I sometimes write controversial things. I do not do this because I like controversy. I am an introvert by nature. I prefer to keep my head down and mind my own business. I write because I feel like I have to.
It’s not that I mind criticism. I expect it. I actually like thoughtful and respectful critique because it helps sharpen my own ideas. But the inevitable ad hominem attack and occasional phone calls to my priest bother me. When people are mean to me, my wife gets upset. My priest also has better things to do than explain again why he disagrees with what I say. I hate that sometimes I can be a burden to those I love.
My priest does not censure me because, along with being a very patient man, he is also very smart. He knows that silence is not very Orthodox.
Inevitably someone will quote a couple of bishops at me, or cite an official church document, and think that settles the argument. These are usually converts. Most cradle Orthodox (people who were born into the church) know that disagreeing with bishops is one of our most venerable traditions.
Protestants often believe God works by democracy. I suspect many Protestant converts to Orthodoxy are reacting against their old way of doing things. When doctrine is decided by voting, the church often compromises on its beliefs in order to ward off the chaos that democracy can create. (After all, as Charles Taylor pointed out, democracy is the only form of government in which the possibility of destroying itself – being not-democratic – is written into its constitution.)
Many Protestant converts to the Orthodox Church want to stay as far away from “voting for doctrine” as possible. This sometimes means they veer toward the other extreme.
Roman Catholicism teaches that God works through the bishops (the Pope most of all). Many Protestant converts to the Orthodox Church seem to think that, because our bishops also wear funny hats, our authority is strictly hierarchical. But if that were the case, we Orthodox would be Arians, Iconoclasts, and Catholic. More on this below.
(It should go without saying that I am painting Roman Catholic and Protestant polity with a very large brush.)
But the Orthodox Church is conciliar; we are hierarchical like Roman Catholics and democratic like Protestants. Our priests and bishops decide on things by meeting in councils, but what they decide needs to be accepted by the people. We have to give their decisions our, “Amen!” This can sometimes be a very slow, very messy process.
Throughout church history, councils of bishops have promoted teachings that the church today rejects. Some made “orthodoxy” of Arian. Others called for the destruction of sacred icons. In the 15th century, the Council of Florence officially reunited the Orthodox Church with Rome: it accepted the filioque, purgatory, and the primacy of the pope. Holy communion shows the difference between hierarchical and conciliar decision-making. Rome still sees Florence as a legitimate council, so the Catholic Church permits me to take communion in a Catholic mass. I don’t, because the Orthodox Church sees Florence as illegitimate. If I were to receive the body of Christ from the hands of a Catholic priest, I could be excommunicated.
In other words, the Orthodox Church does not work by fiat but by consensus. I must respect the authority and wisdom of those tasked with my spiritual welfare. I must weigh their words carefully and consider my own motivations. I must practice intellectual humility.
But if, after doing all that, I still think my teachers are wrong, I have to say so. This is because, time and again, the Holy Orthodox Church has been rescued from heresy by people who shouted a hearty, “Hell no!”
Whenever I write something “controversial,” I receive random e-mails from strangers – Orthodox Christians – who say to me, “Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking for years.” I write about “controversial” things because, for a person who has seemingly “liberal” views, church can sometimes be a frightening, uninviting place. This should make all of us very sad because coerced silence is not very Christian, not very loving, and it is definitely not very Orthodox.
Has there ever been a time when you felt coerced into silence? What made you finally speak up?