What Do We Need? Love Amidst the Clutter

I’ve been slowly making my way through the book, An Empire of Things. It’s subtitle, How We Became a World of Consumers from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries, describes the fascinating journey outlined in the text. It tracks the gradual evolution of the modern world as seen in our acquisition of stuff. The average citizen in the 1400’s would have been lucky to have a change of clothes and the barest minimum of cutlery and plates. As a form of prosperty slowly spread over Europe, there were laws to control its growth. Certain colors were forbidden to the underclass. There were laws that governed those popular long toes on renaissance shoes (the clothing laws have probably been my favorite part of the story). The laws eventually gave way to what seems to have been an inexorable growth in the accumulation of wealth. Christians have (from time to time) complained about our cultural wealth. It’s as though we were drowning in our prosperity.

The West not only enjoyed increasing prosperity, it also became witness to successive waves of reform. The sense that “something is wrong” saw movements of reform. The Reformation itself was but one of many such efforts. Some of them reformed various monastic orders. Others reformed the structures of the Church. In most reforms, there seems to have been a drive to simplify, to de-clutter the faith. That the Protestant movement continues to shatter and divide speaks to the abiding character of simplifying reform. The occasional statement, “All I need is Jesus and my Bible,” is only the most extreme exposition of a de-cluttered Christianity. Though many may attend Church (for fellowship), this radically individualized, simplistic approach rests unchallenged within the heart.

It is strange that the simplification of Christianity has resulted in a landscape cluttered with the remains of discarded denominations and ecclesiastical experiments. When I travel the backroads of Tennessee, I see hundreds (maybe more) of tiny Churches whose names astound me with their variety of identifications. Many of them seem to be closed.

There is a question that underlies all of this: As Christians, what do we actually need? Is there some sort of minimalist formula that captures the essence of our faith and embodies it for us? The messiness of authentic Christianity (and its inherent clutter) is found in the fact that it is social in its nature. The teachings of Christ are not focused on inner self-transcendence or other individualized religious notions. What he teaches is decidedly social. We are to love our neighbor, not just God. To make matters truly complicated, Christ incarnated the gospel in the locus of a Church.

I have many times encountered the statement that the Church is a “human institution,” drawing a distinction between its messiness and the streamlined God (which is pretty imaginary as well). Salvation, rigntly understood, is communion – with God and with one another. And, in properly taught Christian theology, we find a certain “messiness” in God as we seek to verbalize the reality of the Holy Trinity.

Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church, is precisely the rock on which theology most often founders. Many Christians simply avoid thinking about the Church, and an increasing number seem to be abandoning it altogether. We want a de-cluttered God, one that serves to de-clutter our lives in a world that is sinking in madness, regardless of your point-of-view.

I have, from time to time, quipped humorously that Christ gave us the Church in order to keep us honest. St. John flatly tells us that if we say we love God but hate our brother then we are liars. (1Jn. 4:20) It is also the case that Christ has given us the Church in order for us to know God. Christ points to the sick, the prisoners, the naked, and the hungry as points of His presence among us in Matthew 25. His teaching on the love of enemies focuses on understanding that to do so makes us to be “like God.” (Lk. 6:35-36) St. Silouan of Athos said, “we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.” For those who have spent considerable time in the Church, it should be manifest that it is a very common place to encounter enemies.

Christ is not an idea, nor do His teachings push us towards an abstraction. He draws us inexorably towards the clutter of creation and the many persons within it. One critic of the Church (debates rage around his identity) opined, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him that leprous bride …” It was a sentiment spoken by someone who obviously did not consider himself to be a leper.

The story of humanity is marked by a failure to love. More than anything else, this is the character of sin. St. John wrote, “God is love.” We cannot know the One who is love apart from love. The tragic failure to embody love within our lives gives rise to massive efforts to disguise that very fact. Even our wars are explained in terms of sacrifice and generosity. The kindness of God draws us towards that failure. Acknowledging it is a beginning of repentance. The Church, a flawed and leprous community, brings us into the very heart of our failure and God’s union with us in that precise moment – that He might cleanse us and present us as a spotless bride. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2Cor. 5:21) In His death, Christ bore the enmity of the whole world. In doing so, He entered into every hatred and element of bitterness in our lives. St. Sophrony said, “Christ has descended into the lowest hell and is waiting for His friends to meet Him there.”

This is the mystery of the cluttered Church. Only love “de-clutters.” One of the great treasures of Orthodox Christianity is its unbroken history of 2,000 years. It is a very cluttered history (not unlike the shame-marked genealogy of Christ). As such, it reflects the reality found in our own hearts. And it is in that clutter that we find ourselves sorted – sheep and goats – measured in love, by love, and for love.


Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





53 responses to “What Do We Need? Love Amidst the Clutter”

  1. Nancy A Holloway Avatar
    Nancy A Holloway

    ..and the primary failure in today’s dysfunctional family, is the inability or unwillingness to love.
    Fr. John Breck used to say that 90% of the families in America are dysfunctional and the other 10%
    are lying.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the realities I have noticed in my own heart if that I often seek “simplicity” as a guise for controlling the outcome.

    John also warns us in chapter 16, esp vs 33 that we have no such control, I remain a stubborn and willful man, however.

    God forgive me

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Considering our culture, I believe it might be difficult to understand what love is. This culture promotes power, control, management and not meekness.

    And I also speak of myself in this sorry matter.

  4. Lee Graham Avatar
    Lee Graham

    This was a wonderful and brilliantly worded post. Thank you, Father Freeman! I was pleased to learn, that just as God used “the shame-marked genealogy of Christ” to bear witness to the world through his son Jesus, so, too the cluttered mishaps of my life may also be used (transformed) by God to work through me in the world of my reality. God bless you for your faithfulness in continuing to post your thoughts. I look forward to reading them.

  5. Simon Avatar

    “One of the great treasures of Orthodox Christianity is its unbroken history of 2,000 years. It is a very cluttered history (not unlike the shame-marked genealogy of Christ).” That is a really, really good point. I am just gonna put that right there in my pocket so I have it with me when I need it later.

  6. Agata Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this article on Love today, it came at just the right time in my life.
    Right now I am taking care of my Mom, who is slowly (and sometimes quickly) sliding into Alzheimer’s.
    I need to live, practice and model Love in this challenging situation (model it to my sons).
    As Nancy said above, all of it feels so dysfunctional. I am finding that without God, it would be completely impossible.
    I think all problems of humanity come from Godlessness… (the history of the decline of Western Christianity is a point in case).

    I was going to say that the photo must have been taken somewhere in Poland. The 4-5 words/names that can be read on the locks are all Polish. Then I got to the end and photo credit, and the author’s name if very obviously Polish. 🙂 (although maybe not to everybody).

    And speaking of Love, I would like to share something that maybe would help someone who stumbles upon it on this blog. I have never heard about this in all my life, but it explained a lot to me. It circles back to “broken families”, and how the “Love attachment” style is formed in early childhood, by how our parents respond to our needs. It explains a lot…
    This website covers just one attachment style (very unusual, to me at least). It explained some very unexpected behaviors of a new friend. And once I looked into my behavior, it explained me to myself…

    We are so complex, but we all need and want Love. Thank God His Love is always there for us.

  7. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I’ve been wanting to ask you about this but didn’t feel an appropriate opportunity until you wrote this article.

    I struggle with an overloaded work schedule, meetings, conferences, classes to teach, faculty shenanigans, lab preparation, research projects, and then a home business. This easily falls into a category of ‘cluttered life’. I dream of a simpler life, of staying home, just cooking food, housekeeping, sewing, cuddling with family. But this is not my fate. We need to continue to bring in our working income (which fortunately does cover our expenses) till we die. Retirement isn’t in the future.

    So I watch YouTube videos on minimalism. Some espouse a ‘non-materialistic’ Christianity. I hear something not quite right about it. But the simpler lifestyle is attractive.

    However we Orthodox would be hard pressed to say our physical Church and Liturgical cycles are minimalist. (And honestly, this edifies me)

    How do you see and interpret the current trend of minimalism?

  8. John Callihan Avatar
    John Callihan

    Fr Stephen, there’s no denying that there is corruption, pride, and love of power and control in the hierarchy of the church; not just in protestantism and catholicism but in our own orthodox jurisdictions. I know many who have just walked away because of it. How are we to respond to those things?

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    No doubt that what you say is true. But I believe that Father has already put forth your answer, we respond ‘with love.’ I don’t say this trivially at all. I struggle mightily to love my ‘enemies’. I suspect because of my passions that I may well meet our merciful Lord in hell (St Silouan’s words) when my life is done.

  10. Simon Avatar

    I recently discontinued associating with my family for various reasons. Oddly enough one of the reasons I gave my sister is that it made things simpler for me not to have my life interrupted by a regular series of crises. She had told me that isn’t how Jesus saw people and their problems. It’s food for thought.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Much of the modern cluttered life is driven by the world of acquisition – which often drives the price of even the mere necessities to a difficult place. The more cluttered the heart is – the more easily we’re overcome by clutter. It is the heart that needs to be simplified (love God, love neighbor). But, necessity sometimes drives us to work very hard (as you describe). In such necessity, we pray for grace.

    “Despise not our prayer, in our necessity,
    But deliver us from harm…”

    We pray to the Theotokos in the prayer, “Beneath Thy Compassion.”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    With sadness, and prayer. If you study history – there are never a shortage of those who fail Christ. Sometimes the Bride seems quite “leprous.” It is Christ who warns us against causing a child to stumble. Those of us who have accept the yoke of leadership (at whatever level), must take great care.

    But, if it’s possible to help someone get through such great trials – to bear with the sins or failings of others – then they have done a very great work, indeed.

    For myself (and as a priest, I’m probably more aware of various failings with the hierarchy than many), I have found it helpful ahead of time, to reckon it in my heart that such things will happen, and to “steel” myself against too great a disappointment. There have been cases throughout our history in which a leader falls into a heresy…and they are removed. In my own 25 years of Orthodoxy, I’ve seen probably 3 or more bishops removed or retired early for various failings. It would have been much worse had they been left alone. The same has been far more common among priests – discipline is alive in Orthodoxy, even if it’s not perfect.

    As heart-breaking as it is to see Holy Synods break communion with one another (as is the case at present in several areas of the Church), it has long been a feature of Orthodoxy – and a symptom of the failure of love on the one hand, but the honesty to call it by name on the other. That honest allows for a proper healing over time (something that has happened again and again).

    Our human bodies, when injured, bleed and need time to heal. It hurts. But the bleeding and the painful healing are signs of health rather than disease.

    I always took great care to prepare catechumens in the Church on this matter (and write not infrequently about it here).

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the photo. I’ve been taking care lately to use only my own photos, or those that are free (without a cost attached). I’ve been using Unsplash, and I notice that they do have a number of photos of Polish origin. Glad you saw that!

  14. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    Where did you find the quotation from St. Sophrony?

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have to confess that I found it in my memory. I’ll see if I can’t do better than that…

    I struck on using what easily searchable resources I have. It might be in We Shall See Him as He Is. Also, I’ve heard a number of quotes from those who knew him…so even that is possible. Sorry. I’ll be on the look out for a reference.

  16. Susan Avatar

    Matthew 6:28-29  ….. Consider the lilies of the field, ….I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

    And so much for STUFF.

  17. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. When it comes to current issues there is no shortage of controversy. The topic of abortion comes to mind (not trying to debate this topic just using it as example). I’m not sure how love overcomes these differences. Or maybe you are speaking primarily of issues of the church? I’m looking for a concrete example. Thank you,

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I found a similar passage in a book by Fr. Zacharias of Essex (The Enlargement of the Heart). I’ve got it in the Kindle edition so page reference really isn’t possible. But here’s the passage:

    As we said at the beginning of our talk, the sign of Jonas represents the way the Lord walked, and the Apostle says that victory came into the world by Christ’s descent into hell and His ascent which followed (cf. Eph. 4:10). Hence, when the Lord proposes hell to Silouan, and through Silouan, to our despairing generation, He is offering him the possibility for descent, for going down; and reveals to him the means and path to humility, so that having become like the Lord, he may obtain spiritual victory. This is a spiritual journey, and the saint’s biographer, Archimandrite Sophrony, says that “those who are led by the Holy Spirit never cease condemning themselves” in their journey downwards, towards Christ, who is the head of the “inverted pyramid”, and holds all the weight of the pyramid on His shoulders, and takes away the sin of the world. Aside: Fr. Sophrony, in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid”. He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature, demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being”. So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

    I’ll be looking in the book on St. Silouan and the passage on the inverted pyramid and see if my quote is there (it could be “fellows” rather than “friends”). But, hope that helps. The thought (sentiment) is certainly paraphrased in this passage.

    Zacharou, Archimandrite Zacharias. The Enlargement of the Heart: “Be ye also enlarged” (2 Corinthians 6:13) in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex . Mount Thabor Publishing. Kindle Edition.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    They’ll not be overcome by some other manner – but what you are noting is the inherent “weakness” of love. God so loved the world – and that love is made known on the Cross. The “Greeks,” St. Paul said, “Consider the Cross to be foolishness.” And, though it is the power of God, it still appears to be weakness.

    The politics that many look to – to solve problems – is just the exercise of power. Power can make someone do what you want, but it cannot make them want what you want. Eg. Abortion. If it were outlawed tomorrow, I think we know that it would not stop, indeed, those who made that law would themselves be turned out of office – for the simple reason that a majority of people in our country have come to take abortion for granted – wicked though it is.

    We cannot, through laws, make the wicked be good. We have laws, and police, etc., but it is only ever marginally effective. It never be otherwise.

    And God, seeing the utter depths of our depravity, confronted us with self-sacrificing love. In the end (the final end) will that love prove to be victorious over all, or will the freedom to reject it continue to put some portion of us beyond its reach? That is something that God alone knows the answer to. I cannot “square the circle.” So, I let that question be. But I know that love is what God does, and what He has called us to do.

    I have made peace with the reality that I (we) do not manage the world in the long run. It belongs to God. My peace is to live a life whose limits are marked by the Cross. The way of the Cross is the way of life.

    I write repeatedly that we are not in charge of the outcome of history. It belongs to God. It is for us to keep the commandments of Christ, to take up the Cross and follow Him. I have, over the years, saved a few lives, including the lives of some unborn children, by bearing witness to the Cross of Christ and His love, and by acting on the commandments.

    Your example (which was a good one) is similar to the many other conundrums we face – armed only with the Cross and its way of life. This is what it means to be a Christian. God help us.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Every man made fulfillment of history, real or imagined, that I have encountered in my life is a horror. Created by folks who “know better”.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I found one passage that is similar to your quote in St Silouan’s book, the words are not quite the same however the sentiment is the same:
    P212 (St Silouan The Athonite 1991)

    I remember the passage in St Silouan’s book too, but not yet the exact words.

  22. Janine Avatar

    This may sound really very, very trivial, but one way of simplifying for me has been to hand things over to God. All the shoulds and the have tos. I know you know that already, but sometimes that means for me finally relaxing enough to let go, and then to just kind of listen in prayer, or to trust that the answer will come. That is an ongoing, all the time process, sometimes for each little worry or crisis. But that grace that Father spoke of is the surprise that comes from giving up and listening. Sorry if this seems pedantic or preachy, or repeating something you already know maybe for the millionth time.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the search! I looked at it but don’t think that’s my source. The passage from Fr. Zacharias’ that I quoted above is a likely candidate, in which case, my “quote” was a paraphrase. If it’s somewhere else, I’ll have to discover it…but in the meantime, it’s an accurate paraphrase (as paraphrases go!). Sigh.

  24. Justin Avatar

    One thing that has helped me in this problem has been the reading of II Chronicles. In summary: There will be times when the leadership [of the Church] will “not do what is right in the sight of the LORD,” during which God allows things to happen to teach or correct us. These times can be short, or they can last decades. Only remember that these times will end. Then, leadership will “do what is right in the sight of the LORD.” Again, these times can be short, or they can last decades. The common understanding is that in the end, the LORD is there and knows and is working. I am still called to love and participate in the life of the Church. (And, in reality, there is nowhere else to go.) Understanding this is the only way I am able attend liturgy.

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Your comment sounded loving and not at all “preachy”. I do need to pause and wait to listen to the Lord. I’m grateful for your words and you are right. Father said something similar and I am so grateful to both of you and your kindness.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m glad that is working for you. It can be quite hard (for any of us).

    A couple of years ago, I read Achilles in Vietnam, a book strongly referenced by T. Patitsas in his wonderful Ethics of Beauty. The author was a pioneering psychologist in the treatment of PTSD with soldiers. It’s easy to think of PTSD as the result of being in danger with explosions around you and such…making it pretty much a stress-related thing. But he noted that the greater problems seemed to be associated with a kind of moral trauma – when your deeply held beliefs or expectations are being violated. Its the cognitive dissonance involved that seems to push the envelope to the breaking point.

    There were many famous cases of PTSD out of the conflict of WWI. Most programs I’ve seen on that chalk it up to the brutality of trench warfare. I suspect that the deeper reason was the absurdity of the trench warfare – send boys “over the top” when the tactic had never shown an ability to work. It was the utterly senselessness of the slaughter that likely created the massive problems of PTSD.

    Every war has such madness in its own way.

    In our Church life, our expectations are very high – and rightly so. When our moral sense is violated, or our expectations are seriously disappointed (or just plain offended), the result can be quite traumatic. Back in my Episcopal days, I attended a workshop on outreach ministry to disaffected members. The first thing we learned was that a majority of disaffected members left the Church over an anger event (not surprising). It also offered possible ways of reaching out. It was the most uncomfortable workshop I ever attended – bar none. But it rang true.

    Not every anger-trigger is someone else’s fault – but the trauma is real and eats at us over time. Finding ways to address the trauma – to find some measure of healing can be essential to our Church life. Providence (which seems to be at the heart of your example from IIChronicles) provides a framework for enduring things. It’s also useful, when possible, to “talk it through” and find some healing. Of course, there can be all kinds of problems that surround that.

    I’ve been in this parish for 25 years now – as founding priest, and now as retired priest. That’s a lot of years and a variety of experiences. I’ve got my own trauma wounds, and I’ve, undoubtedly, afflicted others as well. It’s like a marriage – and, like a marriage, only love works in the end. Love can be hard (and can be the sweetest thing of all). May God shower us with His love and bind up our wounds.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, AMEN!

    I was received in 1986 by a seriously dysfunctional priest (we were alone in the church one day and he sat with me in a pew crying that he was “going to hell”!). The parish has gone through 6 or 7 priests since 1993 when I transferred as well. People are sinful. Especially me. I find that the more I practice repentance, ala Mt 4:17, the less I worry about getting hurt and can be more open and friendly myself.

    His Grace and the Mercy are always there. If, I look for it first. He is with us. He is not just and idea or a “feeling”. He is a person, The Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

    I have never found Him in the depth and intensity and the personal caring any where else. In each of the Holy Sacraments He is there. Each time we gather, even with hurtful people, He is there. Calling me to greater community.

  28. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    Fr Freeman, Dee, and anyone else who tried to track down that quote, thank you. I will look for “The Enlargement of the Heart” by Fr. Zacharias. Sorry to send you down a rabbit hole.
    Michael. thank you for your insightful comment at 11:25.

  29. Alan Avatar

    Outstanding post / thread. Thank you Father and thanks to all for the comments. So much great stuff here to chew on. Thank you Nancy for the Fr John B quote. Funny….but likely true at the same time.

    Father, I think one of the great insights you always seem to share in these pages is something like…..just to slow down, try to keep an even keel, try to love people, be humble, and accept the messiness of life. There are problems in The Church for sure, but those aren’t really for me to worry about. My own sin and shortcomings are plenty enough for me to worry about.

    Thanks again Father.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You nailed it. There are circumstances, and well do I know it, when “Church” troubles are beyond the pale. We cannot submit to heresy, for example. But there are even times in which we are patient with that…as in, waiting for a Holy Synod to discipline a bishop – or even waiting for the whole Church to discipline a Patriarch – it happens. I think that the next few years will likely bring some very troubling times – when I patience will be tested. I pray God that we are spared.

    But, when I look back at my Anglican days, I was deeply troubled as error was stacked upon error, and as formal heresies were accepted at the highest levels. Those troubles forced me to take a hard look at where I was. There was a time that I accepted the notion of the “Branch Theory” (that Anglicans were a “branch” of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – a favorite trope of the High Churchmen). As I looked more carefully, I began to realize that I was actually in nothing more than a liberal Protestant denomination. It was something of the “last” piece of the puzzle that demanded my journey to Orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy is what it claims to be. But our history is replete with every kind of trouble. Despite such a history, the Church remains what it has always been. May God continue to preserve us!

  31. Simon Avatar

    What I am hearing is that there are no sins so great that God would leave the Church to its own devices. But, every monotheistic religion pushes that. How do you keep people from leaving a your cult because of dissatisfaction with the gross corruption in leadership? Teach people that there is no corruption so awful that God would abandon “his people.” If you have priests and bishops behaving like Eli, Hophni, and Phineas, no matter what, be there on Sunday. Staying away or leaving the church is a worse sin than the sins of the priests, bishops or whoever. Here’s another good one: Saul was seeking to kill David and yet when David had the opportunity to kill Saul, he said “Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Religious cults like JWs get a lot of mileage out of these examples. Better to remain faithfully in the shadows and wait on Jehovah than to follow in the course of Dathan and Abiram who were struck down for opposing God’s anointed ones! I would think after all the shams, charlatans, and shysters God would be more than a little understanding if people were more than a little skeptical

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would not say that there is no corruption that should not be tolerated. Orthodoxy has 2,000 years of history and that history can be studied, quite openly, for how it has handled corruption.

    You use the example of the JW’s. They have a less than 200 year history that has been marked by subterfuge, corruption, and coercive practices throughout its entire lifetime. I could point to many other cults in the same manner.

    My point is that it is wrong to think that there will never be corruption or other sorts of problems. Some of those problems may well cause people to leave the Church (and woe to those who cause them to stumble!). What you did not see in my article or my comments was any suggestion of how terrible it would be to leave the Church or any threats of consequences involved in that.

    Nor did you see me denying corruption and problems. Nothing has that kind of perfection. So, there is discretion that is involved – and that’s simply being a mature human being. Orthodoxy is not a cult – and whenever a priest begins to act like a cult leader (and it does happen), he is likely headed towards being defrocked (please God).

    It comes as no surprise that the JW’s and others would abuse Scripture to cover their corruption – they abuse Scripture to teach everything else. Orthodoxy has been, and is, an open book for the past 2,000 years. God save us from the charlatans.

    There is a report in the OCA, it comes out pretty much each month. It lists clergy changes. Some are moves to other churches, retirements, etc. But, always on the list are the occasional suspensions from ministry, and removals from ministry. They are sad but they point to the fact that the Church not only has rules and expectations but enforces them. In my time over the past 25 years, the list has included bishops and high ranking officials being removed. I cannot speak for other jurisdictions, but I know it happens there as well.

    Frankly, that’s not something you see in cults. There should never be coercion within the life of the Church. It is a great sin.

  33. Simon Avatar

    I am looking at the principle as it would play out in one’s life. I am glad that the OCA deals with deviancy. I would hope so. In other words, that should be the reasonable expectation. This discussion makes corruption in the Church a non-motive for action.. Anytime corruption is cast in such a way that corruption becomes inactionable on the part of the commoners then the Church is going to operate like a cult. If you say that is not the case, that there is never anything the Church could ever do to reduce itself to operating like a cult, then I have no idea that anything I might mean by “good” or “bad” has any functional meaning at all. Let’s not pretend my skepticism is unique. Many people have voiced this concern.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The OCA (again, that’s where I am) has the most active lay participation in its life and governance of any Orthodox Church in the world. The national assembly consists of priests who are active in ministry (not the retired guys), and laity from each parish. They vote. They have a role in the election of bishops. The local parishes have elected parish councils. We’re required to have public financial records and annual outside audits. Same is true of the national Church.

    Corruption in the ancient Church was, from time to time, met by bloody riots. Sad, but true. We don’t riot so much anymore (at least in the US), but there is very much an active part by the laity in the life of the Church and in dealing with corruption. Our “riots” are often much quieter, but they still occur and succeed.

    I prefer the openness of audits, and the accountability that exists in the parish system. I served as a Dean here in Appalachia for 6 years. That included some interventions, including removal of priests. Believe me, the laity were active and listened to in that process. And that’s normative in the Church’s life – and long has been.

    Again, I have not cast corruption in a manner that becomes inactionable on anybody’s part. Instead, I have cited numerous examples of the opposite. On the other hand, it’s frustrating to ever feel like a lone voice or a voice that is not heard. I can only speak from my experience – where the voices – sometimes but a single voice – makes all the difference in the world.

    I would agree that some jurisdictions are less transparent. There can be inherent problems when the “powers that be” are in a foreign country. I pray for their good governance and their well-being in all things.

    But, it still seems to me that you’re suggesting that I’m saying something that I have not said. I’m not skeptical about corruption – I think it was me who brought the subject up in this article – and not to say that you should do nothing or just put up with it or that the Church could not fall into cultish behavior. I have said that discipline and correction have been a constant part of our history – so don’t be surprised when you see the need for it or be scandalized when the Church has to take such actions. My purpose in that was to address a kind of naivete that thinks that such things should never happen or be needed.

    So, frankly, quite the opposite from what you seem to be hearing.

  35. Janine Avatar

    Dee, thank you (( hugs ))

  36. Simon Avatar

    Let’s ask the question another way.: Are there any circumstances in which leaving the church is healthy?

    I have recently cutoff communicating with my mother, father, and sister under the banner of setting healthy boundaries. Surely there must be cases in which a person may set similar boundaries with a local church.

  37. Simon Avatar

    I never implied you weren’t acknowledging the existence of corruption in the church. I am simply thinking about the implications on the most absolute granular level. When is someone justified in walking away? What happens if the priest anathematizes someone? Can they go to another to seek asylum or is the priest their going to request records from the anathematizing priest? What’s sealed on earth is sealed in heaven?

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Absolutely, there are circumstances in which leaving the Church is healthy – God is an absolute, nothing else. An anathema can be appealed to a bishop and overruled. Priests are not absolute – that’s not how things work.

    I’ve known of cases in which people were well-advised to walk away. I would counsel that if nothing at the moment could be done about the priest. If I have a complaint in some jurisdictional cases, its the weakness of their disciplinary measures. I cannot say more about that in this setting – we can talk privately about it if you like.

    The example of your family is an example where the boundaries make sense. The same could happen in a local Church. Indeed, it’s possible in a local setting that the whole “family system” of the Church can become toxic (I know of a case or two of this). There’s likely a psychopath or narcissistic personality involved in such cases. The ones that I know of required interventions. But it can do very serious damage to individuals. We are not asked or required to submit to toxic situations. We are like damaged children in such settings who should be protected.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    See the earlier reply. A bishop can lift an anathema – indeed, I’m uncertain whether a local priest has the power of anathema. At most, he can forbid the Cup, but that can be appealed to the bishop. I know of such cases. Spiritual abuse is considered extremely serious in the Church – I think of it as pretty much the worst thing a priest can do. The cases I know about have all involved interventions. But it’s a terrible thing. People are right to protect themselves and there is not a teaching in the Church (much less a rule) that says otherwise.

  40. Simon Avatar

    These comments are very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to spell everything out. It makes a difference.

  41. Simon Avatar

    I just want to say again how much I appreciate your labors of love. I cherish Orthodoxy…but I am weak. That’s all there is to say.

  42. Susan Avatar

    Re (and with greatest respect): “Salvation, rightly understood, is communion – with God and with one another. And, in properly taught Christian theology, we find a certain “messiness” in God as we seek to verbalize the reality of the Holy Trinity.”
    Father Stephen,
    Maybe there’s a potential for problems if one takes the above statement as an equation. If salvation = communion, then communion = salvation. For some, that could allow promotion of human relationships that disallow the equal importance and sacredness of individual, his or her boundaries and free will, becoming an excuse for assorted abuses, horrors. Most cult leaders, eventually if not sooner, demand unconditional personal subordination. Isn’t it only as free persons, what we think of as individuals, that we validly love and therefore commune? Can a state of communion exist and persist without reciprocites? Important here, RE: the Holy Trinity: quoting from pg. 20 of the book St Nikolai Velimirovic, 100 Lessons on Love (Hesychia Press) — “God revealed Himself as love to humankind through the revelation of the Holy Trinity in Unity, …” and “Before Christ the world was not ripe for receiving the full teaching on the Holy Trinity, and consequently on Love.” I hope this makes sense and doesn’t seem presumptuous. That little book has been helping me a lot, as are you and your writings. Thinking is not getting easier though. Ouch and ouch.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Susan, I think you are mistaking the nature of the communion of which Father speaks which is a communion built and strengthened by prayer (especially penitential prayer), almsgiving, attendance of the Sacraments, etc.

    I came to the Church out of a cult (although not a really bad one). The teaching and experience of communion in the Church and in the cult entirely different EVEN though the Orthodox priest who received my family and me had serious issues.

    Communion is with and though the person of Jesus Christ.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We cannot treat either the word “salvation” or the word “communion” to be self-defining. “Communion” does equal “salvation” as both are defined in Christ. Same is true of the word “love.” We do not see unconditional personal subordination (in the sense distorted by human sin). We learn all these things one small step at a time – as we are healed in Christ.

    We are not saved by information. We cannot be saved by information because we distort everything. It is the pure in heart who see God, and we only see God to the extent that our hearts are pure. So, we go slowly, a step at a time, with constant recourse to prayer and repentance, letting God heal and teach us. We see quite dimly through a darkened glass – but Christ is what we look to see. And it is grace that makes that possible.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It interests me that Christ, towards the end of His ministry on earth, calls His disciples “friends” rather than “servants.” There is a kind of “equality” revealed in that kind of love. It is not the equality in which we have everything He has, or in which we become Him, but there is a kind of participation and communion in which we have a role that is not merely passive.

    The very freedom which we have been given from the beginning (rather than some sort of domineering sovereignty) reveals the nature of God’s love. It also reveals how we abuse that freedom and how poorly we love God, other people, and even ourselves. However, we see in the lives of the saints (both in Scripture and elsewhere) what can take place through healing and communion with God.

    In Gen. 18, God comes to visit Abraham to tell him about what He’s thinking viz. Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argues with God, and God listens patiently and responds positively to what Abraham says. Abraham is described in the Scriptures as the “friend of God.” There is, indeed, some reciprocity in that name. It speaks of the Divine condescension, but also speaks of the glory to which we are being called. Again, it’s a process and a slow one.

  46. Susan Avatar

    Michael and Fr. Freeman,
    Thank you very much. I meant subordination as a perverted understanding of Communion, wherein personhood (aka rightly or wrongly ‘individualness’) and any divergent discernment on the mental level proceeding from that is rejected for an authoritarian group and feelings of rapport/allegiance which allows Christ and the communion of His Love to be supplanted by a human predator, fear, and possession (fake love).
    I’ve noticed some Orthodox writers believe one, if Orthodox, is not allowed to “have a personal opinion” — while others don’t see it as a problem, just part of being human (a material world condition, 2 atoms not even being designed to occupy the same space, designed to the good by and through Christ.) These say it’s okay if one’s opinion doesn’t contradict the Church Fathers (accepting the Fathers didn’t agree on everything [usually wording]). Both the pro-private and con-private opinion writers do seem in full agreement that in Orthodoxy one doesn’t disagree with essentials agreed upon by Church councils. Is one allowed a “personal opinion” in Orthodoxy?
    If a greater (New Testament) appreciation of the revelation and presence of Christ includes the Unity and Trinity of 3 Divine Persons, and the union of Christ with his Church, why would our personhood be a problem instead of lovely part of another mysterious joyous glorious paradox in which we can only agree in utter humility to the glory and wisdom of God?
    I’ve come out of a Protestant cult that taught literalistic dogmas, and tended to hide behind the word ‘unconditional.’ Applying this word to God’s love somehow even allowed them to understand love as compatible with warmongering. IMNSHO, its influence on our culture appears embodied in the notion that there is no peace possible without total ‘unconditional’ surrender of one side to the other. Reasoning together is unacceptable. I value reason because it got me out of there. Reason, not intellect. Christ, His love and presence, not abstraction. And yes, the principal thing I haven’t found the need to repent of is repenting (always, every moment). Thank you both very much for your time, wisdom, and patience for this person trying to find their way!!!

  47. Susan Avatar

    Please forgive one more? I hadn’t seen Fr. Stephen’s last gracious posting when I posted.
    “Friend” yes yes yes! It gets me so much, in both Hebrew and Greek, those who love, ‘lover’ of. The friend, closer than a brother, with whom one can dialogue, speak face to face. Glory to Christ for his merciful love!.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s plenty of room for private opinion in Orthodoxy. However, private opinion should not be presented as the doctrine of the Church (and many people don’t know how to make that distinction). The internet has magnified the sound of unqualified, unhealthy voices, and, when Church discipline or training is non-existent or poor, those voices can become quite dangerous and toxic.

    I’ve said, any number of times, that we should not mistake our neuroses for God. There are many people who make arguments “from authority,” quoting this Father, that elder, etc. What is lacking, however, is an inner life in which what they quote has actually become embodied in them and transformed their hearts. As such, they can be as damaging as those who quote the Bible and assume that everything is settled. I am especially alarmed when various people without any writ of authority from their a bishop set themselves up to teach and defend the faith. That is not the way of Orthodoxy.

    Interestingly, Orthodoxy does not have a history of “heavy-handedness” even though it clearly has a hierarchy and defined teachings. That can also give more room than is helpful in some cases. But, all of that requires patience.

    I generally try to avoid toxic personalities and encourage others to do the same – at least recognize the red flags and discuss it with someone.

    I liked your distinction between reason and intellect – and I think I understand what you’re saying. Orthodoxy should not be turned into a Byzantine form of an American religious cult. It makes saints – not robots.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are some wonderful thoughts on all of this (friend) in the works of St. Sophrony. I recommend Fr. Zacharias of Essex’s book, The Enlargement of the Heart, that explores it very helpfully. That book was a series of talks given on a clergy retreat – so the context has to be remembered. But there is so much health in it. It’s a favorite for me.

    I like to point out to people that in reading Orthodox spiritual writings – they are often written by monks for monks. And though there is no ultimate distinction between monastics and the laity – there is, nonetheless, a long tradition in which fairly extreme language is employed (“self-hatred” is a not unusual phrase). But (and this has to do with those who have not embodied the fullness of what they read setting themselves up as teachers) such language can be turned into a very toxic mimicry of the truth and do great damage.

    We have parishes filled with broken, largely neurotic people in deep need of healing and compassion. They have been “sheep without a shepherd” and are bruised by a culture that is beyond insane. We live in the heart of Babylon. We need teachers, but not pretenders. We need shepherds who actually know what they’re talking about. I’m very leery of those who simply quote the fathers. As I read or listen, I think, “Do you actually know what that means? Do you live it? Tell me what you actually know – and if you don’t then it’s ok to say that you don’t.”

    I was once in a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory. I said, “Fr. Tom. The more I write, it seems to me the less I know.” He laughed at me and said, “Great! Keep writing! Someday you’ll know nothing…then you’ll be holy!” I’m not there yet.

  50. Susan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    This slow processor thanks you very much for the helpful clarifications. The reason I am moving toward Orthodoxy is it’s the only place I’ve found the heart of the ‘authority’ to be God’s glorious Love.

  51. Susan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    And thank you for the book recommendation. … Our Internet cuts out, is very poor, can gets carts before horses. Am beginning to appreciate Orthodox prayers also, that that light of love can extend far into the darkness for curbing evil. Beautiful, powerful, and treasuries of treasures.
    Thank you for your patience, especially! Duct taping fingers now.

  52. Simon Avatar

    Communion as theosis and hypostatic fullness is something of an Orthodox treasure. It beats the Energizer Bunny model of immortality..

  53. Simon Avatar

    This thread has been a real comfort to me. Genuinely a real balm to the soul. Im rereading Father’s comments over and over and it is something that seems so unexpected. Mainly I have confidence in Father Stephen’s confidence…and the wounds in his hands.

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