Orthodox Christian




"Not So Among You"



How Christian is Our Understanding of Church Authority?

By Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia

Delivered at the Orientale Lumen V Conference, June 2001


Let’s go back to basics.  The theme of our Orientale Lumen Conference, during these days, has been “Primacy and Collegiality.” But in order to understand these two things, we need to ask more broadly and fundamentally what we mean in the Church by power, authority and service.  How are these things set forth in the Holy Gospels?  How far do our present day structures of Church authority, whether Orthodox or Catholic, correspond to Christ’s teaching?


Let us think about two key passages from Scripture which speak to us concerning Church authority. 

First of all, let us recall Christ’s rebuke to the Apostles when they were disputing about who would be greatest in the Kingdom.  His words come in all three Synoptic Gospels.  In Matthew Chapter 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, in both these two Gospels Christ’s words come during the last journey to Jerusalem.  We have the same words in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 22:25-26.  Here they come at a very significant point, just after the institution of the Holy Eucharist.  If we reflect that the Church is a “eucharistic community”, founded and held in being by the act of communion in the Body and Blood of the Savior, then the place where these words come in Luke’s Gospel is particularly significant.

“You know,” says our Lord, “That those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercised authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you!”  “Not so among you” – Jesus is altogether unambiguous.  The exercise of authority and power in the Church is to be utterly different from that which prevails in secular society.  As a Kingdom not of this world – eucharistic, pentecostal, eschatological – the Church is unique.  She is never to be assimilated to models of power and jurisdiction prevailing in the fallen world around us.  “Not so among you” – we are not to model the Church on the absolutist system of the Roman Empire, or on the graded hierarchies of medieval society, or on modern democracy with its party system and its decision-making by majority vote.

The bishop is not a feudal overlord nor an elected parliamentary representative.  The chief bishop, or “primate,” is neither dictator nor a constitutional monarch nor the chairman of a board of directors.  To interpret ecclesial authority by such analogies is to overlook the Church’s uniqueness as a Kingdom not of this world.  It is to forget Christ’s severe and specific warning “not so among you.”


In this same Gospel pericope, having told us what Church authority is not, Jesus then goes on to indicate what it is.  “It shall not be so among you.” “But whoever will be great among you, let him be your minister.  And whoever will be first among you, let him be your servant.”  Then Christ goes to appeal through His own example.  “Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  The point is made yet more plainly in the Lukan account – I’ve been quoting Matthew so far.  But in the Lukan account Christ says: “I am among you as the one who serves.”

Here then is the reverse aspect of the injunction “no so among you.” Power, says Christ, means service  Exousia means diakonia.  The first shall be last – primacy means kenosis.  So when we move into the realm of the Gospel we enter into the land of Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Secular power structures are to be subverted totally within the redeemed community.  The perspective is reversed; the pyramid is stood upon its head.  The only valid model of Church authority is Jesus washing the disciples feet at the Last Supper.

Now I come to my second passage. This is the proclamation of the Risen Christ at the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me!  Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all of the things that I have commanded you.  See, I am with you always until the close of the age,  Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Now there are a number of things for us to notice in this crucial passage.


First, it speaks very clearly of the source of authority.  All power comes from God. Exousia – power and authority – is imparted by the Father to Jesus Christ, and by Christ to the Disciples.  This should always be the pattern of authority in the Church.  Authority is not assumed but received.  It’s not taken but given.  From the Father through the Son – that’s always the pattern in Church life.  The Father is the well-spring; Christ is the intermediary.

We notice very clearly that power in the redeemed community of the Church comes from above, not from below.  In modern democratic thinking, power comes from the people.  But that is not the teaching of the Gospel.  Power comes from God through Christ. 


But now, another thing in this passage from Matthew.  “See,” says Christ, “I am with you always.”  Although He confers authority on the apostles, Christ still continues to be present with them to the “close of the age.”  So Christ shares His authority with the Church, with the bishops and the people.  He shares His authority but He does not delegate it, because He is with us directly in person.  He continues, though He is ascended into heaven, to be immediately present and active in the Church.  That is why Orthodox Christians feel that the title of “Vicar of Christ” is inappropriate.  It is a title, as we know, applied primarily to the Pope.  But, Vatican II said it belongs also to all bishops (Lumen Gentium, %27).


But I am unhappy about this phrase.  A “vicar,” in the common understanding, means the representative of someone who is absent.  But the Risen Christ is not absent!  He needs no vicar or vicars upon earth.  He is ever-present through the Holy Spirit.  “I am with you always!” So, let’s hold fast to these ideas to guide us. “Not so among you!”


The Church is unique.  Secular patterns of authority are utterly inapplicable.  “All authority has been given to Me.  I am with you always.”  The Risen Christ – ever-present in the Church through the Holy Spirit – is the one and only source of all authority within the Church.  “Whoever shall be first among you, let him be your servant.”  Power means service.  Think of Christ washing the feet of His Disciples.


So that is the teaching of the Gospel about Church authority.  How are we to apply it?


I’d like to think briefly tonight about three factors.  During this conference, we’ve said quite a lot about the primacy of the Pope of Rome.  I’d like, rather, to begin with another factor, without which we cannot properly understand the authority of the Church.  I would like to start with the authority of the sensus fidelium – the general conscience of the Church.  We haven’t said very much about that so far in our conference.


Any truly Catholic and Orthodox view of authority has to take into account that the Holy Spirit is given, not just to patriarchs, popes, or bishops, but to the whole people of God.  Here we have an important scriptural indication in John 15:15.  There, Christ says that He does not call us slaves or servants, but He calls us friends.  Then He goes on to indicate the difference between a slave and a friend.  “A slave,” says our Lord, “does not know what his Master is doing.”  He obeys blindly, from fear of punishment.  “But,” says Christ to His Disciples, “I have made known to you the Father’s will and purpose.”  So you are not slaves, you are friends.

That means we don’t obey blindly, but willingly.  We don’t obey out of fear, but out of love.  When Christ says that we are His friends, surely that means every baptized member of the Church – all of us are His friends.  He doesn’t restrict His friendship only to the hierarchy.  So, the Church is truly a society of friends.  There’s no polarization, then, in the Church between the absolute ruler and passive subject.  What we have in the Church is sisterhood, brotherhood, co-responsibility, communion, koinonia.

Some years ago, the Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch made a statement of great importance – simple but profound.  He said: “Communion is the highest authority in the Church.”

I think that is exactly what Christ means when He calls us friends.  We enjoy communion through Him with the Father, and through and in Him we enjoy communion with one another.  It is this communion which is the highest authority in the Church – the authority of mutual love.


Now, let’s turn to the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2.  We are told they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.  As Saint Peter goes on to point out, “this is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: ‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh’” (Acts 2:16-17).

So, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, in the upper room at Pentecost, all members of the Church, all without exception, are made spirit-bearers, charismatics, in the true sense of that word, imbued with the charismata of the Paraclete.  As Saint Peter points out: “we are all anointed as priests.”  As we are told in the book of Revelation: “we are a kingdom of priests and kings” (Revelation 1:6).

Now, what happened to the Holy Mother of God, to the Apostles and to the first Christians gathered at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, happens to each one of us.  After we’ve been baptized, immersed in the water of the font, then in the Orthodox practice we are anointed with the Holy Chrism, the myron.  This chrismation, immediately after Baptism, is for each one of us a personal Pentecost.  The tongues of fire which descended visibly on the Apostles on the 50th day, descend also upon each one of us at our Chrismation, invisibly but with no less reality and power.  As Saint John says (1 John 2:20): “you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know (or you have all knowledge).”

The power to discern between truth and falsehood is not the monopoly of any particular hierarch or order within the Church.  It is the power given to all the baptized, to the royal priesthood in its totality.  So here, in the sacrament of Chrismation, our personal Pentecost, we have the basis of what is known as the sensus fidelium – the general conscience of the Church.  It is not just a diffused feeling.  It is a sacramental power.


Any doctrine of infallibility – which is not a scriptural word – has to take this into account.  Because the Holy Spirit is given to the whole people of God, statements made by Popes, Patriarchs, and Synods require to be received by the people of God as a whole, by the anointed ones who constitute the charismatic community of the Church. 

The Holy Spirit does not only speak through the hierarchy.  The Holy Spirit speaks through all the people of God.  It may sometimes be lay people who save the Church from heresy when the bishops fall away.  This is well-put by a Latin Father of the fourth century, Saint Paulinus of Nola.

“Let us hang upon the lips of all the faithful, for the Spirit of God breathes upon every one of them.”

We listen to all the faithful.  It may often be not a Patriarch or a Pope who speaks the truth, but a lay person.


In the seventh century, in Byzantium and the West, very many people fell away into the heresy of Monotheletism.  This caused great confusion in the Church.  Saint Maximus, who was only a layman, stood firm and did not give way.  When he was in exile, emissaries of the emperor came and said: “You are alone.  The emperor has agreed to this. The Patriarch has agreed to this.  The Pope of Rome has agreed to it.  You are outside the Church.”  “No,” said Saint Maximus, “in that case I ‘am’ the Church.”  So he, as a layman, bore witness, a faithful witness.  

So it was also that Saint Hippolytus of Rome said, in the early third century,

“On such as believe rightly, the Holy Spirit bestows the fullness of grace, that they may know how those who are at the head of the Church should teach the tradition and maintain it in all things.”

So often the laity correct the hierarchs.

Our Lord Jesus said: “when the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth.”  The “you” there doesn’t just mean the Pope of Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the bishops, the professional theologians.  “You” means every baptized and chrismated member of the Church.

If we are to have a right understanding of the collegiality of bishops, the meaning of “synod,” and of the place of primacy in the Church, we must never forget that the Holy Spirit is poured out on the total people of God.  We must never forget the sensus fidelium, the general conscience of the Church.



Now, what about the second factor – the episcopate?


The Holy Spirit is given to all the baptized.  But, the episcopate has a special charisma veritatis, charisma of the truth, to use Saint Irenous’ phrase, a special charisma to proclaim and teach the truth.  This is bestowed on bishops through sacramental consecration.  Yes, the people of God as a whole, the entire company of the baptized, are guardians of the truth.  But the bishops have a special vocation to proclaim and teach the truth.  In the words of 2 Timothy 2:15 used at the Liturgy, the bishops are appointed rightly to define the word of truth.

Yet the bishops, when they so proclaim the truth, speak not to the uninitiated but to those who know, who have all knowledge, in Saint John’s word.  So there is a reciprocal relationship between bishop and flock.

When the first Orthodox bishop to serve in North America was consecrated in Russia in 1840, Saint Innocent of Alaska, he said in his consecration sermon: “the bishop is at the same time the teacher and the disciple of his flock.”  Russian slavophile theologian Alexis Khomiakov singled out that phrase as possessing particular significance – teacher and disciple.


So there isn’t within the Church just a one-way power structure.  There is a mutuality, co-responsibility, communion.  The truth enlarges through the communion between the bishop and the people.  Communion is the highest authority in the Church

Here, we recall Christ’s words that exousia – power – means diakonia – service.  “I am among you as one who serves,”  says Christ.  So the bishop is the servant of his flock.  That must surely mean, among other things, that he needs to listen to them.  As Saint Gregory the Theologian says, “even bishops have to learn.”



Now, to discuss primacy.  What is true of bishops is true equally of primates, patriarchs, and popes.  “I am among you as the one who serves.”  Surely, the best of all papal titles used at Rome is servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God.  Primacy, in its fundamental meaning, is not the possession of greater power.   It’s not a superior ability to coerce and subjugate.  Primacy means the opportunity and responsibility for a wider sphere of service.  We may all of us be grateful for the way in which this truth has so movingly been emphasized by the present pope, John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint and elsewhere.


In commenting on primacy, I would like just to mention two further points.  Primacy exists at many different levels.  I remember back in the 1980’s when ARCIC, the Roman Catholic-Anglican doctrinal discussion in Britain were in progress in their first round, they put out a document on authority.  It spoke about the position of the local diocesan bishop.  It also spoke about the universal primacy of the pope, Pope of Rome. 

Now, if you only speak about those two things, surely you are distorting the proper meaning of the Roman Primacy.  Because in between the local diocesan bishop and the Pope there is a whole series of different levels of primatial authority.  There is first the regional primacy of the Metropolitan.  That is something that has largely fallen into disuse in the Orthodox Church today.  Then there is the primacy of patriarchs and heads of the autocephalous and autonomous Churches.

Then thirdly, in the understanding of the modern Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople possesses a certain universal primacy as “first among equals.”  There are different understandings in different Orthodox Churches about exactly what that involves.  But then you would come to the universal primacy of the Pope of Rome.

If we isolate the primacy of the Pope, ignore the intermediate levels of primatial authority, then our understanding of the papal ministry will be, in part, distorted.


A second point – all those different levels of primacy should not make us lose sight of the fact that sacramentally all bishops are equal.  The Patriarch of Constantinople or the Pope of Rome have not received an additional consecration not granted to other bishops.  If we think of the Church, as I would certainly wish to do, in terms of the eucharist, then the bishop is above all the one who presides at the eucharist.  At every eucharist the whole Christ is present, not just a part of Him.  Christ is not more present in the eucharist at Rome or Constantinople or Kiev than He is at the eucharist in Oxford or Johnstown or Bound Brook.  Levels of primacy, that is to say, when the Church is seen in eucharistic terms, are secondary to the fundamental equality of every local Church and so of every diocesan bishop.

I would venture to say, as an Orthodox, that all bishops, including the Pope, are fundamentally and sacramentally equal.  So if any is to be styled a primate his status is to be understood as primus inter pares, the first among equals.

“All authority has been given to Me,” the risen Christ says to us.  “Lo, I am with you always.”  The only final authority in the Church is Christ Himself, ever-present within her through the Holy Spirit and in the Eucharist.  Christ alone, as head of the Church, is the source of all exousia, all power, and any proper exercise of it can only be in Him and through Him.  The highest call of appeal in the Church, the ultimate criterion of the truth remains always the Son of God Himself, living mysteriously in the Church and leading her in the way of truth.

God’s continuing presence in the Church is not to be externalized or materialized.  It cannot be identified, that is to say, with the letter of Scripture, or with a single person such as the Pope, or with the collective person of the episcopate gathered in council.  All of these together with the sensus fidelium, the general conscience of the Church, have their part to play in the exercise of authority, yet none of them is to be taken in isolation form the rest of from the total life of Christ’s body.

“The eucharist is a continual miracle,” a great eucharistic priest, Saint John of Kronstadt, used to say.  The same is true of the Church as a eucharistic organism – a continual miracle.  In our ecclesial vision we need constantly to return to what remains beyond all external criteria and all formal infallibility – what remains the central mystery of the Church’s nature.  The Church is the miracle of God’s presence among humankind.


By permission from and thanks to:


© The Right Revd. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia



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