O Lord, who wills that which is good, and are the director of the will, let me not follow the inclinations of my heart, but lead me to live always according to Your good will. Have mercy upon Your Creatures and upon me, a great sinner.
With Faith I Confess – St. Nerses the Grace-filled – 2nd Stanza
The church, and with her the bishops and priests, has authority. It has the authority to speak on behalf of God, to bind and loose sins, to carefully distribute the sacraments to those she deems worthy of reception, to teach and determine the course of her future, and to decipher the Word of God while rejecting as anathema any teaching not approved, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. The church is not a fractured and fragmented collection of diverse denominations. The true church is ONE, HOLY, APOSTOLIC and UNIVERSAL (catholicou-coming from whole or universal). She lives by the Word of God and is guided by her Holy Tradition which is the evidence of the ever reforming and life-giving Holy Spirit, the fountain of life and well-spring of truth. Her authority is vouchsafed by her teachings because they are true and planted firmly on Jesus’ own unfailing word. It is not a mere collection of words but is founded on THE WORD, not a book, but a Person-Jesus.
While there may be some slight doctrinal issues and variations of liturgical style, among her many parts, her foundation is perfect and is only in need of humble reconciliation through adjustment of an imperfection in the human ability to articulate eternal truths. In humility and love, the church can and will overcome those differences. Among the broader denominational churches which are loosely associated, there are much greater differences some of which are so divisive that any conciliation or possibility of Communion cannot happen without, repentance, and submission to the “church of the bishops”. Her authority and therefore that of the Apostles successors, the bishops, comes from Christ.
This type of authority is not simply a right to enact the powers of the church but more plainly because she and with her, we, believe them to be so. If one rejects any of the teachings of the One Holy Apostolic Catholic Church, he may as well reject the whole thing, with Christ included. This is what happened at the Reformation when with the desire of some fine-tuning and tinkering, others came along and quite literally turned the dogmatic and doctrinal foundations of the church upside down, throwing the “`baby’ out with the bathwater”. Such examples are a rejection of the redemptive and divinizing effects of Holy Baptism, the renewal of the old man and an actual rebirth, a work not of man or his “decision” but a true redemptive work of God. Another example is the Reformation rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, seeing it only as a sign and thus as a type of memorial of the Last Supper rather than as an actual transposition of the elements of bread and wine into the very living and life-giving Body and Blood of Christ through which we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. For this reason, the church has always practiced a “closed” Communion where only believing orthodox Christians, obedient to the Christ-given teaching, are eligible for reception of it. There are many more examples, too many to mention, where man’s disobedience to Christ and his church has led to division and denominationalism and fatal errors leading to great heresies and impious doctrines which the church cannot tolerate.
The ultimate source of authority is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The will of God is communicated to us authoritatively by the Word Incarnate-our Lord Jesus. Questioning him and his authority is a rejection of God. Jesus, who is true God, when questioned about his authority responded by asking a question which he knew would entrap the scribes and elders and separate the wheat from the chaff, the pious believer from the unbeliever. The scribes, damned if they do and damned if the don’t, don’t answer Jesus as to by what authority John baptized, but unwittingly intensified the power of Jesus’s authority by being foiled, rendered powerless before Jesus’ majesty. We must be so careful to remain firm in our obedience to the Apostolic Orthodox faith and not be led astray by the wisdom of this world and those who speak against or apart from the One Holy Church, because “He who speaks on his own accord seeks glory and honor for himself. But He who seeks the glory and the honor of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness or deception in Him,” (John 7:18) and as the sheep of his flock, hear only his voice. (John 10:27)
“When we speak of an official as having authority, we mean that he holds a warrant or commission issued by some higher power. When we speak of a writer or teacher as having authority, or as being “an authority,” we mean that he has knowledge, or powers of judgment, superior to our own.” Jesus’ authority likewise demonstrates his knowledge, the power of judgment, and superiority being not only God’s Son himself but having been sent by his Father to establish his kingdom among men. After all, Jesus said to his enemies, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” (John 8:42)
This authority to speak on Jesus’ behalf is given to the Apostles and, through succession, to the bishops of the Church as Jesus at his Ascension spoke his parting words, saying “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) This authority is likewise vouchsafed through the perseverance and unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit. Humans may err but the One Holy Apostolic Church is unerring because it has the seal and guiding presence of God the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 14:26). . Speaking to the church in Ephesus, Paul says “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13) The Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father, in the name of and promised to the Church, by Jesus, guides and directs the church universally. He teaches and confirms the truth in the Word of God and “remind(s) you (the Church) of everything I (Jesus) have said to you. (John 14:26) Among the twelve apostles, Peter confessing in the Holy Spirit and on the Church’s behalf said: “to whom shall we turn for you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) In him, there is no falsehood. He is the truth and the life, as he said, “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.” (John 7:18)
Of course, the church today and at all times is and has been rife with accusations of extraordinarily damaging claims against her, immorality, injustice, fraud, impiety, heresy, incompetence and so on. It is true that people, whether they are bishops, priests or choir boys, are sinful and broken human beings bearing on them the character of sinful Adam, but the Church is and always remains One, Holy, Apostolic and Universal and perfect. She is the Body and Bride of Christ and the “Gates of hell will not prevail against her.” (Matthew 16:17-19)
The early church left us a very thorough treatment of what ecclesiastical authority means and how the children of the church ought to be obedient to the apostolic authority handed down to the bishops. Let us look at the words of two great very early church father, Sts. Ignatius of Antioch (The Fire-bearer [35-105AD]) and Irenaeus of Lyons [130-202AD].
“Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and soul, in faith and love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery (priests); and with the deacons, men of God. Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles were subject to Christ and to the Father, so that there may be unity in both body and spirit” (St. Ignatius – Epistle to the Magnesians 13:1-2 [A.D. 110]). And again, St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes, “It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion” (St. Ignatius – Against Heresies 4:26 [A.D. 180])
Today, the cultural evolution of the West is becoming increasingly individualistic. This is a great concern, especially in the spiritual realm. People are losing the sense of social responsibility within the context of community and there is a great lack of respect among peers, and even among people against in authority over civil matters much less a despisal of the divine. Our interactions and social intercourse are becoming more rude, harsh and usually moved by a sense of self-importance and self-righteousness. Courtesy and humility, two great virtues of Christians have been replaced by pride and vanity. Following the news, one cannot help but be thoroughly disgusted by the headline events of the day. Americans are divided, the church is divided. As I said last week, these are frightening signs of the encroachment and growing stronghold of the antichrist.
We Orthodox Christians, especially those of us of an Armenian cultural heritage ought to be mortified by this behavior infecting even our own families and children. We ought to be of all people more genuinely and authentically Christian having been born of a culture so deeply immersed in the Love and Presence of Christ, both in our outstanding achievements and contributions to Christian history but also in our deepest tragedies, where our suffering has given form to our redemption being martyred and crowned by God. How many nations can say that a majority of their ancestors are saints in heaven? This is no boast nor should it be seen as a reason to be filled with pride, but to drive us in humility to a deeper love of God and a more intense love for his kindness and the truth of his promises. Christians aftercall are called to follow him, by taking up their cross. The cross we take up is not our own but his. He is the victorious one and in him is no falsehood. Our obedience is not so much commanded as offered by a thankful and redeemed humanity. Like Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” John 6:68.
Today in the face of the pride we live in the culture of “we want what we want.” The other day a family in St. Louis, Missouri sued Ladue school because their son was cut from the soccer team. This may not seem so newsworthy but, most of us grew up in a culture that was competitive. We didn’t get “participation” trophies. One time, getting cut from a AAA hockey tryout, I asked the coach why I didn’t make the team hoping to find what areas I might refine for the following year’s tryout and he replied, “Souin, you’re big, but you can’t skate, stick handle, hit, pass, or shoot”. He didn’t give me a “Thanks for Participating Trophy.” He gave me the motivation to work and train harder. I never made the Triple-A after that but I sure improved my game and wasn’t going to ever question the coach much less sue him.
Last Sunday visiting the Coptic Orthodox Church for their annual festival, I was so impressed by the t-shirts that all workers were wearing. It had the logo of the church on the front over the heart and on the back a very simple word written in bold print. SERVANT! These folks get what it means to be Christian. We are called to serve, we are called to ask what we can give, what we can do, not what we can get “if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus.” Ephesians 4:21 But, to hear him, and the church is teaching us and we can be his servant people acting in humble obedience to him.
As Christians, loving our Lord, trusting in him, we pay our greatest tribute by being obedient to him and living by his unfailing words which are eternal life. Questioning him or thinking we have a better way or an alternative to gain eternal life, practicing what the devil fools us into thinking is an appropriate spirituality, makes us unworthy for fellowship in the Holy Church. What pride does it show if we assume to have a better way than the way prescribed by our church? What sort of conclusion would that be? Humility is the virtue that the Holy Spirit will deliver. Our contrite heart seeking the Lord’s forgiveness for our sins is the means to fellowship. Like the publican, on our bended knee we prostrate our broken bodies and offer our souls to God and beg him to “have mercy” (Luke 18:13), Amen”
Let us pray, Dear Lord, help us to be more humble and to seek your mercy. Teach us and open our hearts and minds to hear your eternal truths, to be taught and nourished by your word, through your holy church and her clergy. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and enable us to remain firm in the solid rock of our faith as once and for all delivered to your saints and vouchsafed by the Holy Tradition of our fathers. Sanctify our minds and soften our hearts and allow us to always glorify you in all that we think, say, and do and to glorify you together with your Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages, Amen