe that the married bishopric needs to be restored, and long to see it happen, I really do not see it as being very likely. There are so many ecclesiastical ‘road blocks’, as it were, that I not only sense that ‘our hands are tied’, as I said, but that God’s may be too. I’m not saying that God is somehow inherently impotent. Rather I recognize that for something like this to happen we must be willing to be co-laborers with him in order to change, and I really don’t think that is the case presently. It is deeply troubling to acknowledge this, but from my perspective the Orthodox Church seems poised to maintain the status quo.
In any case, let me say something about two criticisms that will be proffered. The first will focus on a perceived implication of my argument. Some will maintain that my argument implies that there should be no celibate bishops. This is not a necessary implication of what I have argued. My intention here is not to take issue with the freedom a Christian man has to choose to be celibate and also to desire the office of the bishop, but with the rule of celibacy imposed on all men who desire the office of the bishop. We have not received such a rule from apostolic tradition. There is an enormous difference between a celibate bishop and a celibate bishopric. The former is sensible and sane as an instance of oikonomia. The latter is neither sensible nor sane as an instance of ‘Holy Tradition’. So, from my perspective, celibate candidates for the office of the bishop should not be eliminated entirely, but they ought to be the exception, not the rule.
Another criticism will be based on the evidence of bad married bishops / elders in other churches, such as the Episcopal Church. We learn from such cases that marriage and family do not guarantee that an otherwise good candidate for the office of the bishop will indeed be a good bishop since he can manage his household well. I want to say two things in reply to this line of reasoning. The first is that, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, these other men are not bishops per se. So it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, really. But the point is still a good one, in my view. The second thing though is that it cannot be denied that marriage and family do not guarantee anything. That’s not why I’m motivating this case though. We should have a married bishopric, not because of some guarantee, but because it is part of apostolic tradition.
Allowing installation of married bishops will not necessarily solve all problems in the Orthodox Churches. We must grant this. In fact, I already have. But it will remove one possible cause for these recurrent crises. The reason there are such amazing problems in the Episcopal Church, for example, has nothing to do with adherence to the apostolic tradition of a married episcopacy, but rather with a willful endeavor on the part of some to rethink and redefine other aspects of apostolic tradition. Giving a man the responsibility of a bishop is a rather dangerous thing under any circumstances, but doing so when the candidate has no experience in managing a household, no ‘helper’ (cf Gn 2.20) at his side and no built-in accountability partner –doing so, that is, in contradiction to apostolic tradition– is sheer lunacy in most cases. Nevertheless, there have been good celibate bishops, even great ones, but not only are the odds against most men serving as celibate bishops, apostolic tradition is too. Assuming apostolic doctrine and practice otherwise, I think the risks associated with installing qualified married men as bishops pales in comparison to those we’re running presently by requiring only celibate ones.
What I have said here about systemic Diotrephes-like belief and practice has been focused on only one issue. I have indicated though that, in my judgment, there are other similar issues. The mere suggestion will cause blood to boil in some of you. I understand the gravity of the suggestion. But I also understand (or at least I think I do) the severity of the current state of spiritual unhealthiness in these Churches. Christ says ‘you will know them by their fruits’ (Mt 7. 16 – 20). Moreover, ‘a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit,’ he says, ‘nor’ however ‘can a diseased tree bear good fruit’ (v 18). There seems no end to the bad fruit being born in these Churches, and precious little evidence of good fruit. I have discussed only one aspect of the disease attacking the tree of Orthodoxy, because, even though it seems unlikely to me that things will change in the bishopric, and thus in these Churches, this topic is one of the more obvious problems contributing to the bearing of bad fruit.
Let me end with a word of encouragement. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul asks ei o theos hyper ?m?n, tis kath’ ?m?n; ‘if God is for us, who can be against us?’ Moreover, he continues, in the same chapter, saying ‘Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died –more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered" (Ps 44.22). No, in all these things we are more than conquerors (hypernik?men) through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers (archai), nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us apo t?s agap?s tou theou t?s en Chist? I?sou t? kuri? ?m?n, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rm 8. 31, 33 – 39).
Michael Craig Rhodes