by Charles Shingledecker
How many times throughout history has the Church required its members to rise up and speak out against immorality, corruption and false teaching? One? Two? Hundreds? The numbers don’t really matter. What matters is that when the need arises, there are those who are willing to rise up and speak out against whatever problems may be infecting the Church. While we Orthodox believe the Church to be the perfect mystical body of Christ, we must always remind ourselves of the fact that the Church is also made up of a very human element which is far from perfect. The existence of human imperfection within the Church is the very reason it has always and will always need people who are willing to speak out against distortions of the Orthodox faith.
Of course a great many of us feel that “speaking out” and calling for a balanced interpretation of our faith is an inappropriate task for the laity. We often feel as though such actions are the sole prerogative and responsibility of the hierarchy, theologians, and other such “elites” within the Church. But in fact, if we use Church history as our example, this responsibility has fallen upon the laity as much as it has the clergy. This was certainly the case during the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries when the Christian laity rose up in protest against the extremists who called for the destruction of the Holy Icons. As we all know, after a long and difficult spiritual struggle, the Iconoclastic movement was defeated, but had the people – the laity – not stood up and spoke out against this movement (which appealed to the antiquity of its beliefs as evidence for its “truth”) the Orthodox Church of today wouldn’t be – well, Orthodox.
Unfortunately in the 21st century, there is a great deal of hesitation on the part of the laity to speak out against the problems with which the modern Church struggles. Many of us are fearful of being disobedient to our priests, bishops, the Church, Tradition, and most importantly God. There is of course much wisdom in struggling to remain obedient to the teaching authority of the Church and Holy Tradition. Yet we must not confuse the dogmas proclaimed by the Creed and the Ecumenical Councils with – well, everything else.
We Orthodox toss around the word “tradition” an awful lot. The older the tradition the better, right? Well, no! As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true” (The Orthodox Church, 1997 p. 197). There is a distinction to be made between big “T” and small “t” tradition. Unfortunately, determining which is which, can at times be a rather difficult task. This has become increasingly clear in light of the re-popularization of the Toll House doctrine which an increasing number of people claim is a part of big “T” tradition.
As its adherents rightly claim, the doctrine is very ancient. Of course, that’s because it finds its origins within the first and oldest Christian heresy: Gnosticism. The fact that a few monks throughout Church history have maintained this “theory” proves absolutely nothing about it’s truthfulness. For as Metropolitan Ware points out: “many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental – pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the fundamental Christian message” (Ibid). In other words, just because something is old and was believed by someone in the 5th century doesn’t make it true. Yet the Toll House doctrine is not the only issue which should concern modern day Orthodox. In addition to the Gnostic doctrine of Toll Houses there are a number of other issues with which we should be concerned, all of them interrelated.
For starters there is a creeping fundamentalist/ultra-traditionalist movement which loudly calls for a far more strict adherence to Calendars, Canons, and the letter of the law. This movement is not to be confused with your typical Old Calendarist who simply wishes to remain faithful to what was handed down to them. No, this new movement doesn’t simply want to do things as they have always done them – they insist that you do them too! Then there is the Ephraimite movement: a form of fundamentalist monasticism, which has attempted to impose some very unhealthy monastic disciplines upon non-monastics. In both examples, people can be (and have been) damaged emotionally and spiritually. Contrary to some naysayers, these are very real issues with very real consequences.
So what is the Church to do when confronted with such problems? Whose responsibility is it to speak out and question such things? The bishops? The clergy? Well yes, but it is also our responsibility. The fact is “the guardian of the faith is not the episcopate alone, but the whole people of God, bishops, clergy, and laity together” (Ibid p. 250). We cannot simply wait around for the hierarchy to take action because guarding the faith is as much our job as it is theirs. Nor can we take false comfort in an often repeated belief that if we simply “give it time” the Church will solve all its own problems. Again, where would we be if Christians had taken that attitude during the Iconoclastic controversy? The Arian controversy? Did St. Athanasius believe the Church, if given enough time, would magically work out its problems with Arius? Of course not! He knew that we are the Church and unless we do something, nothing will be done.
None of the issues of today are nearly as dangerous or heretical as Arianism and Iconoclasm, but then that’s not the point. The point is that every thing we do or don’t do makes a difference; one way or the other. Even if we don’t have the abilities of St. Athanasius or the authority of a bishop we must nevertheless do something. For most of us, that something will be to simply ask questions, speak out, and make our voices heard. Of course when we speak out on Toll Houses, fundamentalism, excessive cultural, ethnic and national pride, and radical monasticism, their adherents will demand to know who it is that we think we are by questioning their ideologies. Who are we to question the “t”radition (or as they see it, “T”radition) of the Church? Who are we to question the “truth” which they have so readily attained?
The answer is simple: we are Orthodox Christians. And as Orthodox Christians, if and when we see excesses and distortions of our Orthodox faith – be they theological, financial, moral or Liturgical – we have the right as well as the responsibility to speak up and make our voices heard in whatever way we can. Talk about it. Pray about it. Write a letter. Participate on websites such as WeAreOrthodox.com. Do whatever it is that you can do no matter how insignificant it may seem. For nothing done for Christ can ever be insignificant. Least of all answering the Church’s call to speak out against distortions which have injured our brothers and sisters. Let us speak out for those who have been injured; let us speak out for those whose faith has been severely tested and above all let us speak out for Christ – for as Orthodox Christians we can do no less.