The Episcopacy and Love of Authority
No one should take the words in this essay personally. Our words here are about a rampant sate of illness that most of us suffer from!
The love of authority is a passion, and there is none closer to man’s heart. The reason for this is that it is closest to what the serpent—Satan-- falsely promised him in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 3:5), that if he, that is man, disregarded God’s word and rejected His commandment, his eyes would open and he would become like God, knowing good and evil. For this reason, every other passion besides the love of authority in practice is born from it and leads to it!
It has been said that “the love of money is the root of all evils,” and the love of authority is behind the love of money and thus it is what gives all the evils a purpose and a definite direction on the way to sin.
The opposite of love of authority is obedience to God in the person of one who is marked with God’s will for us, in an act of complete emptying from our own personal will. It is not necessarily the holiness of the other person that shows us God’s will with certainty in the person of another. Rather, it is our complete emptying of our personal will in God’s name, through the other person.
Every person who does not obey God in the way outlined above cannot help but be governed by the love of authority, either openly or in a disguised way. In contrast to this, for every person who obeys God there is nothing easier than to obey others. Obedience to God, obedience to God alone, obedience in its deep sense, in Spirit and in truth, is behind eagerness to obey guides or authorities (Hebrews 13:17) and likewise our submission to each other (Ephesians 5:21). This is not exclusive submission and so it is not degrading. Rather, it is a submission obedient to God, in love, in others and so it is blessed! Here is hidden the ultimate power of the soul in a human, not the ultimate weakness and humiliation, as it appears to those who do not know!
Within this perspective fall the relationships between a man, wife, and children within a single household or between a worker and his supervisor or between an employee and his boss or between people, all people, in the world, regardless of the situations they are in.
Just as in the world, so too in the Church. Within the Church, all the faithful without exception are subject to this existential struggle between the love of authority and obedience to God. Within the episcopate, is seems that this matter is even more clear with regard to its position within the life of the Church. What are the signs of desire for the office of bishop within the framework of this perspective?
It has been said that “If one desires the office of bishop, then he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1)” and so the basis of this desire, scripturally and historically, is obedience to God and its basic framework is keeping the commandment. If keeping the commandment is not the basic framework and obedience to God the basis for a believer’s desire for this, then his wanting the office of bishop is not blessed and is not at all counted as a good work, but rather an act of showing off and intrusion! In this case, a man is seeking the office of bishop for himself, motivated by love of authority and he is not seeking it out of love for God. In its true meaning, the office of bishop is not in the titles, not in the consecration, not in the robes, and not even in the administrative function and social position. The office of bishop, at its base, is in service to the Lord Jesus and his Church with all one’s heart and all one’s soul and all one’s strength! This is exactly what has guided the Church, generation after generation, toward care, great care, in choosing bishops, so that the Church does not inadvertently choose for Christ’s flock a wolf instead of a shepherd, an exploiter instead of a servant, a corrupter instead of a pious teacher, and thus an agent of Satan rather than a witness for the Lord’s Christ. This is why, in his letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul followed the words above about desire for the office of bishop with words about the attributes, or rather the prerequisites, for a worthy bishop. “Blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, clear-minded, forbearing, not given to anger, not a lover of money, ordering his household well, whose children are obedient to him in all honor, not new to the faith, with a good testimony from those on the outside” (1 Timothy 3:2-7). These qualities would not be enumerated if the purpose was not to make a careful consideration of the characteristics of a candidate for the office of bishop, in order to make sure that they are found abundantly in his person. Up-close knowledge, especially with regard to his spirit, is an absolutely necessary condition for choosing a bishop. Thus it is unacceptable to be negligent in making a serious examination of a candidate for the office of bishop. Nor is it acceptable to be satisfied with generalities, passing impressions, or someone or another’s superficial testimony about him before including him in the list of eligible candidates! This is to not even speak of the influence of centers of power, from within the Holy Synod or from without, on deliberations that are not always of a churchly nature or with pure intent! Once, one of the metropolitans commented in front of me about choosing new bishops, saying, “We always come to the sessions of the Holy Synod like schoolboys who haven’t memorized their lessons like they should! Decisions are made arbitrarily and hurriedly. Elections are held and some don’t know who they are electing and what sort of person they are voting for!”
It is likewise unacceptable for a bishop to be accountable in his private affairs to God only and not to the Church of Christ, synod and laity. One who makes a review of the canons of the Church notices that the Church follows and takes an interest in minute details of the life of a bishop, so that the bishop will remain truly without blame, as the Apostle taught, and so that he will not be a cause of scandal for the faithful. An example of this is canon 25 of the Canons of the Holy Apostles: “Any bishop found to have committed fornication or a false oath or theft, let him be deposed of his office.” In canon 70 of the Council of Carthage: “Bishops, priests, and deacons must not approach their wives during their period. If they disobey this, let them be removed from their rank in the Church.” There are canons that affect bishops if they consume intoxicants, practice usury, strike someone, or take up worldly employment. Even if a bishop, a priest, or a deacon is a habitual backgammon player, he should stop this or be deposed (Canon 12 of the 7th Council…). Likewise, if he prays with heretics he should be cut off (Canon 45 of the Apostolic Canons), and likewise a priest!
Thus it is essential to be sure of the spiritual identity of a candidate for the office of bishop before anything else. Then a continued examination of the bishop is necessary after he becomes a bishop so that he will remain blameless under penalty of being deposed. Otherwise, we treat the matter in the same way that the people of this fallen world deal with it in backward countries, and the way they treat employees in public and private offices. What can result from this in the Church is dangerous, whether on the level of the health of the flock, the level of the soundness of the Orthodox faith, or on the level of the soundness of canonical practice. Neglecting to choose a bishop carefully and also examining his behavior after choosing him are both unacceptable and should be strongly protested because ignoring corruption is negligence toward Christ’s Church! Its consequences are dire, not only for the Church’s present but even for her future and her continued existence!
Here is a very painful point in the Church, the subject of bishops’ celibacy. During the past forty years I have noticed, indeed I have personally experienced, that the Apostle’s statement to Timothy about the bishop being the husband of one wife is far removed from the idea that this was the ancient practice and that with time it was replaced by a celibate episcopate. It is my conviction that this is chronologically imprecise. Bishops’ being married and likewise bishops’ being celibate were, other than in exceptional circumstances, both within the framework of piety and Orthodox faith and worship. Thus, love of God and zeal for His house were the context. Bishops’ celibacy had an evangelical, monastic, spiritual content. Celibacy in itself was never the value. For this reason the unmarried bishop was looked upon as free for divine knowledge, worship, prayer, and fasting and likewise for the service of teaching and pastoring in Christ’s sheepfold. One did not exist without the other. Being satisfied with the conditions of celibacy, performing the services well, and with a little bit of superficial personal fasting and prayer, combined with a university diploma here or there, is a disfigurement of the unmarried episcopacy! This, in the context of today, is a worldly episcopate with absolutely no connection to authentic episcopacy! Before the celibate bishop are basically two paths: either to actively strive to be filled with the fear of God and obedience to Him, and thus with His Spirit, and to undertake service for the flock entrusted to him within this personal framework, or to be a person motivated by love of authority in what he thinks and does, in his opinion, and thus the flock becomes his plantation and grist for his whims! One who does not direct his vital energies upward must live on the level of the lusts of his soul and body. This could be exemplified in secret, illicit relationships with women, in deviant relationships, in a passion for accumulating wealth, in easily slipping into selling divorces and sacraments, and in preferring the wealthy. Or the celibate could be afflicted with feelings of haughtiness and pride, have a deviant personality in one way or another, or be afflicted by mental illness! It is impossible for a celibate bishop to have chastity of heart and to be spiritually healthy outside the framework of monasticism or quasi-monasticism in the Church. Indeed, the celibate episcopate, as it is practiced today, more than not counts people obsessed with love of authority and displays of pride, expensive robes, crowns, places of honor in the Church, and that people call them “my lord, my lord!” Corrupt practice encourages corruption! Naturally, exceptions exist, but they are very rare. I was shocked when I repeatedly met people who prepared their robes for the episcopate and the priesthood in advance, sometimes at a very high price, even as I have seen in how they stand in the church, in their tone of voice, in how they treat and talk to people, their lack of suitability for the episcopacy that they think is inevitably coming to them, like actors on the stage! There are even those who think that they were born to be a bishop! I know a bishop who was made bishop as a consolation prize because he expressed before the powers that be his feelings of hurt that all his companions besides himself had become bishop, as though the Church had wronged him! Likewise, I have no doubt that if one submits to the passion of love of authority, even if he is outwardly imbued with praiseworthy qualities, the passion of love of authority will corrupt all the good within him and make his purportedly praiseworthy qualities into material for deception and play-acting. If this is the situation to which the celibate episcopacy has to a large degree led, then I do not hesitate to say that in our Church’s current climate, that if someone desires the office of bishop, seeks it, or strives for it, then his desire is suspicious and he should be completely kept away from the episcopacy. As long as this is the current climate for the episcopate, then it is a thousand times better for us to choose blameless bishops from among pious married men who are firm in the Orthodox faith, good managers of their households and capable of ministering to the faithful, than for us to choose celibate bishops who are useless, who treat divine and spiritual things lightly, and who have, sometimes secretly and sometimes openly, and sometimes barefacedly, a way of life that causes scandal to the faithful, alienates them, frustrates them, and makes them wag their tongues, causing blasphemy against God’s Church!
There is no doubt that, faced with this tragic reality, we are suffering from a situation that is not only aberrant but also an illness, a spreading epidemic because we see that there is an insensitivity and an acceptance of things as natural that are turning into corrupt thinking and practice in this matter! Do we depart from the group when the signs of the times say that there is no hope for its uprightness?! By no means! Rather, we always witness the truth to the Church and work for the truth, strive for the truth, until the truth is revived! The Church remains the Church of those who walk in the way of the truth, not of those who strangle the truth with falsehood.
The word remains so that the Lord God will open the ears of the deaf!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan- Douma
August 14, 2011