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The Shepherd's Guild

The Orthodox Layman's Position In Christ

THE ORTHODOX LAYMAN'S
POSITION IN CHRIST

Rev. Archimandrite Fr. Eusebius A. Stephanou, Th.D.
Brotherhood of St. Symeon the New Theologian
Miramar Beach, Florida


Rev. Archimandrite Fr. Eusebius A. Stephanou, Th.D. Director, St. Symeon the New Theologian Ministry


Clericalism can be lethal in our Orthodox Church. One evil it produces is the fact that the lay people in the Church become spiritually passive, indeed religiously helpless. Clericalism foments an inordinate dependence on the priest.

“Active Members” of the Church

The extent of any religious activity among lay men and women usually is singing in the choir or teaching children in Sunday School. Lay participation in parish life ordinarily is connected with serving on the Parish Council, the Philoptochos Society and with fund-raising activities.

In these areas of church life all parishioners are usually encouraged by the priest to show enthusiasm and initiative. You are considered an “active member” of the church when you get involved in such familiar structured activities. They pretty much determine the landscape of parish life. The more one engages in these areas the more likely he or she will be singled out for special recognition and honor.

The moment, however, a church member begins to show out of the ordinary spiritual interests, indeed spiritual zeal, too often the priest (there are, of course exceptions) will feel uncomfortable. If a parishioner goes as far as appearing to be fired up for Christ, for Bible study, and generally for the things of God, the priest can possibly view that as something unsettling. At one time I was one of those kind of priests.

I have to confess in all honesty that in my younger years in the priesthood I would avoid anyone who would come up to me holding a big Bible in their hands. I felt I was about to be confronted by something from the Bible of which I was ignorant. To be candid, I have to say I felt inadequate and embarrassed. It was a threat to my pride. I had to admit to myself how limited the knowledge of scripture is with many priests despite their seminary training.

Renewal at the Grassroots Level

In view of these facts, it becomes very clear why viable and lasting spiritual renewal in the Orthodox Church has to begin at the grassroots level. The charismatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Church is the best example I can think of in this regard. Laymen not only initiated the renewal, but provided the leadership and teaching ministry for those in the renewal.

It was primarily laymen who authored the books and manuals that became standard for all renewal groups in the Roman Church. As a matter of fact, priests who got involved in renewal often sat at the feet of lay teachers to be discipled in the principles and guidelines of renewal.

Unlike the priests in the Roman Church who, though not excited about renewal, tolerated and learned to live with lay renewal activities in their parishes, our Orthodox priests, as a rule, show displeasure and usually ban any lay initiated renewal. I recall hearing the president of Notre Dame University interviewed on TV who made this comment on renewal: “That’s not my cup of tea.”

That is truly a mild reaction in contrast to many of our priests who view lay initiated home Bible study meetings and any such renewal activities as subversive of authentic Orthodoxy. Such priestly opposition has sadly caused many Christ-loving, Godly church members to leave the Orthodox Church for Pentecostal or Evangelical churches.

The result has been to reinforce dead religious formalism in the Church. How can such professional priests be called shepherds of souls? They serve the kingdom of darkness by quenching the fire of the Holy Spirit. Christ calls such religious leaders “workers of iniquity”. They lack the capacity of rejoicing with the angels when lives are regenerated and the name of Jesus is highly exalted. They feel threatened by anything religiously unfamiliar.

Wherever we find religious functionaries in the Church, they reinforce and foment the evil of clericalism. But our Lord Jesus Christ warned us that they are to be found in every generation of believers: “Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.” (Matthew 16:6).

Ignoring the Church Fathers

Such promoters of clericalism and of our over-institutionalized Church are the first to champion the Church Fathers. Yet, in effect they violate their teachings and fail to embody in their pastoral ministry the basic principles and precepts of our Holy Fathers.

In the teachings of the Church Fathers we find an unmistakable emphasis on faith rooted in a heart experience. They do not teach an intellectual theology. Christ as the object of faith is experienced with the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart. The fact of personal communion with Christ is fundamental.

Every member of the church, be he a layman or ordained clergyman, by obedience to God’s word becomes a recipient of the charismata (gifts) of the Holy Spirit. It follows a face to face, life-changing meeting with our divine Spouse. This personal experience of rebirth enables any believer, lay or ordained, to minister in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.

St. Symeon the New Theologian, for example, states the following in this regard: “They who do not have the Spirit operating and speaking within them are unbelievers. If Christ says that He gives the Spirit to those who believe in Him, then they who do not have the Spirit are not heart believers” (Moral Chapters X).

The lack of formal seminary training should never keep a layperson from claiming a life-changing experience of Christ and of personal rebirth. The right to minister in the body of Christ does not come with seminary training. St. Symeon, third in the line of theologians after St. John the Evangelist and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, never saw the inside of a seminary.

Like other Church Fathers, St. Symeon did not have theological credentials from a theological seminary. Instead, following the example of the holy apostles, St. Symeon the New Theologian, like other Church Fathers before him, finished the theological school of the Holy Spirit. There is no better professor of theology than the Holy Spirit. But today church officials very often give the impression they don’t trust the Holy Spirit.

The Right of Any Layman

Every man and woman who with faith is baptized in water and in the Spirit is qualified to be an active witness unto Christ. It is not Ordination that qualifies you to be active in ministry. But each believer who is not ordained is entitled, for example, to minister as an evangelist, prophet or teacher in the body of Christ. It is for performing the sacraments that ordination is necessary. But to minister the Word of God is not only the right of any believer, but also a mandate of Christ for every believer.

Most priests and hierarchy will affirm that Christ is the head of the church, as theological theory, but in the same breath they will glibly refer to archbishop so and so or patriarch so and so as “the head of our Church.” After all, we want a head of the Church who is tangible and visible, and, moreover, the laity feel better and more reassured that their head and leader is someone they can see, hear and hold his hand to kiss it..

It is for any member of the Church, clergy or layperson, to verify experientially if he or she is truly a child of God and a vessel of the Holy Spirit. St. Symeon states: “It is necessary to search ourselves, brethren, and to know our souls with certainty, whether or not we have received the Lord Jesus when He was evangelized to us, and that we possess Him on the inside of us, in order that, as John the Evangelist said, we know if we have received authority from Him to become children of God.”

Religious ambiguity is rampant today in the Church. To be more specific, I am referring to ambiguity in connection with our relationship with the Lord. Rarely, if ever, does the average church member have any living testimony of a personal relationship with Christ – one that he delights in sharing with others in the church. Such ambiguity and uncertainty usually leads to an erroneous assessment of one’s standing with God. It can end in self-deception and self-righteousness.

The consequences according to St. Symeon can be ominous. Our eternity can be at stake. He exhorts as follows: “Let each one of us pay attention to what is said in the holy scriptures and also to know himself so that he might not deceive himself in vain, regarding himself to be a believer, while he is found to be an unbeliever, thinking he has the Lord in him and exits his body empty, as having nothing. Such a person will be condemned, losing even what he thinks he has and will be cast into the fire.”

Reacting Against Spiritual Zeal

What makes things still worse is that reverence and piety are viewed as a sign of a right relationship with God. It is merely a trap that Satan sets for both priest and people to reinforce contentment with religious formalism and religious routine. What threatens Satan is not religion, but a personal life-changing experience of Christ.

What banishes Satan is to receive in faith and obedience the gift of rebirth, that is, to be “born of God.” By His atoning death upon the Cross, the Son of God calls upon “the children of wrath” to become children of God and new creatures by accepting Him as personal Savior, that is, as the “...Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8).

In my experience of forty years of renewal ministry, I have found that spiritual zeal which becomes visible to everyone in the parish, as a rule, is frowned upon by the priest (with rare exceptions). It seems that it has been my calling from God to restrain church members, who are fired up for Christ and His gospel, from leaving the Orthodox for greener pastures in other churches.

I can’t begin counting the people who through the years have told me: “Father Eusebius, if it weren’t for what you are doing in renewal ministry, I would have left the Orthodox Church.”

When someone’s religious enthusiasm and exuberance for Christ unsettles other parishioners who get confused religiously and they lodge their discomfort and even displeasure with their priest. He in turn will do his utmost to secure “calm” and “harmony” in the parish. He seeks out the one who is rocking the boat in his otherwise quiet parish. He becomes a fire extinguisher and thinks he is rendering God a service by throwing a damper on the fires that are inflaming the hearts and lives of certain parishioners for Christ and His gospel.

Few priests, if any, have any taste for religious controversy in their parish. A priest can get apprehensive over the possibility it might get to the bishop’s attention. He possibly could suspect the worst – that his job security could be jeopardized. And the very thought of that prospect could be a nightmare for him!

Very likely there are a small number of members in every parish that claim to have had a rebirth experience that has made a visible difference on their relationship with the Lord. It is glaring evidence that such people have sensed an inner void that has not been filled by religious routine and even receiving frequently of the Holy Communion.

Reacting to the Negative Reaction

What I say here is not mere speculation. It is a common testimony that such church members have shared with me in person through forty years of renewal ministry. It goes something like this: “I served in the altar for years. I was involved in the Church youth activities. I sung in the choir. I served on the parish council. I worked hard in every Greek Festival. And yet I ended up with an inner emptiness – a painful spiritual void on the inside of me.”

A word of caution to those who had the void in their hearts filled: Please do not expect everyone in your church to understand your rebirth experience and to celebrate with you. Be realistic. Ordinarily, other members get troubled with religious confusion. They are apt to get uptight and even convicted by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The ego gets engaged in the case of a negative reaction to your new fire for the things of God. It could reach the stage of overt displeasure and even opposition.

When a personal testimony of rebirth elicits displeasure, it should not puzzle the one with the new spiritual experience. Such a person should avoid a corresponding negative reaction.

It is only normal for those devoid of the Spirit to get unsettled over the presence of the Holy Spirit in someone else’s life. Jesus clearly cautioned that authentic believers will be misunderstood, slandered and even persecuted by those of their own household, members of their family, but even members of the household of faith.

I encourage spiritually regenerated believers to take it as a badge of honor when they become a target of criticism. Spiritual conflict, the Lord assured us, is evidence that we are His true disciples, ready to pay the price for going all the way with Christ.

Even when the priest turns the heat on them, such “born of God” lay people, must react with a sense of peace, humility and love. Least of all, they must not be startled, if even the priest does not support their newly found relationship with God. I counsel them to stay radiant with Jesus indwelling in them.

Remember how the Jewish religious leaders reacted when they saw the apostles radiating with the Holy Spirit aura: “They recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13). Stay in the church and continue to light a candle wherever there is darkness.

Satan will not take sitting down the redeeming impact of the Holy Spirit on the lives of otherwise nominal Christians. He will stir up opposition and controversy. As a matter of fact, if this does not occur, then our witness for Christ proves to be inadequate, weak and less than authentic. The more intense the opposition the more genuine our evidence of rebirth.

Jesus made it crystal clear: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law; and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:34).

by Rev. Eusebius A. Stephanou,