Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. Matthew 12:25
There is a petition at every Divine Liturgy where we pray “for peace in the whole world.” There is a second one where we offer “having prayer for the unity of the faith.” The end of every set of petitions includes the phrase “let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” With the exception of the Creed and the Communion Prayers, the entire Divine Liturgy is offered in the plural. There is very much of a spirit of “we’re in this together” when it comes to the church community. This includes not only when the community gathers for worship, but when the community gathers as community for other things.
Perhaps it is a function of our fallen human nature, but every church has antagonists. There is an entire book that has been written, entitled “Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict” by Kenneth Haugk. In this book, Haugk points out that the antagonists are not marginal members who show up occasionally to stir the pot. Rather, they are regular attenders, with affable personalities, and some degree of standing in the community, who work secretly, and sometimes openly to subvert the mission of the church. They come armed with facts and figures, scare tactics and intimidation, and lead with destructive criticism.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every person has to agree with the priest, or the Parish Council, or that church members are expected to be sycophants. There is a place for debate and disagreement, but it has to come from a constructive place, on a practical level, and has to temper hostility with love, from a Christian perspective.
We know that a house divided against itself cannot stand. So, what do we do when someone consistently tries to divide the house? Christ actually addresses this when He says: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18: 15-17)
Ask most priests what they won’t miss most when they retire and they’ll tell you parish assembly meetings. Because it is at these meetings where the antagonists thrive. And many times it takes just one or two of them to turn the tide of the meeting. Having served for more than twenty years, I agree that these events I will not miss when I retire, because the overwhelming majority have been injurious and stressful, because of the antagonists.
The priest is often powerless to dethrone the antagonist, who oftentimes is deeply entrenched in the community. Therefore, it become incumbent on the congregation to keep the antagonists at bay.
I remember an article written by one of my classmates which lamented why more people don’t go into the priesthood. They answer is that most young men grow up in homes where people “eat roast priest” for lunch each Sunday after the Divine Liturgy. He reasoned that more converts are going to Orthodox seminaries than “cradle Orthodox” because the “cradle” know what they are getting into and lose their interest in going. Further, there are a lot of seminary graduates who are desiring to serve in hospitals, in the military and in missionary work, rather than in parish work, because of the antagonists.
An old rock ‘n roll ballad had lyrics that said “every rose has its thorn, just like every night has its dawn.” Every parish has at least a couple of antagonists. The challenge is what to do about them.
The mission of the Church is to make disciples—this involves boldness, courage, generosity, progressive thinking, and an understanding of what Christ expects from the church and each member of it. When we come across people who are skittish, operate on fear, are not generous, do not have any idea who Christ is or what the church is all about, who try to subvert meetings and stifle progress, who use intimidation and bully type tactics, what do we do with the people? The simple answers are, don’t let them get into leadership positions, and try to ignore them at meetings.
In contemporary times, it is very difficult to grow a church and inspire a congregation. Christ was very protective of the lost sheep. However, there is a difference between a lost sheep and a wolf. We have to maturely find the difference. The antagonist needs encouragement to come to Christ, but to absent himself or herself from leadership and parish meetings, until they can come in a spirit of constructive, rather than destructive influence. Differences are okay. Debate is welcome. Antagonism is not.
One more note on antagonism—it not only injures church communities, it injures families, companies, sports teams and any organized activity. Encourage people to express differences in a respectful, rather than an antagonistic way.
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me; many are saying of me, there is no help for him in God. But Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and He answers me from His holy hill. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For Thou dost smite all my enemies on the cheek, Thou dost break the teeth of the wicked. Deliverance belongs to the Lord; Thy blessing be upon Thy people. Psalm 3
Be constructive in criticism when you have to criticize and encourage others to do the same. Be a uniter, not a divider.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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