Faithful People Able to Teach Others

In BYZANTINE CHURCHES 2 Timothy 2:1-10 is often read when one or another martyr is commemorated. When this epistle was written, first-century Christians were already experiencing attacks – often violent – in various parts of the Mediterranean world. A Church leader had to be prepared to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3).

What may surprise us is the first part of St Paul’s injunction: “the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (v. 2). The first requirement for a Church under arrack is to prepare a new generation of leaders who can instruct others in turn.

A Lesson from the Middle East

For many generations Church life in the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem was relatively stable. Christians had a recognized civil identity and each ordered its own life according to its respective statutes. They suffered periodic attacks by Muslims or Druze, but these assaults did not affect their inner identity.

That situation changed in the nineteenth century for Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. That century saw a growing Western presence in Egypt which brought prosperity which Coptic businessmen had not seen for centuries. It also brought other Christians to settle in the country – Roman Catholics from Italy, Orthodox and Melkites from Greece, Syria and Lebanon – whose clergy seemed better educated than their Coptic counterparts. More significantly, Protestant missionaries began making inroads among the Copts while some Copts formed the Coptic Catholic Church with the blessings of Rome. The response of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch was to make the training of new leaders on all levels a matter of prime importance to their Church.

Prior to 1850 the Coptic Church handed on its faith and tradition in a somewhat haphazard fashion, just as other Churches had done in placid times. Future priests observed their elders and learned hymns and rituals by observation and rote. In response to the challenge of their more effective neighbors, the Copts developed strong clergy formation programs over the next fifty years. This included, but was not limited to the training of priests. Before anything else, they trained chanters, catechists and deacons precisely in order to teach others the faith and traditions of their Church.

Over the next century some of these chanters and deacons became priests. Perhaps more significantly, the readers and catechists – all with their own professions in the world – turned toward monasticism and revitalized monastic life in the country where it all began. Today the Coptic Orthodox Church is the strongest Church, spiritually speaking, in the Middle East. It has withstood Muslim violence despite the government’s hands-off treatment of Islamic fundamentalists. Where Copts have emigrated to the West, they quickly established churches at a surprising rate. While other Eastern Churches have taken several generations to begin using English in their liturgical services, the Copts began doing so almost immediately, assuring that their young people, many of whom were trained as “servants” (readers, etc.), would have a place in the life their Church.

Today each Coptic diocese in the United States has an elaborate and extended training program for “servants.” Participation is expected and laziness is not tolerated. While other Eastern Churches lament poor Sunday School attendance, Coptic youth are training as “servants” over and above their Sunday School classes, beginning in the fourth and fifth grades. While other Eastern Churches resist imposing any standards for ministry in the Church, the Copts are more than able to maintain quality programs, the fruit of 150 years in the spirit of 2 Tim 2:2.

Training in the Coptic Church Today

Many of us would be shocked to see how seriously St Paul’s advice to Timothy has been taken in the Coptic Church. The following general guidelines from their Southern U.S. diocese show how seriously this Church takes training its “servants”:

“The Servants Prep Program is a 3-year program as established by our Diocese. Each disciple must complete all three years to become a qualified servant, carrying and preserving the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the ministries of the church and in our community. 

  • Class is every Friday from 7:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. There will also be Saturday retreats/seminars. Disciples are expected to attend these events.
  • There will be three (3) semesters and periods of evaluations per year: Fall, Spring and Summer. You need to score a minimum of 75% to move to the next semester.

 “Every disciple is expected to do their part by establishing their own spiritual canon, working on their personal relationship with the Holy Trinity, and maintaining regular attendance of the Divine Liturgy, partaking of the Eucharist, and confessing. 

“The disciple is expected to have a fully integrated Orthodox Christian life, which means being consistent in behavior across all aspects of life (church, work, family, social life, etc.) and striving to live a life of purity and holiness pleasing to our Lord.”

Serving in Our Churches

The experience of our Churches today is similar to that of the Coptic Church in some respects. Most of our churches, like theirs, were founded by immigrants. Unlike them, we spent many years acclimating to our society in negative ways. Churches were westernized in the belief that this made them more acceptable in Western eyes. As a result many people had little idea of their own Tradition. Many confused their grandparents’ ethnic customs with the Church’s Tradition.

We then went through a period in which people relearned the basics of their Tradition. Those who have done so can relate comfortably to the Eastern Christian traditions of prayer and fasting which a previous generation had lost. It is time to move to the next step: training young people as readers, chanters and catechists to the degree that they can train others in turn.

The optimum time to begin bringing people into ministry, particularly the liturgical ministry, is during the middle school years. It is a time for growing self-confidence and before young people get involved with high school activities, jobs, and the like. They have sat in the pew long enough – they are ready to take on some form of service.

Incorporating young people into already existing structures for church ministry may also address a long time problem in many churches. Young people are less likely than some of their elders to turn what should be roles of service into their personal place in the spotlight. Young people may be more open to see reading or singing in church as selfless ministries, learning to sing “without envy.” As the Coptic Pope Athanasius II wrote in the sixth century, “They [chanters] also teach others how to sing without envy… If the chanters are not singing with the Holy Spirit, let them not sing”.