Orthodox Authority (Even Though it’s a Misnomer) Pt. 1

Coming from a hierarchical ecclesial tradition (Methodism), the first place I would look for church authority would be to see if a church has bishops.

Bishops are often easily spotted by their brightly-coloured plumage

Sure enough, the Orthodox Church has bishops (In fact, they would claim to have invented bishops.) To quote Orthodoxwiki:

“A bishop is the successor to the Apostles in the service and government of the Church. The bishop thus serves in place and as a type of Christ in the Church. No bishop in Orthodoxy is considered infallible. None has any authority over or apart from his priests, deacons, and people or the other bishops. They have the responsibility of maintaining the unity of the Church throughout the world by insuring the truth and unity of the faith and practice of their diocese. The bishop represent his particular diocese to the other churches or dioceses, and represents the Universal Church to his own particular priests, deacons, and people.”

As a type of Christ, the bishop is a symbol of unity as well as a shepherd to a flock. However as the link I posted in my introduction noted, the “authority” is not a series of power relationships, but rather one of agape love. This fits the biblical image of the shepherd to a far greater degree than an idea of power. The shepherd loves the flock and gives his life for them. The flock loves and follows the shepherd. Thus, bishops are the first “level of authority” when I look at the Orthodox Church.

For 2.000 years they’ve been guardians of peace throughout the galaxy.

Of course the individual priest of a congregation is also an authority and a shepherd, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is the “spiritual father.” The bishop is a shepherd and spiritual father to a broader flock of sheep. The bishop has “leveled up” to use a gaming term.

Level 72 confessor

To view things through a western disciplinary paradigm: If a congregant needs disciplining, that job falls to the priest. If a priest or congregation needs disciplining, that task falls to the bishop. But as Orthodoxwiki goes on to say, there’s more:

“According to Church Law, bishops of an area must meet in councils. When doing so, the metropolitan or patriarchate presides administratively.”

This is the next level up, so to speak. If something exceeds the authority of the bishop, it goes to a council. The great thing about all this, is that every step of the way is based in community. The priest, as an authority, is part of the community of the congregation. The bishop is also part of the community of the congregation, but at the same time he is a bridge among regional congregations and between the congregation and the council. The Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist churches all work in a very similar way as well.

“Work” being relative…

As I mentioned, the next step up is a council. For the most part, a regional council is usually sufficient to take care of any matters needing an authority. However, historically, there has been the need of a general ecumenical council to settle some issues. In the schemata that I have sketched, ecumenical councils are the highest level of authority (Or are they? You’ll have to wait for my next post to see the answer to this!)

There have, so far, been only seven ecumenical councils. However, there have been various minor councils that the Orthodox Church has broadly accepted as authoritative. For example, the Fourth and Fifth Councils of Constantinople and the Synod of Jerusalem.

All these steps, from local priest to ecumenical council, are sources of authority within the Orthodox Church. They define the boundaries, saying that on one side is Orthodoxy and on the other side is heterodoxy. Sometimes the boundaries are very broad. Sometimes, for a time, the boundaries can be so broad that conflicting positions are taken within the Orthodox Church. To outsiders this can seem very chaotic. Perhaps that is problematic. At the same time, the early Celtic church depicted the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. So perhaps there is some method to this madness?

A wild goose chase?

One of the reasons I think Orthodoxy sometimes seems so confusing to us is because of our individual limits. We have a tendency to think in the short-term and static categories. The Orthodox Church has a long-term vision and is in a state of process. This idea of “being in process” may sound incompatible with holding to Holy Tradition. I think it’s more mystically paradoxical than incompatible. Issues need to be sifted, and they need time to sift. For some of us (such as myself) this can be frustrating because I like well-defined categories, but God has an annoying tendency to work outside of well-defined limits.


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 6, 2012.

9 Responses to “Orthodox Authority (Even Though it’s a Misnomer) Pt. 1”

  1. Looking forward to the rest of this.

  2. This is good, and interesting. If I’m understanding this correctly (shaky proposition, that) the organization of Orthodoxy is very like American political theory; rights and power belong to the people and can be delegated up the chain to successsively Township. County, State, and finally Federal government.

    • I think that might be a decent enough analogy, although as I said point number six on this blog: http://silouanthompson.net/2012/05/differences-between-orthodoxy-and-roman-catholicism/ makes clear that the relationship is not one of power or jurisdiction, but one of love. I suppose you could say it’s a structure that appears somewhat similar although the relationship between the different parts of the chain is very different (by being based on love.)

      • That makes all the sense in the world.

        Typical American that I am, I’m always looking for the sources of the founder’s genius, they were so peripatetic that it’s quite a search beyond the obvious.

        I’ll be catching up as time allows so don’t hesitate to direct me. thanks.

      • I read somewhere recently that the American founders sought to combine the three major political ideas familiar to them. The office of the president drew from monarchic ideas. The senate (which was originally appointed by the states rather than elected) drew from aristocracy. Finally congress drew from the nascent idea of popular democracy. The founders simply decided to throw it altogether and perhaps hope that the strengths of each would overcome the weakness of each.

        I’m not sure how accurate that idea is historically, but it’s an interesting way of looking at the American system. Eclectic and pragmatic.

      • I’d say it’s not wrong but, perhaps superficial. It’s correct on the surface but the constitution is too well thought out in detail to be merely that. And of course, the Federalist Paper wander all over classical learning to make their point.

  3. Interesting. But what happens when two bishops don’t agree? Reading about St. Cyril and Nestorius makes me wonder about that? Guess they both thought they were Orthodox?

    • At that point I suppose the issue would (and did) ostensibly move into a council. Then if that’s not enough (which if I recall my Church history, it wasn’t enough) the solution works its way out in the way Fr. Hopko mentioned in his podcast. Which, as you know, leads into the dilemma we’re both trying to unravel!

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