An expounder of false teachings, a man named Atef Aziz, who was excommunicated and whose teachings were formally condemned by the Church of Alexandria’s Holy Synod of bishops in 2002, has recently emerged particularly in the United States of America and has gained some ground and following in the hearts of some. On June 1, 2016 many Copts (by way of CopticWorld.org) and others received a communication from the bishops of North America warning Copts not to have anything to do with Atef Aziz (who has changed his name several times) or his followers or teachings, or otherwise be subject to suspension and possible excommunication. (To learn more about this heresy and recent controversies related to him, see the end of this post). (I got wind of this initially when I, as many others, heard the news of a beloved priest who was originally implicated with Atef Aziz’s teachings but has (as I understand it) since clarified to the Coptic pope his position and remains accepted within the flock.)
This whole episode might disturb many, but for me, it reminds me what makes the Christ-instituted Church beautiful. She is our mother, Christ’s bride, which He left for us. The Lord did not ascend and leave people to their own whims, to start churches on their own, and to raise up for themselves leaders as suits their desire, but rather entrusted the faith in the hands of overseers, which is the literal Greek translation of the word bishop.
The bishops oversee the Church in three main respects to safeguard it from intrusions that oppose Christ:
- Initiation. They alone (along with priests to whom they delegate) have authority to initiate people into the faith, making them real children of God, by baptism and the relaying of the Holy Spirit (by the laying of hands), and preside over the partaking and abiding in Christ’s body and blood. This is 100% biblical.
- Ordination. They alone have authority to formally appoint by ordination (also by the laying on of hands) other overseers and presbyters whom they deem in conformity with Christ to shepherd and guide the flock (again, 100% biblical).
- Excommunication. And for those within the Church, who are not “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” what is proper, as St. Paul instructed Timothy the bishop is his (and every other bishop’s duty), the bishops are to exercise the power to reverse their initiation of the person into the faith, by removing them from among the Church in order to protect the flock and retain the integrity of the faith (cf. Mt 18:15-29, 1 Cor 5). The hope is that the offenders of Christ’s teachings will repent; but if they do not, they must be excised. And St. Paul said this goes for everyone, even himself and all the other apostles, and even an angel (“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”—Gal 1:8-9).
Here is what makes me sad. This was God’s design, a top-down approach, from Christ’s apostles and their successor bishops overseeing the flock and appointing for them leaders and delineating doctrine, and not vice versa—laymen or individuals among the flock deciding on their own that they want to lead a congregation and/or determine what is proper or not.
The result of the latter approach (i.e., moving away from the Christ-instituted design and authority of the Church) is the reason you see the proliferation of so many Christian denominations with such a wide variance of beliefs.
Check history and you’ll see that for the first, I’d say 1,500 years of Christianity, this design has been mostly followed and has inhibited and quelled innumerable, dangerous teachings contrary to Christ. Definitely in the first four centuries of Christianity, this proves to be the case.
Today’s situation is, however, quite contrary, and quite grim.
So many Christian denominations and individuals today not only ignore but often detest the notion of a Church with central authority expressed in ordaining bishops and priests to oversee and shepherd congregants all over the world. What is shocking is that such denominations declare the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as the basis for all their beliefs, and yet the Scriptures reveal to us over and over again that ordination of the clergy is fundamental to Christianity as the apostles understood so from Christ.
Fundamentals of Christianity: most Christians would probably include repentance, faith in Christ, baptism, resurrection, and eternal judgment. So did St. Paul when he said “the elementary principles of Christ” include all of those things, except that he also added one more thing: “laying on of hands.”
Therefore, … the elementary principles of Christ, … the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1-2)
The Bible makes very clear that the laying on of hands is the means by which the Holy Spirit was relayed upon believers, for baptism (e.g., Acts 8, 19), and also for ordination (discussed below). And this was always done by authorities (read: bishops) in the Church, expanding their authority outward from a central hierarchy that oversaw all of Christianity.
Paul himself was willingly subject to this hierarchical structure, and adhered to it. You would think that someone like Paul, who was commissioned by the resurrected Christ Himself to go and preach the gospel, would not need anything more than this to authorize him to carry out his mission. Not so my friends.
St. Paul himself, in accordance with what Christ established, still needed authority from the Church to be recognized as a Christian and a child of God (through baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit), and then to be appointed as a bishop. Christ Himself sent St. Paul to Ananias (a bishop) who laid his hands on Paul so that he might “be filled with the Holy Spirit” and to be “baptized.” (Acts 9:17-18). Then later, central authoritative bishops overseeing the Church of God received a message from the Holy Spirit saying that they should “set apart” (i.e., to sanctify and ordain) Paul and Barnabas “for the work to which I have called them.” It wasn’t enough that God called them, but the Church “fasted and prayed” and then “laid hands on them” and then “sent them away.” (Acts 13:1-3). To do what? To serve as bishops in the Church.
Now, with this bishopric authority, Paul had the “gift of God”—the ability to relay the Holy Spirit in association with baptism (e., Acts 19), and for the purpose of ordination. (Interestingly, this same authority is also called a “gift of God” by St. Peter in Acts 8 when a new convert offered to pay his way to acquire this same authority).
We learn from St. Paul that Timothy became a bishop by the “laying on of the hands of the eldership [Gk: presbyteriou (i.e., presbyters)]” (1 Timothy 4:14). Paul later clarifies that he was among those elders who laid hands on Timothy, telling us that by the “laying on of my hands” Timothy received “the gift of God.” Ordination is actually one of the major topics discussed at length in his two epistles to Timothy, instructing him how to choose the right bishop for the ministry:
“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Similarly, it is understood that St. Paul ordained Titus and likewise wrote to him about how to ordain others:
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders [i.e., presbyters] in every city as I commanded you”—Titus 1:5).
Timothy and Titus weren’t the only individuals St. Paul ordained to serve among the clergy, but we find that when he and the apostles went to various cities and established churches, they would not leave those places without any shepherds, but rather would ordain clergy to serve the congregants. And this wasn’t a haphazard process, but rather they treated it with the utmost seriousness; so that, just as before Paul himself was ordained the apostles fasted and prayed, likewise we find Paul and the apostles doing the same thing before ordaining presbyters in the church.
“So when they had chosen elders [literally, presbyters] in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).
The magnitude of this Biblical practice of ordaining bishops and priests was a message passed from Christ to the apostles, and was carried on by the early Christians. I will provide an extensive list of quotes further below for you to read at your own leisure, but for now here is one exemplary remark from Bishop Cyprian or Carthage (A.D. 250):
“He cannot be reckoned as a bishop who succeeds no one. For he has despised the evangelical and apostolic tradition, springing from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way. . . . How can he be esteemed a pastor who succeeds no one, but begins from himself? For the true shepherd remains and presides over the church of God by successive ordination. Therefore, the other one becomes a stranger and a profane person, an enemy of the Lord’s peace.” Cyprian c. 250 A.D.
For even more detail, we find a writing known as the “Apostolic Constitutions” (estimated to have been compiled some time between A.D. 200 and 390) specifying that only bishops can ordain other bishops and priests, and that priests do not have this function; moreover, choosing who to ordain is something that comes from the top down, not vice versa (i.e., the Church ordains whomever the Church considers to be adequate for this responsibility, rather than an individual seeking ordination from the Church because of their own sense of worth):
“Not everyone who wants to is ordained—as was the case with that counterfeit priesthood of the calves under Jeroboam [see 1 Kings 12:32]. Rather, only he who is called of God is ordained. . . . A presbyter may not perform ordination. For it is not agreeable to holiness to have this order perverted. For ‘God is not the God of confusion.’ So subordinate persons should not tyrannically assume functions that belong to their superiors. . . . No one snatches the priestly dignity to himself.” Apostolic Constitutions c. 200-390 A.D.
The bottom line is this: the Orthodox Church is a Biblical Church, and its practices are absolutely in alignment with Scripture. In fact, the New Testament is a product of the Church, written by its members, and decided upon by the Church as to what is to be regarded as legitimately included within it. As the Bible clearly evinces, and as Christ instituted, the bishops are the authorities of the Church who oversee the initiation of the faithful into Christianity, the leaders placed over the congregation, and the discipline (to include excommunication) of those who pervert the faith.
Additional comments: Such discipline is meant to balance the interests of love of all (including the one(s) being disciplined), and protecting the flock. Just as few would allow a known, unrepentant criminal youth live in their home with their children unless it is clear that person has been completely reformed, so too the Church seeking to protect its children desires the best for all, but demarcates boundaries to safeguard all as well. A person who genuinely rescinds their heresy will be accepted again in the Church, rest assured. All that is being done is out of love, and if otherwise, then God will be the judge to rectify that.
I will close with what the presbyter in the Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil the Great says in beautiful biblical language:
The worship of idols, utterly uproot from the world.
Satan and all his evil powers, trample and humiliate under our feet speedily.
All offences and their instigators, do abolish. May all dissensions of corrupt heresies cease.
The enemies of Your holy Church, O Lord, as at all times, now also humiliate.
Strip their vanity, show them their weakness speedily.
Bring to naught their envy, their intrigues, their madness, their wickedness, and their slander, which they commit against us.
O Lord, bring them all to no avail. Disperse their counsel, O God, who dispersed the counsel of Ahithophel.
FURTHER RESOURCES / READING:
Letter from the Bishops of North America regarding Atef Aziz
We, the Bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church of North America, send this message to our beloved sons in our churches in North America, in order to warn them not to be dragged by the wrong teachings remembering what St. Paul said, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
In our meeting, held on May 9 thru May 13, 2016, in the Diocese of Los Angles, we reviewed some of the wrong teachings that began to spread in some churches, among which the teachings of Atef Aziz and his fellows. He thinks that he is delegated by the Holy Spirit to establish the Church of the New Covenant, The New Zion, because the current church is a dead deviant church and that we are in the last days. He put a spiritual system to his church members based on the Gnostic teaching that prevailed in the first centuries and was condemned by the early church who excommunicated its followers.
Atef Aziz started to spread his deviant teaching in Egypt. Therefore, the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church excommunicated him during the session held on June 22, 2002. Also, the Holy Synod excommunicated whoever follows his deviant teachings.
Atef Aziz and his followers began to practice their deviant activity in some areas of North America, especially after he joined one of the Chalcedonian churches of America and started to change his name to Father Seraphim first, then to Father Macarius later on.
Therefore, we invite all the blessed sons of the church to be committed to the Holy Spirit’s commandment to us uttered by St. Paul, “from such withdraw thyself” (1 Timothy 6: 3‐5), and to be committed to the decision of the Holy Synod issued at 2002 to excommunicate Atef Aziz and whoever follows him.
We, out of our pastoral responsibility to keep the right Orthodox faith and out of our commitment to the decision of the Holy Synod issued at 2002, will do our best, through the grace of God, to protect our children from this deviant group. Whoever will be proved to participate in any special or general meetings or conventions, whether in USA or outside it (like for the example the convention that is about to be held in Korea in July 2016), held by Atef Aziz and his deviant fellows, proved to spread the deviant teachings of Atef Aziz or proved to support whatever association or monastery he establishes, will be suspended from service and excommunicated from participating in the Holy Mysteries according to the Holy Synod decision to excommunicate Atef Aziz and whoever follows him.
We beseech God to keep His church and His people from ravenous wolves, to guide these deviant people to repentance, and to restore them to the right Orthodox faith.
Blessing comes upon the sons of obedience;
Statement from HG Bishop Michael:
Due to special circumstances, I could not attend this meeting but I am sending to you my approval to the pastoral message to add my name to the fathers the bishops who attended. Bishop Michael
More regarding Atef Aziz and recent controversies: