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(July 2004)

Orthodox Ecclesiology: Congregational or Hierarchical?

By an Orthodox Priest


From the Editor: In light of on-going efforts by para-church groups such as OCL, the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Poimen considers it proper that we present to our readers the following article on this contemporary on-going disagreement regarding governance of His Church. As our readers are aware, we have been and will continue to be critical of our hierarchy when we note their participation in ecumenical activities which compromise Orthodox dogmas and principles. At the same time, we also stand firm in defense of other positions which, although they appear to promote the Archdiocesan position within the subject argument, they are actually a defense in support of Holy Tradition.

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Let all respect the deacons as representing Jesus Christ, the Bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters [i.e., priests] as God’s high council and as the Apostolic college. Apart from this respect, no church deserves the name.” (St. Ignatios of Antioch [+107], letter to the Trallians)

With this ancient quote from the Spirit-filled writings of the holy “God-bearer,” I am establishing from the onset of this paper that Orthodoxy has always been a hierarchical Church. As you proceed, you will encounter many additional quotes from this holy Church Father – himself taught directly by St. John the Theologian. In this way, you should be able to conclude that this only true form of Orthodox Ecclesiology has been firmly established within the Church’s foundation from apostolic times.

During her 2000-year history, many heresies have attacked God’s true Church, both from within and without; and the Holy Spirit has always kept these false teachings from becoming permanent within Her. In fact, each attempt to bring corrupt doctrine into the life of the Church has made Her more adamant in maintaining the purity of the “Faith of the Apostles” – oftentimes to the shedding of blood.

Let us give thanks to God, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for fashioning His Bride with a hierarchical structure; because, through it, the Holy Spirit has preserved the unity of the Faith. Imagine how fragmented the Church would have become if she had been governed by congregationalism during all of the heretical attacks. We only need look at 21st Century Protestantism for an example: From the time of Martin Luther until today, over 22,000 different Protestant churches have come into existence, and 5 more are added each week. (Of course the original ‘mother’ for each of them is the heterodox Roman Catholic Church.) Thus, I was deeply saddened recently when I read the comments of a layperson (himself a member of the para-church “OCL” group) that took issue with the fact that the proposed new Archdiocesan Charter contained the word, “hierarchical.” Unfortunately, he reflects the erroneous thinking of many souls that look upon our Church as a “democratic institution.” The consummate expression of this false teaching was made in the “bottom line” section of a past OCL flyer, in which it was demanded that the word, “hierarchical” be completely omitted from the new Charter!

The Orthodox Church has always been a Theocracy, never a democracy. The clergy have always been the governing force of the life of the Church in general, and Her faithful souls in particular. As St. Ignatios explains:

“You must follow the lead of the Bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the Presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the Deacons as you would God’s Commandments. Let no one do anything touching the Church apart from the Bishop…” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans)

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatios admonishes the lay people to “live in harmony with the mind of God;” and in order to do this they must “act in agreement with the mind of the Bishop.” He calls upon the priest and deacons to “harmonize with the Bishop as completely as the strings with a harp.” Then, the martyred Bishop compels the “rank and file” (i.e., the laity) to:

…also form a choir, so that joining the symphony [of the hierarch and clergy] … [they] may with one voice – through Jesus Christ – sing a song to the Father… [and, through their obedience to the Bishop and clergy, they] may at all times have a share in God. … Let us, therefore, take care not to oppose the Bishop, that we may be submissive to God… [by showing] obedience with undivided mind to the Bishop and the presbytery…

In light of the events that have occurred within our Archdiocese over the past several years, these words of St. Ignatios should weigh heavily on our souls. If they do not, then perhaps these fatherly admonitions will pierce through the wall of indifference that has plagued so many of us for so long:

“…He that does anything apart from the Bishop, presbyter or deacon has no pure conscience…” (Letter to the Trallians)

“Therefore, just as the Lord, being one with the Father, did nothing without Him, either by Himself or through the Apostles, so neither must you undertake anything without the Bishop and the presbyters; nor must you attempt to convince yourselves that anything you do on your own account is acceptable…” (Letter to the Magnesians)

“Shun division and bad doctrines. Where the Shepherd [i.e., the Bishop] is, there you, being sheep, must follow.” (Letter to the Philadelphians)

“He who does anything without the knowledge of the Bishop, worships the devil…” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans)

“Do not let yourself be anointed with the foul-smelling doctrine of the prince of this world, for fear that he might carry you off into captivity – away from the [heavenly] life that is in store for you.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans)

Through the 83 years of our Archdiocese’s existence, we have been plagued by the “foul-smelling doctrine” of Congregationalism. Perhaps it entered partially by accident, since at least 18 parishes came into being prior to the formation of the Archdiocese. The pious Greek laymen who helped assemble these communities had no one present to guide them into the Orthodox hierarchical ecclesiology. They brought over priests from Greece, most of whom had neither formal theological training nor the ability to speak English with any fluency. Out of necessity, the lay people elected the “Boards of Trustees” (now called Parish Councils); and they considered these lay groups to be the governing body of their respective parishes. The priest was simply the “hired hand” that did the services and sacraments, and was paid by – and responsible to – the Board. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this false ecclesiology was allowed to continue and to develop; and has given ‘birth’ to such totally uncanonical activities as the following:

Parish Council members chosen by the majority vote of the ‘dues paying members.’ In actuality, the council members are to be chosen by the priest, with the approval of his Bishop.

Secularly influential and/or wealthy individuals successfully forcing a priest out of his parish, not for teaching heresy or for moral improprieties, but because these few souls do not like the way the priest does things. Of course, this anomaly has existed even in the years of St. John Chrysostom; but not to the extent it does within our Archdiocese today.

The formation of para-church groups such as OCL and GOAL. Their members need to disband immediately, go to Confession, and beg God’s forgiveness for causing, whether knowingly or unknowingly, such turmoil in His Church.

Priests, especially those with several children, being forced to compromise their convictions in order not to offend certain people. The priest is “reminded” who pays his salary.

The confusion amongst the ‘rank and file’ Orthodox Christians brought about by OCL members being very vocal in expressing their total misunderstanding of Orthodox Ecclesiology. For example, in a recent letter to the “National Herald” newspaper, a person made the following (and several other) incorrect statements:

“The Patriarch has ceased to function as a governing authority.”

“[The Patriarch] can be venerated as a symbol, that is all.”

The writer “doubts if excommunication carries much force in today’s world.”

“…the Patriarchate has to depend for its sustenance on the voluntary contributions of the faithful. But voluntary contributions are just that, voluntary. They may be increased or dry up, depending on the feelings of the faithful.” (This may be true in secular terms. But as citizens of the “New Jerusalem”, we have a sacred duty to God to support His Church; and if we hold back – or reduce – that support because of our pride, we will ‘pay’ dearly on the Day of Judgment.)

“The Patriarchate is a symbol. Its major source of strength is the affection, the support, the veneration of the faithful.” (No! Its major source of strength is the Holy Spirit, and the many saintly hierarchs that have occupied this sacred throne over the past 2,000 years – some even to the shedding of their blood.)

The letter has a threatening tone, and – in essence – calls for the Patriarch to “see the limits of his power,” to accept his position as a “symbol,” and thus force our Archdiocese to continue to flounder in a most un-canonical, congregational ecclesiology.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ! It is time for all of us – clergy and laity – to both repent and return to Orthodox ecclesiology, so that we can become the Church that God wants us to be – one whose primary goal is “to make relics”, i.e., saints – one that becomes a living icon of what St. Ignatios describes so eloquently. We are not ready for autonomy until we do this.

Since, at the present time, our Archdiocese does not have the “blood of martyrs” of any local saints, it is even more imperative that we surrender our wills to our Lord Jesus Christ and offer obedience to our hierarchs. Let us run to our Spiritual Fathers and confess our sins. Let us make worship, prayer, fasting, and prostrations a living “presence” in the trenches of our lives. Let us daily read from God’s Word, the lives of the Saints, and the writings of our holy Church Fathers. Let us, through God’s grace and the continuous practice of the ascetical/sacramental life of our hierarchical Church, become the Gospel – living witnesses of God’s True Church to this sinful world. And if God so wills, let us also be ready at any moment to shed our blood in defense of His Bride! Grant this, O Lord!