Holy Disobedience

Holy Disobedience: Resistance to Secular and Ecclesiastical Authority

by A. Edward Siecienski

St. Peter being released from Jail

St. Peter being released from Jail

Christian history, particularly the patristic period, is populated with heroes of the Faith and Saints who found themselves at odds with both secular and ecclesiastical authority. These heroes and saints, in order to protect the Orthodox faith, disobeyed the biblical injunction to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13).

As a historical phenomenon, this intriguing reality presents a rather troubling precedent for Orthodox Christians––can an individual simply ignore secular and ecclesiastical authority whenever one thinks it right? What would then prevent Christians from challenging Church or State at every turn, claiming that they are simply following the examples of Saints Athanasius, Ambrose, Maximus the Confessor, and Mark of Ephesus? St. Paul had written that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) and Ignatius of Antioch had once claimed “that we should regard the bishop as the Lord Himself,” and yet across the centuries, we find examples of Orthodox who followed the way of disobedience rather than obedience.

Christians have disobeyed individuals when they believed them to be, for one reason or another, illegitimate authorities––e.g., popes whose claims to universal jurisdiction were never recognized, bishops who were uncanonically elected, emperors who illegally seized the throne. Here, we will look at “holy disobedience” within the Orthodox tradition to those recognized, even by the disobedient themselves, as the legitimate secular or ecclesiastical authority that would, under normal conditions, require obedience. Perhaps we may discover what wisdom history offers Christians today as they face certain challenges in dealing with secular or ecclesiastical authority.

Any discussion of holy disobedience must begin with the Scriptures and the precedent set by the apostles themselves as the early Church began to preach Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. According to Acts 4, “the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees” brought Peter and John before the “rulers of the people and elders” who commanded them to cease their ministry and desist from speaking in Jesus’ name. Their answer was “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). When the apostles continued to preach and heal in Jesus’ name, they were again arrested and reminded that they had been given “strict orders not to teach in this name.” Peter, speaking for the group, simply replied “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), establishing a principle for dealing with authorities, both secular and religious, that would be invoked throughout the centuries.

Paul, the very man who enjoined Christians to obedience in Romans 13:1-7, seems to have had a very prickly relationship with those in authority in the Church, particularly with the “so-called pillars” James, John, and Peter. Without doubting their legitimacy as “apostles and elders,” Paul never gives them unquestioned obedience, and famously rebukes Peter in Antioch when he believes him to have violated the principles established at the Council of Jerusalem. Paul grounds his own apostolic authority in the call he received from Christ on the road to Damascus, believing this pedigree equal to (or beyond) anything claimed by the others. Therefore even if one claiming to be among the super apostles preaches a Jesus “other than the Jesus we preached” (2 Corinthians 11:4-5), Paul is clear he must be rejected.

Despite Paul’s clear call for obedience, the Church’s relation to the state during the apostolic period remained a complicated affair. Beginning in 64 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, Christians in Rome found themselves persecuted for their beliefs and blamed for the great fire that had consumed the city. For the next 250 years sporadic and localized persecution of Christians occurred throughout the empire, culminating in the great imperial persecutions of Decius (249-251) and Diocletian (303-305). Having long been accused of disloyalty to the state, Christians were now asked to prove their allegiance by offering sacrifices for the safety of the empire. Most Christians were normally quite happy to oblige with obedience to imperial authority; however in demanding that believers offer sacrifices to the gods, the state had gone beyond what could legitimately be expected and Christians now found themselves duty bound to resist. According to Hugo Rahner, this refusal “had its roots in the Christian’s response to the invitation to the kingdom where the Messiah would reign in peace and justice, making it impossible to fall under the total control of a despotic state.” Simply put, Christians were first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God, and it was to this kingdom that their primary allegiance belonged. Because citizenship here was both “temporary and secondary,” all of its demands had to be weighed against the chief obligation of Christian discipleship. Provided that the state did not attempt to overstep its proper bounds by asking Christians to betray their true king, the Church could give it everything it wanted. According to Tertullian, the emperor was owed prayers and was deserving of the greatest respect, for as a man he is second only to God, protected by God, and therefore inferior only to God”; however, according to Hippolytus, when the emperor claims a level of authority that belongs to God alone, the Christian must imitate the example of Daniel and follow the decrees of God rather than those of the king, even if it may literally put him in the lion’s den.

But things changed following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 when the Empire itself ceased persecuting the Church and began instead to patronize it. Constantine the Great, who presumed the traditional right of the emperor to regulate religious matters, not only granted Christians freedom to worship within the empire, but quickly made them the preferred sect. As Pontifex Maximus, Constantine was seen by Christians not only as the divinely appointed patron and protector of the Church, but as its visible head whose commands echoed the will of God himself. For the most part, the Church embraced this new state of affairs and the symphonia established between the empire and the Church. However, following the Council of Nicea in 325, certain figures began to reassess this relationship as Constantine and his heirs began diluting Nicene orthodoxy in the name of religious harmony. This was certainly the view of Athanasius of Alexandria, whose staunch defense of the council led him to reject all compromise with those he deemed Arian. For Constantine religious peace was a good in itself, which is why the emperor made it clear to Athanasius and the Nicene hardliners what they had to do––re-admit Arius and his followers to communion. When Athanasius refused, Constantine issued instructions that were incapable of misinterpretation:

Meantime should anyone, though I deem it most improbable, venture on this occasion to violate my command, and refuse his attendance, a messenger shall be dispatched forthwith to banish that person in virtue of an imperial edict, and to teach him that it does not become him to resist an emperor’s decrees when issued in defense of truth.

And yet despite all of the honorifics he heaped upon Constantine and his children (e.g. “most religious,” “most blessed”), Athanasius would not obey him, believing not only in the truth of the Nicene position, but also in the right of the bishops who spoke the truth to minister free of imperial interference. He wrote to the clergy, instructing them that if

you are quite unexpectedly replaced by order of the civil authorities as you presided blamelessly in your churches in union with your people…justice demands that you show your disapproval, for if you remain silent in a short time this evil will spread to all the churches.

Athanasius was not alone in condemning imperial religious policy or in urging others to resist it. Pope Julius in the West also bemoaned the fact that “the decisions of the Church are no longer according to the gospels but tend only to banishment and death.” He wrote to the Bishops of the East asking them to

denounce in writing those persons who attempt [such things], so that the Churches may no longer be afflicted thus, nor any bishop or presbyter be treated with insult, nor anyone be compelled to act contrary to his judgment…lest we become a laughing stock among the heathen and, above all, excite the wrath of God.”

When, in 353, Pope Liberius was asked to support the condemnation of Athanasius at the Synod of Arles, he refused, claiming that “I would prefer death for God’s sake rather than appear a traitor and give my consent to a judgment contrary to the Gospel.” Once more the choice appeared to be obedience to the emperor or obedience to the gospel, and the Church was forced to define for the emperor the limits of his authority and the Christian’s ultimate allegiance. Athanasius’ supporters “used great boldness of speech against him [Emperor Constantius], teaching him that the kingdom was not his, but God’s…, and they threatened him with the day of judgment and warned him against infringing Ecclesiastical order and mingling Roman sovereignty with the Constitution of the Church.” Constantius meanwhile took the traditional Roman view that the emperor had both the power and duty to regulate religious matters, maintaining that the imperial will effectively ruled the Church.” Yet not everyone was convinced by his arguments. Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari wrote to the emperor to remind him that “despite all your cruelty, you lie helpless under the feet of God’s servants, and all your imperial pomp is for us nothing. For us, you are, with all your authority, only a passing breeze.”

This same line of thinking is evident in writings of Ambrose of Milan, whose challenge to Emperor Theodosius following the massacre at Thessalonica has become almost ecclesial legend. After a charioteer was arrested for an attempted rape on a slave, the local populace revolted, killing several officials. In a fit of rage, Theodosius ordered an army unit to punish the citizens of Thessalonica. Their action resulted in the deaths of possibly seven thousand men, women, and children. In a showdown that proved to be a watershed moment in Church/State relations, Ambrose denied Theodosius communion, refusing to even serve the liturgy in his presence at all, and courageously checked Theodosius at the Church door, refusing him entry. In a letter to Theodosius, Ambrose was clear that his allegiance to God was elevated above any love, respect, or civic duty he had toward the emperor (in fact, his pastoral duty to Theodosius, an Orthodox Christian, also constrained him):

I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so….I have been warned, not by man, nor through man, but plainly by Himself that this is forbidden me.

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from the Milan Cathedral. Painting by Anthony van Dyck, 1620

Ambrose had other similar contests with Theodosius. He was clear that as a subject he owed  Theodosius obedience, yet he was bound to speak out “in obedience to God…and the desire to preserve your well-being…for who will dare tell the truth if the bishop does not?” As he put it plainly elsewhere,

we pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Tribute is due to Caesar, we do not deny it. The Church belongs to God, therefore it ought not to be assigned to Caesar. For the temple of God cannot be Caesar’s by right. That this is said with respectful feeling for the Emperor, no one can deny. For what is more full of respect than that the Emperor should be called the son of the Church. As it is said, it is said without sin, since it is said with the divine favor. For the Emperor is within the Church, not above it. For a good emperor seeks the aid of the Church and does not refuse it.

During the monothelite crisis of the sixth and seventh centuries, with Christianity still divided over reception of Chalcedon, the imperial desire for religious peace once again brought the saints into conflict with the emperors. Pope Martin I of Rome and Maximus the Confessor joined forces to battle both the Ekthesis of Heraclius (638) and the Typos of Constans II (648), which to them represented a form of “creeping monophysitism” that diluted the truth of the Council. Pope Martin was later arrested and taken to Constantinople, where after being defrocked and humiliated he was sent into exile, dying shortly thereafter in 655. Maximus the Confessor was also brought East and put on trial, where he maintained not only his orthodoxy, but the proper place of the emperor vis-à-vis the Church:

No emperor was able to persuade the fathers who speak of God to be reconciled with the heretics of their times by means of equivocal expressions…[You ask] “Is the Christian emperor also a priest?” [I say] no, he isn’t, because he neither stands beside the altar…nor does he baptize, nor perform the rite of anointing, nor does he ordain and make bishops…nor does he wear the symbols of priesthood, the pallium and the gospel book…During the anaphora at the holy table…the emperors are remembered with the laity…after all the clergy.

Centuries later the Church was again confronted with imperial intervention in Church matters, as the Emperors Leo IV and Constantine V began their campaign against the icons. This time it was John of Damascus who came to the Church’s defense, claiming that there had been a “piratical attack” on the Church, with bishops being exiled or killed and replaced with imperial lackeys. Once again, as with Constantius, Theodosius, and Constans II, the emperors had forgotten their place and failed to remember that

it is not for emperors to legislate for the Church…, for emperors did not speak the word to us, but apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers…. Political good order is the concern of emperors, the ecclesiastical constitution that of pastors and teachers…. We submit to you, O Emperor, in the matters of this life, taxes, revenues, commercial dues, in which our concerns are entrusted to you. For the ecclesiastical constitution we have pastors who speak to us the word and represent ecclesiastical ordinance.

As problematic as the Church-State relationship has been for Christians, the question of (dis-)obedience to ecclesiastical authority is more complicated, and thus far more vexing. Certainly there are more than a few examples, especially in the writings of the desert fathers and early monastics, of the need for obedience to one’s spiritual superiors. The Rule of Benedict clearly states that “obedience given to superiors is given to God.” According to John Cassian,

the monks rank obedience not only above manual labor, but over reading, silence, the peace of the cell, even before all virtues; they consider all things to take second place to this, and are happy to undergo any inconvenience if only they can show they have in no way infringed this one good thing.

Given this stress on monastic obedience, one might then find it puzzling that historically monks have been at odds with ecclesiastical authorities in so many different times and places. For example, Maximus the Confessor refused during his trial to commune with the hierarchy in Constantinople, believing them to be heretics condemned by the Romans and the Lateran Synod. His accusers then asked him: “But what if the Romans should come to terms with the Byzantines, what will you do?” He answered: “The Holy Spirit, through the apostle, condemns even angels who innovate in some way contrary to what is preached. Simply put, Maximus knew that in the matter of Christ’s wills he was right and the hierarchy was wrong, and he would rather die “than have on my conscience the worry that in some way or other I have suffered a lapse with regard to belief in God.”

St. Maximos before the Emperor

In the eighth century, during the iconoclastic controversy, imperial pressure on the iconodules was supplemented by the decrees of the iconoclast hierarchy, who gathered in (an alleged) ecumenical council at Hierea in 754, and formally ruled against the icons. Despite the absence of all five patriarchs, 338 bishops, led by Theodosius of Ephesus, participated in the synod, anathematizing all who attempted “to represent the divine image of the Word after the Incarnation…[or] the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colors.” Having now been endorsed by an ecumenical council, the teachings of the iconoclast bishops became the teaching of the Church, to which religious obedience must be given. And while the emperor could (and did) employ the secular arm against the iconodules, the iconoclasts could now also demand submission to the decisions of an ecumenical council. For this reason monastic communities were told “to subscribe to the definition of our Orthodox synod” for it was not right that “idolaters and worshippers of shadows” should prefer their own view to that of the Church. Simply put, the Church has spoken and its children must obey.

Of course the absence of all five patriarchs made impugning the conciliar legitimacy of Hierea easy for the iconodules, but very often opposition to the iconoclast councils––both at Hierea in 754 and a similar council in 815––took a different tactic. Theodore the Studite, for example, called on the monks to engage in “God-pleasing resistance” to the decisions of these synods (as well as the Moechian synod of 809) because despite the veneer of legitimacy, these gatherings lacked an essential component required of all true Church councils––adherence to the canons and to the truth. He wrote that the Church of God

has not permitted anything to be done or said against the established decrees and laws, although many shepherds have in many ways railed against them when they have called great and very numerous councils, and given themselves to put on a show of concern for the canons, while in truth acting against them…. A council does not consist simply in the gathering of bishops and priests, no matter how many there are…. A council occurs when, in the Lord’s name, the canons are thoroughly searched out and maintained…, [for] no authority whatever has been given to bishops for any transgression of a canon. They are simply to follow what has been decreed, and to adhere to those who have gone before.

Thus for Theodore disobedience to the hierarchy was sometimes necessary if one was to be obedient to the canon of truth received from the Fathers, “for we have an injunction from the Apostle himself: If anyone preaches a doctrine, or urges you to do something against what you have received, against what is prescribed by the canons of the catholic and local synods held at various times, he is not to be received, or to be reckoned among the number of the faithful.” Addressing the charge that he was introducing schism, Theodore was adamant that in so much as he had remained a child of the Church and its canons (unlike the false teachers who now claimed authority) it was not he who was the Schismatic. As with Maximus before him, Theodore knew in this matter he was right and the hierarchy was wrong.

Following the disastrous Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Empire increasingly found itself threatened by Seljuk advances in the East, losing most of its territory in Asia Minor by the end of the century. Despite the hope entertained by some (e.g., Pope Urban II) that a joint crusade would unite the two halves of Christendom, relations between Latins and Greeks deteriorated throughout the twelfth century as increased contact brought little but enmity. By the Fourth Crusade, mutual hatred boiled over, leading to the vicious sack of Constantinople by the Latins in April of 1204 and the establishment of the Latin Empire under Baldwin of Flanders. And yet, within months of Michael VIII Palaeologus’s recapture of Constantinople in 1261, Michael and many of his heirs were willing to negotiate Church union with Rome in exchange for aid against the Turks.

On two separate occasions, Church union was briefly achieved—at the Council of Lyon in 1274 and the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. These were thought to be “ecumenical councils” and are still regarded as such by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet we know today that both Lyons and Florence ultimately failed in their attempts at union and are not considered ecumenical councils by the Orthodox Church. The reason for this, it has often been suggested, is “holy disobedience.”

Roman Catholic historian Joseph Gill, in his monumental history of the Council of Florence, maintained that the sole stumbling block to Florentine union was the stubbornness and disobedience of one man––Mark of Ephesus––and that had Mark been silenced or punished by the emperor for refusing to accept the decisions of this ecumenical council, the history of Christendom might have been different. Gill, most would argue today, appears to overstate the council’s chances for success, yet there is something to be said for the fact that with both the Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, disobedience to secular and ecclesial authority goes a long way in explaining the failure of these two gatherings.

From the Orthodox perspective, the Council of Lyons can hardly be called either an ecumenical council (since four of five patriarchs were absent) or a reunion council (since there was never any discussion of the theological issues dividing East and West). Indeed, Lyons is better understood as Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus’ personal submission to Rome, the resulting “union” being little more than his attempt to bring the Eastern Church along with him. Michael was keenly aware that union with the Latins had little support among the Byzantines, and in the end, despite the efforts of Michael and eight years of effort by the Patriarch John Beccus, the Union of Lyons never succeeded.

The Council of Ferrara-Florence was in many ways far different than the Council of Lyons. Unlike Lyons it could genuinely claim to be ecumenical in so much as the five patriarchs (or their representatives) were present and there was full and free discussion of all the contested issues. For months the two sides went back and forth on purgatory and the filioque––each side only becoming more frustrated by the seeming impasse they had reached. Increasingly, however, members of the Byzantine delegation, men like Isidore of Kiev, Bessarion of Nicea, and George Scholarius, were swayed by the Latins’ arguments. They came to believe that the Latin teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit was genuinely orthodox, and clearly supported by the fathers, both East and West.

Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, under tremendous pressure from both the pope and unionists within his own ranks, pressed the issue. The leading anti-unionists, men such as Mark Eugenicus of Ephesus and Anthony of Heraclea, were labeled traitors and Judases who were preventing both the unity of Christ’s Church and the salvation of the Great City. But Mark remained unmoved, believing that the Latins’ texts were corrupted and their arguments contrary to the teaching of the fathers.

When a vote on the orthodoxy of the filioque was taken on May 30th, the Latin teaching was rejected by a 17-10 majority––the anti-unionists were still in control. However, it was at this point that holy obedience was invoked. Patriarch Joseph II, now close to death but convinced of the Latins’ orthodoxy, invited members of the delegation for private meetings, reminding them both of their collective theological ignorance and of their debt to him personally:

Why do you not listen to me? Was it not from my cell that you came out? Was it not I who raised you to the rank of bishop? Why then do you betray me? Why did you not second my opinion? Think you, then, that you can judge better than others about dogmas? I know as well as anybody else what the Fathers taught.

Three days later, when a second vote was taken on the orthodoxy of the filioque, the entire delegation (except Mark of Ephesus, Anthony of Heraclea, Dositheus of Monemvasia, and Sophronius of Anchialus) embraced the Latin teaching. When Patriarch Joseph died days later, the Latins were convinced enough of his commitment to union to permit him honorary burial in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, where he remains to this day.

When union was finally proclaimed on July 6th, the one notable absence from the proceedings was Mark of Ephesus, who had refused to sign. In an interview with Pope Eugene shortly afterward he explained his justification for denying obedience to what was now considered by all parties to be an ecumenical gathering:

The councils sentenced those who would not obey the Church and kept opinions contrary to her doctrine. I express not my own opinions, I introduce nothing new…, neither do I defend any errors. But I steadfastly preserve the doctrine which the Church, having received from Christ the Savior, has ever kept and keeps.

The pope demanded that Mark be punished, likening him to those who had refused to acknowledge the Council of Nicea. The emperor claimed he had already guaranteed Mark safe passage but assured the pope that steps would be taken to silence Mark unless he subscribed to the union at some point after his return.

By the time the Byzantines arrived back in Constantinople in February of 1440, the signatories had come to reject the union, wishing they too had been disobedient to pope, emperor, patriarch, and council. When the emperor tried to compel the clergy to commune with the unionist Patriarch Metrophanes, the leading anti-unionists left the city to lead the resistance from afar.

Mark of Ephesus spent his remaining years writing against the council, urging Orthodox Christians to run from the unionists “as one runs from snakes…as from those who have sold and bought Christ.” Isidore of Kiev tried to introduce the union in Moscow, entering the city behind a Latin cross with the anti-unionist monk Symeon in chains before him. Within days of including the pope’s name in the dyptichs, Isidore was in prison on charges of heresy. By the time the union was publicly proclaimed in Constantinople in December of 1452, it had already been rejected by the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. George Gennadius Scholarius, who had urged the Greeks to union at Florence, now became the leading anti-unionist and first patriarch of Constantinople following the fall of the city to the Turks. The union was at an end, and as with Lyons, the Orthodox heroes of the council were those who would not subscribe to it—disobeying both Emperor and Patriarch in the name of the Orthodox faith.

Having examined the phenomenon of resistance to secular and ecclesiastical authority in the Orthodox tradition, one would think that we should be able to construct clear and concise guidelines for when “holy disobedience” is appropriate. Unfortunately, we cannot. In the end it is a matter of conscience whether one obeys or disobeys secular and religious superiors, hoping in either case that ultimately one is doing the will of God. That being said, I do believe there are at least two important principles that emerge from our study which can be used as Orthodox Christians wrestle with issues of obedience/disobedience in the Church today.

First, there exists a primary allegiance of the Christian to the Kingdom of God that relativizes allegiance to the powers of this world. This loyalty to God over all others forces Christians to recognize that occasionally secular authorities make claims upon the conscience that are far beyond their competence. This is particularly the case when secular authority claims for itself the right to rule over properly religious matters, to usurp or “pirate” the power of the Church, or to compel Christians to act in a manner contrary to the gospel of Christ.

Second, despite the importance of ecclesiastical obedience as a religious good, Orthodox history also teaches us that resistance to religious authorities, be they patriarchs, bishops, or councils, may be necessary to protect the faith. This is especially the case when ecclesiastical authorities have been co-opted by the state or when they clearly teach contrary to the ancient faith of the Church. Obedience to the truth of the gospel is the first requirement of the Christian. When, either by their teachings or their actions, Church authorities betray that truth for personal gain or political expediency, “holy disobedience” is entirely appropriate.

These important principles are never easy to apply. It is often hard within the Church to separate prophetic practitioners of holy disobedience from quarrelsome troublemakers or those co-opted to other interests. For centuries, individuals have invoked the examples of Saints Athanasius, Ambrose, Maximus, and Mark of Ephesus to justify their resistance to authority, and not all have been right. And yet, the record suggests that those who are today condemned for their disobedience may, in fact, be the ones remembered as heroes in the years to come.  IC

Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Clement and Helen Pappas Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The unedited and fully footnoted article may be found at: