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The Doctrine of the Orthodox Church: The Structure of the Church

Introduction | History | Doctrine

The Canons | The Episcopate | Clergy and laity | Monasticism


The permanent criteria of church structure for the Orthodox Church today, outside of the New Testament writings, are found in the canons (regulations and decrees) of the first seven ecumenical councils; the canons of several local or provincial councils, whose authority was recognized by the whole church; the so-called Apostolic Canons (actually some regulations of the church in Syria, dating from the 4th century); and the "canons of the Fathers," or selected extracts from prominent church leaders having canonical importance.

A collection of these texts was made in the Byzantine nomocanon, attributed, in its final form, to the patriarch Photius (9th century). The Byzantine Church, as well as the modern Orthodox Churches, has adapted the general principles of this collection to its particular situation, and the local autocephalous churches govern themselves according to their own particular statutes, although all accept the ancient canons as their common canonical reference.

The canons themselves do not represent a system or a code. They do, however, reflect a consistent view of the church, of its mission, and of its various ministries; they also reflect an evolution of ecclesiastical structure—i.e., the growth of centralization in the framework of the Christian Roman Empire. For the Orthodox Church today, only the original self-understanding of the church has a theologically normative value. Thus, those canons that reflect the nature of the church as the body of Christ have an unchanging validity today; other canons, if they can be recognized as conditioned by the historical situation in which they were issued, are subject to change by conciliar authority; others have simply fallen out of practice. The use and interpretation of the canons is therefore possible only in the light of some understanding of the church's nature. This theological dimension is the ultimate criterion through which it is possible to distinguish what is permanent in the canons from that which represents no more than a historical value.


The Orthodox understanding of the church is based on the principle, attested to in the canons and in early Christian tradition, that each local community of Christians, gathered around its bishop and celebrating the Eucharist, is the local realization of the whole body of Christ. "Where Christ is, there is the Catholic church," wrote Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 100). Modern Orthodox theology also emphasizes that the office of the bishop is the highest among the sacramental ministries and that there is therefore no divinely established authority over that of the bishop in his own community, or diocese. Neither the local churches nor the bishops, however, can or should live in isolation. The wholeness of church life, realized in each local community, is regarded as identical with that of the other local churches in the present and in the past. This identity and continuity is manifested in the act of the ordination of bishops, an act that requires the presence of several other bishops in order to constitute a conciliar act and to witness to the continuity of apostolic succession and tradition.

The bishop is primarily the guardian of the faith and, as such, the centre of the sacramental life of the community. The Orthodox Church maintains the doctrine of apostolic succession—i.e., the idea that the ministry of the bishop must be in direct continuity with that of the Apostles of Jesus. Orthodox tradition—as expressed especially in its medieval opposition to the Roman papacy—distinguishes the office of the "Apostle" from that of the bishop, however, in that the first is viewed as a universal witness to the historic Jesus and his Resurrection, while the latter is understood in terms of the pastoral and sacramental responsibility for a local community, or church. The continuity between the two is, therefore, a continuity in faith rather than in function. This Orthodox concept of the doctrine of apostolic succession has received wider exposure in Western churches recently because of increased encounters and consultations between Orthodox and Anglican churchmen, the Orthodox always emphasizing unity of faith as a prerequisite for recognition, on their part, of the "validity" of Anglican orders.

No bishop can be consecrated or exercise his ministry without being in unity with his colleagues—i.e., be a member of an episcopal council, or " synod." After the Council of Nicaea (325), whose canons are still effective in the Orthodox Church, each province of the Roman Empire had its own synod of bishops that acted as a fully independent unit for the consecration of new bishops and also as a high ecclesiastical tribunal. In the contemporary Orthodox Church these functions are fulfilled by the synod of each autocephalous church. In the early church the bishop of the provincial capital acted as chairman of the synod and was generally called "metropolitan." Today this function is fulfilled by the local primate who is sometimes called "patriarch" (in the autocephalous churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria), but he may also carry the title of archbishop (Cyprus, Greece) or metropolitan (Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, America). The titles of archbishop and metropolitan are also widely used as honorific distinctions.

Generally, but not always, the jurisdiction of each autocephalous synod coincides with national borders—the exceptions are numerous in the Middle East (e.g., jurisdiction of Constantinople over the Greek islands, jurisdiction of Antioch over several Arab states, etc.)—and concerns also the national dioceses of the Orthodox diaspora (e.g., western Europe, Australia, America), which frequently remain under the authority of their mother churches. The latter situation led to an uncanonical overlapping of Orthodox jurisdictions, all based on ethnic origins. Several factors, going back to the Middle Ages, have contributed to modern ecclesiastical nationalism in the Orthodox Church. These factors include the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and the subsequent identification of religion with national culture; this identification sometimes helps the survival of the church under adverse political conditions, but it also hampers missionary expansion and the sense of a specifically Christian identity of the faithful.


The emphasis on communion and fellowship, as the basic principle of church life, inhibited the development of clericalism. The early Christian practice of having the laity participate in episcopal elections never disappeared completely in the East. In modern times, it has been restored in several churches. The Moscow Council of 1917-1918 introduced it in Russia, even if the events of the Revolution prevented its full implementation. Bishops are also elected by clergy-laity conventions in America and in other areas of the Orthodox world.

The lower orders of the clergy—i.e., priests and deacons—are generally married men. The present canonical legislation allows the ordination of married men to the diaconate and the priesthood, provided that they were married only once and that their wives are neither widows nor divorcees. These stipulations reflect the general principle of absolute monogamy, which the Eastern Church considered as a Christian norm to which candidates for the priesthood are to comply strictly. Deacons and priests cannot marry after their ordination.

Bishops, however, are selected from among the unmarried clergy or widowed priests. The rule defining the requirement for an unmarried episcopate was issued at a time (6th century) when monks represented the elite of the clergy. The contemporary decrease in the number of monks in the Orthodox Church has created a serious problem in some territorial churches, in that new candidates for the episcopacy are difficult to find.

Besides being admitted, at least in some areas, to participation in episcopal elections, Orthodox laymen often occupy positions in church administration and in theological education. In Greece almost all professional theologians are laymen. Laymen also frequently serve as preachers.


The tradition of Eastern Christian monasticism goes back to the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian Era. From its beginning it was essentially a contemplative movement seeking the experience of God in a life of permanent prayer. This contemplative character has remained its essential feature throughout the centuries. Eastern Christianity never experienced the development of religious orders, pursuing particular missionary or educational goals and organized on a universal scale, as did Western Christianity.

Concern for prayer, as the central and principal function of monasticism, does not mean that the Eastern Christian monastic movement was of a single uniform character. Eremitic (solitary) monasticism, favouring the personal and individual practice of prayer and asceticism, often competed with "cenobitic" (communal) monastic life, in which prayer was mainly liturgical and corporate. The two forms of monasticism originated in Egypt and coexisted in Byzantium, as well as throughout eastern Europe.

In Byzantium the great monastery of Studion became the model of numerous cenobitic communities (see above under History: The church of imperial Byzantium). It is in the framework of the eremitic, or Hesychast, tradition, however, that the most noted Byzantine mystical theologians (e.g., Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, etc.) received their training. One of the major characteristics of the Hesychast tradition is the practice of the "Jesus prayer," or constant invocation of the name of Jesus, sometimes in connection with breathing. This practice won wide acceptance in medieval and modern Russia.

Cenobitic traditions of Byzantium also were important in Slavic lands. The colonization of the Russian north was largely accomplished by monks who acted as pioneers of civilization and as missionaries.

In Byzantium, as well as in other areas of the Orthodox world, the monks were often the only upholders of the moral and spiritual integrity of Christianity, and thus they gained the respect of the masses, as well as that of the intellectuals. The famous Russian startsy ("elders") of the 19th century became the spiritual leaders of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy and inspired many religious philosophers in their quest for religious experience.

Today the most famous, though declining, centre of Orthodox monasticism is Mt. Athos (Greece), where over a thousand monks of different national backgrounds form a variety of communities, grouped into a monastic republic.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.