Recently I met a man from Russia who I will call Ivan. Ivan is in Arizona looking for work, but he is also looking for answers to spiritual questions. Being Russian, Ivan is a member of the Orthodox Church. I met him after pre-sanctified liturgy, when he started asking me questions about the faith, presumably due to the fact that I was wearing a cassock. He brought up many topics that will likely spawn other blog posts here, but the one I want to address today is scandal and corruption amongst the clergy. The way my friend Ivan tells it, the Russian Orthodox Church is corrupt from the Patriarch down to the parish priest. He spoke of financial scandals, sexual scandals, coziness with the government, a lack of spirituality, etc. Now I have no idea how true his version of the state of Orthodoxy in Russia is, but I suspect there is some element of truth in it, even if it is greatly exaggerated. But the bigger question is, so what?
I don’t mean to condone any sinful behavior, nor to dismiss off handedly what I could see are deep concerns weighing on this man. That’s also not to say that we should not seek to correct our church leaders in love. (The Good Lord knows that the Orthodox Church in America has had its share of scandals on these shores.) But what should our expectation really be? Should scandal among our ranks and our leadership shake our faith?
First of all we should recognize and keep in mind that we are all sinners. Our Lord and Savior Himself said with regard to the adulterous woman, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Scripture, while exhorting us to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, reminds us repeatedly that there is none among us who is free from sin. “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Do we have a right to expect perfection from our hierarchs? And if we cannot expect perfection, how can any line be drawn but arbitrarily? Do not each of us have enough of our own sins to concern us? If you think you do not, I pray that the Lord grant you the grace to see your own sins and not to judge your brother!
We should be concerned with the sins of our brothers, and especially among them our priests and bishops, but we must not allow their failings to shake our faith. We do not worship the Patriarch of Moscow, nor the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor the Metropolitan of All-America and Canada, but rather the Holy Trinity, One God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our faith is not in our diocesan bishop, nor in our parish priest, but in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. If our faith is anywhere else it is misplaced! And that same Lord established for us and our salvation a visible Church consisting of sinful men, yet promised that the Holy Spirit would lead it into all truth and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So why would we be concerned with what God Himself established? Let us be concerned with our salvation. The Grace of God is not dependent on the righteousness of the priesthood. The chalice still contains the Body and Blood of Christ regardless of the sins of the bishop or priest. Besides, where else could we go? This is the Church of the Apostles and the Martyrs. This is the Church of Christ Himself. The devil may win battles here on earth, but the war was won on Calvary.
So in conclusion, we certainly should be concerned with the sins of our brothers and sisters, and chief among them our ecclesiastical leadership, because to whom much is given much will be expected. They need our prayers, and our correction, and our love. St. John Chrysostom is attributed with having said “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” We know he did say, “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish” in his Homily III on Acts 1:12. Keep in mind that at one point, when the Church was only a few hundred years separated from the Apostles, what was probably a majority of the bishops fell into the heresy of Arianism. Yet the Church survived and orthodoxy prevailed. At the Council of Nicaea, St. Athanasius may have said that “the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” Rather than fleeing our own salvation because of the sins of others–which is exactly what the great deceiver and father of lies wants us to do–let us pray for and look after those in authority, that through the love of the Father and the Grace of the Holy Spirit, neither their skulls nor ours will ever touch the floor of hell.