Primacy & Episcopacy

by Charles R. Ajalat      (taken from a larger article – RAS)


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.


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.

From Word Magazine (Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America) January 1996 pp. 7-10

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