Ecclesiastical Gnosticism

There is today in the Orthodox Church a cult of personality—or, more precisely, of personalities, in the plural.  That is, there are a number of men, mostly monastics and wearing the badge of “elder” who have set themselves up as judges and arbiters of Orthodox praxis.  Most of the hubbub is over matters of ecumenism.  Drawing upon the Fathers (often ripped from their historical context) these men declare that outside the Orthodox Church there is little or no grace and salvation.  Accordingly, everyone who comes to Orthodoxy from another Christian confession must—not should, but must—be received by baptism, so that those who were received by chrismation must “correct” this “error” and be again baptized.

Don’t get me wrong—I am among those who favour reception by baptism for pretty much everyone coming to Orthodoxy.  But denouncing reception by chrismation as an error which must be corrected by attempting a liturgical re-set and re-receiving by baptism is something else entirely.  That is not “on”, and this for a number of reasons.  Let me explain.

What is really at stake in this denunciation of the “error” of reception by chrismation is the reliability of the Church’s leadership by its bishops and parish priests. Orthodoxy has always been led and governed by these men—bishops as heads of dioceses and priests in charge of parishes. That is, the government has always been local (with the parish priests being even more local than their bishops).

For better or worse, that is how the Church has always been run.  Monks came later in the Church’s history, and although they have proven a blessing (sometimes a mixed one) and have been incorporated into the episcopal and parish system (with bishops being chosen from the ranks of the monks), the governance of the Church has always remained in the hands of the bishops.

This is why our canonical tradition subordinates the monks of a given area to the diocesan bishop.  So-called “stavropegial” monasteries (i.e. those subject to the local primate and not the local bishop) are the exception that proves the rule.  Suggestions that bishops are not basically reliable so that a parishioner should reject his teaching, direction, and praxis in deference to someone else (such as a monastic elder) contradicts this basic tradition of order within the Church.

Ecclesiastical GnosticismIt matters not a whit how holy, charismatic, well-known, or popular the elder is, how large is following, or how many Fathers he cites on his website.  To defy one’s bishop and parish priest in matters as routine as how a convert should be received is wrong and rebellious.  And we are reminded by Scripture what God thinks of such rebellion (see 1 Samuel 15:23).

Following such a preference for holy charismatic elders rather than one’s bishop and the local leadership of the Church sets up those elders as a kind of super-church, a rival synod, a shadow cabinet, an elite with an authority superior to local pastors and leaders.  Such a rival leadership works havoc in the local parish, and makes the pastor’s job all but impossible.

I know of one priest who had such a man in his congregation.  Though feigning great humility and submission he was forever on the phone to his elder on Mount Athos to get guidance.  Obviously the wisdom and direction of his actual pastor was not enough.  One day the priest and Parish Council were considering whether or not to rent space in the nave (note: the nave, not the altar) to a group of non-Chalcedonian Orthodox who had no place to go.  Before the Parish Council could consider the matter or reach a decision, the man had been on the phone to his elder who advised him to leave the parish if such space were rented.  Their non-Chalcedonian presence, he said, would have defiled the temple so that it would have needed to be re-consecrated.  As it turned out, the Parish Council’s decision was not required after all, because the group found some place else.

The point is that deference to such non-local leaders totally hamstrings the local leadership and has the effect of obliterating their authority.  The fact that the priest and his Council would not have proceeded without getting and following their bishop’s direction was irrelevant.  What was really required, apparently, was not submission to the bishop, but to the elder.

Trust me:  no priest can run a parish on such non-traditional terms. It is enough that he has his bishop on his speed-dial.  Having the phone number of an Athonite elder is not necessary.

Acceptance of such a rival leadership of elites constitutes ecclesiastical Gnosticism.   By this I mean that the Gnostics of old divided humanity into three groups, hierarchically arranged.  At the top were the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, which the Gnostics of course identified with themselves.  Below them were the psychikoi, the natural or sense-oriented ones (the word is famously hard to translate), identified by the Gnostics as the leaders of the everyday Church with its bishops and priests.  At the bottom were the sarkikoi, the fleshly ones, the mass of unredeemed humanity who cared only for pleasure and Netflix.  The lines were starkly drawn. In the same way, some are on the verge of establishing the monastic elders as the new pneumatikoi in the Church with the bishops and pastors as a second-class psychikoi—okay for a Sunday Liturgy, but not really to be trusted with the day to day running of the Church.  (Presumably the other Christian groups are the sarkikoi.)

The Fathers were clear that such division and such denunciation of the local parish church as unspiritual and second class was wrong.  That does not mean, of course, that no bishop or pastor ever makes a mistake, or that there is no place in the Church for smaller enclosed communities whose members devote themselves to prayer, fasting, and greater closeness to God—i.e. for monks.  It does mean, however, that those monks cannot be entrusted with the normal governance of the Church unless they are also bishops.  Bishops may consult the monks (or anyone else for that matter; presumably that is why educated Orthodox scholarship exists), but at the day’s end, it’s the bishops’ call, not that of the monk or the scholar.  The authoritative buck stops with them.  That is why the parish priest has his bishop’s phone number on his speed-dial.

The establishment of a group of self-appointed authorities in the Church which seeks to direct the Church and usurp the role given to the bishops is not only ecclesiastically Gnostic, but also tends to schism.  The clear inference in submission to such rival leadership is that the bishops and normal local authorities cannot be trusted, and so a superior group of leaders must be sought out and found.

This is the dangerous mind-set of schism. The local pastors cannot be trusted and the jurisdiction of which they are a part and to which they are accountable is fatally tainted.  The one who wants to avoid error and keep himself pure must therefore leave accountability to such men and seek out a purer group.

Once this methodology is followed, there is no end to it, no logical stopping place, no refuge secure enough.  Legalism is a cancer which eventually consumes everything.  We all know of some Orthodox jurisdictions who have so embraced legalism that they avoid almost everyone else as fatally compromised.  By the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”, they mean essentially, “you, me, and those six people over there”.  Happily such groups are easily identified.  They usually have the word “true” or “genuine” in their title.

Ultimately it all comes down to trust, love, and humility.  I love my bishop and trust him.  Parishioners are similarly called to love their priest and trust him.  Bluntly put, your priest might be an idiot, but until he is deposed and removed, he is God’s idiot, and the man God has given you to follow.

The final word here goes to the author of Hebrews 13:17.   He directs us,  “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Source: No Other Foundation

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