Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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1. Orthodox Ecclesiological topics



G. The functions of the Church

Let us now take a look at the local Church, internally.  How can the local Church organize itself, on the basis of the ecclesiological principles that we have set out? I must repeat that the basic principle of Orthodox theology is that during the Eucharist assembly, the Church is a depiction of the eschatological community. That is why the structure of every local Church historically sprang from within the performance of the Divine Eucharist.  It is an unquestioned fact of History (which had already been discerned by a Protestant historian of the Church, R. Sohm, during the previous century,), that the basic structure of the local Church was the same as the structure of the Eucharist community. I will explain what this is attributed to.

Before proceeding to analyze this structure, however, we need to make a comparison.  The Church has functions, which, as I said, express and comprise that image of the End Times; in other words, functions that coincide with the structure of the eschatological community. However, we also have functions that do not coincide with the structure of the eschatological community, as the Church is obliged to accommodate various historical needs.  We shall therefore attend to these further along, but for now, let’s just clarify this distinction between them.  The functions that reflect the eschatological community are so basic, that they cannot, and should not, be tampered with, otherwise, if they are tampered with, the being of the Church -as related to the eschatological community- is distorted. Thus, on the one hand, we have the functions that cannot be altered, and on the other hand, we have the functions that can change, or be adjusted. This is one basic distinction.

Let’s first examine the functions that are unalterable because they constitute the structure of the eschatological community (otherwise, if that structure changes, the Church loses Her truth – Her being as an eschatological community – and becomes distorted). So, what is that structure?

Lets begin with the eschatological community. Lets see first of all what its structure consists of, and then convey it, into the practice and the reality of the Church.  A first basic element of the eschatological community is that in End Times, in the Kingdom of God, the scattered people of God will assemble for the same purpose, in one place. Thus, a necessary element of the Church’s truth is the assembling of God’s people “for the same purpose”.  When a Church does not assemble Her people for the same purpose, then She is not a Church. A Church that remains scattered, without experiencing the assembling for the same purpose, in no way depicts the End Times state. The assembling, therefore, of God’s people is a necessary element in order for us to have a Church.

The second element, which we again draw from the Kingdom of God, from the eschatological community, is that the centre of this assembly of God’s people is the Person of Christ.  In other words, it is not enough for God’s people to simply assemble; they need to assemble around a focal point, and that focal point must be no-one else but Christ Himself.

The third element, which we again draw from the eschatological community, is that Christ, Who is the focal point around Whom the scattered people of God assemble, is surrounded by the Twelve Apostles and their broader circle. Why is this? It is because the Apostles are the ones who will be witnessing during End Times. As we can see in the Gospels, in the last days there will be quite some confusion as to who Christ is.  Many false prophets will appear, and many will say “Christ is here” or “Christ is there”, and many will be misled, because they won’t know where the true focal point is, around which the scattered people of God should assemble. The criterion of who the true Christ is, will basically be provided and revealed only by the Twelve Apostles, along with whoever else (and in agreement with the Twelve) had actually seen the Risen Lord; in other words, they are the ones who can certify that He is the One Who rose from the dead, and therefore, He is truly the One appointed by God as “the Son of Man”, Who will be judging the world.  So, the judge of the world is Christ, and He is the Person that the Apostles will be pointing towards.  This is why the Church is called “Apostolic”; it is because She rests on the witness of the Apostles. That is why one should not be satisfied simply with “the presence” of Christ as the focal point in the image of eschatological times.  It is imperative that there be a co-presence – a supporting presence - by the Apostles, who will testify as to the genuineness and the authenticity of Christ’s presence.  Without the Apostles, we will not know who the true Christ is.  Therefore, we cannot have an access to Christ that doesn’t filter through the Apostles. The presence of the Apostles around Christ is a primary element of the eschatological image.  These, therefore, are the basic elements of the eschatological community, without which, there can be no Kingdom and no Church.

The Church, as an image of this community, i.e., as a real participation in the truth of end Times, of the Kingdom, as realized during the Eucharist even before the Second Coming of the Lord on the last day, with the prerequisites that I have analyzed, experiences this eschatological community in the following manner.  During the Divine Eucharist, all the scattered people of God assemble together. So, here we have the first element that is realized: the assembling of God’s people ‘for the same purpose’. The second element is that the presence of Christ is depicted by the presence of the bishop; in other words, this is the focal point, around which the people of God gather. Given that the focal point is Christ, and because Christ is the Head of the body - the recapitulation of everything that is referred to the Father – that is why the bishop, as the depiction of Christ, is, in that sense, the head of the Divine Eucharist, who refers everything to God, to His Throne: “We offer Thee everything; Thine, out of Thine, and for everything”. In other words, he is the one who enacts this recapitulation, in the manner that Christ does. He is the image of the eschatological Christ.

We mentioned that Christ would not be returning alone, but will be surrounded by His Apostles.  Saint Ignatius sees the image of the Twelve Apostles during the Divine Eucharist of the local Church, in the persons of the presbyters, who surround the bishop.  As you probably know (unfortunately, this too has also waned and disappeared), in the ancient Church there used to be the so-called “synthronon” (adjoining-throne). The bishop was at the center and was flanked by the presbyters, who were seated on the adjoining thrones at his side.  This is clearly an eschatological image. You most probably remember the words of Christ to the Twelve, that in the Kingdom of God, “you shall be seated on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”.  The Apostles, therefore, are the ones who point us towards Christ.

The presbyters – or, more correctly, the depiction of the Apostles in the Church through the persons of the presbyters (which did not last very long, and we shall see how things evolved historically) – signifies precisely that the presbyters point us towards Christ, through their teaching, because the basic task of the presbyters in the ancient Church was tuition and catechism.  The presbyters were responsible for catechism; they were the ones who convened assemblies and preached.  Some of the major Fathers who preached and delivered the homilies that we have today, bequeathed us with homilies from the period when they were still presbyters (Chrysostom, Origen, etc.).  Bishops, on the other hand, bequeath us with Liturgies and Anaphorae in their name; we never have Liturgies in the names of presbyters – and this of course is not by coincidence. Quite the contrary: we have numerous homilies by presbyters who were the teachers (this being their chief role), hence the reason they were given the task of catechism.  They also participated in judicial matters of the Church. Together with the bishop, they comprised the convention; they were the ones who flanked the bishop’s see.

This didn’t last very long, because already by the 3rd century (with Cyprian we have the first testimonies), this began to take a different course in the West, while the East more or less followed suite, albeit somewhat confused. This is how bishops came to be the par excellence successors of the Apostles; how the notion of bishops depicting the image of Christ came to be replaced by the notion of bishops depicting the image of Apostles.  Furthermore, there is also the matter of Apostolic succession.  If you were to ask most people nowadays what the bishop is, and why he has authority and power, and what his powers are, they will say that he is primarily a successor to the Apostles, consequently, his primary responsibility and his primary authority is to teach.  But Saint Ignatius clearly states that a bishop does not teach, and he further says that we should be respectful of his silence, because his chief task –according to this image by Ignatius that I described- is the referral, the Anaphora of the Divine Eucharist; it is to be the head the Eucharist assembly.  For him to speak etc. is also within the scope of his work, however it is not his par excellence function.  I will repeat, that all these things underwent certain developments during History.

I do not think that things diverge from Ecclesiology, if one were to say that teaching is also a labor of the bishop, however, what is first and foremost, and basic and decisive, is that he heads the Divine Eucharist; that is when we are on the right track. But, if we say that teaching is his primary role and the Eucharistic role is secondary (which, regrettably, has also become established almost entirely in our own Church, under Western influences), then we definitely have a divergence.  In the West, teaching became the bishop’s chief role, through the Apostolic succession, while the performing of the Liturgy was handed over to the presbyters as their chief function.  If you were to look up the definition of priest-minister in the West, you will see that he is the one who performs the Liturgy.  The bishop is not intended for performing Liturgies; he is only for teaching, for dogmatizing in Synods etc.. We therefore see here a divergence from the eschatological image – that is what I wanted to point out.  It is the eschatological image that imposes everything that I have described until now.

A fourth element was introduced into the Church, on the basis of this image. It is that of the Deacon as a link between the heads of the Eucharist and the laity.  And what is this image?  As you know, ‘dialectics’ does not imply something oppositional; ‘dialectics’ implies a discernment when uniting things. Well, Deacons are the element by which the laity is discerned from the clergy, without being separated from it.  Note that the Deacon’s function is a very important one. And it is a shame that we have made deacons redundant, because it means we have lost that End Times image.  The Deacons, therefore, are the ones who ensure the dialectic relationship between clergy and laity. This is also why they have this dubious and ambiguous hypostasis: are they clergy, or aren’t they? We naturally acknowledge them as clergy, but they are not priests per se. Of course they do not head the Liturgy; they cannot be seated on a co-throne; they only move back and forth between the laity and the clergy, and that is their mission: to transfer the Precious Gifts from the laity to the Head; to pray with the laity, in the name of the laity; to act as a link, and finally, be the ones who transfer the sanctified Gifts – the Blood and the Body of Christ – to the laity.  This is why the Deacon’s chief task is to commune the faithful. He takes the Gifts in the form of bread and wine, and he again takes them to the laity, as the Body and the Blood of Christ.  Through the Deacon, there is that dynamic link between the clergy and the people; a link that is very important and necessary for the community of the Church.

Consequently, the basic functions of the Church, which cannot be omitted in any way because it would alter the eschatological truth of the Church, are:  the assembling of God’s people with the bishop as the focal point; the Presbyters that flank the bishop, and the Deacons who are the link that unites -and at the same time discerns between- clergy and laity. “Without these, it cannot be called a Church”, as Saint Ignatius had said.  You cannot call it a Church, if it doesn’t have these elements. 

I will conclude, by reverting to what I said earlier.  The Church has other needs also in the world, and is not entirely accommodated by the basic functions and structures alone. This is why She also has other functions, such as teaching, missionary work, poemantic work (i.e., confession, philanthropy, therapeutic functions such as spiritual paternity – which I discern from confession, because repentance as a sacrament is one thing, and it doesn’t necessarily require a therapeutic charisma in the psychological sense – ascetic labors, monasticism, etc.)  These are all functions that the Church is in need of. But note here the difference that I would like to stress.  The Church needs all these things, as long as She resides within History. These are not functions that will survive eschatologically; they are not a part of the Church’s eschatological nature, but only Her historical one.  In End Times, there will be no preachers, because who will they preach about, and who will they enlighten, given that the missionary period will have ended?  Will the Monasteries that we love so much exist then?  What will they be doing?  You will probably ask:  will there be bishops, deacons? Yes, there will be.  They will exist, but will not be the same, because the image will have given way to the original.  It will then be Christ Himself and the Apostles themselves, and all those things that Bishops currently depict will have become a reality, without this meaning that the functions themselves will have disappeared.  They are essential components of the eternal Kingdom of God.  One cannot perceive the Kingdom of God without them; the Kingdom cannot be perceived, without Christ surrounded by the Apostles, without the scattered children of God assembled for the same purpose. The other functions, which are absolutely essential to us today, and which we must of course deeply respect as functions of the Church, are not elements that depict the eternal Kingdom of God.


. Wasnt it a historical mistake on the part of the Church, when She ceded a primacy of honor to the Patriarchates of (Old) Rome and Constantinople (New Rome), given that this primacy of honor gave rise to those conditions that enabled a splintering of the Church’s unity, which had previously been secured by the Synodic framework of participation by all equal (until then) bishops, thus turning the Church into a worldwide organization?  Because to many, the Church nowadays appears with two heads:  the Pope for the Catholics and the Ecumenical Patriarch for the Orthodox.

A.This is a very important question that you have posed, and I shall give you my reply.  The Patriarchates, the Autocephalous (self-headed) Churches – all of these had developed, precisely as expressions of the Church’s ‘synodicity’, and not as institutions that hovered above the Church.  They were developed as Synodic institutions in various territories.  What was the Pentarchy? It was the five Patriarchates that existed in five different parts of the world, with Synods that had a Head. And naturally all of the Autocephalous Churches are the same.  This status is of course governed by the spirit (and even the letter, I would say) of a canon of the Church; the 34th Apostolic Canon.  According to this very important Canon, all the bishops of one territory are obliged to acknowledge one Head; they must have a Primate, otherwise they cannot convene a Synod without a Head. Thus, it was ‘synodicity’ that brought forth these primacies. However, the Canon further designates that the bishops alone cannot do anything without the Primate, just as the Primate cannot do anything without them. This was the spirit along which the Patriarchates and the Autocephalous Churches developed.  So, what do we have? We have a Primate in every territory. We cannot do anything without the Primate, but he cannot do anything either, without a Synod.  We might have divergences either way, i.e,, in synods that are commandeered by the Primate, or vice versa.  These things do not affect Ecclesiology and Canonical Justice. The institution per se is correct. Now, what if the institution is being abused? Well, this is a matter that concerns ethics, not Ecclesiology.  Ecclesiologically, the institution is correct. Provided that the Primate does not do anything without the Synod.

Each one of these local Churches - and they amongst each other – acknowledges a Primate. Because, if the need arises to convene a Synod, or do something in common, someone has to supervise.  And one such Primate had been acknowledged through History: the Bishop of Constantinople in the East.  Provided the Bishop of Constantinople moved within the spirit of the Canon that I described, there would be no problem.  In other words, if he didn’t do anything without taking the others into account, and if, respectively, the others didn’t do anything (that pertained to all the local Churches) without taking him into account, then everything was alright.  Subsequently, the system itself –ecclesiologically speaking- is extremely correct, and we do not have a case of Papism, because the Pope is the one who has taken the right to intervene in absolutely any local Church; in other words, he does things without asking the others. Or, he asks them, but the final decision is his.  The Bishop of Constantinople is not like that.  When the memorable Athenagoras became Patriarch, he was unable to officiate during the Liturgy in the neighboring Metropolis of Derkon, because the bishop of Derkon did not give him permission to officiate. And the Patriarch Athenagoras was still unable to officiate, until the Bishop of Derkon had passed away.  Can you understand the difference here?  Could anyone possibly refuse something like that to the Pope?  Now, if, out of courtesy or any other reason the bishops make this concession to the Primate and allow him to officiate wherever he wants, this is strictly their personal decision.  Thus, the institution itself does not contain the papal element. Therefore, in reply to your question, the development of Patriarchates did not hurt Ecclesiology, nor did it lead to Papism.

Q. I would like to ask, if we can say that in our time there have been divergences from the correct Ecclesiology.

A. –
I think that the Canons that we have mentioned here can alone shed light on the historical events and lead us to judgments.  In other words, I do not need to specifically point out what was wrong and what was not, when I set out the principles and the prerequisites. It is therefore quite obvious where divergences have taken place and where they haven’t.  That there have been divergences – especially in our time – is a sad truth, because I believe that there have been more of them now, than any other time!

Q. What happens in these cases?

A. –
In these cases, it is necessary for Ecclesiological precision to be reinstated, through the path of Providence (Oikonomia). We must return to what is correct, and try to establish what will least disturb the Church, and not create greater problems.

Q. And the well-known expressionEcclesiastic matters should change along with political ones”?

A. – That is a specific point.  We confronted the problem of Bulgaria - the problem as to whether we should have an Autocephalous status in the Church of Greece, with this idea of “should change”!  The eschatological image does not change, by following political or other changes.  If that were to apply, then the Church will have lost Her orientation; She will have become totally secularized.


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Transcript: Anna Navrozidou and Nick Zarkantzas

Proof-reading: Stavros Yiagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 16-2-2007.

Last update: 26-2-2007.