Obedience and Authority

By Rev. John Chryssavgis
(A Christian Perspective)

Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to "diakonia" and dialogue, not domination. In order, however, for this to occur the faithful must be regarded as gifted people of God, and not manipulated as objects or "sheep" to be taken for granted.
Authority in the Church is never the monopoly of an ordained few (cf. Eph. 4:11-12) whether bishops or other clergy. Authority is the responsibility of all (cf. Eph. 5:34). Likewise, obedience is not the obligation of an "inferior" laity or lower clergy, but a requirement of all faithful, lay and ordained.

In the history of Christianity, centuries of institutionalism and clericalism, followed by the "lay revolution," in conservative and anti-hierarchical churches alike, have rendered the concepts of authority and obedience problematic to a point of contention and almost disdain.

Nevertheless, clergy and laity cannot exist without one another; spiritual elder and child must be existentially united.

Together they constitute the living body of Christ; together they experience the mystery of Christ. Any distinction between them is merely functional and provisional, not essential. What is essential is the relationship of love and trust in Christ. Unity lived out even in diversity is precisely the promise of God to His Church. Any form or expression of authority, then, must not be the expression of human pride but of humility before God, of assimilation to the divine hierarchy, and of obedience to the will of Him who alone is called Father (cf. Mt. 23:9). Such obedience is of the very essence ("esse") not simply the well-being ("bene esse") of humanity. Hierarchy exists in order to reveal the priestly vocation (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9) and function of all within a world that is beautifully ordered by its Creator as cosmos.

In an age when movements for securing human rights appear to have achieved so much for the improvement of living conditions, and when the "gulag archipelago," the abuse of vulnerable children and adults, as well as the exploitation of the earth's resources have shocked the world; at a time when freedom of thought and expression is emphasized, and when imperialism and totalitarianism are at all levels questioned, if not rejected; authority should neither be blindly accepted nor unquestionably permitted to be objectivized or institutionalized, and its representatives or ministers in the various structures to assume shades of "infallibility."

The ultimate goal of all authority becomes the sharing in the vision and depth of God. God never compels persons, but only redresses evil. God speaks with authority, but never imposes His will even upon those who would reject, condemn, betray, crucify, and kill Him. God does not desire slaves, but friends (cf. Jn. 15:14-15). The whole life and ministry of the Church should be based on the person of Christ, whose Body it constitutes in space and time. Throughout history, it is persons, the saints, who have manifested this attitude of Christ. They have exercised their responsibility for the other and in response to the needs of the other "with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength and with all their mind" (Lk. 10:27). Authority, therefore, means, above all, love towards one's neighbour "with one's whole power" (Mk. 12:30). It is not control over others, but commitment to them, even to "the least of one's brethren" (Mt. 25:45).

In the spiritual life, "easy" children tend to become "easy" adults who cannot think or decide who are passive. Yet we are called not to passivity but to active love, to vision and praxis. Unfortunately, the hierarchy are not expected to respect the laity as they should, preferring instead to revere their own ecclesiastical elders. Still less are they able to make use of criticism from below. ---- The wrongful exercise of authority conceals many dangers, not least of which is that God Himself gets overlooked and ignored, relegated to the "third heaven," from where He cannot reach humanity except through a barrage of layers and levels, all of them so human. The ultimate abuse of pastoral concern is its transformation into spiritual coercion.

Admittedly, people sometimes feel secure in obeying and setting up idols of "our fathers." -------  The aim of the Christian life is seen in terms of receiving, seldom in terms of maturing through questioning. Is it right, however, that authority in the Church overpowers and stifles every other aspect?

Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to "diakonia" and dialogue, not domination. In order, however, for this to occur the faithful must be regarded as gifted people of God, and not manipulated as objects or "sheep" to be taken for granted.

Present realities and structures will continue to exist. Yet we must learn to be more open, allowing the Spirit to be more active in them. In the course of His ministry, Christ was asked on several occasions by what authority He acted. In fact He never explicitly answered this question. Rather, He responded by the way He lived, that is by the authority of love incarnate. Authority outside this Christ-like love is an arbitrary tyranny. Authority lived in the laying down of life for one's neighbour (cf. Jn. 10:11), on the other hand, is creative and life-giving.

(These are excerpts from a longer article, Obedience And Authority: Dimensions Of A Hierarchical Church, by Rev. John Chryssavgis of Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. This article seems to be very pertinent in the context of much talk of ecclesiastical authority and obedience to it, particularly as it comes from a Presbyter who has a hierarchically ordered church polity.  For the full article, go to the website: http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8172


Josh said...

Slavery is the real word.

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