(Excerpt from: Jelena Calija's article, When The Spiritual Father Makes Himself The Criterion, posted on Again and Again, the blog of Fr. Milovan Katanic, via his translation. Originally appeared in Politika, Serbia’s premier paper.)
"The faithful, in their battles with temptations, turn to their spiritual fathers, the clergy and monastics, but they too can fall under temptation in abusing their call and from a spiritual father they become totalitarian spiritual leaders who seek unquestioning obedience. When such a priest or monk places themselves – instead of God – as the measure or criterion; when they bring the faithful in constant dependence on themselves, when they begin to involve themselves in every detail of their lives and tell them when to sleep, eat, live, then they cease being spiritual fathers and become gurus, says Bishop Porfirije, Vicar Bishop of Jerag. “Instead of this he should spiritually lead and teach the faithful to be father, friend and brother to them, someone who, above all, has love towards the faithful and spiritual children, attempts to support the freedom of the faithful so that, in going to Christ they become that which they are. A spiritual father should lead the faithful to God, and not attempt to lead the faithful to himself leading them to a completely slavish, subordinate tie to his own person, blocking the image of Christ. Such spiritual fathers have a guru mentality and abuse the authentic, healthy and sincere need of every person’s yearning towards God, for the mystical, the metaphysical,” says Bishop Porfirije..." (Read Full Article HERE.)
My family and I have experienced this type of controlling personality, as past protestants, and even, tragically, as Orthodox believers. What the article does not cover is the fact that, often, such a personality is not necessarily malevolent in their intent. The perpetrator may actually think they are fulfilling their spiritual role. In the case of an experienced spiritual father, clergy, or monastic, the personality and willingness of the recipient also comes into play, paving the way for a pattern of control. This type of codependency may evolve slowly, making it much more difficult to fully recognize what is occurring or the ramifications in one's life. A pattern may evolve where a person may make the spiritual father, clergy or monastic, the surrogate for the Holy Spirit in his life. This is an unnatural and unbalanced authority. A spiritual authority leads by counsel and example not by coercion and enslavement.
This control may also be exhibited by inexperienced, young clergy who are placed in an instant role of authority over parishioners. In their desire to please their bishop, they may show a heightened sense of urgency toward their parishoner's personal lives and conduct. Where pastoral patience may be the better way to lead an individual to righteousness, the young clergy resorts to coercing or making demands or warnings. The letter of the law becomes the standard and grace is sparse. If the parishioner acquiesces to such control, they become dependent. If the parishioner resists such methods, the young clergy may feel a sense of losing control and fear of losing face with his bishop. In his insecurities, the clergy may press in even harder on the parishioner creating an unacceptable environment. To add further pain to the situation, the parishioner who, as a last resort, decides to break free from such a controlling clergy, may be accused of "rebellion" or church hopping. In fact, the parishoner has not left the faith, rather, he has separated himself from an errant spiritual authority who is outside of his scriptural or traditional mandate.
My wife and I experienced this kind of guruism in a protestant church as we watched one pastor, over a two year period, take more and more control over the personal lives of his individual parishioners Strict requirements to participate in a minimum of 20 hours-a-week of services and activities, the forbidding of being away on weekends, even to vacation or visit relatives, were accompanied by guilt tactics such as being singled out publicly in sermons, for "lack of commitment". Such unchecked gurusim leads to deception. This particular pastor began claiming he had new revelation, never before heard, inferring that he was a unique messenger of God and that we were uniquely chosen to follow him into God's revelation. There was also the inference that only he knew how to interpret the scriptures. Would one say we were "in rebellion" to remove ourselves from there? Would one suggest that we should get the pastor's "blessing" to leave?
The same questions could be asked in the orthodox setting. Early in our Journey To Orthodoxy we discovered that we had entered a World Orthodox jurisdiction that did not think it necessary for a convert to be baptized. Neither the priests nor many of the parishioners had been baptized and we also were not required to be. Once we realized the heresy of this practice, did we have a responsibility to ask permission or get the priest's "blessing" to leave? To have submitted to the mercy or permission of the errant pastor or priest would have been guruism. I also once had a brief encounter with a priest in which we discussed how God speaks to us. At one point I quoted the words of our Lord, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me." The priest actually replied, "Well I wouldn't trust that. You might be deceived." This same priest would advocate that I follow his spiritual authority and trust him as spiritual father, but not trust that our Lord Jesus, the Christ, can be trusted in the same manner. This is spiritual guruism.
What of a priest who, if you display any understanding of doctrine, repeatedly reminds you that he is the priest, that only he fully understands the faith, and that you, being a convert or a mere layman, will never know as much as he? What if he tells you that one cannot have a "friendship with the Holy Spirit", that you are not spiritual enough to hear or understand God's will and that the priest, as your spiritual father, is the voice of God in your life? What of a young priest, newly ordained, who, in his fervency, rather than lead and teach in humility, places demands and requirements, not only on you but on your family? What of a priest who usurps the husbands authority over your wife and children? What of a priest who gives you a written list of demands to which you must comply, such as where to or not to work, how to speak, what your wife and daughters can and cannot wear in your home, what kind of music you can sing and what you can and cannot blog. What if, in these circumstances, you want to send a letter of appeal to the Bishop, but the priest demands that he approve the letter first, or he tries to dissuade you from sending it by telling you that the bishop is busy or doesn't respond personally to parishioners? Would one say we were "in rebellion" to remove ourselves from this priest? Would one still suggest that we have to get the priest's "blessing" to leave? If an individual or family has faced this tragic circumstance more than once, and has been forced to find another jurisdiction or priest who does not demand a guru-like submission, would we call him a "church hopper"?
Spiritual guruism is spiritually destructive. Christ is the head of the church. Christ is the ONLY head of the church. Yes, His bishops and priests have been given rule over us and we do walk in submission to them, however, if such leaders fall into the heresy of guruism, and you have exhausted the search for remedy, flee to a place of peace, lest you also fall.