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Is It Ever OK to Disobey the Government or Disregard the Bishop?

Obedience to the government is important, but obedience to Christ comes first. Obedience to the patriarch, to the bishop, and to the priest, is important, but obedience to Christ comes first.  

Our first allegiance is not to any bishop, or patriarch, or government. Our first allegiance is to Christ, and to Christ alone . . .

Those of you that are parents: do you only have to tell your children things one time, and then they remember it, and they obey for the rest of their lives? Or do you have to repeat yourself often? 

Of course, you have to repeat yourself. We're parents. That's what we do. "Wash your face, make your bed, brush your teeth, finish your vegetables, finish your homework." We have to say these things many times. Saying it once isn't enough.

And we can think back to our own childhood. It was the same way. How many times did your mom have to tell you these things? How many times did your Dad or your Grandma have to tell you these things? 

Unfortunately, we adults are like this too, with our Heavenly Father. It would be great if God could just tell us something one time, and we would get it, and we would obey for the rest of our lives. But all too often, we are like stubborn children. We have to be told again, and again, and again, before we finally get it. 

And so, because He is a good parent, God repeats Himself over, and over, and over. And often, He does this through the Church. Just a few weeks ago we commemorated the First Ecumenical Council, which took place in Nicaea, in the year 325, when they started writing the Nicene Creed. Also recently, we commemorated the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which of course includes the first one. 

Once again, today, the Church is repeating itself. Today, we commemorate the first Six Ecumenical Councils. And because God repeats Himself, and the Church repeats itself, that means — as a priest — I get to repeat myself as well. 

Why do parents repeat themselves? They do it because it's important, because they're teaching something that is important for the children to learn. Why does God repeat Himself? Why does the Church repeat itself? Because these things are very important. We need to hear them again, and again, and again, until we realize that this is important! 

The Church celebrates the First Ecumenical Council. The Church celebrates the Seven Ecumenical Councils. And today, the Church commemorates the first Six Ecumenical Councils. Why? Because the Ecumenical Councils are important to us, today. As Orthodox Christians, we need to know what the Ecumenical Councils teach, we need to know when they occurred, and we need to know how they apply to our lives today. 

Now, since today commemorates the first Six Ecumenical Councils, we could talk about any of them, or all of them. Today, I'm going to focus on numbers five and six. And we can learn some really interesting things from these two ecumenical councils. 

The Fifth Ecumenical Council took place in the year 553, in Constantinople, under the Emperor Justinian the Great. Now, he's one of my favorite Orthodox saints. He was amazing! He was the emperor, he was a theologian (at home, I actually have one of his books on Orthodox theology), he revamped the entire legal code - the laws of the empire, and he also called the Fifth Ecumenical Council. So St. Justinian is one of my heroes. He's somebody that I honor and respect very much. And he was trying to fix something that needed to be fixed in the Church and in the empire.  

102 years earlier, the Fourth Ecumenical Council had taken place. It was a great council that did some very important things. But it left some things undone. There were some particular writings called the "Three Chapters", which contained heresy. The Fourth Council had successfully condemned the Monophysites (including Coptics, Armenians, Ethiopians, and anyone who denies that Christ is in two natures), but these particular writings, the Three Chapters, these had not yet been condemned. And St. Justinian realized that it was very important to officially condemn these heretical writings. 

So he called the Fifth council. And most of the bishops agreed, most of the patriarchs agreed, "Yes, we need to condemn the Three Chapters." But the Pope of Rome disagreed. Pope Vigilius was stubborn, and he refused to condemn these heretical writings. 

Of course, this caused a problem. How should they handle it? Now, today, the Roman Catholic Church believes that everyone should submit to the Pope — that every bishop in the world must obey the Pope of Rome. But this is not what the Church taught in the sixth century. This is not what the Orthodox Church teaches. And so, when Pope Vigilius refused to condemn these heretical writings, the other patriarchs did what good Orthodox bishops do. They excommunicated Pope Vigilius. They struck him from the diptychs. They were saying, "We are not going to commemorate your name in prayer at the Divine Liturgy anymore." 

And this put pressure on Pope Vigilius. He either had to stubbornly dig in his heels, and say, "All of you must obey me." Or he had to just accept there being this schism which he had created. Or he had to humble himself, repent of his sin, agree to condemn these heretical writings, and come back into unity with the Orthodox Church. In this case, thank God, the Pope chose to humble himself. He finally decided not to be stubborn any longer. He agreed to condemn these heretical writings. He entered back into communion with the other patriarchs. And the other Patriarchs again began commemorating the name of Pope Vigilius, because he had returned to Orthodoxy.
  
So the Fifth Ecumenical Council sets an excellent example of how even bishops, even patriarchs, need to be held accountable. And those bishops and patriarchs who are Orthodox, those who are being faithful to the teachings of the Church, they are the ones who need to be strong and be willing to strike heretical patriarchs and heretical bishops from the diptychs.  

But a hundred years later, things changed considerably. In the seventh century, it was the Eastern patriarchs who embraced heresy. At that time, the popular heresy was Monothelitism — the idea that Christ has only one will, not two. They were agreeing with the Orthodox that Christ has two natures. He has a divine nature and a human nature. But they were disagreeing with the Orthodox faith by saying that Christ only has a divine will, and that He does not have a human will at all. 

Well, the emperor accepted the heresy, and the Patriarch of Constantinople accepted the heresy, and many bishops and priests in the East accepted this heresy. The only one who was willing to stand up for the truth was not even a bishop — he was just a priest. His name was Fr. Maximus. And today, we know him as St. Maximus the Confessor. 

And even though he was just a humble priest, he refused to obey the bishop, he refused to obey the patriarch, he refused to obey the emperor. He said that to believe Christ only has one nature, would be to say that He has a divine nature, but no human nature. And if He has no human nature, then He is not fully human. And if He is not fully human, then He cannot save us. He cannot be the Savior. And so he boldly taught that Christ has two natures and that Christ has two wills. He has a divine will, and He also has a human will. 

Because of this, they accused him of arrogance. They said, "Everybody is against you. The emperor is against you. The patriarch is against you. The bishops and these other priests are against you. Are you alone the only person who knows the truth? Are you the only one who worships Christ truly? Don't be so arrogant. Humble yourself. Humble yourself, and obey your bishop. Teach the same thing that your bishop and your patriarch and your emperor teach." 

But he refused. And for this, they horrifically tortured him. They cut off his hand so that he could not write anymore. They cut out his tongue so that he could not speak anymore. And then they sent him into exile: poor, suffering, rejected, and alone. And this is how he died. To the world, it looked like he had completely failed. But God knew better. God received St. Maximus into His heavenly kingdom. 

At that time, there was one bishop who Maximus agreed with, and that was the Pope of Rome. That's right. In the seventh century, it was the Pope of Rome who was teaching Orthodoxy, and it was the bishops in the East who were heretics. So St. Maximus did not obey his own bishop. St. Maximus did not follow his own patriarch or his emperor. But St. Maximus did greatly honor the Pope of Rome. Why? Because the Pope of Rome was Orthodox — he was teaching the truth. 

Finally, a few years after the death of St. Maximus, the Sixth Ecumenical Council was convened. And by that point, the emperor, and the bishops, and the patriarchs in the East understood that a great travesty had occurred, and they knew that the churches in the East needed to repent. They needed to exonerate St. Maximus the Confessor, and they needed to teach the Orthodox Faith truly — the same way that St. Maximus had done, and the same way that the Pope had done. 

And so, at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, this is just what they did. They clearly taught that Christ has two wills. Not only does He have two natures, divine and human, but He also has two wills — a divine will and a human will. They greatly honored St. Maximus, and ever since then, we have recognized Maximus as a saint. 

He is a very special saint to us here in Krasnovo, for at this very church that you are in today, at this very altar where I serve the liturgy, this altar is dedicated to St. Maximus the Confessor. And I believe he prays for us — he prays for all of us right here in this church. 

We need to learn from St. Maximus. We need to honor St. Maximus. We need to ask St. Maximus to continue praying for us — praying that we would be faithful to the truth, just as he was. 

So when we look at these two councils, what do we learn? We learn that big changes can happen in a short amount of time. At the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Pope of Rome was in sin, and in the East the emperor, patriarchs, and bishops were teaching Orthodoxy faithfully, and they upheld the truth. But then at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Eastern emperor, patriarchs, and bishops were all teaching heresy, while the Pope of Rome and a single eastern priest were teaching the truth.

What does this teach us? How does this apply to us today? Well, of course the emperor at that time was the most powerful person in the government. And, just like today, the patriarch was the most powerful person in the Church. And people often ask, "Is it important to obey the government? Is it important to obey the Church?" Well, of course it is! Most of the time. 

Usually, the virtuous thing for a Christian to do is to obey the government, obey the bishop, and obey the patriarch. You do what the government tells you to do, and you do what the Church tells you to do. But if the government tells you to do something which is contrary to what Christ commanded, you must obey God rather than the government. And if the patriarch, or your bishop, or your priest tell you to do something that is contrary to what Christ has told you to do, you must obey Christ instead of the bishop. 

This is a very important lesson that we need to understand. Obedience to the government is important, but obedience to Christ comes first. Obedience to the patriarch, to the bishop, and to the priest, is important, but obedience to Christ comes first.  

Today, God continues to repeat Himself. The Church continues to repeat itself, telling us that we need to remember the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and reminding us that we need to apply those lessons today.

So let us be faithful to the Orthodox faith, just like the Eastern patriarchs and the emperor were faithful in the sixth century. And let us be faithful to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, just like St. Maximus and the Pope of Rome were faithful in the seventh century. Because our first allegiance is not to any bishop, or patriarch, or government. Our first allegiance is to Christ, and to Christ alone. 

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