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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 lambsfeed 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 (priests).

Presbyters (literallyelders”) 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 cities.

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 heretics).

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).

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