September 26, 2009


Tonight we are going to be talking about authority. In the introduction to this seminar, we defined authority as ‘knowing who’s in charge and what that means and how that works’, and, for Orthodox Christians, there’s simply no question about who’s in charge—that would be Christ Jesus. In fact, our Lord and Master spells that out in tonight’s first scripture passage: just before His ascension, Christ Jesus tell the apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” (St Matt 28.18). So, the head of each and every parish community is none other than Christ Jesus Himself, but we still need to consider what that means and how that works.

What that means is expressed in the next three scripture passages; each of those texts is from one of St Paul’s epistles, and, in each of them, the apostle describes the nature of our Lord and Master’s authority. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (2.5-11)

The authority of our Lord and Master is thus sourced not in power and prestige, position and privilege, but in humility and obedience and a willingness to suffer. And it’s important to notice, that this authority, this “mind”, this way of life, belongs to all of us; it is ours “in Christ Jesus”. So, when we talk about authority, we’re not just talking about something that is given to leaders and wielded by leaders; we’re talking about something that is given to the entire community and is consequently the responsibility of everyone in the community.

This perspective finds dramatic expression in the next two passages from Second Corinthians. In these texts, St Paul is defending his work as an apostle, and what he emphasizes more than anything else is his voluntary abasement and his willingness to suffer “for all the churches” (11.28):

... as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger ... (6.4-5)

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a day and a night I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.(11.24-27)

But, in these passages, St Paul is doing more than just defending his apostolic calling; he is also showing the Corinthian Christians, and each one of us, the true nature of authority; he is showing the Corinthian Christians, and each one of us, that we participate in the authority of Christ Jesus to the extent that we are willing to share in the humility and the suffering of our Lord and Master. So, when St Paul models this kind of authority, when he specifically calls on the Corinthians, and each one of us, to “be imitators of [him] as [he] is of Christ” (11.1), he is demonstrating how we should take responsibility for the authority that is ours “in Christ Jesus”; he is calling on us to embrace the humility and the suffering of our Lord and Master.

And what that meant for the Christians in Corinth is what it means for most of us; I doubt any of us will ever be shipwrecked; chances are slim that any of us will ever be beaten with rods; however, we can share in the authority of Christ Jesus through obedience. In our society, authority and obedience are usually set in opposition to each other—if you are obedient, that is typically understood to mean that you just don’t have any authority. However, that is not the “mind that is [ours] in Christ Jesus”. Christ Jesus was given all authority “in heaven and on earth” precisely because He was obedient; therefore, if we want to share His authority, then we must also learn how to be obedient. And that requires humility; that requires suffering; that requires us to lay aside our own perspectives and preferences and plans.

St Paul talks specifically about obedience in the next two scripture passages: he tells the Thessalonians to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess 5.12); he tells the readers of Hebrews to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (13.17). Now in the Church, there is no question as to who our leaders are; there is no question about who is ‘over us in the Lord’. There is a specific and detailed hierarchy of leadership that goes all the way back to the apostles, and that hierarchy begins with the bishops and includes the priests and the deacons and the lesser clerical orders. However, authority is not limited to the Church’s hierarchy of leadership. In Orthodox America, that is often the way things work, but that is clericalism; that is a tragic distortion of what we find in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Thus, authority does not belong solely to the clergy; obedience is not simply the role of the laity. Rather, Christ Jesus gives His authority to the entire Church, both clergy and laity, and we access that authority together, but only to the extent that we are willing to follow His example of humility and obedience and suffering.

But rather than opposing clericalism with an authentic understanding of how authority works in the Church, what most American Orthodox have tried to do is oppose clericalism with the values and procedures of the democratic process. But it doesn’t do any good at all to replace privilege and position and power with petitions and elections and open assemblies. We may feel that the democratic process is more equitable; we may feel more comfortable with that way of doing things; however, approaching authority as an expression of politics is only a very slight improvement over clericalism, and, furthermore, the democratic process simply has no foundation in Holy Scripture or Holy Tradition. That doesn’t make democracy somehow evil or illegitimate, but it does mean that it is not essential to the life of the Church.

Ironically, what this means on a practical level is that Orthodox Christians are often just as confused about authority as American Christians. And American Christians are, indeed, confused when it comes to this subject. Since Protestants no longer have a hierarchy of leadership that is organically linked to the apostles, most Protestant congregations and denominations work with one of two models for authority: either there is a charismatic kind of clericalism that focuses on one individual who is talented and compelling and, therefore, powerful, or, there is a quasi-corporate model with committees and boards who do their work in accordance with the guidelines contained in a foundational document such as a constitution. Roman Catholics have maintained a hierarchical leadership that can be traced back to the apostles, but that has not provided American Catholics with any more clarity when it comes to the subject of authority.

Fifty years ago, American Roman Catholicism was essentially a vast exercise in clericalism, and, while that has changed significantly, the changes have largely been in the direction of the Protestant quasi-corporate model. At several points in this seminar, we have referred to a radical element in contemporary Protestantism that is working hard to explore what community should look like in 21st century America, but when I have looked at the literature this small movement has produced, either there is no discussion of authority at all beyond a rejection of the examples that are currently available in American Christianity, or there are vague references to ‘getting together to talk about things’ along with similarly vague references to ‘the process of discernment’.

That’s the big picture when it comes to authority in American Christianity and American Orthodoxy—lots of confusion, very few answers. So what does the local Orthodox picture look like? What are individual Orthodox Christians and particular parishes doing when it comes to the issue of authority? The only evidence that I have to offer on this subject is anecdotal, but I have been listening carefully and watching intently for the past twelve years, and the unfortunate generalization that I have to make concerning parishes is that most communities simply reflect the broader tensions over hierarchy and democracy that are at work within American Orthodoxy: you’ve got a priest, and you’ve got a parish council, and either there is out-right conflict or there is an uneasy, working relationship, or the priest and the council simply ignore each other. I only know of a few communities where the priest and the parish council have a close, working relationship. As to individual Orthodox Christians, I think most receive guidance from a number of sources: friends within the parish, godparents, homilies or classes, the ‘overheard’, collective wisdom of the community, their own prayers, and direct conversations with their spiritual father. And this is how it should be. Nevertheless, I think most Orthodox Christians long for more direct guidance from the Most Holy Trinity; they want to experience the personal authority of Christ Jesus at work in their lives. And this desire often finds expression in two ways: through the search for a clairvoyant elder or eldress, and through the exploration of various procedures for what is called discernment.

The search for an elder or eldress is the more traditional route. And there are, in fact, in the Church, holy men and women who can look into the heart of another person and talk to that person about what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit want to do in his or her life. Most of these people are in monasteries, and I think that many people visit monasteries with the hope of finding one of these holy men and women. Occasionally, people will go to great lengths to meet a clairvoyant elder or eldress and will either re-locate to be close to that person or will do a lot of traveling in order to receive guidance from that person on a regular basis. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but the implication that often accompanies this sort of activity is that those people who stay in their parish communities and don’t seek out these holy men and women are not going to really be able to experience the personal authority of our Lord and Master. The suggestion is that people who stay in their parish communities simply have to make do with guidance that is second-hand or with guidance that is generally available and generally applicable to just about everyone.

However, a genuine parish community should be able to directly convey the authority of Christ Jesus in the very same way that a clairvoyant elder or eldress communicates that authority. To suggest otherwise is to deny that the Church is, in fact, the Body of our Lord and Master. Many parishes may not be living up to their potential; many parishes may be less than faithful to their calling; nevertheless, in an authentic parish community, the members should have access to the personal authority of Christ Jesus because that community is the Body of Christ; it is the living presence of the Risen Lord.

Let’s think for a moment about how that might work. We are all familiar with the stories of people who go to see a holy man or woman, and that man or woman reveals the innermost truth about that visitor. I would submit that the same thing happens on a regular basis in a healthy community. Let’s say someone shows up in a parish community where a high value is placed on direct and honest communication. However, this new person has a long history of hiding behind a carefully constructed façade, a front which gives the impression that their life is essentially problem-free. Eventually, the members of the parish will realize that this new person is not who they claim to be, and, while the parishioners will continue to be polite and caring and kind, the new person will also, sooner or later, figure out that everyone has seen through the façade, and, at that point, the new person will either quietly drop out or loudly act out, depending on their particular personality. Nevertheless, if that new person continues in the community, they will also have to change, and that change will be in response to the personal authority of Christ Jesus, as that authority is expressed in and through the parish. That process of change will, most likely, be gradual, as the new person gradually realizes that their façade is unnecessary and that communicating directly and honestly with others is not as complicated nor as frightening as they thought. There will also probably be some dramatic and even confrontational moments in that process through, say, the Mystery of Holy Confession or through some revealing and insightful interactions with friends. But the sum total of the entire process is the very same thing that our hypothetical new person would have received from a clairvoyant elder or eldress—the experience of the authority of our Lord and Master.

So how does a parish become the sort of community where that kind of encounter can take place? A parish becomes holy in the same way that a man or a woman becomes holy; a community participates in the authority of Christ Jesus in the same way that an elder or eldress participate in that authority—through humility and suffering, through obedience. Now this does not mean that parishes must become monasteries, but it does mean that clergymen and other leaders have a responsibility to model this kind of life in a ways that are very specific and very intentional, and it does mean that all parishioners are called to be humble and obedient and to embrace suffering according to their measure, as their situations and circumstances will allow. And once all that has begun, the rest just happens—the authority of our Lord and Master begins to be experienced in the community in a way that is positively organic.

But a few minutes ago, we also said that, in their desire to access the authority of Christ Jesus, some Orthodox are starting to look into the process of discernment. This process is something that Roman Catholics began developing during the Renaissance, and it is a procedure whereby individuals or entire communities can determine how the Most Holy Trinity is at work in a particular situation. In the last thirty years, this process has become popular among Protestants, and, of course, if there is something that both Protestants and Roman Catholics are using, then, sooner or later, there are some Orthodox who feel compelled to also give it a try. However, it is important to understand that discernment is, in fact, a process; there are specific steps to be followed; there are procedures to be observed, and these steps and procedures are now often combined with insights gleaned from the social sciences. But, ultimately, what makes discernment so appealing is the fact that it is a technology, a technology which, if used properly, claims to provide an individual or a community with access to the authority of our Lord and Master.

Of course, we should be as suspicious of spiritual technology as Wendell Berry is of agricultural technology. In Jayber Crow, it is, ironically, agricultural technology which ruins the local agriculture, and the character who buys whole-heartedly into this technology is, not surprisingly, Troy Chatham:

Troy would answer [his critics] by talking about man-hours, efficiency, economy of scale, and volume. He was attending meetings, listening to experts, and he had their language. (p 278)

What attracts Troy to the technology of farming is the illusion of control, and that desire for control is just an extension of his pride. All of this is in direct contrast to the approach that Athey Keith takes to his work. The Keith Farm flourished because Athey was humble enough to know his own limitations, because he was obedient to the natural cycles of the land, and because he was willing to suffer the hard, slow, relentless pace of the work:

A day, to Athey, was measured by daylight and by the endurance of living bodies; it was divided in two by dinner-time; it ended at supper time. Athey work at a gait that in his time some had found to be too swift, but which was now revealed as patient. (p 186)

Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a ‘landowner’. He was the farm’s farmer, but also it’s creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter. (p 182)

And because of Athey, because of his humble, obedient leadership, because of his willingness to suffer, the farm simply did what farms do:

Its patterns and cycles were virtually the farm’s own understanding of what it was doing, of what it could do without diminishment. This order was not unintelligent or rigid. It tightened and slackened, shifted and changed in response to the markets and the weather…Its cycles of cropping and grazing, thought and work, were articulations of its wish to cohere and to last. The farm, so to speak,desired all of its lives to flourish. (p 182)

Troy’s agricultural technology was designed to do was enhance and exploit these natural cycles and patterns, but, ultimately, technology could not control the farm’s instinctive life; it could only destroy it.

And there is a direct application here to the way a parish community should function. As the Body of Christ, each parish has access to the authority of our Lord and Master just by virtue of its very existence. And, as we have already seen, we participate in that authority by acquiring the mind that is ours in Christ Jesus, by imitating His humility and obedience, by joining Him in His suffering. But there is no need to organize or structure that participation; in fact, if we try to turn that participation into a process or a procedure then that means we are looking for control, it means we are looking to replace the authority of Christ Jesus with our own authority. So, rather than apply a technological solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, all we have to do is what genuine communities have always done--we should strive after humility and seek to be obedient and embrace the suffering that comes our way. Then our parish will just do what parishes naturally do, and we will know what Christ Jesus is doing among us and how He wants us to share in His work, and that will not require any technology. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, that knowledge will simply be part of our community’s own understanding of what it is doing.

A good example of this sort of thing is the way our parish council functions. When the members of the council find themselves at odds—either through a heated discussion or a surprisingly close vote—or when the members just can’t figure out what to do about a particular situation or problem, what the council usually does is postpone the whole matter until the next meeting. But this is done with the understanding that everyone will be praying and thinking and talking about the issue. So, in the weeks between the meetings, the members of the council attend the divine services, they keep the fasting days, they stay up with their giving, they say their prayers and read the Holy Scriptures, they make their confession, they exchange a few emails on the subject at hand, and they talk about it a couple of times during coffee hour. And the following month, when the council convenes, a solution or a strategy simply presents itself, and everyone can see that it is clearly the best approach to take. That is the natural way that we experience the authority of Christ Jesus—through the organic life of the community.

But we want that to be true for our entire community, and not just for the parish council. The council plays a key part in helping our entire community to experience the authority of our Lord and Master since the members of the council are leaders in our parish, but the particular responsibility for this work falls on the clergy: they must model a life of humility and obedience and a willingness to suffer. Practically speaking, that means they must be the first to show up for events and among the last to leave; that means they must fast more fervently and give more generously and spend more time in prayer and spiritual reading than other people in our community; that means that they should be willing to do just about anything for the sake of our parish—yard work, teaching Church School, taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, shopping for supplies. Of course, ultimately, we want everyone in our parish to do these sorts of things. However, the more our clergymen invest themselves in this way of life, the more the other members of our parish will be moved to follow their example, and the more our community will be able to naturally access the authority of Christ Jesus.

This is why our parish council does an annual priest evaluation. As far as I have been able to tell, this exercise may actually be unique to our community. The parish council has put together a job description which is a combination of material that is contained in the Priest’s Handbook that is published by our archdiocese and material that reflects the unique needs and expectations of our parish, and, every fall, they go through this job description with me. But this exercise is not designed to be some sort of check on the authority of the priest; it is designed to encourage the priest to model the kind of life which will enable our entire community to acquire the mind that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Another important thing we can do to symbolize and thus encourage all this is to begin offering the Service for the Washing of Feet on Great and Holy Thursday. This service commemorates the episode in St John’s Gospel where Christ Jesus washes the feet of the apostles; the service is done in connection with the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, but the priest carries a reminder of this with him throughout the year as part of his vestments, because the square of cloth that hangs at his side is a symbol of the towel that our Lord and Master used to wash his disciples’ feet. Restoring this important service to its proper place will renew that symbolism and help our clergy model the life to which we have all been called.

But we also need to work constantly to help the members of our community understand that the spiritual disciplines are not designed to simply enhance our own personal relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Rather, when we fast, pray, give, serve, and study, those activities also help everyone in our parish because we are creating the kind of community where each and every one of us have access to the mind which is ours in Christ Jesus; we are building the kind of parish where each and every one of us has access to the personal authority of our Lord and Master.

We’ve covered a lot of material already tonight, but there are still two passages of Holy Scripture that we haven’t considered: Romans, chapter 13, and 1 Peter 2.13-17. Both of those texts speak about how our community should interact with secular authorities, and what is most striking about those passages is that both St Paul and St Peter understand the secular authorities to also be participants in the authority of Christ Jesus: We are to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (1 Pet 2.13; Rom 13.1). Of course, the secular authorities that St Paul and St Peter are urging us to respect are those who worked for the Roman Empire, and it is that very same empire which would eventually claim the lives of both apostles—so adolescent, oppositional radicalism and uncritical, devout patriotism are both excluded. Thus, the modern, all-encompassing nation-state is not an instrument of the anti-Christ, but neither is it going to bring about the Kingdom of God. So we should always obey the law, short of sin; we should be respectful in all our dealings with the secular authorities; and, if we are somehow required to sin, then we should humbly refuse and be willing to suffer the consequences, demonstrating our obedience to the One to Whom all authority, both in heaven and on earth, has been given.

fr. aidan

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