Question: As an Orthodox Christian in America we are taught to almost worship our Bishops, and they can do no wrong. We are to strictly obey them unless they ask us to break the law, or hurt someone. However, what happens when they err? What is one to do? As a struggling Orthodox Christian in America I would appreciate advice from other Orthodox Christians.
Iconodule
(this question was originally posted here)

Dear Iconodule,

Your question is such a crucial and important one that I decided to take the space and time to answer it here, as a separate article, instead of the comment section. I hope that you don’t mind. My hope is that this reply will also be of some interest to other Orthodox Christians.

So here is my reply:

For one thing, Christians only worship God, never any man or anything created. Even icons are only venerated, not worshiped! As for obedience, our obedience is ONLY to God and to His Church. But as for any obedience to a cleric it is, of course, fully conditional upon the obedience of that cleric himself to God and His Church. More about that below.

Also, let’s not conflate the office/rank (сан in Russian) and the man. Clergymen are just like everybody else, sinners who suffer from passions resulting for our fallen human nature: they can do wrong and they often do. In fact, no human is sinless and no human is infallible. The only source of infallibility is the Church because the (one and only true) Church is the Theandric Body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. But individual clergymen, and even saints, are humans, just like the rest of us, and errare humanum est, right? If anything, they deserve our gratitude and admiration for having agreed to bear the heavy cross of being clerics in our End Times. They also deserve our compassion and support when they fail to live up, in their pastoral efforts (not their faith!), to the very high standards of their office/rank.

HOWEVER,

There is one thing in which we can make no compromise whatsoever and in which every single one of us is entitled to reprimand and even censor any of our clergymen: their Orthodoxy. This is the one thing in which ALL Orthodox Christians are absolutely equals: in the preservation of the purity of the Christian faith.

In the Orthodox Church there is no such thing as a “teaching Church” vs a “taught Church” – that is a Papist concept. Please read the life of Saint Maximos the Confessor and then realize that while he was a monastic, he was not even a priest. Yet, he was willing to stand up and denounce all the Patriarchs of his time (while he was in jail he did not know for sure whether the Pope would also join the heretics or not, and his jailers lied to him about that!)

Also, check out the 15th canon of the First and Second Council: (emphasis added)

The rules laid down with reference to Presbyters and Bishops and Metropolitans are still more applicable to Patriarchs. So that in case any Presbyter or Bishop or Metropolitan dares to secede or apostatize from the communion of his own Patriarch, and fails to mention the latter’s name in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained, in the divine Mystagogy, but, before a conciliar verdict has been pronounced and has passed judgement against him, creates a schism, the holy Synod has decreed that this person shall be held an alien to every priestly function if only he be convicted of having committed this transgression of the law. Accordingly, these rules have been sealed and ordained as respecting persons who under the pretext of charges against their own presidents stand aloof, and create a schism, and disrupt the union of the Church. But as for those persons, on the other hand, who, on account of some heresy condemned by holy Synods, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it bareheaded in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a bishop before any conciliar or synodical verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not bishops, but pseudo-bishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions.”

Amazing words, no? And how far removed they are from the current “clergy worship” we see in so many modern Orthodox Churches!

[Sidebar: a personal recollection. My first spiritual father was an Archbishop of the ROCA whom I loved with all my heart. One day, I must have been 12 years old, I asked him “Vladyka, if you ever err from the truth of Orthodoxy, may I disobey you?” He looked me intensely and replied “no, Andrei, you may not, you must! That will be your duty”. I never forgot that and his words played a crucial role in my life during the 1999-2007 years…]

The sad truth is that what you (correctly) call a kind of “worship of clergy” is a typically Latin attitude which now has now infected large segments of the Orthodox world. I have seen that with my own eyes at the time of the lapse of the bishops of the ROCA who, while initially steadfastly denying that this was their intention, were planning a union with the Moscow Patriarchate. During these crucial years of lies and deception, not only did they insist that the faithful obey them, many of them even went as far as to say “shut up, pray and mind your business” (even to monastics!). The “business” in question, however, had immense ecclesiological implications and ecclesiology is one topic which NO Orthodox Christian ever can ignore. Unfortunately, by then most ROCA laity (and even clergy!) had lost the correct Orthodox ecclesiological awareness.

But how to do we know if we are dealing with true bishops or pseudo-bishops? Well, that question is the main reason why we cannot afford to just be a passive flock of obedient sheep and why it is our individual duty to educate ourselves in dogmatic and other theological issues!

The truth is that every single Orthodox Christian should be a “guardian of the faith”, not just clerics or bishops, and that even a young housewife has the right (and even the moral obligation!) to admonish any clergyman, even a Patriarch, if he strays away from the faith which “which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers”.

However, and this is no less important, the Orthodox Church never engaged in the “solo scriptura” nonsense and the Church is not some kind of “Eastern Rite” Protestant denomination, that is to say that the criterion of truth is not “whatever I happen to think about this after reading the Scripture” but the consensus of the Fathers: that upon which all the Church Fathers agreed upon and which is part of the corpus of patristic teachings of the Church. Thus, before accusing a bishop of apostasy, you really better make sure you know what you are talking about and that your case is rock solid (there are canonical punishments for making false accusations). For example, a bishop expressing a personal opinion to some friends or guests is not publicly teaching heresy from the ambon bareheaded. Likewise, a bishop who happens to have a bad temper and who is greedy and arrogant might be committing a personal sin, but he is not thereby lapsing from his faith.

These are complex and nuanced issues which require not only a specific degree of education (whether formal or not) but also a lot of wisdom, prayer and ascetic practice. Remember that in Orthodoxy a theologian is not somebody who has a PhD in “Divinity” (love that term!) but a person illuminated by personal experience and with a pure heart (“for they shall see God”). The Church is a mystical Body, not a scholastic community…

But with all these important caveats, yes, Orthodox Christians have never delegated their personal responsibility for the defense of the the traditions “which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” to any kind of “Holy Inquisition” or any “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. Every time a heresy or schism threatened the Church, even solitary desert monastics left their caves and walked to the cities to denounce it.

By the way, any bishop who tells you that you ought to strictly obey him “unless they ask us to break the law, or hurt someone” is teaching you an ecclesiological heresy and, if he does that from the ambon, you have the right and, I would argue, the duty, to first admonish him, they appeal to the council of bishops and, if they fail to act, to withdraw from communion from him and those who refuse to censor him. In fact, the 15th canon of the First and Second Council even allows you to temporary sever communion with that bishop until the council of bishops takes a decision on his actions (in practical terms, however, and with our 21st century telecommunication technologies, I would recommend that you simply discuss that with your confessor or call/email a bishop whose Orthodoxy you trust and ask him for advice).

An Orthodox Christian worships only God and only obeys those who, themselves, remain obedient to Him. There is no such thing as “Christian obedience” which is not obedience to God. Western clericalism is something completely foreign to the Orthodox mindset, lofty honorific titles notwithstanding.

Remember the words of the Gospel “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you”. Each and every one of us is called to be “friend of God” (think what an amazing statement that is!) because God has made His Will known to us. Thus we freely chose to place ourselves in obedience to Him, but that implies two things: first, that we make the effort to study and understand His Will and, second, that we only obey Him, including through those whom He has appointed to look over us, but only as long as they themselves remain in obedience to Him!

[Sidebar: it always makes me smile when I hear Orthodox men reminding their wives that the Scripture says “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (which it indeed does, in Eph 5:22-24) but then they seem to forget that the very next few verses (25-28) also say “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself”. I dare say that while the bar is set very high for women, it is set even much higher for men: loving like Christ loved the church is, quite literally, infinite and perfect love! How many husbands do live up to that ideal?

How can the obedience of the wife be looked at without consideration for the duty of perfect love which placed upon husbands?! The exact same thing goes for any other Christian hierarchy, from the one children owe their parents to the one the priest owes to the bishop to, of course, the one the bishop owes to God and His Church. This is why I say that all truly Christian obedience is to God and only to Him]

Another important thing which I highly recommend to you is to immerse yourself in the following

  • The writings of the Church Fathers (absolutely crucial!!!)
  • The Lives of the Saints (including the liturgical canons associated with their feast days!)
  • Books on the history of the Churches (except those written by modern historians and “theologians” which, with a few notable exceptions, are typically worthless since their authors are much more concerned with making a name for themselves in western academia rather than with conveying through their books the true Orthodox mindset or “spirit of the Fathers” (phronema ton pateron) or, for that matter, the “consensus of the Fathers” which expresses the “general conscience of the Church” (he genike syneidesis tes ekklesias). Stay away from those “brilliant” “theologians”!)

If you read immerse yourself into that spiritual world you will come to realize that there is really nothing new under the sun and that the kind of crises we see today happened in the past. If your read the Church Fathers, the Lives of the Saint and study Church history, you will see numerous examples of how Orthodox Christians have struggled with the issue of obedience and hierarchy and what the right, and wrong, have been. You will also see a long, very long, list of pseudo-bishops, of clerics who “lapsed” (a very important ecclesiological concept) because they were lured away from the Golgotha (think about what it really means to make the sign of the Cross!) by worldly temptations and riches. But, eventually, the Church prevailed against the theomachs every time.

Today much of what he see under the label “Orthodoxy” is little more than some “eastern rite” version of both the Papacy and the Protestant world. But if you immerse yourself in the study of the Church you will discover a completely different spiritual universe, a different spiritual reality, in which there is no need to reinvent the wheel every day and in which all the questions you have today have been answered many centuries ago! Just the life of Saint Maximos the Confessor (to which I linked to above) contains an immense wealth of theological lessons on how to deal with heresy, schisms, obedience, authority and even vicious persecution by civil authorities.

It is not easy to find good sources on Christian ecclesiology online, especially in English, but here is what I found: (in no special order)

The above is a mix of very different authors and texts, but between them, you have a good primer for the study of Christian ecclesiology (along with a few names of good modern theologians).

In conclusion I would remind you that unlike the poor Latins, we don’t have to conflate the Church of Christ with any one individual. The very notion of “Sedevacantism” is, thank God, both absurd and irrelevant to us: we can freely chose whom we recognize as an true Orthodox Bishop according to our conscience and that choice is entirely unaffected by political, geographical or administrative considerations. Likewise, the “argument of numbers” is equally irrelevant to us: we don’t care, in the least, how many people recognize Church X or Patiarch Y as “canonical” or how many parishes any bishop or Church has. Again, the example of Saint Maximos the Confessor is the best illustration of that when he replied to his jailers (who told him that even the legates of Rome will partake of the Mysteries with the heretical Patriarch) “The whole world may enter into communion with the Patriarch, but I will not. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit anathematizes even angels who preach a new Gospel, that is, introduce novel teaching“. Contrast Saint Maximos’ willingness to disregard the possibility that the whole world would recognize the heretical patriarch with the modern “bean count” of parishes or Church members as some kind of proof of legitimacy! Finally, we know from our eschatology that in the End Times almost everybody will lapse and bow to the Antichrist, don’t we?! And yet, so many of us use the argument of numbers” to “prove” the “canonicity” of this or that person or ecclesiastical entity. How sad and yet how telling…

It is paradoxical that in our age of “enlightenment”, “democracy” and “freedom” so many of our punitively most “liberal” and “tolerant” bishops would demand of us a blind and mindless obedience, and not to God, but to them personally. Truly these bishops are the “stars from heaven which fell unto the earth” described by Saint John the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist in his book of Revelation. I can tell you from personal experience that your bishop is not the exception, he is the rule – at least in our modern world. This is why I think that the single most important question each Orthodox Christian should ask himself is this: “which bishop today has remained truly Orthodox?” We know from the Scripture that the Church is the “the pillar and foundation of truth” and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. This means that there will always be at least one true bishop somewhere until the Second Coming. But we were never told that there would be many true bishops left. Christ told us “Fear not, little flock” and promised that He would send us the “the Spirit of truth” who will “guide you into all truth” and that those who really seek the truth (“do hunger and thirst after righteousness”) will find it (“shall be filled”) and that this truth shall “make us free”. This is just about the furthest thing from any kind of blind, mindless obedience I can imagine.

Kind regards,

The Saker

PS: I would be most grateful if those who simply want to express the usual hostility to religion, Christianity and Orthodoxy refrained from doing so here.  Likewise, please spare us the usual clichés à la “Christ never wanted a Church”, “Paul created Christianity” or “religions are the cause of all evils and wars”, okay?  I assure you that we *all* have heard them many times in the past, and I promise you that we really don’t need to hear them once more.  Ditto for the usual ad hominems, which I have also heard enough to know them by heart.  Iconodule specifically wrote that he would “would appreciate advice from other Orthodox Christians and if you have such advice to offer, please feel free.  But please spare us all (including the poor moderators!) the obligatory tsunami of inanities.

The Essential Saker II: Civilizational Choices and Geopolitics / The Russian challenge to the hegemony of the AngloZionist Empire
The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world