Authority in the Early Church and the Modern Church of Greece


The following reflection was a seminary paper I did for my Introduction to the Canonical Tradition class, where we were to reflect on a paper by Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens (of the New Calendarist State Church of Greece) about the role of the primate in that Local Church, comparing it to what the canons themselves teach about the nature of authority in the Church, and what we know about the development of such structures historically.

The authority structure of the Orthodox Church is rooted deeply in the New Testament notion of ministry.  All authority is derived from Jesus Christ.  However, the New Testament speaks of the Church often as a household, and the one managing the local church is referred to as an episkopos—what we might anachronistically term a bishop, but which in New Testament vocabulary connotated a steward.  The requirements for a bishop were also tied to his being a good household manager and father (1 Tim. 3:1-8).

The Church is both local, as just described, but also universal, in the sense that many bishops heading local communities exist across the world.  Yet those who share the Orthodox faith maintain horizontal (geographic) and vertical (in succession of time) links to other local Orthodox communities.  As such, there exists a union of equal parts.  We speak of one Church in the Nicene Creed, and the many are collected into one, just as in the liturgy the multitude comes together to manifest the Body of Christ.  On a spiritual level Christ maintains the unity because we are all rooted in Him.  The pastoral epistles, though, recognized that sinful human nature required a shepherd of souls to maintain order, and the early Church recognized this as well.  Hence, authority structures developed in the early Church to cement the bonds of unity.  In addition to this, as the Church emerged from the underground, the problems facing it came out into the forefront and public.  Sometimes, problems surpassed the local level and affected a wider sphere of influence.  Bishops began to meet in councils (originally laymen went as well but as the distances increased, the bishop began to function as a representative), and this necessitated someone to call them together, decide the topics to be discussed, and serve as a focus for the region.  By the time of the Council of Nicea, this function was being performed by the bishops of the provincial capitals, and they were hence given the title Metropolitan.

The Church as household of God must be free to exercise the sacramental ministry; hence, clear authority structures need to be in place so that bishops do not get bogged down in petty disputes.  Apostolic 34 states that “the bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them…and do nothing of consequence without him…but neither let him do anything without the consent of all…”  A circular type of authority is envisioned here; the bishops respect the rights of the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan respects the rights of the bishops.  Antioch 9 frames this authority back into our above-discussed household vocabulary by stating that the bishops must acknowledge the concern of the Metropolitan because in the metropolis all men come to do business.  It’s a back-and-forth, dialoguing, circular, sharing of authority in order to allow for mission.  Someone needs to preside in order to maintain order, unity, communication, well-ordering of affairs, and to make sure that all are running their dioceses in the same spirit.  Again, it is the role of the Metropolitan to show concern, even if this means intervening in the local affairs (such as in II Nicea 11 to establish an administrator of a diocese) but always preserving the rights of the local bishops to perform their normal functions, such as ordaining and settling disputes (Antioch 9).

In the paper by now-Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, the role of the primate in the Church of Greece is discussed.  Archbishop Christodoulos writes that the Church of Greece has followed a Synodal structure since its Tomos of Autocephaly was granted in 1850, which was based in part on the practice of the RussianChurch at that time.  Synodal structures are existent in all Orthodox Churches and presumed in the canons (cf. Antioch 19, I Nicea 4, Carthage 50).  What is different about the situation in the Church of Greece is that the Archbishop’s primacy is deëmphasized while the Holy Synod’s collegiality is emphasized; for instance, the Holy Synod is the highest governing body, it exists in an abridged form as a Standing Synod (with rotating membership) that meets regularly to conduct business, and it is commemorated at liturgies instead of the Archbishop.  This caused considerable problems on several occasions, for instance, when members of the Holy Synod continued to meet after the Archbishop had left, and issued decisions contrary to his will.  The only remedy was for the state authority to intervene, which everyone agreed was unfortunate and needed to be corrected to avoid future repetitions.  The issue of not commemorating the primate could be considered a novelty if one examines the presuppositions of communion: the Archbishop himself argues that communion is expressed in one person, just as the Trinity’s communion is manifest in the hypostasis of the Father, and he states that Apostolic 34 ends in a Trinitarian doxology to emphasize this point.

Despite this somewhat “new” way of exercising the primacy, it does not differ substantially from the model of the canons such as Apostolic 34 and Antioch 19.  These canons leave open the mechanics of how the primacy is to be exercised while clearly articulating its existence.  The Archbishop in the Church of Greece still calls the full Holy Synod together for its annual meeting, presides over it, sets its agenda, and determines the floor for speakers.  Finally, when the Synod is not in session, he has a blessing to conduct the “day to day” affairs of the Church, and oftentimes does so even by acting decisively without the Synod’s input.  All these are aspects of care and organization that were expressed in the presuppositions to Church order and in the above-mentioned canons.


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