A Brief History of Hierarchy

Part 10 in the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

by Don Enevoldsen

“He who honors the pastor has been honored by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the pastor, does in reality serve the devil.”

These words might have been spoken by any one of dozens of preachers I have heard in my life. It’s usually the visiting evangelists or pastors who carry this message. They beat the idea into the congregation that if they want to please God and receive blessings from him, they need to do essentially two things. They need to give generously to the offerings, including the one for him at the end of that service, and they need to be submitted to their pastor without question. If he is wrong, that’s God’s business. Don’t question him.

“I can say this stuff when your pastor can’t because I’m going home tomorrow,” the preacher invariably remarks somewhere during the verbal browbeating. “So I don’t care if you like me.” Everyone laughs and says, “Amen.” They are convinced deep down that God will curse them if they don’t fall into line.

“Honor the pastor and you are honored by God. Rebel against the pastor and you serve the devil.” I’ve heard words like that many times over the past half century. But the quote at the beginning of this page is far older, and might give us some insight into how this omnipotence of the clergy came into being. The quote dates to the first part of the second century. With one small change, those are the words of a bishop from Antioch named Ignatius. I substituted the word “pastor” for “bishop,” but otherwise it is a direct quote from his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, written about 117 A.D., somewhere between Antioch and Rome. Ignatius was on his way to the capital city to be executed for his faith.

Seven letters are attributed to the hand of Ignatius during that final journey. While he did take a few moments to declare that he looked forward to a glorious martyrdom, and even asked that no one try to save him from it, his dominant concern in his last words of wisdom was obedience to the bishops of the church. The underlying justification for this blind, unquestioning submission is church unity. For Ignatius, the bishop is to be elevated to a place of honor in every sense.

“Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resisteth the Proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 5)

In other words, he believed you cannot be submitted to God if you’re not submitted to your pastor. And you can’t be properly submitted to your pastor if you are not attending church every week. Submit to him the same way you would to God. That’s why God put him there:

“It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 6)

“It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey your bishop, in honour of Him who has willed us so to do, since he that does not so deceives not by such conduct the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 3)

“Let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians 3)

This is all done for the sake of unity:

“Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 6)

“Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 3)

These few samples show how quickly control became part of church life. When the church began, leaders were appointed on the basis of their proven leadership. The congregation had a part in the decision. Leaders were held accountable, both in terms of the honor they received and in the responsibility they bore publically when they acted dishonorably.

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor… Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:17, 20)

That is a long way from, “be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”

The Didache, written perhaps as much as fifty years earlier than the letters of Ignatius, encourages honor for leaders, but presents guidelines for keeping balance through holding leaders accountable. Leaders are to be honored, but also judged. The Didache described how to test those who claimed positions of prominence. If they were found to be selfishly motivated, they were to be rejected.

Once the slide toward hierarchy started, it did not take long to become firmly entrenched. Always at the forefront of the discussion was the topic of unity. Everyone wanted unity in the church, no matter what the cost. Originally, deacons, elders and bishops were treated with a certain amount of equality. That would change as greed and desire for position asserted itself.

The churches in the various cities around the Roman Empire maintained close communication, and the Twelve were held in high respect, but the churches also maintained a high degree of independence, as we saw with Paul’s interaction with the leaders from Jerusalem. By the beginning of the second century, the time of Ignatius, dioceses began to be specifically delineated. At first they formed from the union of several country churches with the larger church in a nearby city.

As the churches grew, they found that regular meetings of leaders from different areas were beneficial for communication and discussion of shared challenges and victories. Toward the end of the second century, the churches of Greece and Asia began meeting in synods twice a year, in the spring and the autumn, and by the middle of the third century, provincial synods were convened.

The more the various bishops met together, the more they considered themselves separate from and elevated above the congregations. The more they considered themselves elevated above the congregation, the more they devised dictates among themselves to maintain their positions. The terms deacon, elder and bishop, which had originally been used interchangeably, took on more rigid definitions, with a hierarchical stratification into which they fit.

The congregations gradually gave up rights and control to the bishops and elders, who multiplied the layers of the hierarchy. By the time Constantine became emperor, doctrinal debates were conducted in councils involving many hundreds of bishops from around the empire, but the final decision was often implemented by the military, and bishops who refused to submit were either exiled or murdered. Many are the cases of one group being outvoted, but gaining the endorsement of the emperor, and the availability of the army to enforce its dictates. It was all done in the name of unity. There must not be any division. Thus the trend evident in the letters of Ignatius came to its full development. Anyone who questioned the authority of church leaders put his life at risk.

Sadly, the same kind of attitude permeates church organization today. Most of the structure and organization of church that is considered traditional appeared in the development of hierarchy, and is not designed for the fellowship of believers, but for the control of the congregation.

• Seating arrangements in which everyone sits side by side, looking forward at a pastor who is elevated above the rest reflects the subconscious belief that the pastor is somehow a little bit superior.

• Services are structured to make interaction or input from any but those on stage very difficult, if not impossible.

• Teaching periodically reinforces the idea that leaders should be respected and obeyed.

• Great emphasis is placed on “unity,” the subject of sermons and exhortations that also stress obedience and submission as the way to attain unity.

This doesn’t mean churches should be drastically and instantly changed to some different structure. But it does mean members of a congregation should be aware that they have a responsibility to hold leaders accountable, especially those leaders who insist on blind obedience. Experience tells me they are the leaders most likely to be abusive.

Next, Part 11: Obey Your Leaders

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

A Brief History of Hierarchy
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13 thoughts on “A Brief History of Hierarchy

  • May 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm
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    This is really good .

    Thanks.

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    • May 26, 2012 at 5:47 pm
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      This is an aspect of church history that doesn’t get talked about much. So it’s been very interesting over the past few years to read up on it.

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  • May 27, 2012 at 8:03 am
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    Ah, the long awaited article concerning Ignatius. I must first say that I enjoyed the opening of the article. Once you crossed over into your analysis of Ignatius many thoughts and questions came to mind. The tone of the analysis is one of frustration, if I’m reading it right. I get that. Particularly because I grew up in Charischismatic, Pentecostal, Independent churches led by self-appointed schismatic pastors who truly believed that they knew everything and wanted to “bless” everyone around them (for a price of course).

    It seems to me that much of this article is raging against hierarchical structures prevalent in both schismatic Protestant Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. There is so much to say in response to this article that I’m hesitant to begin as it may be either boring or undesired by you and your readers. In short, I think you are attacking one of the prime Apostolic Church Fathers who (along with Christ, the Apostles, and the whole course of Church Fathers in unison) strove to protected the Church from the types of false shepherds who have caused so much harm in our modern Christian world. Much of what you write does apply to Roman Catholic based, western ideals of hierarchy, but they have very little relevance to the Church, i.e. the Orthodox Church from whence the Roman Church split from almost 1000 years ago and began an epic tradition of schism that eventually resulted in the sort of Independent Charismatic world that you and I were entangled in.

    I’d love to return to this article and discuss the details with you if you are game. Let me know. Have a great Sunday!

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    • May 27, 2012 at 8:23 am
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      Eric, I would expect nothing less. I admit that my knowledge of Orthodox history is limited compared to yours. And you are right in identifying frustration with the entities you enumerate. I can’t say I’m frustrated with Orthodoxy because I’ve had very little contact with it. But I would characterize my writing about Ignatius less as frustration and more as observations that would not have occurred to me if I had not been frustrated. From what I have read, the same problems occurred in Orthodoxy that I have seen in Catholicism and in Protestantism. That being said, and with the understanding that my responses over the next week will probably not come as fast as in the past because of my schedule, I would love to hear your thoughts. I wish you a great Sunday as well, and a great Memorial Day.

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    • May 27, 2012 at 8:50 am
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      In fact, because I know you will have many comments, I suggest we take it a little at a time. In other words, don’t try to put all your thoughts into a single comment. Let’s take them point by point and not hurry it, for the sake of being thorough. Those readers who might find it boring don’t have to read any of it, but I think most will find it interesting.

      Reply
  • May 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm
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    Pardon my delay, as you know from Facebook, we brought one of our babies home last night from the NICU, but I’m rallying some time today for blogging while the little one sleeps.

    If I had to raise a single point (though I hope to raise more later on) it would be that blessed Ignatius does not speak in a vacuum. Though he may have penned a particular phrase that is familiar in the Word of Faith movement, he is by no means alone in his understanding and fervor for Church unity. As an aside, anytime a beautiful work of art is produced one can be sure that thousands of forgeries are bound to be made. But forgeries do not make the original less beautiful, but rather more beautiful. Case in point, Ignatius’ words, “A man who honors his bishop is himself honored by God, but to go behind the bishop’s back is to be a servant of the devil” (variant translation found in my personal English copy of the same text you quoted).

    Why is it beautiful, and why is it made more beautiful by those false shepherds who copy it? Because it reveals the fakes for who they are and the authentic for who they are. At the time of Ignatius writing his letters (98-117 AD) many of those bishops of the Church were either among the 70 Apostolic Fathers chosen by Christ Himself and appointed by the original Apostles, or were their direct replacements, or were others whom the Apostles appointed. When Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome (all 1st century bishops) all wrote in unison to the Churches to defend and stand behind their bishops they were instructing Christians to hold fast to the Apostolic doctrine of the faith, defended and cared for by those hand picked bishops. Many, many, many factions were started within the first century of the Church throughout the empire as all the NT authors and Church Fathers attest to (and which Christ warned of). To go behind the back of one of these bishops and follow some renegade schismatic who wanted to lure people away from Christ and to themselves, or to their heretical doctrines, was indeed to follow the devil. What else could you call it.

    I made a quick study of the various NT scriptures that attest to schismatics already around in the time of the Apostles, a short list would include: Acts 20:28-30, Jude 1:4, 2 Peter 2:1-22, Rom 16:17. Beyond this, Christians were originally commanded to “keep the traditions delivered to you” (1Cor 11:2), to follow what “you have seen, learned, and received” from the Apostles (Phil 4:9), to “withdraw from a brother who does not follow the traditions” (2Thes 3:6). How is one to do this without following those ministers who Christ and the Holy Spirit had appointed for the task of caring for Christ’s flock?

    If Christ is not divided, and the Church is truly the “ground and pillar of truth” then there can only be one Church – one priesthood, one doctrine, one worship. This concept of “right doctrine” and “right worship” is captured in a single word – “Orthodoxy.” There is an Orthodoxy which was present in the 1st century and is still present today and has not ceased to be present since Pentecost, else the “gate of hell” have “prevailed against the Church,” contrary to Christ’s words.

    But, back on point, in the 1st century it was quite obvious which bishops were Orthodox because of their unique place in history, having been, as we said, appointed by the Apostles themselves and/or their direct disciples. Thus, to try to apply Ignatius’ words to ones own ministry, like the geniuses you described in your opening paragraphs, is completely ridiculous. They are schismatics 100’s of times removed from Orthodoxy, 100’s of times removed from the canonical priests and bishops, 100’s of times removed from the Apostolic Tradition and doctrines. But, Ignatius’ words are immortally beautiful because of who said them and under what circumstances they were said.

    Let me also make one unrelated, quick point. You mentioned something about how the congregation should choose their elders and how hierarchical churches cannot have their ministers removed by the people. Both ideas are false when applied to the Orthodox Church. There is no history of congregations choosing for themselves their priests, bishops, deacons, what have you. However, there is a long history of people choosing ministers who will tell them what their itching ears what to hear in schismania. Also, Orthodox priests have always been at the mercy of their congregations should they teach false doctrine or become a danger to their flock through sin. This is why there is a hierarchy – to protect the flock, not to control them. The Church can always petition the bishop to remove a priest for the reasons mentioned. Same goes for deacons, bishops, arch bishops and the rest.

    Hope that wasn’t too much. Have a great Memorial Day!

    Reply
  • May 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm
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    I meant to mention at the close of my last paragraph that in independent, Charismatic, Word of Faith churches the pastors can NEVER be removed when they preach false doctrine or become a danger to the church precisely because they do not have a hierarchy outside themselves (since they are miniature popes of their own little domain). The only time they are removed is when their churches crash and burn, or when they are arrested, or when they choose to step down on their own. That’s one shitty system.

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    • May 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm
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      Not too much at all. And I realize there is much more, so this will make a good start. I will take some time before responding myself, so I can do justice to the variety of thoughts you present. (Of course, my distractions are not nearly as important as yours have been. Congratulations on Ella coming home. That’s great to see.) I have a request before we get much further along. I know most Protestants think Catholic and Orthodox are the same thing. (I’ve seen some of your debates with people on Facebook, who shall remain nameless to protect the ignorant.) Would you consider doing a short overview of Orthodox history, at least during the first few centuries, to give my readers a little bit of background on the subject? You are better qualified to do that than I am. Even if it’s just an outline of major events, significant church councils and the names of a few of the more important leaders of the time, I think it would be helpful for those trying to follow our discussion.

      Regarding the independence (or should I say, lack of accountability) of Charismatic and Word of Faith preachers, I think you will enjoy the next installment of this series. I give some specific examples of the abuse of authority, with names I know you’ll recognize.

      Reply
      • May 29, 2012 at 7:53 pm
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        Wow, I’m not sure I can pull that off in so short a space. There is a fantastic 3 part video series on Youtube, each only about 7mins long. I highly recommend them for someone wanting a brief but accurate intro to the Church. This is probably the best way for your readers to get a starter knowledge of Orthodoxy. Let me know what you think.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJueCXNUahw&feature=relmfu

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70ICV23M1mY&feature=relmfu

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y07Ur6YOiho&feature=fvwrel

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          • June 5, 2012 at 5:15 pm
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            Sorry for the delay in responding. Turned into a busy week, and I wanted to give this discussion the attention it deserves. Thank you for posting the links with a brief history of the Orthodox Church. I found it interesting, though I did already know much of what was there, it was helpful, and I hope others will learn from it. I’ve never mentioned it to you, but I have attended an Orthodox Church in the Phoenix area a few times with a friend who was a member there. It was my curiosity to learn as much as I could, and it was an experience I’m grateful for. I must also add that I didn’t see anything there, nor have I seen anything since, that convinces me of the validity of the basic claims of Orthodoxy any more than the claims made by other churches. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

            You observed that it seems I am raging against hierarchical structures prevalent in both schismatic Protestant Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, and that is true. However, the more I read of the history of the Orthodox Church, the less I see any reason to be silent concerning the practices there. The primary claim of Orthodoxy seems to center around an uninterrupted unity, as embodied in the liturgy, that traces its roots to the Apostles. But I don’t see that in the historical record. You rightly observe that there were many schisms from the beginning, but the idea that the Orthodox church somehow rose above that and preserved the true church from schismatic influences, when compared to history, looks as valid as the same claims by the Roman Catholics. The claim of unity is itself a fabrication. What unity was there was enforced by a variety of coercive measures ranging from excommunication to military occupation, all in the name of unity. The Orthodox hierarchy, in the name of unity and tradition, has exercised exactly the kind of control that I’ve raged against in this series. What began as the language of exhortation turned into the language of command. What was, under Paul’s advice to Timothy, setting an example and reasoning with those in the congregation, became, not long after Ignatius, threats of violence. That became the preferred method of dealing with schismatics, protecting the church by forcibly exiling or killing them. This was not merely a Roman Catholic practice. Orthodoxy shares that part of history.

            Of the many schisms and church divisions, in fact most, were indeed unbiblical and heretical. Some others were doctrinal disputes with some merit on the opposing sides. We could debate the theology for a long time, but that isn’t actually the issue, as I see it. Rather it is the manner in which disagreements were addressed. Invectives were hurled all directions in the case of Cyprian, but that was before any of the church factions had sufficient standing to do more than accuse and excommunicate. The language used at the time hardly validates a sense of a unified church. Cyprian himself railed against lenient responses to heretics. “If such irregularities are suffered with impunity, if such irregularities are suffered, there is an end of episcopal vigor; an end of the sublime and divine power of governing the Church an end of Christianity itself.”

            Paul of Samosata was the subject of several councils, pronounced a heretic, excommunicated, demoted, and the debate raged on for may years, with the success or failure of the factions dependent on the will of a pagan emperor.

            The councils were themselves dependent at one time on the votes of 1800 bishops, 1000 of which ruled in Greek provinces and 800 in Latin. Those seats were frequently obtained, not by the desire for the good of the people, but by regular campaigning that incorporated bribes, corruption and occasionally violence.

            Constantine began the practice of involving the emperor in church affairs. He declared toleration, but once in power, he reversed his position and issued an edict for the total destruction of all opponents, prohibiting the assembling of all heretics and the confiscation of their property. After the Nicene Creed was developed, he declared immediate exile for all who opposed it. The 17 bishops in opposition were instantly reduced to 2, who were both exiled and their writings were burned. Athanasius of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, and Paul of Constantinople were all deposed on various accusations by the sentence of numerous councils and then banished to distant provinces. That was the manner in which the Orthodox Church maintained unity. The church leaders did virtually nothing to protest the approach, and in fact, regularly solicited the favor of the emperor and made concerted efforts to influence him.

            The efforts of Constantius to establish a unified doctrine illustrate the problems of hierarchy. The bishops of the East were directed to meet at Seleucia, those of the West at Rimini. The eastern group argued for 4 days before giving up any hope of consensus. In the West, the debate dragged on for 7 months. The Praetorian praefect was ordered to not allow them to disperse until they came to agreement. Fifteen of the most refractory were banished, bribes were offered, the cold and hunger of threatened exile for others eventually pushed them to a point of expressing agreement.

            The trials of John Chrysostom demonstrate what happened to dissidents, even when they were popular. He attempted to reform the corruption in the hierarchy and found himself attacked by the hierarchy, not protected by it.

            Contrary to the picture painted in Orthodox history of a unified tradition dating to antiquity, the reality was a unity maintained by killing or exiling anyone who disagreed with the hierarchy.

            All of this is in contradiction to many of the statements made in the videos you posted. For example, “James gave the solution to settle all doctrinal and moral issues through ecumenical councils, and the church flourished for one thousand and fifty-four years.” That statement is just plain not true. The church was filled with schism and even more with abuses of power by the supposedly true church. The council in Jerusalem to which this quote alludes was itself a schismatic confrontation, and the evidence suggests that the only reason it ended on a good note was because the Apostles decided not to correct Paul. (see Part 9 of this series.)

            In the video, Metropolitan Philip says, “It’s a religion of love, a religion of mercy, a religion of compassion. It’s not a judgmental religion. And any theology which does not touch people in their pain and suffering, is a removed theology, has nothing to do with people.” The history of the church indicates otherwise. Every church in history that has progressed into a more stratified hierarchy has abused the power of that hierarchy to keep people in control. On that count, I find no difference between Orthodox, Catholic or any of the many Protestant denominations.

            Returning to the case of Ignatius, I have no doubt that he considered the kind of control he advocated as necessary to protect the church. But that is always where control starts. It is done with good intentions, but the desire of humanity for power inevitably overshadows the original intention and abuses follow. In time the very system itself strangles spiritual life.

            When the system becomes more important than the Spirit, then it is no longer genuine life. The moment you put a plant in a bottle, seal it up and prevent any outside influence from touching it, the plant begins to die.

            Much of what I read and hear in defense of Orthodoxy appeals to tradition. The liturgy preserves the faith. The traditions of the Apostles are appealed to. The Orthodox Church is described as appealing to the past with an unbroken and unchanging heritage. I have seen no reason to assume that the liturgy has any validity just because it is old. Its validity is established by little more than the claims of those who embrace it. The modern interpretation is vastly different from what I see in the biblical record, which shows an ongoing struggle to balance becoming “all things to all people in order to win some” with overcoming the stifling effects of tradition.

            The statements made in this regard use exactly the same logic as the Pharisees used in their presentation of tradition. I know you’ve denied in a past conversation that there is any similarity, but I must disagree. The Pharisees believed that by establishing a tradition of belief, that the present generation would be protected from error. Their goal was to put a hedge around the law by discussing, codifying and teaching the tradition, appealing to antiquity for the basis of their belief and the source of protection from wandering away from truth. Most of the confrontations with Jesus surrounded his unwillingness to adhere to tradition. Most of the accusations made about non-Orthodoxy is the failure to adhere to the traditions. Catholics have taken much the same tack, except that they have a different set of “correct traditions” to which they appeal. Protestants have, from Luther on, claimed to break from traditions in order to follow God, the same way Jesus did, however, human nature is such that within a generation, often less, they have their own traditions to which they appeal, and they create their own liturgical forms to preserve their traditions. And then hierarchical control is not far behind, complete with the abuses inherent in it.

            John seemed to understand that the hierarchy was not a valid protection against error. In his first epistle, he wrote, concerning the threat presented by those who would try to lead them astray, that they needed to “see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.” (1 John 2:24) He does not define this by an appeal to tradition or by a plea to obey their leaders. Rather he appeals to the “anointing you received.” (verse 27)

            “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

            The reality of hierarchy is that as long as it involves human beings, those opposed to God’s way of doing things will always outvote those who do things God’s way. And they will always portray their opposition to God as doing his will. The righteous are rarely in the majority, so to trust that a council of elders, many, even most, of whom are more interested in the respect and power of their position than anything else, is almost a guarantee of ending up in the wrong place. There is a tremendous amount of personal responsibility inherent in Christian living.

  • June 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm
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    The long awaited response indeed. I thought you’d forgot. To be honest, I have 2 newborns to which I am a 24 hour slave at the moment, but let me do my best respond even with my level of sleep deprivation (forgive me if I trail off into a twilight zone of babbling.

    I’ll hit some of the highlights:

    You mentioned that the Orthodox claim to a liturgical tradition spanning back to the Apostles virtually unchanged is not true according to the historical record. What historical record exactly are you referring to? Can you demonstrate that James’ divine liturgy from which both St. Basil and St. Chrysostom derived their divine liturgies are bogus? Even if you only accept the latter two I’d say your in pretty good theological company. Wouldn’t you agree? and if so why do you not follow them?

    You mentioned that you don’t necessarily worry about the theological victories gained by the Orthodox Church early on, your concern is more with the manner in which they were won. Sighting a few examples of general measures of control – e.g. exile and even killing – it seems that you are most concerned with emperors sticking their pagan noses in the midst, and of course those bishops who gained their positions through politics of various sorts. One example you use is that of Paul of Samosata and the treatment he was given. I’m not sure why this example was used. Here you have a true heretic, power hungry, corrupt, sexually devious, etc, bishop. The pagan emperor who condemned him only did so as the authority to make the final call after he arranged for a trial to commence, which included both supporters and opponents of Paul. The verdict was overwhelmingly to condemn Paul which the emperor simply made official. How is this a bad thing?

    You made a point of noting how many total voting members there were in a particular council (not sure which you are referring to) and how many were Greek (1000) and how many were Latin (800). I don’t follow how this demonstrates a problem with hierarchy. Would it have been better if only 12 bishops voted?

    I also fail to follow your conclusion that Constantine played a negative role in becoming an involved emperor? He too made it possible to rally the Church from around the empire to hammer out the Creed. He did not issue his own Creed, the presiding bishops decided. Constantine then kicked some ass when renegade clergy attempted to disrupt the Church. I understand that you oppose the method of using force to maintain unity but do you know of a way the Church could have better kept heresy at bay? What is so terrible about exile?

    Also, you make a common mistake of conflating the Ecumenical Councils with regional, local synods and councils. There were hundreds of such local synods. Some carried weight some didn’t, history was their judge, same with the Ecumenical Councils. Just because a council convened didn’t mean it held authority. The Ecumenical Councils are recognized as Orthodoxy do to their catholicity, acceptance of the people, and their enduring success. For example, the supposed 8th Ecumenical Council which Rome still holds but the Orthodox deny is denied based on the fact that the people refused to acknowledge a council which certain Orthodox bishops signed only to gain military help from Rome against the invading Turks. This one example does extreme damage to your understanding of the councils as being propped up simply by military and political force.

    You mentioned two figure of whom I know a bit about – Athanasius and Chrysostom. Yes both suffered exile by vying forces within the Church. The former due to a period of unrest while Arianism raged in the empire and the latter due to a very wicked bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus. Yes these things happen and cannot but happen. But God is faithful to bring the righteous out of the pit and display them for the Church throughout the age. Today both of these men cause great unity within the Orthodox Church.

    You also said this, I’ll quote it in full: “Its validity (the liturgy) is established by little more than the claims of those who embrace it. The modern interpretation is vastly different from what I see in the biblical record, which shows an ongoing struggle to balance becoming “all things to all people in order to win some” with overcoming the stifling effects of tradition.” I’m not sure what you are trying to say in the latter half, but the first half seems flawed to me. Is there any other way of establishing a claim than by those who embrace it? By what authority to you trust the Apostles? Do you have some empirical evidence of their claims or do you simply embrace it by faith?

    This leads to some of the rest of you post. You raise a standard against Holy Tradition – i.e. the Holy Spirit. But is this possible? If the Holy Spirit is unchanging how is it that His teaching could not be a tradition, in the sense that it too is unchanging. If God did speak to His Church and then changes His mind every generation or so then you may have a case, but this is not how God works. His truth is “once for all delivered to the saints” and He does not change with the next charismatic hotshot preacher on the scene.

    As far as Jesus railing against tradition, this is only half true. He raged against the “traditions of men”. This is a distinction the NT authors were intent to make because they all go on to promote the tradition of the Apostles. I think you may need to reconcile this issue with tradition in yourself. If you refuse tradition then you refuse Christianity, because it is a living tradition. If you truly oppose tradition, on what basis do you embrace Scripture? How did Scripture come to be? Did it fall out of the sky with its 66 books intact? Nope, it came to us through Holy Tradition. If this is not true why does Paul tell his readers that the Church is the “ground and pillar of truth”? Surely he meant to say that Scripture was the ground and pillar of truth. Ah, but how could he since Holy Tradition outdates the final compilation of Scripture by some 300 years? If an atheist asks you to defend your trust in the Bible what do you say? Well, if you plan on not looking like a fool you argue from tradition. Otherwise your argument is circular – “I believe the Bible is true because the Bible says its true.”

    Last, I want to quote this as well: “those opposed to God’s way of doing things will always outvote those who do things God’s way… The righteous are rarely in the majority, so to trust that a council of elders, many, even most, of whom are more interested in the respect and power of their position than anything else, is almost a guarantee of ending up in the wrong place.” So would you say that Jehovah Witnesses have it right? I think they’re probably the minority in Christianity. Does Joe Blow preacher on the corner have it right because he acts alone – just him and his Bible? One is actually perfectly guaranteed to end up in the wrong place following his own way in the faith, pitting his Holy Spirit against everyone else’ Holy Spirit. I think you have an idea of Church authority that will not easily be shaken from ideas of corruption, greed and power. But what is your safeguard? How is your church resisting such things? By what authority is your Holy Spirit righter than my Holy Spirit? My Holy Spirit says the gates of Hell will never and have never prevailed against the Church. Your Holy Spirit denies a Church altogether, at least any unified Church which stands in an unbroken chain with the Apostles for 20 centuries. Or am I way off?

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  • July 3, 2012 at 9:57 am
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    I’d say the biggest was the internal fighting within the Church. Throughout the 1300s, the papacy, for example, had been a source of contention. There had been multiple men claiming to be the true pope. This did not help the Church in terms of prestige.

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