On Blind Obedience to Hierarchs

Sts. Makarios of Corinth 1731-1805 and Nikodemos the Hagiorite 1749-1809

Objection: …[F]irst, that the Canons and the commandments are under the authority of the Hierarchs; secondly, that we should not examine what our Hierarchs, teachers, and spiritual fathers tell us, but just obey them in all things with simplicity; and thirdly, they cite the Apostolic dictum: “Obey them that rule over you, and submit yourselves. (Heb. 13:17)

To the three parts of this objection we have nothing of our own to say, lest we cause confusion and perturbation to some; however, we reckon it harmful to people’s souls to remain completely silent about them. Let us, therefore, see what the Saints say, so that no one might have any grounds for complaining.

…The Divine Chrysostom demonstrates from the Consecration of Hierarchs that Hierarchs are subject to the Divine Canons and commandments:

“Because the High Priest was the head of the people, it was necessary for him, being the head of all, to have on his head a symbol of his authority (for absolute power is intolerable; but since he has the symbol of sovereignty on his head, he shows that he is subject to the law.) The Law ordains that his head not be bare, but covered, so that the head of the people might learn that he has another, greater Head. For this reason, in the Church, at the Ordinations of Priests [St. Nikodemos: ‘Priests’ is written here instead of ‘Hierarchs’, since the author is referring to Priesthood in general; in fact, only Hierarchs carry the Divinely transmitted Scriptures on their head, according to Dionysius the Aeropagite], the Gospel of Christ is placed on the head of the Ordinand, so that he might learn that he is receiving the true tiara of the Gospel and so that he might also learn that, although he is the head of all, he is nonetheless subject to the laws of the Gospel, that he governs all, but is himself governed by the laws, and that, while he enacts all the laws, his powers are defined by the laws. For this reason, one of the ancients (Ignatios was his name), who was adorned by Priesthood and martyrdom, write, in a letter to a certain Hierarch: ‘Let nothing be done without your will; and as for yourself, do nothing without the will of God.’ (Epistle to Polycarp) Therefore, the fact that the Hierarchs has the Gospel placed on his head signifies that he is under authority.” (Homily ‘That the Legislator of the Old and New Testaments is One and the Same’)

To the second point that they mention, that that we should not examine our Hierarchs, teachers, and spiritual fathers, but obey them in all matters, St. Basil the Great replies that “the preacher of the Word must both do and say everything with great circumspection and scrutiny, with a view to pleasing God, since he ought to be scrutinized and approved even by those entrusted to him.” (Morals, Rule 70.37)

And again: “Such hearers as have been instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by their teachers; and they should accept what is in conformity with the Scriptures and reject what is alien to them, and should vehemently shun those who persist in such teachings.” (Morals, Rule 72)

And again: Those who do not have much knowledge of Scripture should recognize the distinguishing characteristics of the Saints by the fruits of the Spirit, receiving those who possess such characteristics and shunning those who do not.” (Morals, 70.2)

…To the third part of the objection the Divine Chrysostom responds: “Anarchy is altogether an evil, the occasion of many calamities, and the source of disorder and confusion […]. However, the disobedience of those who are ruled is no less an evil […]. But perhaps someone will say, there is also a third evil, when the ruler is bad. I myself, too, know it, and it is no small evil, but a far worse evil than anarchy. For it is better to be led by no one than to be led by one who is evil. For the former indeed are oftentimes saved, and oftentimes are in peril, but the latter will be altogether in peril, being led into the pit of perdition. How then does Paul say, ‘Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves (Heb. 13:17)?’ Having said above, ‘whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation’ (Heb. 13:7), he then said, ‘Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves’. ‘What then,’ you say, ‘when he is wicked, should we not obey?’ Wicked? In what sense? If in regard to faith, flee and avoid him, not only if he is a man, but even if he is an angel come down from heaven; but if in regard to life, be not over-curious. And I do not cite this instance from my own experience, but from Divine Scripture. For hear Christ saying, ‘The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ Seat.’ (Mat. 23:2) Having previously said many fearful things about them, He then says, ‘They sit in Moses’ Seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, […] do; but do not ye after their works.’ (Mat. 23:2-3) What he means is that they have the office, but are of unclean life; but pay attention not to their life, but to their words. For no one would be harmed on account of their characters. How is this? Both because their characters are manifest to all, and also because even if one of them were ten thousand times as wicked he would never teach what is wicked. But with regard to faith, the evil is not manifest to all, and the wicked will ruler will not forbear from teaching false doctrines. For the saying, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Mat. 7:1) pertains to life, not to faith […]. Paul, however, previously commended them [he testified, that is, that the Shepherds were in every way upright], and then he says: ‘Obey them that have the rule over you'”. (Homily XXXIV On Hebrews)

This is what the Saints say. But as for us, brethren, since the Lord has called us to be at peace, we should submit to our Hierarchs, spiritual fathers, and teachers on account of the dignity that they have before God. But if any one of them does something irrational or impedes us from doing some God-pleasing deed, let us not cease from beseeching and imploring until we persuade him that the will of God should be done, in order that peace might reign between us; that concord and harmony might prevail; that love might be shown towards Shepherds and sheep, towards Hierarchs and Christians, towards Priests and lay people, towards superiors and subordinates; and that scandals, disturbances, schisms, and divisions might remain far from us. For such things are destructive of our souls, our homes, our Churches, and of every community and nation. In brief, let peace reign, in order that might all be one body and one spirit, all with one hope even as we were called, (cf. Eph. 4:4) and that the God of peace might be with us. (Concerning Frequent Communion, Objection 12. Manna from Athos: The Issue of Frquent Communion on the Holy Mountain in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries by Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos, p. 167-171)


  1. A few more quotations on judging that are in the fine little volume Do Not Judge, by Hieromonk Gregorios of Koutloumousiou Monastery of Mt. Athos, translated by Fr. Michael Monos. (I’m reading it a second time today, and probably a third tomorrow, in order to really cement into my mind this pillar of the spiritual life– that of not judging our brothers):

    Speaking about the great harm done by judging others, a contemporary saint [St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, Oropos, 2000] writes: “No benefit comes from scrutinizing the deeds of others. In fact such curiosity gives rise to slander and condemnation, as well as other grave sins. Why do you need to occupy yourself with others? Examine and know your own self… Observe yourself assiduously, checking to see whether some ruinous evil as established itself within you… This scrutiny is very beneficial, for it gives birth to humility… whereas scrutinizing the wrongdoing of others is the source of all sin. If you see or hear somebody committing a sin, do not condemn him… The Lord will judge the living and the dead… Do not slander your fellows, or you will be burdened with this calamitous sin at the coming Judgment and be sentenced to eternal hell…”

    The third thing we must avoid is condemnation of the clergy. St. John Chrysostom says: “If you are not permitted to judge your brother, even less ought you to judge your teacher… You are a sheep, do not question the shepherd lest you be made to give an account of the things you accuse him of… Tell me, if you go to a clinic with a wound, don’t you allow the doctor to apply medication to your wound in order to heal it? Or do you inspect the doctor to see if he has a wound or not?… Let us not, if you please, denigrate our teachers nor subject them to close scrutiny, so as not to do harm to ourselves. Let us scrutinize our own affairs, and then we will speak no ill of anyone.” [from Chrysostom’s Homilies on 2 Timothy, 2, 12.]

    p. 42-43 of Do Not Judge

    Nevertheless, just as Chrysostom and Ss. Nikodemos and Makarios seem to be saying in your quotations, this doesn’t mean that we do NOTHING when God presents us the reality of our brother’s (or father’s) fall. In the chapter entitled Correcting a Brother, Hieromonk Gregorios writes:

    Avoiding judgmentalism does not mean indifference towards a brother who has sinned. Bishops, spiritual fathers, and priests in general, as shepherds of their flock, have a duty to bring the lost sheep back into the sheepfold. Indeed, all faithful Christians have a duty to assist a brother whose sin has put him in peril, though without condemning him. The Fathers show us the order and manner in which a brother’s correction must be effected.

    St. Paul, addressing Timothy the Apostle and bishop, says: Reprove those who have sinned in the sight of all… (1 Tim. 5:20). Both to the Christians of Corinth he writes: Therefore, judge nothing before the time, [that is] until the Lord comes (1 Cor. 4:5). St. John Chrysostom correlates these two apparently contradictory statements, saying: The Apostle in his Epistle to the Corinthians, did not command them not to judge generally, but not to judge their superiors… not to refrain from correcting the sinners. Nor did he censure all Corinthians indiscriminately, but rather students who judge their teachers, and those who accuse innocent people although they are themselves guilty of innumerable evils… Just as the forgiveness of sins begins with ourselves (here the Saint refers to Jesus’ command: Truly, if you forgive people their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you (Matt. 6:14), so in passing judgment it is we ourselves who establish the criteria for condemnation. We should neither deride nor insult, but admonish. We should not denigrate, but advise. We should not attack recklessly, but correct affectionately… ‘What then?’, someone will say, ‘If a person commits fornication, shall I not say that his behavior is wrong, nor correct the person who acts indecently?’ You must certainly correct him, but not like an adversary, nor as an enemy seeking revenge, but rather as a physician preparing medication. Christ did not say, “do not restrain a sinner”, he said “do not judge him.”

    With regard to malicious gossip, St. Basil the Great writes: “There are two cases when one may be permitted to say something unfavorable about ones fellow. The first is when a person needs to discuss with other discerning people a method for correcting someone who has sinned. The second is when one needs to protect brethren who, out of ignorance, are in danger of mistaking evil for good.” [The Lesser Rules, Question 25] The venerable Maximos clarifies that there are only two reasons we may make mention of a fellow’s sins, without condemning him, “either to correct him or benefit another.” Chapters on Love 3, 73. The Philokalia, Vol. 2]

    p. 35-37 of Do Not Judge

    This wisdom answers all my dilemmas about why it says not to judge but we have many examples of saintly reproof throughout history, down to our own times with Elder Paisios’ letter on Ecumenism in which he accuses the ecumenists of not having a shred of spirituality and the Patriarch of loving heterodoxy more than the Church. He is clearly writing to benefit the souls of these people who are scandalized, so that they do not confuse evil for good. Additionally, the reproof of the monks of Mt. Athos to the Patriarch is an example of both exceptions– one, it is an attempt to bring the Holy Father to correction, and two it is to benefit the faithful who may otherwise think that by their silence they approve of his sins. Neither are prideful.

    Not judging others does not then mean that we ought to be in denial about others’ sins, but that we ought to be silent about them unless we are lovingly and meekly trying to bring them correction. It also doesn’t mean to simply uncritically accept what we hear others teach or do. I like that Hieromonk Gregorios sees correction, however, firstly as the role of our holy hierarchs, but that it also falls to the people as well. He also mentions that we never correct as adversaries but with admonishment, advice, and affection, and without judgment.

    The rest of the book is such a treasure– about HOW to really do this and HOW to think when one does see sins– “Today him and tomorrow me!” “I fall into worse sins every day!” and the like. Spiritually, for me, judging others toxic. I really do open myself up to serious sins when I begin to judge the so-called liberals in the Church, because I do not simply think, “Yes, they’re wrong– may God have mercy and enlighten both them and me, glory to Him for teaching me what little I do know, and for those shining examples of holiness and Orthodoxy in our own times.” But rather, I think, “They’re ruining the Church– wouldn’t it be better if the tribunal were set today and they were brought to disgrace and ruin for their actions and statements. Wouldn’t it be great for them to know how right I am.” And yet I can’t manage to really keep a fast or my prayer rule or to be silent when my wife insults me.

    I think the other thing I’m getting from people like Elder Paisios and Fr. Josiah is– keep my eyes on the approved, the elect, the righteous. Pity and pray, but don’t worry and judge. No, don’t participate in sins either. Pray for the holy Orthodox patriarchs and be willing also to give the benefit of the doubt when that is possible. Trust the trustworthy– Mt. Athos, Russia, the modern saints and elders. When they must resist or correct it is not in enmity and bitterness. And thank God, he has not abandoned us but continues to purify and illumine them that fervently repent, “with sympathetic mercy” even, as we read in the pre-communion prayers. He is not willing that any should perish, but I want to be rid of them and have them judged immediately. But not for myself– even though I now believe differently about many things than when I first became Orthodox.

    Please pray for me. I just read some of St. Nephon’s vision of the Last Judgment. That’ll keep me from judging others. Have mercy on us all, O Greatly Merciful One!!!!

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