Schools of Impiety
The Diabolical Failure of Leaders in the Present Crises
by James M. Kushiner
Perhaps we may extract a predictive spiritual postulate hiding in plain sight in the Gospels: The more our Lord warned his disciples about a temptation or stumbling block, the greater the likelihood that succumbing to it would scar the history of the church.
Jesus often warned his disciples about self-serving ambition, lording it over others, and having little faith. On the eve of his crucifixion, the disciples argued among themselves over who was the greatest. Later that evening, the three closest to Jesus fell asleep despite his request that they keep vigil with him. One of the Twelve soon betrayed him. After he was arrested, nine of the remaining eleven ran away and hid for days. Of the two who remained, one denied him three times, even after being warned that he would be so tempted. He then went into hiding with the others.
The lone disciple who, with the women, followed Jesus to the cross was John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," who "was lying close to the breast of Jesus" at the Last Supper. John also insisted that Jesus loved all his disciples "to the end."
Even though the disciples regularly misunderstood him, resisted his sacrificial intentions, and exhibited fear, cowardice, and lack of faith, Jesus sent them out as his apostles to the ends of the earth. "Go therefore, and make disciples," he said.
Discipleship is never accomplished once for all time. Vigilance is needed. Paul warned the Ephesian presbyters that wolves would arise among them. Jesus addressed church leaders through letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor; there were serious problems in five. Ephesus abandoned its first love and needed to repent. Pergamum accepted false teaching. Thyatira tolerated immorality. Sardis was "dead," in need of revival. Laodicea was self-satisfied, neither cold nor hot—and the Lord warned, "I will spew you out of my mouth."
Satan desired to tempt Job, demanded to sift Jesus' disciples like wheat, and tempted Jesus himself, then withdrew for later opportunities. He remains on the prowl as much as ever. The perennial responsibility of leaders and laity alike is to maintain soldierly vigilance and faith against the flaming darts of the evil one.
Scandals Past & Present
Recent words and actions from church leaders in Rome, Constantinople, and many other places are scandalizing believers and causing them distress about the spiritual health and direction of their churches. Despite formal doctrinal orthodoxy, it seems that schism, heresy, and moral perversion have spread like wildfires, with little to hold them in check. The Church has been in similar places before. Consider this letter from the fourth century:
The doctrines of true religion are overthrown. The laws of the Church are in confusion. The ambition of men, who have no fear of God, rushes into high posts, and exalted office is now publicly known as the prize of impiety. The result is that the worse a man blasphemes, the fitter the people think him to be a bishop. Clerical dignity is a thing of the past. There is a complete lack of men shepherding the Lord's flock with knowledge. Ambitious men are constantly throwing away the provision for the poor on their own enjoyment and the distribution of gifts. There is no precise knowledge of canons. There is complete immunity in sinning; for when men have been placed in office by the favor of men, they are obliged to return the favor by continually showing indulgence to offenders. Just judgment is a thing of the past; and everyone walks according to his heart's desire. Vice knows no bounds; the people know no restraint. Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. (St. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 92, To the Bishops of Italy and Gaul)
The diabolical ambition that Jesus warned against is on full display in this letter. St. Giovanni Calabria (d. 1954) began a correspondence with C. S. Lewis after reading The Screwtape Letters. They both agreed it was then "Satan's hour," and wrote of the threats and temptations faced by believers.
The temptations were external and internal. Father Calabria sent Lewis the "Litany of Humility" composed by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (d. 1930). Lewis replied, "You did not know, did you, that all the temptations against which he pours forth these prayers I have long been exceedingly conscious of? . . . Touché, you pink me!" "From the desire of being thought well of . . . from the fear of being rejected, Deliver me, Jesus," reads the litany. It pleads further: from the desire of being loved, extolled, honored, praised, preferred to others, "Deliver me, Jesus."
As we survey the state of the churches today, the actions of ambitious and self-serving men are plain for all to see. In the past, godly bishops often were marked by their lack of ambition to ever be made a bishop. Such ambition and vainglory harm the flock today, as they did in the fourth century:
All the while unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the word imitate the truth. The mouths of true believers are dumb, while every blasphemous tongue wags free; holy things are trodden under foot; the better laity shun the churches as schools of impiety; and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. Even you must have heard what is going on in most of our cities, how our people with wives and children and even our old men stream out before the walls, and offer their prayers in the open air, putting up with all the inconvenience of the weather with great patience, and waiting for help from the Lord. (St. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 92, To the Bishops of Italy and Gaul)
The truly pious sheep were scattered; some fled church buildings to meet and pray outside. Fierce wolves today have attacked the sheep. Some of them are dressed like sheep, or worse, like shepherds. And those shepherds who are mere hirelings flee. Christ's lambs have been harmed, and millstones stand ready.
The path forward is the same one we find in the Gospels and in the letters to the churches of Asia Minor: repentance. Peter, after his betrayal, repented with tears, and was restored to Christ's fellowship after the Resurrection. "Peter, do you love me?" asked the Lord three times, and he charged Peter three times to feed his flock—and to "follow me," even to martyrdom.
Even so, Peter quickly stumbled: "What about this man?" he asked concerning John and once again was rebuked by Christ. Vigilance and single-mindedness in following Jesus are required of leaders. Only "one thing is needful." Church leaders who can honestly say, "What you have seen and heard in me, do, and the God of peace will be with you," are surely successors to the apostolic ministry. (Phil. 4:9)
Just as God is not as apparently present in the world, with its violence, suffering, and evil, as many would like him to be, so too, in the Church, it seems that Christ is not as clearly present as we'd like, to prevent his followers from succumbing to temptation. Until the long-awaited Bridegroom who loves his bride comes, we are tasked with moral and doctrinal vigilance for love of him, during the night watches of this world so full of temptation.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.