In the Orthodox Church, when someone moves from one parish to another, it is expected that he will bring a letter from the priest or bishop of the former parish introducing him and assuring the priest or bishop in the new parish that he is an Orthodox Christian in good standing. Although this practice is often overlooked by the laity nowadays, it is a practice still strictly adhered to by clergy. This is an ancient practice. In fact, many of the letters (epistles) of the New Testament were originally written for this very purpose: to introduce someone to a new community, sending greetings from the leader of the former community, and assuring the new leader that the bearer of the letter is a faithful Orthodox believer. St. John’s third epistle is the simplest example of this kind of letter in the New Testament and, like all of the epistles, provides wonderful insight into the real-life problems that the Church had to deal with at the time—problems just like the ones the Church faces today.
St. John’s third epistle is written to Gaius, who is one of the leaders of the Church in a certain area (probably a home church leader). The letter begins with St. John praying for Gaius and then encouraging him in the good work of helping both brethren and strangers, and particularly those whom we might today call missionaries: those who “went forth for His Name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles.” St. John commends Gaius because he sends “them forward on their journeys in a manner worthy of God.” In other words, Gaius treats those who come to him as though they were God, as Jesus Christ Himself, giving them concrete physical assistance (food, money, shelter, etc.) as best as he was able. Of this activity of materially helping those who “go forth for His Name’s sake,” St. John says that doing so makes one a fellow worker in the Truth. [I find it interesting, by the way, that St. John is assuming a norm in which, although only a few actually go out preaching, those who support the one’s “going forth,” become fellow workers. Thus, without those who stay home and work, it would not be possible for those called to go forth to do so. The proclamation of the Gospel is a team effort.]
Towards the end of the letter, St. John recommends the one who is carrying it, Demetrius. He is a man with a good testimony. Finally, St. John gives some farewell greetings. It is the middle part of the letter, however, that I want to focus on today. In this part, St. John speaks of a problem in the larger Churches in the area where Gaius lives. One of the leaders of the Church in that area, Diotrephes, is someone who loves to be first. Diotrephes sees himself as the leader of the leaders and will not accept or give hospitality to those whom St. John sends. In His letter, St. John says, “I wrote to the Church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” In fact, in his position as preeminent among the leaders of the Church in his area, Diotrephes has gone so far as to excommunicate some who, like Gaius, continue to receive those whom St. John sends even though Diotrephes doesn’t.
What a messy problem to have in the Church: a leader, perhaps a bishop, who loves being preeminent so much that he refuses to show hospitality to those who come to him, even those bearing a letter from the Apostle John, the Beloved Apostle, himself. And even worse, throwing his authority around, he excommunicates those who do show hospitality to those who come from the Apostle. What a terrible situation for any Church to find itself in: to have an overbearing bishop, throwing his weight around, excommunicating those who disagree with him and refusing to accept apostolic authority. You might think such a letter was written in our time, but it wasn’t. It was written in the first century, while the Apostle John was still living—in fact, he writes the letter!
So what are we to do when we encounter such corruption in the the Church? Should we protest? Should we just leave the Church? Should we post all of our accusations on the internet? What does St. John recommend? St. John says that he, himself, will come and deal with Diotrephes. But what should Gaius do in the mean time? St. John gives Gaius these instructions: “Do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.” That’s it. Those are the instructions.
I often meet devout Orthodox believers who are distraught by the corruption, immorality, arrogance or greed that is occasionally encountered here or there in the Orthodox Church, as though brokenness should not be found in the True Church. However, St. John’s letter to Gaius (as do the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter) make it abundantly clear to us that sexual immorality, greed, arrogance and corruption of all sorts has been present in the Church even from its earliest days. Why should we be surprised? Do we think that we should be or are any better than they were?
What did Jesus say about this matter? He said that the Kingdom of God was like a farmer who sowed good seed, but while he was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed tares. The wheat and the tares, Jesus says, are allowed to grow up together in the same field. They are not separated except by the angels at the End of the Age. Of course there is corruption in the Church—Jesus told us it would be this way. “Offences must come,” Jesus said, “but woe to the one through which they come.” I think we often drive ourselves to distraction asking the wrong question. We want to know why God allows such tares to grow among the wheat, why God allows those who offend to come to positions of authority in the Church? Jesus does not tell us why—at least not directly. Rather than asking why, the question we need to be asking, and the question St. John answers for Gaius is this: What should we do when we are confronted by worldly behaviour in the Church?
St. John tells Gaius, and us, that we are to imitate what is good and not imitate what is evil.
He does not tell us to judge or condemn. He does not tell us to protest or leave the Church. He tells us to imitate what is good, not what is evil. Now this does not mean that we should not speak the truth. We should never call evil, good. We should always communicate our concerns to our clergy—whether or not they listen is another matter. And there are also canonically established ways of dealing with corruption in the Church. Certainly, these should be followed, even though the processes are generally painfully slow and sometimes unresponsive. I am not saying that we should be silent. I am saying what the Apostle is saying: we should imitate what is good, not what is evil.
In St. John’s first letter, he tells us not to love the world. Unfortunately, many of us have the false notion that “the world” refers to something outside ourselves, as though the world were something “out there.” No, St. John makes it clear by describing what He means by “in the world” – that the world is inside each one of us. He says, “All that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” All of these things reside in each person. Each person must struggle within his or herself not to be of the world.
Why do I bring this up? I bring it up because it is very common when we see weakness and corruption in those whom we had expected to be pillars of morality and virtue, to begin pointing fingers. “There’s the problem,” we say. “Something must be done about it,” we demand. And in our zeal to eradicate the bit of the world we see manifest in someone else in the Church, we ourselves fall prey to worldly attitudes and actions ourselves. Instead of imitating good, we end up imitating evil. We lose our peace; we become angry and fight; we resort to political and deceptive means to gain a supposedly good end. “Brothers and Sisters, this ought not to be!” to borrow the words of St. Paul.
If I cannot speak the truth without becoming angry, then I need to keep my mouth shut. If I am so disturbed that I cannot pray, then I need to reexamine my faith. Do I really believe in God or not? Is Christ the Head of the Church or not? Do I believe the Gospel—the very words of Jesus telling me that it would be this way—or not? If Jesus told us that impostors would come, if St. John said that many antichrists have already come, and if St. Paul told us that in the last days perilous times would come for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers…rather than lovers of God, if we are warned so many times, why then are we still so surprised. Do we think God doesn’t see what’s going on?
I have a theory about why we are so easily offended by the failings of others that is based on my own inner experience. I don’t know what happens in others, but I notice in myself a certain phenomenon. When I am offended by worldly behaviour manifested by others, I am not paying attention to the worldly impulses in myself. And the more I focus on the brokenness of others, the more depression or anger and less peace I experience. I can become almost fixated on the evil in someone else that is so offensive, that I fail to focus on the evil in my own heart and my own repentance. And thus, perhaps, being offended becomes a distraction that keeps me from repentance and peaceful prayer, and keeps me from imitating what is good.
It is always painful when those we trust fail, when those who should know better, obviously don’t. Jesus doesn’t tell us why it is this way, why it is that men after God’s own heart, like King David, turn into murderous adulterers. Nor does God tell us why some, like David, find repentance and others apparently do not. But what are we told? We are told that it will be this way, that tares will grow along with the wheat, that false apostles and false brethren will be among us. And we are told what we should do when we, like Gaius of old, encounter corruption in the Church: above all else, we are to imitate what is good, not what is evil. We are to attend to the salvation of our soul, not using offence of any kind as an excuse to imitate what is evil.
I’d like to end with a saying of the desert fathers. I don’t remember which father said this, but the saying goes something like this. “You shouldn’t be paying attention to the funeral at your neighbour’s house when there is a corpse in your own living room.”
The True Church is a Church full of men and women striving for salvation, and men and women who are not, and men and women who are wavering between the two. Following St. John’s advice, let’s strive for our own salvation imitating what is good even when others do not seem to be doing the same. It is, after all, Christ’s Church; and he knows better than we do how to care for it.