Fr. Richard Rene on Church Scandals & “Clericalism”

Fr. Richard Rene

The root issue behind the current scandals, I believe, lies in a faulty belief that the clergy are a kind of religious caste, much like the Levitical priesthood of ancient Israel. Many priests and bishops think of the clergy as a closed corporation of clerics, apart from and different than the laity. We are even tempted to think of ourselves as a higher level of Christian, somehow closer to God than non-ordained people, a sacred brotherhood that we must uphold, preserve and defend against outsiders.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this understanding—or rather, misunderstanding—of the clergy could lead to hierarchical abuse. If I consider myself a member of superior and distinct group and already have tendencies to be controlling or abusive, then I will be tempted to use my power to satisfy myself at the expense of those who are “less” than I am. And when one of my brother clerics does something wrong, my first impulse will be to protect the brotherhood, rather than to defend those he has hurt…

Some would suggest that the answer to this problem is simple: down with the clergy! The whole hierarchical structure, they would say, needs to be torn down, and either reconstructed or discarded forever.

I cannot agree with this point of view, partly because it is too simplistic, but mostly because clerical hierarchy has been an integral part of Christian Church government since the time of the Apostles. The failures that we see in the financial and sexual scandals of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are not an indication that an ordained clergy is an innately corrupt idea. Rather, the current clerical culture reflects a dysfunctional understanding of what the clergy is supposed to be, according to the New Testament. What we need is not revolution or reform. What we need is restoration.

What does the New Testament teach about the clergy? Perhaps the most fundamental and important metaphor for the Church government throughout the New Testament is that of a Roman household in antiquity. At the top of this institution stood someone who is known in the New Testament variously as “the householder,” “the lord,” “the master” or even “the king.” (I don’t really have the space for all the scriptural references; go look them up for yourselves!)

In antiquity, this paterfamilias (literally, “father of the family”) was the supreme authority in his household, possessing the literal legal power of life and death over his wife, children, slaves, and animals.

Taking up this metaphor, the Apostle Paul taught that all the members of the Church are “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19) with Jesus Christ Himself as the first-born son who has inherited lordship and authority over the household from His Father (see, for example, “the parable of the wicked tenants” in chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel).

What place is there for an ordained clergy in the household metaphor? Since the paterfamilias in antiquity was often absent from his estate, he would frequently appoint a trusted slave as a steward, acting on his behalf to administer his affairs and keep accounts. Again, Jesus makes numerous references to stewards in His parables.

The technical term for the senior steward on a Roman estate was episkopos, or “overseer.” It is the word from which we get the words “Episcopal” and ultimately, “Bishop.” If the estate was large, the episkopos would appoint assistants, known as presbuteros, from which we derive “Presbyter” and its misleading synonym, “Priest.”

Again, the New Testament writings often use the terms “overseer” (episkopoi) and “elder” (prebuteroi) synonymously to describe leaders in early Christian communities who taught, ordained others, presided over worship, exhorted, corrected and disciplined.

Here’s the crucial point though: while overseers and elders had real and distinct authority in the Roman household, they were just slaves, no more or less so than any other slave. Applying this metaphor to the New Testament understanding of the Church, then, it becomes clear that the clergy have never been conceived as a separate caste, a closed brotherhood apart from the people of God. In the end, they were just “slaves” who were appointed to the task of eldership and oversight by the Lord of the household.

If the segregation of the clergy from the laity is the poisonous wellspring of the scandals in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches, then the antidote lies in restoring an authentic New Testament vision in which the clergy are fellow members of God’s household—distinct yes, authoritative yes, but not separate, and by no means exalted and idolized as a superior caste.

Concretely, this restoration means building a culture of transparency and accountability, in which clergy work in a spirit of full disclosure and consensus with lay-persons to make decisions for the good of all. It means revisiting the issue of enforced clerical celibacy (both of priest and of bishops), which in my opinion has exacerbated the segregation of ordained and non-ordained, especially when it is applied as a rule and not an option.

The ongoing task, then, belongs to you and me. We cannot change the current state of the Church as a whole, but we can go back the New Testament (as it has always been interpreted and understood); we can discover there the truly original vision of the Church; and we can implement that vision here and now in our relations with one another—clergy and laity alike—as fellow citizens, saints and members of God’s family.

* This excerpt is from “Canadian Orthodox Messenger: New Series 30:3, Autumn 2010”

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