by Charles R. Ajalat




A number of years ago, I asked one of the great theologians of the Church, Metropolitan George Khodre of Lebanon, what was the hardest part of being a bishop, he paused and smiled, “To exercise authority with love.” In a succinct, profound statement, he made both a fundamental point about all humanity, and described a fundamental tension in the government or administration of the Church.

One of the consequences of sin in our fallen world is this tension in Church administration between power and holiness; between having the efficiency of a single human decision-maker and alternatively a system where everyone is so constantly filled with the grace of the holy Spirit that love and concord of mind rules every joint decision, true conciliarity.


An Ongoing Tension

The people of God from the beginning have been plagued with this tension between power and holiness, even before the new people of God, the Church, was born through the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost day. In the Old Testament we read that “The Lord is King forever and ever.”(1) And yet the Jewish people were not satisfied with this and said to Him, “Give us a king…”(2)  They wanted one human figure to order them, rather than to be directly under the kingship of God.

With the death and resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, one might think it would have been different. After all, we now can be “partakers of the divine nature.”(3) And the Church is indeed “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”(4)

In fact, our Lord, Jesus Christ addressed directly the problem of Church “government.” He said to us, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and those who are great exercise authority over them, yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”(5) But in much of Church history, it has been difficult to adhere to principles of spiritual servanthood and for the entire Church to “stand fast in one spirit with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”(6)

From the very beginning there were differences of opinion even among the leaders of the Church. The Council of Jerusalem came into being to deal with the first major dispute in the Church, which happened to arise in Antioch: Must Gentile converts keep the law of Moses, particularly the rite of circumcision?(7)

The Church in Jerusalem, while not having a legal jurisdiction over Antioch, has been referred to in history as the “Mother of Churches”, and in the first century had a position of primacy or priority or witnessing confirmation for the Church in other areas.(8) It was natural as a result of the historical context that it would play the role of “first among equals” with regard to the dispute over circumcision.

By the end of the first century this primacy or priority of witness passed to the Church living in Rome; witness the writings of Sts. Ignatius, Clement, and Irenaeus.(9) The Orthodox understand this priority to have been given to the Church itself and not to the head of the Church as a person. Not one of his successors played the leadership role that St. Peter did during his lifetime.

Key Orthodox scholars, however, accept as fact that the Churches beginning in the late first century looked to the Church living in Rome, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, to “preside in love.”(10) The respect that was granted to the Church living in Rome was based on it being the servant of all, as well as the political influence of the City of Rome, but not on a legal jurisdiction or an authority of power.

As Church administration developed in history, there were four great centers of the Church: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem — the first three being major commercial centers of the Empire, and the fourth, being the Holy City. After Constantine came to power in the fourth century, there was not only the dramatic change of the Empire becoming Christian, but he founded a City he named after himself, Constantinople. Thus, there became five great centers of the Church, in order of priority: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

In the Great Schism, generally pegged to 1054 A.D., Rome was separated from the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church: that is, the other four Patriarchates. After the Great Schism the Church of Constantinople, previously second in honor after Rome, (Second Ecumenical Council, Canon III), assumed the primacy and therefore the position of “first among equals” of the Orthodox Churches.


Two Views of Leadership

Church scholars in dealing with “ecclesiology” (doctrine of the Church) have described two major ways of looking at leadership in the Church. The first is called “universal ecclesiology”; the second, “eucharistic ecclesiology.”

Simply stated, universal ecclesi­ology holds that the universal church is the sum of its parts, the local churches (Thus, 1 + 1 + 1 = 3). This type of thinking leads logically to an understanding that there must be one patriarch or Pope (both rooted in the meaning of “father”) heading this universal church on earth.

Eucharistic ecclesiology, on the other hand, holds that each local eucharistic assembly (the local church celebrating the divine liturgy) under its bishop is the fullness of the Church. This does not mean that each local Church is isolated from the other churches. Rather, just as there is only one Eucharist, each local Church in its fullness is simultaneously also one with each other local Church. (1 + 1 + 1 = 1).

In the understanding of eucharistic ecclesiology, it is still acknowledged that one Church may have a position of primacy or priority, as long as these terms are consonant with the idea of “presiding in love,” For example, were different Church leaders from different parts of the world and the faithful together, then, as now, it would be expected in terms of respect and honor out of love, that a particular bishop from a particular Church would preside over the eucharistic assembly or divine liturgy.’’(11) Having such order in the Church continues today through the dyptchs, a listing of the heads of autocephalous churches in order of honor, not rank.

The Roman Catholic Church, however, centered on the fact that by the late first century the Church of Rome was recognized to have a position of primacy, first among equals. This development was legalistically transferred into a primacy of power or superior authority of the pope over other bishops. Ultimately the Roman Catholic Church developed the doctrine into the modern papacy including the very recent Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibili­ty (Vatican 1, 1870). Orthodox understanding is that (1) there is one episcopacy in which all the bishops share, (2) the position of bishop is given by God’s grace, and (3) the three ranks of clergy (bish­op, presbyter [priest] and deacon) do not recognize a rank higher than bishop. Nor is there a rank of bishop to which some other bishops are subordinate in the sense of power.

If the Roman Catholic Church was misled by universal ecclesiology, so in part was the Orthodox Church also misled. To be fair, the Orthodox Church, beginning in the mid-third century (as a result of the Roman Empire), has not implemented properly the early Church’s understanding of there being one episcopate. Sometimes we fail to create places where all bishops share equally, whether in one geographical area (a synod) or in various geographical areas throughout the world, even though in each of these instances there is in fact a bishop who is first among equals. Rather, the more recent view of many Orthodox Churches has been a partial turning away from eucharistic ecclesiology and a partial acceptance of universal ecclesiology.

Thus, although in looking at the Church worldwide, Orthodox do not see it as the sum of the local churches, with a single head, often when they look at their own Patriarchate, they do see it as the sum of the churches within the Patriarchate, having a single head. The Patriarch is seen as having power or authority over other bishops in his synod, rather than to be the bishop presiding in love.

Further, these Orthodox, whether it is consciously admitted or not, often appear to see the Church as a number of isolated Churches, generally along national borders (contrary to the historic ecclesiology of the Church), one in faith and worship, but only a “part” of the universal Church.

The logical conclusion of this thinking is that just as their “autocephalous” or self-governing Churches have a primacy of power (rather than a first among equals) in their Synods, there must be a universal primacy in the same sense for the one Church — a papal view. But these Orthodox do stop the process at the “autocephalous” level and say serious decision making beyond that level must be accomplished not by a Pope or Patriarch for all Orthodox but by a pan-Orthodox Council.

When there was one Empire, with the Emperor convening such councils, it was much easier for the Church to have pan-Orthodox councils. Perhaps, notwithstanding hopes for a pan-Orthodox Council by the year 2000, it is precisely the lack of agreement on what primacy means that accounts in some part for the fact that the Orthodox have not had an ecumenical council since 787 AD.


Primacy and the Future

Primacy is also a key part of future discussions between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church has appealed to the Orthodox Church for reunion between the two Churches. In his recent encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (“That they all may be one,”) Pope John Paul II indicates an understanding that the issue of primacy and its meaning is a key issue to be resolved. While inviting discussion about its meaning — an important step forward — the Pope emphasizes that if the Church is to work effectively, primacy must include real authority: “With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the churches.”(12)

Before the Orthodox Church can effectively discuss relations with the Roman Catholic Church, however, it must have a consensus in its own thinking of what “primacy” means in terms of the theological underpinnings of the Church. How are issues decided when there is disagreement? Is there an ecclesiological inconsistency between the governing (administration?) of an autocephalous Church and the relationships of the autocephalous Churches to each other. If so, why? If there is an inconsistency and should not be, then what should the procedures be? How does one not intervene in the internal affairs of an autocephalous Church and yet have all of the Churches bear witness? How would such authority handle the “leadership” of a Church, such as the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is currently an embarrassment to the entire Orthodox Church? (The 42nd Convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America recently called upon the Ecumenical Patriarch to request the autocephalous Churches to convene to deal with the situation of Jerusalem.) What does “primacy” mean, if anything, in addition to presiding at the Eucharist and having a right to call the Churches together and preside at meetings?

Perhaps the first issue must be: should there be rules? One could argue this is precisely the introduction of legalism into the affairs of the Church that leads to something like the modern Papacy. On the other hand, it is clear from early times that there have been some rules — canons, if you will.

And perhaps the most important in this area is Apostolic Canon 34:

“The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent but neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity ...“ This is, however, a general rule that without the existence of concord and love results in paralysis.


An Orthodox Shortfall

Can there sometimes be such concord and love in meetings of the bishops? Absolutely and emphatically, yes! The first episcopal assembly of the North American bishops held November 30-December 2, 1994 at the Antiochian Village, Ligonier, Pennsylvania showed this decisively. In the words of the host bishop, Metropolitan PHILIP: “I don’t ever remember such a meeting of minds. . .I don’t ever remember that we have had so much harmony in our deliberations as we did at this conference.”

The prayers of the clergy and faithful were indeed answered. The Episcopal Assembly was, indeed, presided over in love by the Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the first among equals, and was in accord with the stated desires of the Mother Churches to have the churches in North America — and in other areas where Orthodox have immigrated — to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ together. The Episcopal Assembly also called again for discussions between the Church here and the Mother Churches abroad.

The relations between the bishops here and the bishops in the Mother Churches, however, seemed bereft of the love and concord evidenced in the meetings of  the North American bishops. Misinformation, mistrust, and fear that the North American Church was plotting autocephaly (an issue not once mentioned in the meetings) prevailed in some of the Mother Churches, notably the Church of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Rather than such “plots”, the bishops of North America focused upon the re-evangelization of its flock and the evangelization of North America and the need for unity to achieve these goals.

The fear and mistrust that prevailed overseas, led the Ecumenical Patriarch, it is rumored, to forbid the recently announced holding of the Second Episcopal Assembly this Fall. Reaction in North America to the Patriarch’s reactions have ranged from despair and embitterment to anger and calls for revolution.

The entire episode shows the failure of an Orthodox policy that treats each “jurisdiction or Mother Church” as an isolated entity. Only heads of Churches, primates, should be discussing matters regarding their subordinates, their “children,” rather than treating all bishops as equals. Each local church must reflect the fullness of the church while together also constituting one church. In my view, there are presently no sufficient vehicles of communication (how can there be love without communication?) for the Orthodox Church worldwide to function in an effective and coordinated manner.(13)

Similarly, the North American Church lacks a structure that allows Metropolitans and Archbishops here the flexibility to deal together effectively with a North American culture that is different from the experiences and cultures of the Mother Churches.

The episode regarding the first Episcopal Assembly also shows a failure of Orthodoxy to meet the challenges of the modern era in a timely fashion. For instance, over the last decades the breakdown of the family, the primary unit of society, has exploded so that now 60% of American children are growing up in one-parent homes. But, in this same short period, the Orthodox Church has been unable to convene even four pre-conciliar meetings for the Great and Holy Council — which if it is ever held will not even deal with such issues.

The Orthodox, after ten years of agreement between the theologians of both Churches that there is no theological division between the Eastern Orthodox (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox and others) and the Oriental Orthodox (such as the Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians), have still been unable to declare the common Eucharist (or in the alternative to reject or deal otherwise with the common declarations that have been made). Meanwhile, the percentage of Ethiopia’s 53 million people that have turned from Orthodoxy (once over 50% of the population) to evangelicalism has increased from 1% of the population to 10% of the population. (There are now 5,000,000 evangelicals in Ethiopia.)

Similarly, while Moslems, Jews and Catholics determine the fate of Jerusalem, the Orthodox are in paralysis, and worse. While the Catholics have an indigenous Patriarch with whom the populace can relate, the Orthodox have a synod which has left the faithful in the Holy Land shepherdless. Whether in Jerusalem or in New York, if the Orthodox tradition is to be preserved, the laity, the royal priesthood14 must have a major say in who their bishops are to be. “The people of the Church have the right to a voice in the choice of bishops.”(15)

The situation in Eastern Europe again shows Orthodox discord, rather than unity. While the Roman Church makes a unified attempt at moving forward in Eastern Europe, in the Orthodox world we have a serious split between the Second Rome (Constantinople) and the Third Rome (Moscow) over Ukraine. Constantinople without consultation with others, including its own Exarch here in the West, received American Ukrainians under its jurisdiction — affecting, many believe, the situation in Ukraine itself where three Orthodox Churches claim legitimacy. Further, Constantinople has, contrary to the wishes of the Church of Russia, encouraged a separate Church of Estonia.


Possible Solutions

How can these problems of the Orthodox Church be remedied by joint action in love? And how can the development of backup rules help insure the working of the Church as one with a legitimate role of primacy and yet without discord or paralysis, whether on the North American level or on the world level?

Here in North America a signal from the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Mother Churches assuring us that they would welcome a second Episcopal Assembly in the first quarter of 1996, would go a long way toward rebuilding the credibility of the Ecumenical Patriarchate which it had theretofore begun to have. Such a signal could foster the concord and love that must exist, both between the Churches here, and between them and the Mother Churches. Such blessings by the Mother Churches for a second Episcopal Assembly could be conditioned upon the fact that the Second Episcopal Assembly should focus, as it has intended to, solely on the pastoral problems and needs in North America.

On the worldwide scale, the servant of all, who presides in love, the Ecumenical Patriarch, should call together a pan-Orthodox conference of all the Churches including participants from North and South America, Australia and Europe. It could be for a week long period to examine not the historical aspects, but the practical aspects today of primacy, and to do so in the context of creating an Orthodox World Council of Churches. In this concrete, focused context, the conference could deal with whether the fear of papalism can be erased while simultaneously allowing the Orthodox Church to effectively hear witness together to the gospel of Christ in this ever-smaller planet we all call home. As part of such work, the question of how the Churches should build each other up by common ministries in humanitarian aid and missions and evangelism and other areas could be explored.

If an Orthodox World Council of Churches, called together by the Ecumenical Patriarch with the blessings of the other Churches was created and met two or more times a year in Geneva, it would provide a much needed frequent and regular vehicle of communication among the Orthodox Churches. With such communication, hopefully would come more trust and love. Such a forum, thus, could also be a vehicle for problem-solving and could benefit the entire Church as well as her participation in ecumenical work.

Numerous issues would, of course, have to be explored and resolved. Should there be representation based on the number of autocephalous and other churches but balanced to take account of the populations of faithful of the Churches? While respecting and in fact strengthening the primacy of Constantinople, should there be an Executive Committee of the Council who would also have a vital role in the conciliar process? Alternatively, should institutions of balancing power in modern democracies be explored, such as the American separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial, with the power in the Executive to veto and yet a two-thirds override by the Legislature? Whatever the questions, and whatever the answers, the need is to develop a tool of frequent, regular communication. With a set of rules that respects all and yet defines a primacy in a way that helps the Orthodox Church work effectively in the modern world, we could certainly move ahead with more vigor.


Our One Hope

We are living in a post-Christian era. The only hope for transformation of our societies is Jesus Christ through his Church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church — the Orthodox Church. We pray with all our hearts that each Orthodox bishop here and throughout the world may examine his heart and truly focus on the words of our Lord, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”(16)

We pray that in the ministry of servanthood, the first among equals, the Ecumenical Patriarch, will be led by God to encourage the work of the salvation of souls in North America by requesting the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) to carry on with their second Episcopal Assembly in early 1996. We further pray that in the same ministry of servanthood the Ecumenical Patriarch, in consultation with, or at the request of, others of the Mother Churches, will call together a conference in March or April, 1996, in Geneva to decide upon a “Constitution” for an Orthodox World Council of Churches that would begin meeting by the Fall of 1996.

In Christ Jesus, all things are possible. May our bishops, clergy and faithful not miss the opportunities our Lord is giving us in these historic times.

Charles J. Ajalat is Chancellor of The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. He is an attorney-at-law by profession.


1. Ps. 10:16.

2. 1 Sam. 8:6.

3. 2 Pet. 1:4.

4. 1 Pet. 2:9.

5. Matt. 20:25-6.

6. Philip. 1:27.

7. Acts 15: 1-2.

8. Afanassieff. “Presiding in Love” in The Primacy of Peter, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992, pp. 115, 119-23.

9. Id. pp. 124-35.

10. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, prol.

11. Id. pp. 109), 111 Also, Schmemann, “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology” in The Primacy of Peter, supra p. 165.

12. Ut Unum Sint, par. 94.

13. In modern times, the unity of the Orthodox Church is becoming a sort of abstract ideal, with no means of manifesting itself in the real life of the Church. Anyone who regards the pan—Orthodox or Ecumenical Council as an organ manifesting the Church’s unity is just putting things in the wrong order, consequences before foundation. In fact, the pan—Orthodox Council should be the consequence of Orthodox Church unity; it should be guided by a church or a bishop; and it cannot be a foundation for this unity.” Afanassieff, supra, at p.143.

14. 1 Pet. 2:9

15. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, p. 47; see also Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 291.

16. Matt. 20:25, 6.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
January 1996
pp. 7-11