Limits to Submission
(…compiled by Dr. David C. Ford—St. Tikhon’s Seminary)
Just as St. Chrysostom recognizes that there are some situations in which a wife can no longer obey her husband, so too he sees that at some point, ungodly, and especially heretical, clergy must no longer be obeyed. As he realizes that, while marriage is a divine institution, some particular marriages are not ordained by God, so he also sees that while the priesthood is instituted by God and is indeed a tangible extension of Christ Himself, yet in the case of bad priests, “God indeed does not ordain (cheirotonei) all.”59
But he immediately goes on to say, “But He works through all the clergy, even though they are themselves unworthy (anaxioi), that the people may be saved.”60 Earlier in this same sermon he states,
He who honors the priest, will honor God also; and he who learns to despise the priest will eventually insult Qiubrisei) God. . . . And even if the priest is wicked (phaulos), if God sees that you, through reverence to Him, respect this priest even though he is unworthy of honor, He will Himself reward you.61
Here we see that, as much as possible, the laity should honor even unworthy priests, because they are nevertheless members of the priesthood, which is always honorable because God Himself instituted it.62 In language very similar to that used concerning sexual desire and its ill-usage in fornication (as we saw in Chapter Two), Chrysostom says, “Do not imagine that an unworthy priest discredits (diaballe) the priesthood. In such a case, it is necessary to discredit not the thing itself, but the one who makes an evil use out of the good thing.”63 He says further that “neither can the unrighteous priest harm you, if you are faithful.”64 In his sermons on St. John Chrysostom repeats this idea within the context of strongly warning his people against judging their priests:
Is there then such fear when man appoints [i.e., in the case of earthly rulers], but when God ordains do we despise him who is ordained, and abuse him, and besmirch him with ten thousand reproaches, and though forbidden to judge our brethren, do we sharpen our tongue against our priests? And how can this deserve excuse, when we do not see the beam in our own eye, but are bitterly over-curious about the mote in another’s? Do you not know that by so judging you make your own judgment the harder? And this I do not say as approving those who exercise their priesthood unworthily (anaxios), but as greatly pitying and weeping for them. Yet I do not on this account allow that it is right that they should be judged (krinesthai) by those over whom they are set. And although their life is very much spoken against, if you take heed to yourself, you will not be harmed at all in respect to the things committed to them by God.65
Still, there may be times when it is simply too dangerous to one’s faith to remain attached to a corrupt priest. This is particularly true for Chrysostom in the case of a priest who teaches deviations from the Faith—not in terms of his life, but in terms of his doctrine. As he explains, in reference to Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey those who rule over you”),
“What then,” you say, “when the priest is wicked (poneros), should we obey?” Wicked? In what sense? If indeed in regard to the Faith, flee and avoid him!”66
He goes on to say here that “‘Judge not that you be not judged’ [Matt. 7:1] concerns life, not the Faith,” implying that it is the place of the laity to exercise discernment concerning the teaching of their priest. But “in regard to [his] life,” the laity are “not to be over-curious.”67 In the case of an exceptionally sinful priest, of course, the laity would have recourse to their bishop, asking him to discipline or even depose such a priest.
Homily II on II Timothy, PG 62.610B (NPNF 1, XIII, p. 481). Chrysostom refers to Christ as “seeing all things, and knowing the chance that in so great length of time and in so vast a world there would be many corrupt priests” (Homily XXI on I Corinthians, NPNF 1, XII, p. 125). Also see Homily VIII on I Corinthians,NPNF Ι,ΧΙΙ, p. 44 (“It may be that rulers are wicked and polluted, and their subjects good and virtuous; and it may be that laymen may live in piety, and priests in wickedness”).
Homily II on II Timothy, PG 62.610B (NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 481-482). See also Homily LXXXVI on St. John, NPNF 1, XIV, p. 326 (“Though the priests be exceedingly vile, He, for your sake, will accomplish all the things that are His, and will send the Holy Spirit”).
Homily II on II Timothy, PG 62.609D (NPNF Ι,ΧΙΙΙ, p. 481). Also see Homily X on I Thessalonians, NPNF 1, XIII, p. 367 (“He who loves Christ, will love him [the priest] whatever he may be, because through him he has obtained the awesome mysteries” [i.e., the Eucharist and the other sacraments]).
This does not imply an “indelible priesthood.” Again differing from Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Church has always believed that it is possible for a priest to lose all the “powers” of the ordained priesthood, either through joining a schismatic or heretical group, or from corrupt behavior leading to defrocking, or by voluntary request.
Homilies on Uzziah.IV.4, SC 277, p. 162.
Homily II on II Timothy, PG 62.612B (NPNF Ι,ΧΙΙΙ, p. 483). See also Homily XXI on I Corinthians, PG 61.180C (NPNF 1, XII, p. 125), concerning how we shall stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment: “If you do the things commanded, you shall stand with much boldness (parrhesias); but if you disobey the things spoken, even though you point to ten thousand corrupt priests, this will not plead for you at all.” [Aside from heresy] …Chrysostom is convinced that the efficacy of Baptism (and the other Sacraments) does not depend upon the personal holiness of the priest: “God works even by unworthy persons, and in no respect is the grace of baptism damaged by the conduct of the priest, or else the receiver would suffer loss” (Homily VIII on I Corinthians, NPNF 1, XII, p. 44). Also see Homily LXXXVI on St. John, NPNFl,XIV,p.326.
Homily LXXXVI on St. John, PG 59.472C (NPNF 1, XIV, p. 326). See also Chrysostom’s second homily on Greet Priscilla and Aquila, PG 51.205ff. (partially quoted by Baur, vol. 1, p. 186 —”But even if the priest deserves your censure, still it is not right for you to judge his life”).
Homily XXXIV on Hebrews, PG 63.23ID (NPNF l.XIV, p. 519).