On Spiritual Authority

In Romans, St. Paul gives us two images: servants of righteousness and servants of sin, telling us we are a slave to whatever we offer ourselves (Rom. 6:16,18,20). If to God and godly things, then we are servants of righteousness, if to the world and distractions, then we are servants of sin.

There’s a familiar story of the Centurion that we read yesterday in church that illustrates what St. Paul is talking about (Matt. 8:5-13). The Centurion had such great faith in Christ that he said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.” His statement was incorporated into one of the pre-communion prayers attributed to St. John Chrysostom. Somebody who is a servant of righteousness, like the Centurion, will see themselves as being completely unworthy of Christ.

But what does it look like when we are servants of sin? There’s another passage in the Gospels of a Pharisee who invited Jesus over for dinner (Luke 7:36-39). When a woman washed His feet with her tears and hair, the Pharisee, rather than being moved by her deep repentance, judges both her and Christ. This story shows how when we are a servant of sin, not only are we blind to our own faults, but we judge God and the way that He is bringing salvation to others.


Turning back to the Centurion as the icon of being a servant of righteousness, we remember his statement, “I am a man under authority, and I have others under my authority.” Let’s look at the first part of that – a man under authority. Those who live in righteousness live under the authority of God. The authority of God is like a protective umbrella or canopy over us. Being under God’s authority does not make us invulnerable from attack or hardships, however, it gives us the grace, strength, and fortitude to withstand anything that happens. The opposite could be said as well. When we step out from underneath God’s authority, then we open ourselves up to even more attack. We don’t have the grace or strength to withstand the enemy’s onslaught, and so we begin falling apart.

There are practical ways that we can say with the Centurion, I am a man under authority. First, we can obey the Gospel commandments. That involves reading the Scripture, reading patristic commentary on the Scripture, and then living out the Gospel. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven requires that we begin to live by its rules, even as we sojourn on this earth.

Secondly, we should obey spiritual authority. Unlike what culture is telling us right now, obedience is in fact a virtue (I saw one meme recently stating “Obedience is not a virtue” and equating obedience to Nazis). Part of the Gospel message is that we obey spiritual authority, Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:17).

One of the friends of the Apostles, St. Ignatius of Antioch who died in martyrdom shortly after St. John the Apostle’s death, wrote, Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. That is, listen to your bishop so that God will listen to your prayers. The inverse could also be said: Don’t listen to your bishop and God will not listen to your prayers. St. Ignatius continues, I am devoted to those who obey the bishop, the presbyters (priests), and the deacons. May I be with them in the presence of God. So, we can see that in both the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition, obedience to spiritual authorities is required of all Christians.

In this strange time when some Orthodox internet personalities encourage disobedience to bishops (and therefore to God), it is important that we hold fast to the Christian Faith, which has never encouraged rebellion against spiritual authorities. Granted, there have been times when many of the bishops were teaching heresy, but those times were rare and often occurred due to politics in the Byzantine Empire.

We cannot say like the Centurion, “I am a man under authority” if we rebel against Church authority. Instead, our lot will be with the Pharisees. This lesson is one of the hardest for us Orthodox Christians in the West to grasp. We are fiercely independent and are willing to obey insofar as the bishops tell us to do things that we want to do or that we agree with. But as I’ve written previously, such obedience is not particularly virtuous.


So that is how we live under God’s authority: we read the Bible, we obey the Gospel commandments, and we obey our Church leadership. But what about the next part, where he says, “I have those under my authority”? Here we understand the spiritual interpretation for servants of righteousness to be that he has his body and his passions in check. That doesn’t necessarily mean reaching a state of perfection, but that our passions are not unruly, and our body does not bark commands at us that we rush to obey. Such a state of self-control is commanded by the Gospel for us (Gal. 5:23).

God created us with a natural hierarchy. The spirit is to rule the soul and mind, which in turn should rule the body. After the fall in the Garden of Eden, that got turned upside down. Now, our bodies pretty much run the show, demanding food, sex, and comfort.

During the fasts, our bodies rebel, demanding we give into cravings. We are tempted all the time – especially here in America – to eat immoderately because food is cheap and highly available. When sexual urges come, we have a hard time keeping them in check because we allow our minds to wander, our eyes to see inappropriate TV shows, videos, and images. In this way, the body and mind are in charge instead of the spirit.

We idolize comfort. One recent example of this that comes to mind is wearing face masks. They’re hot, uncomfortable, and everybody hates wearing them. Because we idolize comfort and our self-will, we rebel against and fight those who tell us to wear a mask, whether Church or civil authorities. Such action defies two Gospel commandments to obey our Church authorities (Heb. 13:17, Deut. 17:12) and to obey civil authority (Rom. 13:1, Titus 3:1, 1 Pet. 2:13-15, Matt. 22:20-21). I’ve seen all kinds of strange and convoluted arguments using pseudo-science and bad interpretations of the US Constitution to justify rebellion. Ultimately though, it comes from idolizing both our comfort and our ego. The ego hates being told what to do, and it’s amazing the efforts we’ll make to justify following it rather than God.

My brothers and sisters, it should not be this way. We are called to be heavenly creatures, sons of righteousness, children of God filled with the Holy Spirit and peace of God. Our way of life should reveal love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, and every other fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).

We are to be under authority and have our bodies and minds under our spirit’s authority. Instead though, we (myself included) are tossed about by our bodies cravings, our mind’s egotism, and by distractions that keep us from prayer (especially in the form of cell phones and electronics that beep and we immediately attend to them as if we were their servants). Instead, let us be masters of our bodies, our minds, and our time – not becoming servants of unheavenly things but of heaven.

Let us submit to the spiritual authorities God has placed over us, and in that way, find the grace, peace, and inner strength we need to overcome the struggles each day brings. In this way, when we see God at the chalice or anywhere else, we will say with the Centurion, “I’m not worthy that You would enter under the roof of my soul.” And our Lord will speak the word, and the servant (that is our body, mind, will, and every part of us) will find healing and wholeness as it comes under our authority which, in turn, is under the authority of God.

One small caveat: I realize spiritual abuse is a real thing and that there have been recent examples of monks who demand strict obedience, claim to be clairvoyant, arrange marriages, and inflict much spiritual harm. Such people should be avoided at all costs. Obedience to spiritual authority is not blind obedience.

Generally though, when decrees come from a council or a letter is written by a bishop to his entire diocese, spiritual harm is not inflicted nor is manipulation occurring. I remember one incident in the life of St. Porphyrios where he mystically entered the book of Revelation with St. John the Evangelist. When he “came back to earth,” they asked him what he saw and experienced. He would say nothing except, “When the Antichrist comes, the bishops will recognize him.” They will then warn the flock. That is one of the reasons God has placed our bishops over us, the sheep: to guard us from spiritual wolves and protect us from danger. If, during this time they seem a little over-protective, bear with them. God places in their heart a deep desire to save and protect their flock. This is their calling.

This message was originally delivered as a homily on the Gospel and Epistle readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Below is a video of my homily:

11 thoughts on “On Spiritual Authority

  1. I hope you have been well and your journey to minister in Christ’s church is flourishing?

    I read your latest blog days ago but did not respond till now as I wanted to articulate my thoughts correctly.

    Essentially, my brief opinion is that yes submission/obedience to spiritual hierarchy and civil authorities is a traditional position though it is also important to note that there are many scriptural and canonical references to NOT do this.

    The question to be answered is when is ones hierarchy preaching heresy and when is civil authority forcing us to sin against GOD.
    There are many arguments to all these though I will bring up two so called “pillars” of Orthodoxy from an ancient perspective Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint Mark of Ephesus. These Saints were very much against Western innovations which in their time were much closer to Orthodoxy then they are today. Many people say that modern day branch theory is a heresy and so is modern ecumenism though the mainstream world Orthodox synods continue in reversing ancient “anathemas”, signing Balamand declaration and continuing in joint prayer with idolaters in many settings as I sign of acceptance…

    Looking at the scripture and the church fathers/tradition compared to the modern Orthodox view a difference can be observed though every person needs to understand and decide.

    1. Hi Some Guy, thank you for your comment. I am curious about the “many scriptural and canonical references” encouraging rebellion against the Church and civil authorities. Could you provide several examples from each one? I know the Apostles said at one point, “We must obey God and not man” when the Jews demanded they stop preaching the Christian faith. Aside from that (and the obvious examples of Christians refusing to worship pagan idols and offer incense to the emperor), I can’t think of any Scriptural or canonical sources that encourage rebellion.

      I’m familiar with the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas who taught against “Western innovations” by affirming inner prayer, that we can unite to the divine energies of God, and that the light of Christ is uncreated. St. Mark of Ephesus battled against Purgatory and a few other explicitly Roman Catholic concepts that were not any closer to Orthodoxy back then than they are today.

      I guess I’m failing to see how the Scriptures, the canonical tradition, and the Church Fathers affirm rebellion, especially when the bishops are merely asking the faithful to take some precautions during a pandemic. The situations that Ss. Gregory and Mark were in were radically different than today.

      While the precautions that the bishops have enforced may be a little more than what is necessary, it is our job as Christians to submit to them. Nobody is asking us to deny our faith. The lack of obedience among Orthodox Christians today is often the Western spirit of rebellion and independence being disguised as Orthodox piety. When it comes down to it, we Westerners (especially Americans) just don’t like being told what to do.

      1. References to heresy are many as noted here: https://www.openbible.info/topics/heresy
        In terms of what heresy is and is not the is summed up in the quote of Saint Mark of Ephesus “We have split ourselves off from the Latins for no other reason than the fact that they are not only schismatics but also heretics.”

        My point about the current mainstream church hierarchy is that they are reversing many scriptural ordinances, specifically many canonical laws and ultimately reversing anathemas which has never happened in history.

        Listening to church hierarchy is all good but when they order acceptance of historical heresy in the church it is the duty of the laity to understand this and decide what to do for their souls. This is the foundation of the church but in our current times people find it hard to be orthodox on purpose so prefer watered down orthodoxy which is essentially the modernism of as you say do whatever we want and feel good.

        If you truly want canonical references to the scripture this can be done but my advice to you is to read The Rudder to understand the foundation of the church.

        Once I have sufficient time I will quote the many ancient canons about being submissive to bishops endorsing heresy publicly, this is very important as it means doing so without repentance as no man is perfect other than Our Lord Jesus Christ.

        1. Hello Some Guy, I think I better understand what you are getting at now. When I wrote this blog, I had in mind people rebelling against the hierarchy because of some administrative rules that have been temporarily enforced to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. It seems that you are talking about much different issues. I’m assuming that you’re referencing some of the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his relations with Rome?

          Since both of your comments have been rather vague in what exactly you are attacking as heresy (you’ve listed no particular heresy names and which bishops are supposedly endorsing them), I can only guess how to respond any further. Dealing in vague generalities only results in confusion.

          I would ask one question: are there any canons that order the faithful to openly rebel or go into schism if they have a theological disagreement with their bishop? I’m pretty sure the answer to my question is no, but if you know of something that I do not, let me know.

          1. My apologies though I will try and be specific though I do not try to throw scripture and canons at people because then I am called a pharisee but here it goes since you asked…

            Canon 45 of the 85 Apostolic canons essentially says that if anyone in the ministry joins in prayer or attends a service with a heretic he is to be deposed and if a lay person does he/she is to excommunicated.

            As I mentioned before the definition of a heretic is the key to this.
            Based on the vast differences of the different religions that exist today joining in prayer in any modern ecumenical service which is not looking to evangelize the ancient church of Christ is heretical and of no benefit to Orthodox other than steering faithful to modern day branch theory which is indeed anathematized.

            To sum up:
            1) Modern ecumenical movements are heresy based on Orthodox Theology.
            2) Modern Orthodox hierarchy reversing ancient anathemas on the Pope’s heretical innovations such as calendar and the western church not being heretical and the subsequent Balamand decleration.
            3) Many real images/videos all non rumors of joint prayer and services (orthodoxwitness.org/ecumenism/)

            I hope this makes sense.

            There are also multiple Canons about disregarding ones bishop if they are publicly preaching synodically declared heresy though I do not have time to search The Rudder in more detail… it is a huge book 🙂

          2. I think it is important to point out that “the current mainstream church hierarchy” (your words from a previous comment) is not guilty of the allegations of heresy that you are making. There are a few, including the EP, who have relations with the RCC that make many Orthodox uncomfortable. But it is not as if the entire mainstream Church hierarchy, or even a majority of them, are courting the papacy. Many of the bishops (including the ones here in America) have more important spiritual and administrative matters to handle than commenting on the ecumenical activity of other bishops around the world.

            Regarding Church canons, I have completed a fairly thorough study of all canons related to the Ecumenical Councils. I haven’t gone through the Rudder, but I can’t imagine any canons encouraging schism or spiritual rebellion. Throughout the ages, laity who have been under a heretical bishop usually go about their business and wait for him to pass away or be deposed. While there have been instances of the laity rising up against the episcopacy, these are exceedingly rare. The problem with heresy hunters in the Church today is they tend to be schismatics who are eagerly looking for ways to display how they are “more Orthodox” than others. They’re often willing to leave the Church to join some faction of people who think like them (such as the Old Calendarists, the Genuine Orthodox Church, etc.) I don’t believe there are any Church canons encouraging such behavior. Certainly we can disregard the errors of our bishops but we don’t separate ourselves from the Church simply because we’ve got a few bishops who have fallen into error.

  2. I am simply trying to outline what heresy has been dogmatically in the history of the ancient church and then point out some actions that have been signed/agreed into the church by current hierarchy which are counter to the foundations of the ancient church, these have been listed numerous times above.

    This is the main item to be mindful of as an Orthodox Christian in our current times.

    You mentioned
    “I haven’t gone through the Rudder, but I can’t imagine any canons encouraging schism or spiritual rebellion.”

    My advice is to not imagine the Canon Law of the ancient church though to study it, if you wish to gain its wisdom.
    You may be surprised to discover what is contained there in which no one dares to teach or to even print The Rudder in our times.

    You are welcome to contact me if you want a copy 🙂

    1. I don’t imagine Church canons, I read them. My point still stands. For example, I can’t “imagine” the canons stating it is alright to denounce your faith if you’re scared of persecution. What I mean by stating “I can’t imagine” is that I’ve read enough canons to understand the spirit that many of them have been written in and I know that they will not contradict the faith itself. To go into schism, accept heresy, or rebel against one’s bishop are contrary to the Christian faith. Those who attempt to use the canons to distort the faith do so to their own spiritual destruction.

      The Rudder is available to anyone who wants to read it but I would strongly recommend caution. The Church canons were frequently written with little or no context. One must be well-studied in the nuances of debates, heresies, scandals, and issues that the Church has faced over the centuries to understand why the Church Fathers wrote what they did and how the rules actually apply. If anyone thinks they are simple and straightforward, it reveals that person’s historical ignorance. It’s simple to them because they don’t understand it.

      If we approach them at face-value as a list of rules that apply at all times and in all circumstances, we’ll not only find contradictions, but we’ll live a life that is exceedingly far from any form of traditional Christianity. It would be a new religion, or at least a bizarre new sect of Christianity that is anything but true or authentic.

      For the above listed reasons, it is not frequently printed. Nobody is trying to hide it or suppress it. The Church hierarchy has copies, and electronic copies can be found as well. It is consulted by bishops and scholars when they come together in council to determine how the Church has historically responded to various challenges over the years. But parts of it are likely to be grossly misunderstood by most people.

      1. Obviously the church canons do not stand for division/schism of the church, they stand for maintaining the accuracy/unity of the church though they need to be understood and the Holy Fathers have repeatedly done this.

        The below is an easy read.

        Canon XV of the 1st & 2nd
        “The rules laid down with reference to Presbyters and Bishops and Metropolitans are still more applicable to Patriarchs. So that in case any Presbyter or Bishop or Metropolitan dares to secede or apostatize from the communion of his own Patriarch, and fails to mention the latter’s name in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained, in the divine Mystagogy, but, before a conciliar verdict has been pronounced and has passed judgement against him, creates a schism, the holy Synod has decreed that this person shall be held an alien to every priestly function if only he be convicted of having committed this transgression of the law. Accordingly, these rules have been sealed and ordained as respecting persons who under the pretext of charges against their own presidents stand aloof, and create a schism, and disrupt the union of the Church. But as for those persons, on the other hand, who, on account of some heresy condemned by holy Synods, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it bareheaded in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodical verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudo-bishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions.”

        Below is an interesting read which lists many more:

        The main question yet again is to reiterate what is heresy and the Holy Fathers of the Church have painfully tried to distinguish this throughout the centuries in a Canonically irreversible way.

        Are the Holy Fathers correct in condemning the Papists to heresy and anathematizing them?
        Is the modern day hierarchy which reverses anathemas, renames many heretics to schismatics and accepts their mysteries correct?

        Let all who understand whatever they understand decide for their own souls.

        Glory to God.

        1. As someone who is not under the EP and not a hierarch, I have no say in that fight. Some of what he has done bothers me, and it bothers many other Orthodox throughout the world. But at the end of the day, it’s not my problem to solve. It does not help me in my struggle toward salvation to spend much of my time and energy condemning someone on the other side of the world.

          As you can see from the articles in this blog, I address topics that relate to the spiritual struggle, soteriology, and things that have a direct effect on those of us in the Orthodox Church in America. I have my opinions about other things, but I generally keep those to myself or discuss them with close friends.

          I don’t know your situation. If you are in a jurisdiction that is under the EP, then yes, you have a right to ask serious questions and find spiritual guidance from hierarchs whom you believe have not fallen into heresy. Whatever your situation may be, may you find guidance and draw closer to our Lord Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our salvation.

          1. I understand that you are not in the episcopate and I am indeed a layperson though I am only pointing out many historical facts and many modern reforms which as you say many do not endorse.

            I would just like to say thanks for not blocking/censoring my comments as I am not trying scandalize anyone just trying to do what I can to be as Orthodox on purpose as possible 🙂

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