I’ve recently joined an internet forum that’s composed of Orthodox people and some who are not Orthodox, all of whom are interested in talking about issues we all face as Orthodox Christians in our Churches and living in the world. I have enjoyed the conversations I have found there - people feeling like they can ask questions without being jumped on, others feeling like they can share from their experiences a way that might help resolve the issue. It seemed a friendly place to engage with others. Of course it’s not an official ‘Orthodox’ anything; just a place where those who are interested can talk.
But as with anything online and tending towards anonymity, even sites like this invite the participation of those who seem to want either to disturb or to chastise or to put down other participants whose Orthodoxy doesn’t seem Orthodox enough. In the case I stumbled upon, rather unkind words were being exchanged. Then more things were said that probably shouldn’t have been said. People were called names. Threats were made to take one’s toys and go off and find someplace else to play. I remember witnessing playground fights that had much the same on offer - offended pride, hurt feelings, name calling, fists flying, the surrounding witnesses pulling the combatants apart, and both of them sent to the principal’s office. Only online, there is no principal’s office to be sent to. So things are left raw and just hanging there.
Of course it’s also Lent. And didn’t I just this morning pray with St. Ephrem, ‘and grant that I may see my own sins, and not judge my brother’? And of course the temptation is strong to ask why all those other people can’t get their act together and behave like the followers of Christ these clergy and monks and faithful claim to be? When really the question is, ‘What does all this tell me about my own heart?’ I see in me the same judgmental spirit I’m about to condemn in this other person. I see the same smugness of pride in me that the pharisee in the temple had because I haven’t sinned like that jerk back there. I am making the disturbing discovery (again) that it’s easy to point out the hypocrisy in others; not so easy to realize that I am myself presiding at the head table of hypocrisy in doing so. It’s easy to feel that someone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing ravaging with their un-Orthodox ideas the flock of God; not so easy to realize that with my own predilection to judge I myself am running with the pack and causing my own harm by pretending simply to be a concerned sheep while attacking, biting and generally taking down whoever else I feel is not behaving properly. This is decidedly not the behaviour of sheep. I have to keep reminding myself that the Chief Shepherd knows how to deal with wolves and he doesn’t need my ‘help’ to do so.
I was thinking yesterday of how to respond to someone who seemed to be unhappy with people in the forum and who then informed the group of his intention to drop out and then pronounced his anathema on some of the members before leaving. The whole affair bothered me. And I wrote what follows to help me work through my own feelings and my own need for repentance in the midst of it. Relationships are so hard, even ones online with people one doesn’t even know. Here’s what I wrote yesterday as a participant in that conversation.
I am a convert to Orthodoxy. But someone wiser than me once told me while I was in that process that if I was looking for the perfect church and then believed that I had found it, it would cease to be so the moment I walked through the door. i am so grateful that Jesus didn’t chase anyone away who was looking for answers or help. He even patiently worked with disciples, not a single one who ever ‘got it’, even after Jesus went to the cross and was sealed dead in the tomb. I am so grateful for the many Orthodox Christians who patiently worked with me, and who didn’t run away when I was trying to process how Orthodoxy fit with my Calvinism and my Charismatic background. Even now when I get the tone screwed up while chanting, or write a blog post that is not edifying, or follow my passions rather than Christ, I am grateful for the circle of Orthodox Christians who have made it a part of their ministry to bear with me and help me take the next step.
To my brothers who are afraid of wolves, I ask first to what place are you running where you are expecting not to find wolves, or sinners or other challenges? Secondly, this is an internet forum, not a church, and not the Church. If this were a Church, the I would imagine that what Jesus says about going to your brother one on one and seeing if you can resolve the issue is the way one could most profitably proceed. If that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to take a witness and try again. And if that doesn’t work, only then do we take the matter before the Church, where, if he still refuses to heed the Church’s concern, we are enjoined to treat him as a tax collector and a sinner (which, interestingly enough, Jesus himself models just how we are to treat these tax collectors and sinners throughout the gospels!).
But given that this is not a Church, I can see how you might want to simply skip steps one and two and go directly to step three. Notorious wolves are indeed dangerous to the flock, and you may be right - there may be people in this circle who are deliberately trying to lead people astray. There may be others who think they know something, and who are just playing with Orthodoxy. There may be others who are pharisees in the negative sense who delight in pointing out how the other is insufficient, inadequate, or otherwise on the wrong side of being right.
But here’s the thing. God has been known to convert notorious wolves and notorious sinners and even notorious pharisees. If we are going to follow Jesus with our lives and not just our words, then we will of necessity follow him into dealing with all sorts of unsavory characters. Who am I to judge if a notorious someone is moving away from Christ? They might actually, by the patient work of God’s Spirit, be moving towards Christ. Will my response to them help them move towards Christ, of push them further away? When Saul of Tarsus showed up at Ananias’ door on Straight Street in Damascus, Ananias had a choice to make. Just like with every interaction we have choices to make. I can condemn the blind guy at my door as a wolf and shut the door and run out the back (and Ananias had rather good cause to do so). Or I could see that God might in fact be using me and this situation and even the wolf to a different end.
You never know. And if that’s the case, your choice to turn your back on us wolves may be denying yourself the opportunity to be the love, the mercy, and even the call of Christ for another.