NOT MASTERS, MINISTERS
«not because we rule over your faith; we are but accessories to your joy” (2 Cor. 1:21; 2:4)
by Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos (+ 19-12-2019)
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University School of Theology
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The weight of a depressive “anti-tradition” - which unfortunately progresses in parallel to the genuine Tradition of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers – has grafted our ecclesiastic life with a number of secular elements. Thus, our Clergymen are often regarded (even by laypersons) as secular officials who are included among the “authorities”, while the terms “power”, “dominion”, “master” that are frequently used in our ecclesiastic tongue – by clergy and laity – have been inundated by all their secular content.
The Apostle Paul has helped us to discern as he did (in the Holy Spirit) the place of the clergy in the Body of Christ – the Church.
The sorrowed father
The Apostle Paul did not merely establish local churches; he also ensured that they remain in the unity of the faith and in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
This was also the case with the Church of Corinth. At one point, there arose in this Church a serious internal crisis on account of scandals as well as the disruptive preachings by certain “pseudo-brethren” of Paul’s, who persisted in slandering him. This forced Paul to check the Corinthians bitterly for having allowed themselves to be misled by the dexterous sycophants of his opus.
This was also the reason he did not go to Corinth to visit them, as he had planned. It was imposed by his love for them, because if he had gone, he would have been forced to check them and cause them and himself to become upset. He had “spared” the Corinthians by not going to Corinth. However – as noted by Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite – this reason seemed “authentic and authoritative”, which is why Paul went on to clarify that he was not the master and overlord of their faith. Paul wanted to dispel every suspicion that he was acting as a master and overlord, who directed them according to his personal dispositions.
Our Holy Fathers discern here a clear allusion by Paul to the pseudo-teachers, who, among their other deviations, were also displaying authoritarian tendencies towards the faithful. This is also expressed clearly by Paul in the same Epistle, when he spoke of “deceitful workers – false apostles” (11:13). He says: “For you tolerate being wholly subjugated, or devoured, or caught, or struck on the face” (11:20).
Paul thus made it clear that the success by any false apostles and false teachers or false shepherds entails guilt by the faithful themselves, for tolerating their presence and not abandoning them!
It is however a fact, that when the ecclesiastic criteria of the faithful slacken or become inactive, that is when the genuine shepherds are weakened and the counterfeit ones prevail...
Paul was in a similar clime at the time; however he did not feel “dominant”, because he was a father – and in fact a sorrowed one. In his Epistle, he speaks of tears, sorrow, a distraught heart; evidence, that his necessarily chastising words did not cease to be kneaded with love – the love of a Spiritual Father who had “begotten” them in-Christ - spiritually.
The Master of faith
Paul could never see himself as an “overlord of the faith” of the Corinthians – just as none of Paul’s genuine successors could, because there is only one Lord of our faith, Jesus Christ. He alone is the reason and the content of our faith, because it is He “Who works within us, so that we both will and act for our salvation” (Phil.2:13). It is He, Who ignites the flame of faith within us, in response to our quest. Salvatory faith is not a vague, sentimental state, nor a formal “religiosity”; it is a life relationship between the believer and the Believed.
A faithful person does not believe generally and vaguely; he believes in Someone. Furthermore, he believes, not by consenting to Him or by acknowledging Him, but by surrendering himself to Him and following His words, in order to finally be able to become united to Him. The content of our faith is that very God-Man Lord, the way that He revealed Himself to us. “I believe in Christ” signifies that I follow Christ, and apply in my life whatever He revealed to me for my salvation. I accept Christ absolutely – the way that an infant accepts its mother, with absolute faith and trust. We therefore have Christ as “the leader and the concluder of our faith” (Hebr.12:2), Who not only constitutes our faith, but also regenerates us through our faith in Him, in His Word. Paul, who had also accepted Christ thus, as the leader of his faith, is aware that as an apostle of the ONLY LORD, he cannot be anything but a Minister to the faith.
This was Paul’s self-awareness, and was also, for all the other Apostles. “5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?...” This was the question posed by the Apostle to the Corinthians, to check their factional tendencies – to which he also gave the answer: “We are but ministers, through whom you believed...” (1 Cor.3:5). He clarified that they were ministers to their faith, who led them to the Faith and to the One believed in; they were simple ministers and servants of Christ, and not “the root and the source of good things”, which is Christ only. This is also the conscience of genuine shepherds throughout the ages, and is how the faithful people of God accept and regard their shepherds: when they have an ecclesiastic conscience. In a genuine ecclesiastic community there are no “leaders and those being led” in the secular sense.
There are no absolutist demands by clerics, nor any riotous tendencies by the laypeople. Relations between clergy and laity are not regulated on the basis of the power of authority, but on equality, brotherhood and love, which issue from their common participation in the one Body of the Lord.
This is how we recognize the ecclesiastic significance of the terms “master” or “authority” in ecclesiastic living. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ “assumed” man (human nature) – but without sin (which does not belong to human nature) – likewise, His Church “assumes” the language of the world but renders it new by de-charging it of its content and “churchifying” it. Thus, the term “leader” is not rejected by Saint Gregory the Theologian, but is meant in the ecclesiastic sense: “It seems to me that ‘master’ is a helper of virtues and an opponent of malice” (Epistle 224). The same applies with the term “authority” in the language of the Gospel and the Fathers, inasmuch as it identifies with the terms “ministry” and “love”. When the apostolic and patristic conscience is preserved intact, then words find their actual significance in our lives.