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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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The Church hierarchy
All the members of the Church of Christ comprise a single flock of God All are equal before the
judgment of God However, just as the parts of the body have different functions in the life of the
organism, and as in a house building each part has its own use, so also in the Church there exist
various ministries. The highest ministry in the Church as an organization is borne by the hierarchy,
which is distinct from the ordinary members.
The hierarchy was established by the Lord Jesus Christ. He “gave some, apostles; and some,
prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints,
for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of
the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the
stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
No one in the Church can take upon himself the hierarchical ministry, but only one who is
called and lawfully placed through the Mystery of Ordination. “No man taketh this honor unto
himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (Heb. 5:4). No matter how high a moral life
a man might lead, he cannot fulfill the hierarchical ministry without a special consecration. It is
not possible, therefore, to draw a parallel between the degree of one’s moral level and the degree
of his level in the hierarchy. Here a perfect correspondence is desirable but is not always attainable.
The Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry chose from among His followers twelve
disciples — the Apostles (those “sent forth”) — giving to them special spiritual gifts and a special
authority. Appearing to them after His Resurrection, He said to them, “As My Father hath
sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and with unto
them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and
whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23). These words mean that it is essential
to be sent from above in order to fulfill the Apostolic ministry, as well as the pastoral
ministry that follows after it. The scope of these ministries is expressed in the final words of the
Lord to His disciples before His Ascension: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing
them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe
all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of
the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:19-20). In these final words the Saviour indicates the triple ministry
of the Apostles in their mission: 1) to teach, 2) to perform sacred functions (baptize), and 3) to
govern (“teaching them to observe all things”). And in the words “I am with you alway, even
unto the end of the world,” He blessed the pastoral work of their successors for all times to the
end of the ages, until the existence of the earthly Church itself should come to an end. The words
of the Lord cited before this, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21), testify that this authority
of pastorship is inseparably united with special gifts of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The three hierarchical
ministries are united in a single concept of pastorship, in accordance with the expression
of the Lord Himself. “Feed My lambs … feed My sheep” (the words to the Apostle Peter in
John 21:15, 17), and of the Apostles: “Feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2).
The Apostles were always citing the idea of the Divine institution of the hierarchy. It was by
a special rite that the Apostle Matthias was joined to the rank of the twelve in place of Judas whohad fallen away (Acts 1). This rite was the choosing of worthy persons, followed by prayer and
the drawing of lots. The Apostles themselves chose successors for themselves through ordination.
These successors were the bishops.
The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “Neglect not the gift that as an thee, which was given
thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1 Tim. 4:13). And in another
place the Apostle writes to him, “I put thee in remembrance, that thou stir up the gift of
God which it in thee by the putting on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). To Timothy and Titus, Bishops
of Ephesus and Crete, is given the right to make priests: “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that
thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting and ordain presbyters in every city, as I
had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). Likewise they are given the right to give awards to presbyters:
“Let the presbyters that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor
in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture with, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out
the corn, and The laborer is worthy of has reward” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Likewise, they have the
right to examine accusations against presbyters: “Against a presbyter receive not an accusation,
but before two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
Thus the Apostles . those precisely among them who were called to the highest ministry in
the Church by the Lord Himself . placed bishops as their immediate successors and continuers,
and presbyters as their own helpers and as helpers of the bishops, as the “hands” of the bishops,
placing the further matter of the ordination of presbyters with the Bishops.
Presbyters (literally “elders”) were both in Apostolic times and in all subsequent times —
and are today — the second degree of the hierarchy. The Apostles Paul and Barnabas, as the
book of Acts relates, going through Lystra, Antioch and Iconium, ordained presbyters in each
Church (Acts 14:23). For the resolution of the question about circumcision, an embassy was sent
to Jerusalem, to the Apostles and the presbyters at Jerusalem. (Acts 15:2). At the Council of the
Apostles, the presbyters occupy a place together with the Apostles (Acts 15:6).
Further, the Apostle James instructs: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders
(presbyters) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the
Lord” (James 5:14). From the instruction of the Apostle James we see that 1) presbyters perform
the Church’s sacred rites, and 2) in the early Church there could be several presbyters in each
community, whereas only one bishop was appointed for a city and the region around it.
In the twenty-first chapter of the book of Acts, it is related that when the Apostle Paul returned
to Jerusalem after his third Apostolic journey and visited the Apostle James, all the presbyters
came, signifying that they made up a special Church rank. They repeated in the hearing of
Paul the decree of the Apostolic Council concerning the noncircumcision of the pagans; but they
asked him to perform the rite of his own purification, so as to avoid the reproach that he had renounced
the name of Jew.
In the Apostolic writings the two names of “bishop” and “presbyter” are not always distinguished.
Thus, according to the book of Acts the Apostle Paul called to himself in Miletus the
“presbyters of the Church” from Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and instructing them he said, “Take heed
therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops
(overseers), to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts20:28). However, from these and similar expressions one cannot conclude that in the age of the
Apostles the two ranks . bishop and presbyter . were joined into one. This shows only that in
the first century church terminology was not yet as standardized as it became later, and the word
“bishop” was used in two meanings: sometimes in the special meaning of the highest hierarchical
degree, and sometimes in the usual and general meaning of “overseer,” in accordance with the
Greek usage of that time. In our everyday terminology in Russia also, for example, the word “to
inspect” is far from signifying that one necessarily has the rank of inspector (An “inspector” is the
official in charge of overseeing the general good order in Orthodox seminaries.).
The third hierarchical degree in the Church is the deacons. Deacons, seven in number, were
chosen by the community of Jerusalem and ordained by the Apostles, as we read in the sixth
chapter of the book of Acts. Their first assignment was to help the Apostles in a practical, secondary
activity: they were entrusted, to “serve tables” — to give out food, and be concerned for the
widows. These seven men were later called deacons, although in the sixth chapter of Acts this
name is not yet used.
From the pastoral epistles it is apparent that the deacons were appointed by bishops (1 Tim.
3:8-13). According to the book of Acts, for the ministry of deacon there were chosen people
“filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” They took part in preaching, as did St. Stephen, who
sealed his preaching of Christ with his martyr’s blood; and like St. Philip, who performed the
baptism of the eunuch (Acts 8:5 and 38). In the Epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul sends
greetings to “the bishops and deacons” (1:1), as bearers of the grace-given hierarchical ministry,
helpers of the bishops.
St. Justin the Martyr writes: “Those called deacons among us give to each of those present
communion of the Bread upon which has been performed the Thanksgiving (Eucharist) and of
the Wine and the Water, and they carry them out to those who are absent.” This means that they
distributed and carried out to the believers not only food in general, but also the Eucharistic gifts.
Their ministry itself, therefore, was bound up in the ancient Church, as it is now, with the Divine
services and the giving of grace.
At the Council of Neo-Caesarea in 314, it was decreed that the number of deacons in a
community, even in a large city, should not exceed seven, citing the passage in the book of Acts.
In ancient Church literature, sometimes bishops and deacons are named without mention of presbyters,
apparently in view of the fact that bishops themselves were the representatives of the
communities in the cities, while the presbyters were given the ministry of the communities outside
The three degrees of the hierarchy.
Thus the Church hierarchy is composed of three degrees. None of the three stages can be
seized solely by one’s personal desire; they are given by the Church, and the appointment to them
is performed by the blessing of God through the ordination of a bishop.
All three degrees of the priesthood are indispensable for the Church. Even though a small
community may have as representatives of the hierarchy only one or two of the degrees (a priest,
a priest and a deacon, two priests, etc.), still, in the Church as a whole, and even in the local
Church, it is essential that there be the fullness of the hierarchy. The Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius,
expresses in his epistles the testimony of the ancient Church concerning this. He writes, “Itis essential, as indeed you are acting, to do nothing without the bishop. Likewise obey the presbytery
as apostles of Jesus Christ — our hope, in Whom may God grant that we live. And everyone
should cooperate in every way with the deacons that serve the ministers of the Mysteries of Jesus
Christ, for they are not ministers of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God.” “All of
you should revere the deacons, as a commandment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus
Christ, the Son of God the Father, and the presbyters as the assembly of God, as the choir of the
Apostles. Without them there is no Church” (Ignatius the God-bearer, Epistle to the Trallians,
par. 2; To the Smyrneans, par. 8).
The bishops comprise the highest rank of the hierarchy. In general, everywhere in life there
is the principle of headship, and the highest degree of the hierarchy, which rules over presbyters
and deacons, is dictated by the very logic of life itself. The same thing is clear from ancient
church literature. The same St. Ignatius writes: “Where the Bishop is, there should the people
also be, just as also where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrneans,
par. 8). In the expression of Tertullian, “Without bishops there is no Church” (Tertullian,
“Against Marcian,” part 4, ch. 5).
Among the bishops there are some who are leaders by their position, but not by their hierarchical,
grace-given dignity. Thus it was also among the Apostles themselves. Although among
the Apostles there were those who were specially venerated and renowned, revered as pillars (cp.
Gal. 2:2, 9), still all were equal essentially, in their apostolic degree. “I suppose I was not a whit
behind the very chiefest Apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5, 12:11), the Apostle Paul declares twice, adding:
“Though I be nothing.” The mutual relations of the Apostles were built upon the foundation of
hierarchical equality. Touching on his journey to Jerusalem to meet the most renowned Apostles,
James, Peter and John, the Apostle Paul explains that he went “by revelation,” testing himself by
the catholic consciousness of the Apostles, but not by the personal view of any one among the
most renowned. “But of those who seemed to be somewhat (whatsoever they were, it maketh no
matter to me; God accepteth no man’s person)” (Gal. 2:6). As for separate persons, the Apostle
Paul writes: “When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be
blamed for his attitude to the uncircumcised Christians” (Gal. 2:11). The same mutual relations
according to the principle of hierarchical grace-given equality remain forever in the Church
among the successors of the Apostles-the bishops.
The councils of the Church.
When among the Apostles there appeared a need to appeal to a higher authoritative voice or
judgment — this was in connection with the important misunderstandings that arose in Antioch
with regard to the application of the ritual law of Moses . the Apostles gathered in a Council at
Jerusalem (Acts 15), and the decrees of this Council were acknowledged as obligatory for the
whole Church (Acts 16:4). By this the Apostles gave an example of the conciliar resolution of the
most important questions in the Church for all times.
Thus the highest organ of authority in the Church, and the highest authority in general, is a
council of bishops: for a local Church it is a council of its local bishops, and for the Ecumenical
Church, a council of the bishops of the whole Church.
The uninterruptedness of the episcopate.
The succession from the Apostles and the uninterrupted ness of the episcopacy comprise
one of the essential sides of the Church. And, on the contrary: the absence of the succession ofthe episcopacy in one or another Christian denomination deprives it of an attribute of the true
Church, even if in it there is present an undistorted dogmatic teaching. Such an understanding
was present to the Church from its beginning. From the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea
we know that all the local ancient Christian Churches preserved lists of their bishops in their uninterrupted
St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes: “We can enumerate those who were appointed as bishops in
the Churches by the Apostles, and their successors, even to our time.” And, in fact, he enumerates
in order the succession of the bishops of the Roman Church almost to the end of the second
century (Against Heresies, pt. 3, ch. 3).
The same view of the importance of the succession is expressed by Tertullian. He wrote
concerning the heretics of his time: “Let them show the beginnings of their churches, and reveal
the series of their bishops who might continue in succession so that their first bishop might have
as his cause or predecessor one of the Apostles or an Apostolic Father who was for a long time
with the Apostles. For the Apostolic Churches keep the lists (of bishops) precisely in this way.
The Church of Smyrna, for example, presents Polycarp, who was appointed by John; the Roman
Church presents Clement, who was ordained by Peter; and likewise the other Churches also point
to those men whom, as being raised to the episcopacy by the Apostles themselves, they had as
their own sprouts from the Apostolic seed” (Tertullian, “Concerning the Prescriptions” against
The pastorship in the Church.
“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of
God... With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment. . .
But He that judgeth me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:1-4).
“The elders (presbyters) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness
of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed feed the
flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly;
not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being
examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3)
“Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God-
whore faith follow, considering the end of their conversation (life)” (Hebrews 13:7).
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your
souls, as that they must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief for that is
unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).