The Error of Blind Obedience to Bishops – According to the Saints of the Orthodox Church

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Reflections

From the Apostle Paul to the Cappadocian fathers, and from Saint Athanasios to Photios the Great, when all our Holy Church Fathers speak of improper obedience, they urge the faithful to defy and disobey those ‘ecclesiastical shepherds’ who are wrong and heretical.

This issue is very timely because we live in a particularly dangerous time, a time of great dogmatic and spiritual confusion, a time when some church hierarchs are increasingly compelling the faithful to obey their demands to deviate from the teachings of our Holy Church by adopting various profane aberrations and blasphemous innovations.

(And here I include all that we have endured these last few months, the arbitrary church lockdowns and sterilizations, worshipping with masks, prohibiting the veneration of Holy Icons, packaged church bread, and the heightened fear of illness and death, even at the Holy Chalice). From this point onwards, we shall bear witness to newer, modern saints, who urge the faithful to disobey heresy and erring bishops when there are good reasons to do so.

Let us begin with Saint Nicodemus of Mount Athos, who was perfectly aligned with St. John Chrysostom’s writings several centuries ago when he wrote, “If your elder is mistaken in the affairs of the state and its institutions, do not be curious. If, however, he is wrong in matters of the Faith, leave and abandon him, be he a man or even an angel from heaven.”

St. John Maximovitch

Recall also the impressive foresight of the famous Russian Saint John Maximovich (1897 – 1966), Bishop of Shanghai and San Francisco. The Saint’s foresight is an explicit exhortation against blind obedience and all types of delusional fantasies. In his words:

In the last days, evil and heresy will have spread so widely that the faithful will not be able to find a priest or shepherd to protect them from delusion and guide them to salvation. At that time, the faithful will not receive safe guidance from men; but their guide will be the writings of the Holy Fathers. Especially at this time, every believer will be responsible for the whole fulness of the Church. Brethren, it is time for us all to undertake our responsibility to God and to history. Do not tolerate any more foolishness or misguidance from priests or archpriests. Do not turn a blind eye for you will be co- responsible. The Saints are forewarning you.”

Another great contemporary ecclesiastical figure who cautions us is the late Metropolitan (and great Orthodox protagonist) Augustine Kantiotis. This man was deeply respected by great modern-day saints, such as St. George Karslidis, who referred to him as a “Confessor of Christ,” and St. Paisios, who amidst other eulogies, even named him “the new Chrysostom of the Church.” Hear, then, what this great modern hierarch had to say regarding the holy writings on the subject of obedience:

“The bishop must obey the Gospel. This is why when the Bishop is ordained, he is ordained under the Gospel. As the Fathers say, this means that the people shall obey the Bishop on one condition –  that the Bishop obey the Gospel. But when the Bishop does not obey the Gospel and does not do according to the Holy Canons, then the clergy and the people are not obliged to obey the Bishop. In the event of a dilemma because of a contradiction between the Gospel and the bishop’s teaching, ‘we must obey God rather than human beings!’ (Acts 5:29) And then heroic clergymen and monks, even ordinary lay people – in cases where the bishops are silent and the pulpits are silent – then every clergyman and lay person has the right and the obligation to say those things which the Bishops dare not say either because of cowardice, or a worldly spirit, or misapprehension. Whenever the pulpits were silent, simple and humble monks and people, men and women, supported Orthodoxy. Let us not forget that Romania was liberated from Ceausescu with the help of an obscure cleric who lit the fuse of freedom and destroyed Ceausescu’s dictatorship and tyrannical regime. Therefore, each clergyman is not a slave of his hierarch, but is only obligated to obey his Bishop when that Bishop is a contender in the holy struggle.

 As mentioned earlier, St. Paisius also advised us what to do when our faith is threatened and persecuted or the Divine is blasphemed; because if we do not speak, we too bear responsibility. Saint Paisios said:

“During these difficult times, each of us must do whatever is humanly possible, and what is not humanly possible should be left to God. In this way, our conscience will be at peace, knowing that we did whatever we could do. If we do not react, our ancestors will rise from the graves. They suffered so much for our homeland, but what are we doing for our country? It is unacceptable for Greece and Orthodoxy, with her traditions, her Saints and heroes, to be fought and persecuted by the Greeks themselves while we do not even speak! This is terrible! I asked someone, ‘why do you not speak? How can so and so do this?’ He replied, ‘what can I say? He is complete filth.’ Well, if he is filthy, why does no one say anything? He should be held accountable! No, they leave him be. Just say, ‘I don’t agree with this. Do things honourably. Do you want to serve only yourself and ruin everything else?’ If Christians do not react or confess their faith, the perpetrators will do worse things; but if we react, the perpetrators will pause to reflect. Unfortunately, today’s Christians are not fighters. The early Christians were strong; they changed the world. In the Byzantine era, when an icon was removed from a church, people reacted. Christ was crucified that we may rise again, and we are indifferent! If the Church does not speak so as not to break with the state, if the Archbishops or Metropolitans do not speak so as to get on well with everyone because they need their help with their institutions, if the Athonite monks do not speak so that their allowances are not cut off, then who will speak?”

So far, we have discussed the folly of unconditional obedience; but there is also another circulating fallacy – that it is sacrilege to criticize the errors and falsehoods of the clergy – something which the Holy Church Fathers also reject. Let us conclude with a few words about another irrational idea – the criticism from Ecumenists towards those who oppose it, that those who resist Ecumenism are creating a schism in the Church. 

Can anyone seriously dare to assert that a schism (even if we do eventually come to this) is being caused by those who strictly adhere to the Orthodox Tradition and the Holy Canons, and not by those who accompany and co-pray with Cardinals, Protestants, imams, gurus, and so on; or those who serve the Divine Liturgy together with excommunicated and schismatic persons; or who give in to heresies and embrace all manner of un-Orthodox falsehoods and innovative blasphemies?

It makes no difference if such erring individuals comprise the majority of Bishops. Who said that truth and Divine Grace have to exist in the majority? Are the false synods in Ecclesiastical History not well known, or what the majority thought at that time? Or has no one noticed that we are living during unprecedented end times, for which it was written that the even the Elect may be deceived? (Matthew 24:24) To put it simply, who is responsible for an upheaval due to shocking or unprecedented events? Is it the one who opposes the scandal, or the one who creates and insists upon the scandal? Criticizing those who oppose Ecumenism as being the schismatic ones, is the most absurd “logic” for it cannot withstand any reasonable criticism.

St, Mark Ephesus

Similar absurd “logic” is the recent and widely known advice attributed to a Cypriot Metropolitan that it is better to fall into heresy with the church than to be righteous outside of it. Let us be clear that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, cannot err. Errors and heresies are committed by people who then end up aloneoutside the church, even if they are patriarchs, bishops or the vast majority of the clergy. The issue here – and it is worth repeating – is not quantitative.

The issue is spiritual truth, which can sometimes be expressed by people counted on the fingers of one hand. Let us recall that for decades during the history of the Church, almost all the bishops of the Byzantine Empire had succumbed to the heresy of Monotheletism, but the church was not composed of these; she consisted of St. Maximus the Confessor (and a few others). At the time of the pseudo-synod of Ferrara-Florence, the Church once again consisted of one cleric, St. Mark Evgenikos, who alone resisted the decision of the false council, together with the laity. St. John Chrysostom explicitly states that if only three people keep the right faith intact, these alone will comprise the Church of Christ (Patrologia Graeca 55,158 & 160, 203). 

Finally, let us also consider the well-known words of the late great Elder Ephraim of Arizona, that in the difficult years ahead, for some time only a few simple priests will keep and preserve Orthodoxy, while the “great ones”, the church officials, will follow the devil. In such cases, who then comprises or will comprise the Church of Christ? Who, then, constituted or will constitute in all these cases the Church of Christ? Is the answer not obvious?

In closing I need to clarify that I tried to outline with the most simplest explanation the viewpoint of the modern stance of those actors who embrace the so called “new patristics”, and how they are ridiculed by the writings of our Saints, in matters such as what is true obedience, the criticizing of the hierarchs, and what is the right way of the clergy and laity to react against the nuances of misguided Bishops. My aim was to simply provide some light to the way that modern Bishops think and act in this turbulent epoch, so while they pretend to talk about Christ and Orthodoxy, in fact it brings to our mind the warning of Saint Paul “I know that after my departure, fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” (Acts 20:29-31)

A reaction against the wrong path and unorthodox teachings is an essential duty of every Christian. And our defiance against the nuances is an obvious duty, not only as the Holy Canons allow but rather impose, along with the Holy Fathers of our Church.

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