Fathering a Local Church

WHEN THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH was divided over whose leadership to follow, St Paul asserted his unique role of authority in that Church. It was Paul who had first brought the message of the Gospel to Corinth. In Acts 18 we read how Paul had come from Athens and began presenting his views in the synagogue on every Sabbath. Although many opposed him, he persuaded others, including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, to confess the Lord Jesus as the Messiah.

St Paul describes his role as founder of the Corinthian Church as the one who “begat” it: “…though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have
many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel”
(1 Corinthians 4:15). While many dioceses attribute their founding to an apostle, Corinth is one of the few dioceses with a Scriptural witness to its claim. Today the metropolitan see of Corinth is the oldest and most prestigious diocese in southern Greece, tracing itself back to the apostle Paul, its father.

But Only One Is Your Father

When St Paul says that he “begat” the Corinthian Church, he is clearly speaking in a way Jews of his day would recognize. The Jews commonly called Abraham the father of the God-fearing who would become the people of Israel. This claim was a source of pride for the Jews – one which their own actions did not support. Thus St John the Forerunner and Baptist reproached Jews of his day for claiming that being sons of Abraham made them by definition acceptable to God as Abraham was: “…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9). As some say today, “God has no grandchildren” – we must all live as His children.

In Jesus’ day many of the Jewish religious leaders had distorted the teaching of the Law and the Prophets by their “authoritative” interpretations. Jesus rebuked them to their face in these words: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that
observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they
themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men.

“They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23: 2-11).

The Lord reproached the Jewish religious leaders for claiming the authority to interpret the Law and using that as a means to attain worldly prestige and power. Jesus’ own disciples were to distance themselves from such practices.

This passage is often quoted by many fundamentalist Protestants against the practice in the historic Churches of East and West of calling the clergy “father.” If they are correct, then St Paul clearly was violating Jesus’ precept when he claimed to have fathered the Church at Corinth.

When the Gospel passage is read in context, it is clear that the Lord is not speaking against titles or imagery but the abuse they may represent. Even the foremost authority in European Protestantism, John Calvin, did not believe that St Paul was wrong to speak of himself as begetting the Corinthian Church. Commenting on this passage Calvin wrote, “While Paul claims for himself the appellation of father, he does it in such a manner as not to take away or diminish the smallest portion of the honor which is due to God. … God alone is the Father of all in faith …But they whom he is graciously pleased to employ as his ministers for that purpose, are likewise allowed to share with Him in His honor while, at the same time, He parts with nothing that belongs to Himself.”

“Fathering” a Church

Every Church – whether eparchy or local parish – has its fathers, in the sense that St Paul used the term. Some were established by missionaries who were sent for that purpose, either to non-Christian areas or to scattered groups of Christians. Other communities were organized by groups of the faithful who had come from elsewhere and wanted to worship in the ways of their own Church. They often formed a society or organization and contacted Church authorities to request a priest to serve them. In some cases they even built a church, then asked for a priest. This was often the case when Eastern Christians first migrated from their homelands in the nineteenth century.
These missionaries, grassroots organizers and the bishops who blessed their endeavors are all remembered as “founders of this holy Church” during every Liturgy served in that church. During the prosthesis a particle is offered on the diskos “in memory of and for the remission of sins of the blessed founders of this holy church.” Secondly, “the blessed and ever to be remembered founders of this holy church” are remembered during the insistent litany after the Gospel or during the Great Entrance. A similar remembrance is made when this litany is chanted at vespers or orthros.

Newer parishes, whose founders are still living, often celebrate a “Founders’ Day” to recognize those who made the Church in their community possible. Such events often include civic recognition, festive meals, and special commemoration at the Liturgy. Our Churches never forget those who have begotten them.

Become a “Blessed Founder”

As new areas develop throughout the country and people move from their home towns to develop them, new Church missions need to be established. In some places recent immigrants from Eastern Christian homelands abroad have arrived as well. Most Eastern Christian dioceses have opened new missions to serve these communities and are eager to learn of other places where their communicants may now be found.

Some parishes have begun to serve the Liturgy in areas near their churches, forming “satellite” missions for their members who live beyond regular weekly driving distance. Members from the main church often accompany the priest to serve as chanters, servers or simply to support these efforts by their presence.

Elsewhere there are groups of Eastern Christians beyond the reach of any existing parish. Anyone who knows where their Eastern Christian friends or relatives have recently settled should notify their respective dioceses. As bishops learn the whereabouts of their people they can explore the possibility of establishing new outreaches in these areas. By contributing to these efforts we might all help beget a new local Church.