There are no Free Agents in the Church
It is not uniquely American, but very prevalent in American Christianity. It is a symptom of what is called non-denominationalism. It has become popular for anyone who wishes to establish a church and name himself or herself pastor. This was not always the case, nor should it be.
In those days, Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark. Now in the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith. But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.Acts 12:25;13.1-12
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear about the sending out of Saints Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. They didn’t just leave. They were sent by the Church. They weren’t just a couple of men who volunteered. They were ordained by the Church.
The Orthodox Church has maintained this practice since ‘day one’ and for good reason. Since the first days of the Church, others attempted to lead the Church astray with false teachings and false hope. It was the Church, led by the Holy Apostles, that Christ promised would be guided into the whole truth by the Holy Spirit. (John 16.13)
Without the proper vetting from the Church, with proper certifications, Saints Paul and Barnabas would not have been trusted to preach. Without the same today, clergy should not be trusted to teach and preach. Every member of the Church must be accountable to the Church, not themselves.
You can hear the accountability in the worship of the Church when a particular bishop in commemorated. You can see the accountability on websites and letterheads when you see the logo of the Archdiocese. Even sacraments are certified by canonical hierarchs of the Church. Nothing is done in the Church without accountability.
At its core, this is very unamerican. Our society is built upon individualism and entrepreneurism. We tend to mistrust corporations and governments. They have earned our distrust by their lack of integrity, but that should not ‘spill over’ into our mistrust of the Church.
We trust the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ promised as much. It was the Holy Spirit that called Paul and Barnabas through the Church. It is the Church, and only the Church that sends out workers for the mission of the Gospel.
Who is the Church? The Church is you and I together, clergy and laity together. We are the Church when we act like the Church. If we encounter someone who is teaching outside the Church, without the credentials of the Church, and without accountability to the Church, it is they who we should mistrust rather than the Church. There are no free agents in the Church.