Monday, August 19, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on Church Authority

Arabic original here.

The Church and Church Authority

Church history shows us that the leaders of the Church-- patriarchs and bishops throughout the inhabited world-- have on many occasions unanimously agreed on a single opinion that later proved to be incorrect. This erroneous consensus would only be corrected after years of theological debates and conflicts, which at times led to bloodshed. The consensus of the Church is not in itself the gauge for distinguishing truth from error, but rather the Church's acceptance-- by both the leadership and the laity-- of this consensus over the course of history is the sole gauge for truth.

Consensus alone is not enough to be considered infallible, but rather this consensus must agree with correct doctrine in order to be considered acceptable in the Church. Thus the Church has abrogated decisions made by certain councils that in their own time were called "ecumenical" or "universal" in which the majority of the world's bishops participated. After these councils had considered themselves ecumenical, the Church subsequently considered them to be "robbers' councils" whose teachings contradicted the true teachings of the Church.

In the seventh century, the churches in the East and the West agreed to adopt the doctrine of "one divine will in Christ." However, a monk named Maximos (d. 662) opposed it, saying that this doctrine contradicts correct belief. Peter, the Patriarch of Constantinople, summoned him and asked him, "To which church do you belong? To Constantinope, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, or Jerusalem? All these churches are united, so if you belong to the Catholic Church, you must adhere to our belief, so as not to be in heresy."

Maximos responded, "God, the Creator of Being, has shown that the Catholic Church is the one that correctly bears witness to Him." Then Peter excommunicated him and banished him from the Church if he did not support the consensus. Maximos responded firmly and confidently, "That which God determined from eternity is summarized by what I am saying." In other words, Saint Maximos declared that he and he alone was the Church in the face of an erroneous consensus.

The emperor Constans II ordered Maximos' tongue and right hand to be cut off and then banished him to the Caucasus, where he died. Thus the Church has given him the title "the Confessor" on account of the persecutions and torments that did not cause him to retreat from his position, but rather rooted him all the more firmly in it. Maximos was reconsidered when the Sixth Ecumenical Council was held in 681, nineteen years after his death, and declared the error of the previous consensus and the truth of Maximos' belief.

If those in charge of the churches sometimes make mistakes about essential matters and in defining doctrine, such as the error that Maximos opposed, then doubtless they may err in less important matters that do not touch upon the essence of Christian faith or fundamental doctrines. In this case, some of them should not slip into accusing others of unbelief or of departing from the faith and some should not slip into accusing others of fundamentalism and practicing takfir...

Outside the framework of settled doctrine and that which pertains to correct belief, Church authority cannot exercise its authority, especially in a matter that pertains to those who do not belong to the Church. When we say "Church authority", we mean to distinguish it from "the Church", the People of God. Church authority is within the Church, not above the Church, and so God is not the prisoner of Church institutions and their authority. He is free in relation to them and-- praise God!-- He is not bound by their decisions and commands. Indeed, God is greater.

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