The Highest Authority in the Church


1. Although God has absolute power over the whole inanimate world, He Himself has created all spiritual beings free and has thus renounced the possibility of determining the human will without its consent. Nevertheless, obedience to the divine will is an absolute condition for our perfection and happiness. God in His goodness, omnipotence and wisdom is the only Being who can lead us to per­fection. It is but natural to trust the Divine leadership, to believe that God is more concerned about our wellbeing than we ourselves are. The fear of God is a virtue. In its highest form it is the fear of offending the One we love and venerate above all. In its lowest form it is the fear of punishment, which indeed has its justification in the idea that God is our Supreme Judge.

God has revealed his will to mankind. We must accept it even if we don’t understand it. There can be no better proof of the sincerity of our obedience to God than self-sacrifice for His sake.

We are free to reject the will of God and we too often use this freedom. But those who place themselves outside Divine authority become the antagonists of God and can no longer count on His blessings.

The Bible teaches us that the first man disobeyed God. As a result of this disobedience the entire mankind became sinful, igno­rant, suffering and mortal. Although corrupted, mankind continued to exist in the world and Providence did not abandon it. Nevertheless, the world could never be saved for its existence was inseparable from evil.

It was necessary to renew or recreate the world. The Firstborn among these renewed creatures was Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. He became the foundation of the Church, i.e. of the kingdom of God “coming with power”. In this kingdom the will of God is always fulfilled. We are so accustomed to seeing sins and even crimes in the Church that we are ready to admit that the Church itself is sinful. This is a grave and dangerous error. That which is against the will of God cannot, strictly speaking, belong to nature of the Church. Sinners can be members of the Church if they do not identify themselves with their sins or errors. However, unrepented sinners and heretics are excommunicated either openly – by the Church, or invisibly by God Himself. Our sins and errors as such never belong to the very nature of the Church, which is necessarily holy and infallible. This may seem paradoxical to us for we constantly see sins and errors in Christian society. But this society does not entirely coincide with the Church. In the light of Christ’s parable in Matthew (Mat.13:24–30), the Church on earth cannot be divided by a vertical line into good and evil men, but it can and must be divided by a horizontal line, which divides every member of the Church on earth into the “new creature”, living in Christ, and “the old creature”, not yet renewed by the grace of God. Evildoers or heretics among Christians risk their own salvation and are guilty of abusing the gift of salvation which they receive from the Church. They may attempt to corrupt the Church, but they cannot succeed, because the omnipotent God is reigning and watching over it. The more we sin or err, the greater is our separation from the Church.

The Church was created by God. It is the unity of men in Jesus Christ. We are united with Christ by the Holy Spirit, and united in Christ with God Himself. This unity of God and man is the very essence of the Church. In the Church, and only in the Church, do we transcend our nature and participate in the existence of the Absolute Being. According to patristic tradition such theosis or divinization is the final goal of Christian life.

Our existence is by nature unstable, has its origin in others and is always in danger of ceasing. But in God we participate in an eternal and self-supporting existence. We are limited in all respects. But in God we find an unlimited being or the fullness of existence. We live in constant struggle, division and disorder. But in God we participate in absolute harmony and unity. God is not only an ideal of our minds. He is the Perfect Reality, acting in the whole world and in our lives and revealing Himself to us. This Divine Reality is completely personal. God is the Holy Trinity. Each Divine Person is free and conscious. In His freedom God eternally realizes the perfect Good. In his consciousness He is the perfect Wisdom. The life of the Holy Trinity manifests its omnipotent power and absolute holiness. Its content is love and knowledge, which are the sources of the creation of the world.

Divinization is our union with the Holy Trinity. We are liberated from the evil and bondage of this world by the freedom of God and we live participating in the divine perfections. Divine Wisdom becomes our wisdom and the love of God inspires our spiritual and earthly activity... Christ is our “way”. We live in Him and He is in us. His life in us is the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit we become in Jesus Christ the children of God the Father whose will becomes our will. Thus we attain “divinization” in all that it implies.

To accept the very life of God as our own and to completely submit ourselves to it is the highest form of Christian obedience to God. If we do not possess the Spirit of God, we can only be His slaves, obedient to Him in our external behaviour, or rebellious against Him in our sins. Slavelike obedience was not sufficient even in the Old Testament, much less in the New. If the will of God is not our will and His truth is not our truth, we are not in the Church.

We know that God is our King and Christ the Head of the Church and that we must worship and venerate Them. Nevertheless, the greatest majority of Christians constantly disregard the fact that real obedience to our Heavenly King and God is the only real Christian life. We oversimplify the idea of Christian obedience by considering merely the simplest moral laws and rules of the Church. We act according to our own will and cover our disobedience to God by superficial piety. That which we call the life of the Church is very often the life of our sinful human society having but the appearance of Christianity, because the Church is the kingdom of God and there is no Church where the will of God is not done. The presence of grace and of true Christian faith and love are the best criteria of the reality of the Church. “Where there is the Holy Spirit, there is the Church,” says St.Irenaeus of Lyon and, “where is the Church, there is the Holy Spirit! and He is Truth.”

Since Apostolic times Christians have been often concerned with the problem of the authority in the Church and of its bearers: apostles, bishops, councils etc. But the real problem is whether Christian society and hierarchy are obedient to God and live in Christ. The organization and discipline of the earthly Church can be perfect, yet if its life and activity are not inspired by the Spirit of God they are not even Christian.

2. How is God ruling the Church? First by the omnipotent power of His Providence, especially by the action of His grace, without which nothing can exist in the Church. Secondly, through the Truth which was revealed to the Church by Jesus Christ, the prophets, the apostles and the fathers. Thirdly, through all the divine institutions of the Church. Those members of the hierarchy and laity who follow their own will and opinions betray their faith and the Church. Those who are faithful to the doctrine and laws of the Church base their activity on divine principles. They can however incur difficulties when they have to interpret this doctrine or apply these laws to particular cases. A vital understanding and interpretation of the Divine Truth, a wise application of the canons and moral laws are given only to those who are directly enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Without a constant action of Divine Power the Church could have no living wisdom and no ability to act in the Spirit of God.

Divine Providence acts in the Church in two ways, one of which we can call external and the other internal. God does not determine our will, but He can encourage or stop any human action. Just as the accomplishments and successes of individuals or society depend on God, so does the life of the Church which God can allow to prosper or ruin, although He acts not arbitrarily, but according to our behavior. He rewards, punishes or leads us through trials necessary for our perfection. He takes special care of His Church and of His people. It is sufficient to remember the Sermon on the Mount and the words of St.Paul “that all things work together for good to them that love God” or “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons.” God chastises us “for our profit that we might be partakers of His Holiness.” Christians who have real faith and the sincere desire to serve God will never be abandoned by God. If we know from history that entire churches were sometimes annihilated, we must admit that God probably did not expect more fruits from them.

The inner action of divine Providence is the action of His grace. All that truly belongs to the Church, to its nature and life, is the fruit of cooperation between Divine grace and the good will of men. God sanctifies all that is holy, He illuminates all the true teachers of the Church and consecrates its leaders by His grace. We often believe that baptism and some Christian education are sufficient to make a good Christian, and that ordination combined with some elements of theology and some qualities of leadership make a good priest. However, grace of baptism or priesthood can be effective only if it is working in us constantly and is constantly growing. Even a naturally weak man can be an excellent bishop if he lives in grace. If the hierarchy relies on itself and considers its task as an earthly activity, it will bring the Church to decay and heresy.

The Church receives the knowledge of Truth from the Holy Spirit. We believe that not only the prophets and apostles but also the Councils and the Fathers were inspired by God. All that truly belongs to the Holy Tradition is a result of a divine illumination of the Church. God grants truth and also gives the power to understand and interpret it. This Divine illumination is a continuous principle of Divine guidance. Each ministry in the Church is based on a special grace, which must inspire and determine the whole activity of the minister.

The action of divine grace is always free. God gives His grace when and how He wants. Nevertheless He acts foreseeing our reaction and in answer to it. We accept His grace in the measure of our good will and preparedness. If we wish we can reject it entirely.

Divine Providence is not only the source of guidance and inspiration but also a power which judges us. This judgment is not often obvious in our earthly existence but we know that all Christians as well as all Churches in the world are already and will be finally judged by God. Consequently, disobedience to God results in disaster either on earth or after the end of the world. God can tolerate abuses of His will but He finally purifies His Church of evil and evil ones and brings all those who are saved to obedience. To be saved means to accept freely the will of God in all its forms and expressions.

3. God is the Holy Trinity. If one is obedient to God, he is obedient to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The unity of Divine will does not exclude its trinitarian character. It is therefore legitimate to ask what is the difference between the authority of the Father and those of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The source of divine authority, according to the New Testament, is undoubtedly the Father. It is clearly stated that the Son and the Holy Spirit do the will of the Father and that the object of Their activity is to bring the world to absolute obedience to the Father. For this reason the Father is preferably named the “Monarch” or the “King” by the Holy Fathers. St.Paul says that Head of Christ is God the Father (1Cor.11:3) and that Christ will submit himself to the Father after the end of the world (1Cor.15:28). The Holy Scriptures as well as Tradition especially ascribe the name of Creator to the Father. If the Father is the primary source of the existence of His Son, His Spirit and of the whole creation, His will determines all the more the existence of all beings. The unity of the Divine will must be explained by the fact that the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, being consubstantial with the Father, accept absolutely His will as Their own.

The Son of God fulfills the will of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. As the hypostatical Word and Wisdom of the Father, He is the Truth and the Wisdom of the world. As the Messiah, sent into the world by the Father, He is the Saviour. The Son of God was not only sent into the world but was made man. Therefore, the authority of Christ is both divine and human. He is the Son of the King reigning together with His Father, but His kingship in all its forms is always not only divine but also human. As God, Jesus Christ is King eternally, but He became the Head of the Church in His incarnation, through His earthly life, preaching and ministry, self-sacrifice, descent into hell, resurrection and ascension. He is the Founder and the foundation of the Church. The Church is consubstantial with Him. The nature of the Church is the nature of Christ because it is His body. We must understand that the true nature and life of the Church are essentially determined by the life and the nature of Christ Himself. To be obedient to Christ as the Head of the Church, consequently, means doing only that which is strictly conforming to the spirit, the teaching and the will of Christ. If Christ has “purchased the Church with His own blood,” the Church, its hierarchy and members must live in Christ even if they have to suffer for it. The New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ as man, “earned” somehow to become the Head of the Church. The Church in its turn must deserve being the true bride of Christ. One of the Fathers says that the Church is “built on the Cross”.

The descent into hell and the liberation from it of all the righteous is the proof of the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan and evil. The same power is given by Christ to the Church, but we can exercise it only if we possess the same spirit of holiness and love for sinners, and the same spiritual strength as Christ.

The resurrection is the victory of Jesus Christ over death and corruption. The Church also has the power to resurrect human souls in Christ, which is a certain pledge of resurrection in life eternal.

Ascending as God and Man into heaven, Jesus Christ founded the Kingdom of Heaven and opened its gates to man. Therefore the Church is both a heavenly and an earthly reality. Those who are in heaven do not separate themselves from the earthly church. Those who live on earth must live as if they already participated in the heavenly Kingdom.

We have said that the Son of God reigns over the world. St.Paul teaches that Christ is constantly striving to submit the whole of mankind to God. Likewise the Church is universal by nature and must constantly strive to include the whole world in itself.

The Father “committed all judgement into His Son.” Jesus Christ said that His Word, i.e. His truth, judges us already. We are judged imminently by the very divine laws of life. The ways of evil are necessarily the ways of corruption. Divine Providence does not leave us unpunished. After our death Christ will judge us directly and personally. At the Last Judgment He will judge the whole world, the Church and all His servants.

The Father gave “all power in heaven and on earth” to His Son. Therefore it is impossible to oppose the kingdom of the Son to that of the Father. The Father gave His own power and His own kingdom to the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the King of the world as God and the Giver of life. He gives existence and life to the whole creation accomplishing or perfecting the will of the Father and the eternal ideas of the Son. According to the Fathers He is the Spirit of the Kingship or the Power of the royalty of God. Through Him the Holy Trinity reigns over the universe. His power over the Church is absolute, since the Church cannot live without grace and grace is particularly the gift of the Holy Spirit. The whole sacramental life of the Church is the action of the Divine Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit does not reign over the Church for Himself: He builds the body of Christ and through the power of His Grace Christians become the children of the Father.

4. The authority of God in the Church is really absolute and vitally essential for the Church. Strictly speaking, God is the only authority in the Church. Nevertheless, we may also speak of the authority of the Church itself. Jesus Christ said that those who are not obedient to the Church are no better than heathens and publicans. Evidently the authority of the Church is not purely human. It derives directly and exclusively from God and basically coincides with divine authority. The Church possesses it as a sacred or divine institution, based on dogmas, canons and moral commandments. They are the only foundations of the authority of the Church and its only true criteria. But, as we have pointed out, they become a living power in the life of the Church only inasmuch as the latter is directly guided and inspired by God. Therefore, it is impossible to separate the authority and the power of the Church from that of God. To rule in the name of God without God or against Him is the worst of sins.

When we say that authority belongs primarily to the Church and not to any part of it or any group of its members, we express a very important Orthodox dogma. The Orthodox concept of the Church affirms that the Church is not composed of separate parts, established as if it were separately by God. The church is a whole, a body. Even Jesus Christ as the Head of His body is within the Church as one of its members. Therefore the authority of the Church does not coincide with that of the hierarchy if we consider the latter as independent from the rest of the Church. The ultimate authority and judgment belong always to the unity of all Christians with their Divine Head. The Church as a whole has not only the right but the duty to disobey and even consider as excommunicated any minister, should he become openly unfaithful. Orthodox people have on several occasions used this privilege in their struggle against heresies, especially the “Unia” which was introduced by corrupt representatives of the hierarchy. The whole body of the Church is the bearer and protector of the Orthodox teaching. The doctrine of the “royal priesthood” means that all the members of the Church participate in all its functions and activities.

Nevertheless, not all Christians have the same vocations, nor do they participate equally in Church activities. The Church has an organized leadership established by God Himself. This leadership has the right and duty to rule and to teach the people and to perform services and sacraments. The hierarchy is fully responsible before God for the life of the Church and has to carry out His will concerning the Church. But this will of God both determines and limits the functions of the priesthood. The rights of the hierarchy are not indefinite or unlimited; they are clearly defined and explained in the canon law, the Holy Scripture and Tradition. Leading the Church and representing it, the hierarchy must itself be completely submitted to God and to the Church.

The highest position within hierarchy is that of bishops. Each bishop has full authority over his diocese. As to the whole Church, it is ruled by the Episcopate in its unity. The ecumenical council is only an instrument, an organized expression of the will of the Episcopate. The evident consensus of the Episcopate can replace an ecumenical council. Many truths of the Orthodox faith were never approved by an ecumenical council, since the last council took place in the 8th century. However, even from the canonical point of view they must be considered as true dogmas inasmuch as they are obviously accepted by all Orthodox bishops. This applies, for example, to the dogmas of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father; of the original sin in the Holy Virgin Mary; of the prevalence of the authority of an ecumenical council over that of any bishop including the Pope, etc. At present, when it is so easy to obtain the opinions of all Orthodox bishops by correspondence, it would be possible to use this method instead of an ecumenical council, were it difficult to convene it. On the other hand, even an ecumenical council must be accepted by the whole body of bishops, especially if not all churches were adequately represented. The third ecumenical council is the best example of this. Its decisions were accepted by the Antiochian church, which was absent from the council, only after long negotiations with St.Cyril who presided over this council. The “formula of Union” which was the result of this negotiation formulated the Orthodox doctrine even better than the 12 Anathematisms of St.Cyril which were approved by the Council.

All this, however, does not invalidate the principle that of all ecclesiastical institutions the ecumenical council is the one possessing the highest authority. In fact the decisions of all councils which were sufficiently representative of the Church and free in their deliberation have always been true. The decision of the council may be true even if these conditions are not fulfilled, but in this case the Church has a legitimate reason to raise doubts about the council and examine its decisions. We must mention here the problem of the relationship between the Council and the Primate (Pope, Patriarch, Metropolitan) within any Church. Dogmatically it is evident that the general council of bishops is the supreme power in the Church. However, the authority of metropolitan and patriarchs became very great during the middle ages. In its legitimate forms this authority may be described as follows: each bishop is the head of his diocese. No one can give him orders concerning its administration. Metropolitans or patriarchs can intervene only if the bishop violates the teaching or laws of the Church. But they cannot personally judge a bishop: this right belongs to the council of bishops. Likewise in matters concerning the general life of the metropolitan district or patriarchate, no bishop has the right to act against the will of his metropolitan or patriarch who are directly in charge of these matters, although under control and supervision of the local council of bishops.

It is our conviction that the same principle should be applied to the Primate of the Orthodox Church (e.g. the Ecumenical Patriarch), just, as before the schism it governed the function of the Bishop of Rome in the Church Universal. This is how we could tentatively describe the role of such primacy: The Primate is in charge of all matters of general interest for the Orthodox Church. He acts, however, under the supervision and with the guidance of an ecumenical council or synod of all the heads of the autocephalous churches (or their official representatives). He has executive but not legislative power and is responsible to the council of churches. His functions are: in case of disorders in any local church, disorders that cannot be resolved by this church, it is his duty to intervene and, if necessary, to convene a general council of this church, or a synod of the representatives of all Orthodox churches, or even an ecumenical council. He has no authority to solve this crisis personally, but must use normal canonical channels. He has no right to give orders to bishops or to intervene in the life of their dioceses except for special reasons. He organizes the cooperation of the autocephalous churches and supervises the execution of all plans accepted in common by them. He convenes (with the approval of all churches) the ecumenical council and presides over it. He is also the chairman of all general synods or meetings of the Church. In doctrinal matters it is his special duty to watch over the integrity of Orthodox teaching in all churches, to draw to the attention of bishops any danger of heresy, and to help solving all doctrinal problems by channels of normal magisterium or by the council of bishops.

If we ask whether the functions of the Bishop of Rome before the schism and those of the Patriarch of Constantinople afterwards fit the description given above the answer cannot be a simple yes or no. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Pope and the ecumenical patriarch were always recognized as first bishops in the Church. But on the other hand, their primacy was never fully determined by the canons and its character changed more than once. Very often it depended on particular historic circumstances or on the person of the primate. Yet it is possible to find in the past all elements enumerated above with one exception: the control of the first see by the common councils of Churches. The authority of the ecumenical councils was indisputable, but these were very rare. During some periods of the Middle Ages many Eastern Patriarchs lived almost constantly in Constantinople and the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch was spread all over Eastern Europe. It was therefore easy to obtain a consensus of the churches. But this situation was exceptional and even abnormal.

6. Orthodox clergy and theologians of the last centuries are inclined to speak of a “primacy of honor”, but no one has clearly explained in what this “honor” consists or why the Church needs such a primacy. If the “primacy of honor” means nothing more than the obligation to respect the first patriarch more than the others, it has no real importance for the Church. Moreover it contradicts historical evidence and is not justified by the real needs of the Church. On the one hand, we must recognize that the central organization was always weak in the Eastern Church and lacked clear definition. The absence of strong central organization is explained by the fact that it was not considered spiritually and dogmatically necessary. In general all forms of organized unity of dioceses developed very slowly and for practical rather than dogmatical reasons.

On the other hand, the centralized government, as developed in the Roman West, was not accepted by the Orthodox Church. Why? Did we not recognize a certain primacy of Rome before the great schism? We will not deny it, but this primacy has very little in common with the Catholic doctrine of Papacy. Roman Catholic theologians themselves admit that after the XI century Papacy has become radically different from that of the early period of Christianity, and they explain this difference by their theory of dogmatical development. But we, Orthodox, do not believe in any essential development of dogmas. We admit development in the explanations and formulation of dogmas as well as the growth of the earthly institutions of the Church. But we do not believe that anything really essential changes in the Church. To us Papacy as accepted by Roman Catholicism is a wrong innovation.

Papacy claims absolute power over the whole Church. For us such power can be ascribed to God alone. In the administration of the Church the power of the Pope is that of an absolute monarch. But in our belief no one has such authority over any bishop or over the Church in general. The Pope is proclaimed to be infallible but this gift does not belong to any individual, except Jesus Christ who is God. The gift of infallibility is given to the Church in its unity and can be expressed only in unity. The Pope is considered by Roman Catholics as supreme judge of the Church, but for us councils alone possess this privilege: an individual cannot be a perfect bearer of justice. The Pope even claims the power over the world and civil authorities. We believe that the Church is called to preach the truth, to unite all the faithful in their religious life and to rebuke any evil in the world. But the Lord did not entrust the task of governing the world and the State to the Church. Christians have all the responsibilities of citizens, but the duty to govern the states belongs to the laity and not to the clergy. The canons even forbid clergymen to hold civil positions.

Orthodox rejection of the Papacy does not mean that our Church has no need of strengthening its central organization. The spiritual unity expressed in the unity of dogmas, institutions and ideals of life cannot replace the unity of organization even if the latter is less important than our unity in God.

A strong center could do much for the Orthodox Church. It would remind the Orthodox people of their sacred duty to the Orthodox Church as a whole. We must admit that millions of Orthodox are far more concerned with their national churches or even with their particular diocese or parish than with the Orthodox Church on the whole. This lack of the sense of unity has most disastrous effects. One of the important tasks of an universal center would be giving true canonical organization to orthodox churches in countries where Orthodoxy is still newly established (Western Europe, North America etc.). But there exist many canonical problems even in the old churches...

Our Church needs unity of action in its relationship with the non-Orthodox, for otherwise we cannot expect to succeed in any kind of negotiation with the heterodox churches.

Many theological and practical problems must at least be discussed together by the representatives of all orthodox churches.

The bad experience which the Orthodox Church has had with Rome can lead us to the idea of a permanent universal synod under the presidency of the ecumenical patriarch. It must consist of bishops representing all autocephalous churches. Proposals of this synod would be studied by experts appointed by the synod and the hierarchy of member churches.1 The proposal will be considered as accepted only if the majority of bishops of each orthodox church approve it. The ecumenical synod must be the executive organ to carry out all the decisions of the Orthodox episcopate inasmuch as they cannot be enacted by each Church separately.

In conclusion we would like to emphasize the principal ideas of this article.

1. The highest authority belongs to God. Members of the Church can sin and err but their sins and errors do not belong to the nature of the Church.

2. God rules the Church by the power of His providence and grace, through the truth revealed by Him and the sacred institutions established by Him.

3. The authority of the Church as a whole is above all particular authorities existing in it.

4. The episcopate has the right and the duty to govern the Church. An ecumenical council is the most perfect expression of the will of the episcopate. Its authority is higher than that of any other person or organized body.

5. A permanent central organization of the Church is not considered by Orthodoxy as absolutely necessary dogmatically or spiritually but it is practically useful for the Church.

6. In the past the central organization of the Church was not clearly established and determined by the canons. The Roman idea of papacy was rejected. Nevertheless it is certainly desirable for our Church to possess a strong central organization in the form of a synod as described above.

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Bishops and theologians would be also invited to discuss this proposal. After the matter is sufficiently clarified it is submitted to the decision of all Orthodox bishops.

Источник: Serge S. Verhovskoy. The Highest Authority in the Church // SVTQ. 1960. Vol. 4. № 2-3. P. 76-88.

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