The Crisis of Consultation in the Church
Should the final word in the Church be that of the bishop of the archdiocese alone, or not? Should there be auxiliary bishops or not? Should ordinary believers participate in the ordering of affairs of the community of the Church or not? Should elders (priests) have a say in the policies of pastoral care for the faithful or not? The problem is not here or there or over there. The problem is a problem of consultation, should it exist or not? Affairs among us are in consultation or we are not within the context of the Church of Christ!
Consultation is a practice that has been known in the community since ancient times. The Latin term consilium has almost exactly the same meaning as the Arabic term shura [i.e. consultation]. If you say of a community that it is a matter of consultation among them, you mean that they do not settle on a single opinion until they have consulted each other and reached a consensus about it. Look: “in consultation together there is deliberation and consensus about an opinion” (from the Arabic dictionary Muhit al-Muhit). From another point of view, it is normal that if you say that someone consulted something else about something, you mean that he showed him a way to improve and pointed out the right thing to him. So if people practice consultation, their action indicates the conviction among them that there is a deficiency in having one sole opinion and that in consultation there is wisdom. Similar to this is the verse in the Book of Proverbs that says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that listens to counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15). This points to the understanding of the peoples that the best decisions are to be found in consultation. In this context, the definition in the dictionary Lisan al-Arab caught my attention, which is perhaps the basis for the understanding of consultation among the ancients even if it is not common today. They used to say that someone consulted the honey if they gathered it from the hives. Should we not understand consultation to be the effort to extract the honey of the opinion or position, that is the best and most excellent of it, from the wisdom of the elders?
Thus consultation is a characteristic of a group that puts a high value on wisdom and it is the device with which the wise extract the juice of permitted knowledge in order to govern the group with wisdom.
This is in general. But in Christianity, we reach, or it is assumed that we will reach, something that has no comparison to human wisdom because we “have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).
Our model in this is the gathering together of the Apostles and elders and faithful brethren over the issue of whether or not gentile converts had to adopt the Jewish custom of circumcision and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15). How did they deal with consultation among themselves? First there was “much disputing” (Acts 15:7). And a crowd was gathered there (Acts 15:12). Those who had something to say, spoke. The Apostles Peter and James also spoke. It is not said of them that they were the leaders, nor is this said of any one of the Apostles and elders. The Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:9 said of Peter (Cephas) and James as well as John that they were considered pillars. They were looked upon in the Church as pillars. And if we say that there are pillars, this means that there is a house there that we are talking about. And which house is this house? It is precisely the Church and the Apostles are the pillars of God’s wisdom within it, because it is said “through wisdom is a house built and through understanding it is established” (Proverbs 24:3). The Lord Jesus is Himself the house (the temple) and the wisdom of God! Leadership, as it exists in the world, no longer has a place in the Church of Christ because the Teacher taught thus: “the princes of the gentiles exercise dominion over them…. but it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25-26). So pillarship a gift and not a job in the way that there are jobs and leadership positions in the world. The crowd did not listen to Peter and James on account of their primacy of position, but for their primacy of wisdom that the Apostle Paul described, “it is not of the wisdom of the world or of the princes of the world, who are brought to naught” rather it is “the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory which none of the princes of the world knew” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
After they benefited from much disputing, the author of the Book of Acts says, “then the Apostles and elders, with the whole church decided…” (Acts 15:22). Here they attained a single opinion and implemented it and here also the entire Church became one voice. When Peter spoke he used the language of “I”, as did James, and when the consultation was finished the whole Church in Jerusalem said, “The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the gentiles… Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you… to whom we gave no such commandment, it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord” (Acts 15: 23-25) for us to do such-and-such. The question that now presents itself is: how did the Church in her dispute reach this level of agreement?” Was it through majority vote? Of course not, never, because they reached a consensus about what they declared. Was it through bargaining? Of course not, never! They said, “We came to be of one accord.” The Greek word that is translated as “of one accord” is ‘homothymazon’ which appears here and there in dictionaries which the meaning ‘of one heart and one mind’. So it is not a question of bargaining over opinions or a question of bargaining and then agreeing on the surface of the words in an ambiguous manner that allows each group to interpret them in whatever manner pleases them. The issue is that the spirit that the whole group accepted and in which the whole group spoke was the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. He is the one who made them one and He is the one who made their word, in the end, one word. This is clear from verse 28 of the same of the book (addressed to the gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia): “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”
Building on this, consultation in the Church is a theantrhopic framework. In it, the Spirit of the Lord is the essential party and the human contribution is only cooperation with the Holy Spirit. God wants man to become a temple for the Spirit of the Lord and thus a mouth for God, as of old Aaron was for Moses. The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the Church’s perseverance to the end. Thus the Lord says to Peter, “You are the rock and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail over her” (Matthew 16:18). The rock was Christ in whom Peter believed to the point that in faith the rock and Peter came to resemble each other. Of old, water came forth from the rock and the people drank. The living water became the Spirit of God. The people drank of it and will never thirst (John 4:14). Consultation, in the Church is the concern of the group for the brethren to examine within it the Holy Spirit within each other so that the word will not be of flesh and blood but of the Spirit of God who is pleased to reside and work in flesh and blood! This is why consultation among the faithful is the standard and the indicator that what is desired is asking the Word of God in every situation!
Within this framework, the faithful are a group infatuated with holiness and taken over by the wisdom of God in mystery. This is a statement that, for those who do not believe in spirit and in truth, is theoretical, unrealistic, impractical, while for those who have living faith it is more intuitive than the affairs of this world are intuitive for the people of this world. For this reason consultation is the endeavor for the faithful and it is only undertaken among them. Through consultation they bear fruit in the Spirit and without it they become barren. Consultation is a birth-pang so that the word of the Spirit can be born from within the group! Through it we are of the Church and without it the Church pronounces us to be outsiders even if we call ourselves by her name! In the Church we have no substitute for consultation except consultation itself, no matter how difficult “much disputations” and birth-pangs may be!
And so there is no leadership in the Church, but primacy of wisdom and holiness! Thus the ancients chose bishops and elders (priests) from among the confessors and saints. The Spirit does not speak in one who puts himself first, but rather in one who puts himself last. He does not speak in one who considers himself great, but rather in one who considers himself as a child. One who does not seek honor in humility, does not seek status by washing feet, does not seek authority through true service, who does not seek to be seen by the eye of God by retreating from the eyes of men, disturbs the Church of Christ and causes the work of the Spirit of the Lord to stumble. At that point, the Spirit speaks through those who are considered lowly to shame those who are proud in the eyes of man!
If in the Church governance of the group is not given to a single individual by virtue of position and authority, then it is also not a democracy! There is not a majority that governs and a minority that is governed. There are not leaders who govern and a people who are governed. God alone governs! God, not people, must be obeyed so that the Church is not treated like an institution of this world! Do we not say, “Arise O God and judge the earth, for you shall inherit all the nations”? Christ the Lord has inherited all things in His saints!
That there are those who go against consultation because they seek things for themselves and their passions is something that is unavoidable in the group, because the mystery of sin is also at work among faithful Christians in the Church. However, for consultation to become deficient or for it to turn into deliberations like those that the politicians of the world have, or for one in a position of authority to not want to seek out the Spirit of the Lord in the brothers, great and small, this is the big disaster! As long as the group’s general consciousness is upright, then those who stray are set aright by the canons and if they disobey they are cast out. But if the general consciousness is numbed and we fall into insensitivity and heedlessness then how will those who stray be set aright?! They govern and no one objects to them! At that point, the little flock is persecuted because it is considered aberrant, straying and it suffers. Whatever the matter may be, the Spirit of the Lord remains the master of the Church speaks through those other than those who think they are valuable (without consciousness of them) or those who are considered to be ordinary believers, when they keep the faith! Ignorant children without account then speak to those who listen! The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone! If they fall silent even the stones will cry out!
I heard an auxiliary bishop wonder, “what is a bishop?” He responded with all conviction, “He is the one to whom the metropolitan of the archdiocese says ‘stand!’ and he stands or ‘sit!’ and he sits.” I said, “What a pity. Where were we when the apostles and elders and brothers gathered at the first time, and where did we go when ordinary believers in the Church came to be lorded-over, without having a say, most of them scattered between heedlessness, confusion, and bitterness?!
Let us not kill the spirit, lest we die in our sins!!!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite, Douma
November 28, 2010