The Authority of the Priesthood
by Rev. Robert E. Lucas
“And Jesus drew near and spoke to them saying, `All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me . . . teach them to observe all I have commanded you . . . .'” (Math. 28:18)
“. . . as the Father sent Me, so I send you.” (John 20:22)
These are the words of Christ to His priests. They are as true today as they were two thousand years ago. Time has not minimized their significance. These are words of prime importance for every Orthodox Catholic. They mean that Christ sent His priests into the world to represent Him and His Father. They mean that the priest is possessed of Christ’s very authority in the Church of God.
And yet we find that a great deal of criticism of the clergy comes from people who have never made an effort to comprehend the unique position of the priesthood in Christ’s Orthodox Catholic Church or to understand that the priesthood is divinely established and instituted. Christ made definite plans fox- His Church. He did not leave anything to chance When He drew up the blue prints for its administration. Christ was very definitely concerned and made provisions for its smooth operation. Our problem is that We have allowed ourselves to depart from Christ’s method, His desires and His plan. And how unfortunate it is when a priest of Christ, who is sincere and dedicated to our Saviour, wishes to teach us Christianity in its pristine beauty, without any alterations marring its glory, we push him aside to follow our own whims which seem to suit us better.
By his very office the priest is the head and leader of the parish. Not just spiritually, but temporally as well. The priest occupies a unique position in the Christian community. He cannot be relegated to the position of a mere employee. No one hires or fires a priest. Christ chooses a priest, trains him and sends him forth to a parish to teach. The priest has but to follow Christ and His desires for the Church. Christ Himself came with authority and He sends forth His priests with authority over the bodies and souls of the faithful. Christ came as a teacher. Likewise the priest comes to a parish to teach and not to be taught.
St. Gregory Nazianzen says “It does not befit a layman to dispute or teach publicly with a priest for he thus claims fox, himself the authority to teach, but he should yield to those who have been appointed by the Lord to teach for in the Church God has made different members according to the word of the Apostle. Let the laity be the ears and let the priest be the tongue. Let the priest be the teacher and let the laity be the learners.” St. Gregory once again admonishes the faithful when he says: “Why dost thou make of thyself a shepherd when thou art a sheep? Why dost thou try to be the head of the body when thou art only a foot? Why dost thou try to be the commander when thou art only a soldier? Do not compare thyself with the rich when thou art poor or seek to be wiser than the wise.”
Holy Mother Church has but one mission, one object and that is to save souls. The Church brings together her children to spiritually nourish them. People come to church with only one thing in mind—to gain some spiritual food and receive spiritual regeneration. If there is constant dissent in a parish, none can be attracted to join it. The Christian community must be a living example to others—to attract them to itself. But if there are many who clamor to lead—who try to be the heads, as St. Gregory says, when they are only feet, who try to be the commander, when they are only soldiers, who try to do the priest’s job when they have not been called, trained, chosen and ordained, who try to assume prerogatives that belong only to Christ’s priests, spiritual strife, ill will, and even hatred will prevail among church parishioners.
Christ did not establish a complicated and difficult society. He explicitly ordained that priests should lead the churches. His Words were simply delivered, yet profound and demanding in nature. Christ knew what would happen if his priests departed from His teachings. That is why He always sternly warned them to remain true to Him no matter what the consequences might be. No true priest can ever allow the dignity of the Sacred Priesthood to be degraded, In degrading a priest, we degrade Christ. “He that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and He that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me.” (Luke 19:11) St. Paul admonished his disciple Titus to speak up and correct the wrong notions some Christians had about the priesthood. “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke by all authority.” (Titus 2:15) Whatever the priest knows is wrong, he must try to correct, no matter what personal inconvenience he may cause himself.
Christ wanted everyone to trust His priests. So he said: “Obey them that rule over you and SUBMIT yourselves for they watch over your souls and they must give an account, that they may give the account with joy and not with grief over you, for that is not profitable to you.” (Hebrews 13:17) Many will agree this to be the truth, but question the priest’s jurisdiction when it crosses the spiritual boundary. Yet no person could be more incorrect in claiming a priest should be concerned with spiritual matters alone. Christ sent His priests with ALL authority. He did not make any exceptions or enumerate between temporal or spiritual authority. He made no distinction. And in the early church no one questioned the priest’s right to temporal authority. This is what prompted the Church to decree in its councils and synods regulations for the fluent operation of the church. It was the original twelve apostles at the first Church Council who decreed the following: “We command that the Bishop have authority over the property of the Church. For if the precious souls of human beings ought to be entrusted to him. There is little need of any special injunction concerning money, so that everything may be entrusted and governed in accordance with his authority.” (Canon 41 of the Apostolic Canons). The explanation of this law in the Church’s Book of Canon Law goes on to say that ‘. . . even if priests and bishops are entrusted with precious souls of human beings, which no one else in the world deserves to be trusted with, we are at little pains, that is to say, there is no need of giving special orders that all money and property of the church come under his authority.” This is a law of our Orthodox Catholic Church promulgated by the twelve apostles themselves and can be found in any Orthodox Catholic Canon Law Book. Again Holy Mother Church found it necessary in the year 341 at the Council of Antioch to reiterate and reemphasize this teaching when she exclaimed: “Let the bishop have power over the funds of the Church so as to dispense them with all piety and fear of God.”
Nowhere in Church Law, nowhere in Sacred Scriptures, nowhere in Christ’s teachings do we find any reference or any basis for anyone but an ordained person assisting the priests and bishops in the administration of the Church. Here in America, our people came from their European. homelands and established parishes. Not understanding the important teachings of the Church, they hired Protestant lawyers to legally establish these communities. The Protestant men drew up plans for the administration of our churches not knowing or being familiar with the wishes of Christ for His Church. Thus it became a practice for the past fifty years out of almost 2,000 years of Christianity for exemplary laymen to assist their pastors in the administration of the parish. Permission for this practice was never formally granted by the Holy Mother Church, but since it began, it was tolerated. It was tolerated because it did not pose a serious threat to the spiritual life of the church at that time as it neither did any good nor any harm. Today, however, our church, unfortunately is on the decline in America, principally because in every parish without exception we have political battles raging with greater furor than one might witness at a national election. The reason for this is that a domineering laity wishes to control Christ and His priests. The true priest must stand with Christ, he cannot deny Him, and some faithful, rather than humbly condescend to Christ’s wishes remain adamant in their position.
Many parishes are divided into cliques and parties. One faction will not cooperate while the other is in power. One woman hates another because the other- one’s husband is president and hers didn’t make it. Many people will not come to church because they are confronted with people trying to have them think along their political lines and work against the others. Countless thousands have left our churches for other denominations. It is no secret membership in our churches is on the decline. Who wants to join a church where in the name and guise of Christianity, the devil’s work is being done? The National Council of Churches report lists the Orthodox Catholic Church as having declined in membership to a greater degree than any of its other member churches in America. Many people have been attracted to the Church’s teachings, but hesitate joining because the practice of Christianity is almost nil in many instances.
This practice has reached such proportions that it has dared to interfere with the fluent operation of Christ’s Church. It is no longer beneficial to the Church in any parish. On the contrary, it is causing a great deal of ill will, a great deal of difficulty and a great deal of strife. Spiritual stagnation is the consequence. If this continues, our Church will not be able to succeed in America. Policies of the church, and no parish can consider itself an exception, are being dictated by men, who no matter how pious their intentions may be, are not prepared to administer a church or are familiar with its rules, regulations and ordinances. The Church is the priest’s livelihood, it is his vocation, his obligation, the fulfillment of his hopes. his aspirations, his dreams; it is the main interest in his life.
Discipline is absolutely necessary. Discipline and love are united with each other. There is hardly a significant amount of discipline in our parishes. In many of them, there is no real presence of love either. Under the present conditions there will never be any. Parishes are to be big happy families. The priest is sent by God through the command of the bishop and is the father of each parish. Where is the love, where is the discipline, where is the good order in a family where the children order the father around? How can a father perform his obligations to his children if they insist on his performing them their way? What kind of a father would a man be if he did everything just to satisfy and please his children, not considering the propriety or justice of the matter? A priest does not serve the people, he serves God.
The over abundant supply of animosity among our people can be traced to a lack of discipline. How can we love without discipline? Take a disobedient child and a loving parent as an example. Just the slightest disciplinary measure inflicted upon the child brings the child closer to the parent. What child has not hugged its parent after being spanked. What child has not hoped to find consolation from the parent after being disciplined? Love cannot and will not exist without discipline.
All of this difficulty because we refuse to follow Christ—because we all want our own way rather than follow Christ’s desires and wishes. How the problem is solved depends upon all of us. We hold the future of the Church in our palms. We now find ourselves at the crossroads. It remains for us to choose the road to oblivion or to a glorious future, cooperating with the grace of the Holy Spirit for the Church and for us. If we firmly and uniquivocably (sic) believe Christ, if we firmly believe without a doubt that the Orthodox Catholic Church is Christ’s only sanctioned means of achieving our eternal salvation, we will immediately take steps to remedy this situation. We must realize we are holding the Church back from her destined glory. We are impeding her progress. We must let go and give impetus to her journey forward. We must make a decision, disregard ourselves and think only of Christ because He said: “You are either with Me or against Me.” Therefore no one can be indifferent. We will follow and fulfill the desires of Christ. His wishes will be our wishes. We will do as He desires of us. If we would rather continue as we have—nailing pegs into our own spiritual coffins, then we must alter our destination, we must change our name; then we cannot call ourselves by that revered and sacred name of Christian; the nomenclature Orthodox Catholic cannot be ours; we cannot claim Christ as our God.
The Word, May, 1963; pp. 3-4, 8