Word Magazine June 1961 Page 6
THE BISHOP IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
By Fr. Michael Azkoul
The Bishop is the Head of the community, or Body, he was consecrated to govern. The office of Bishop is therefore the highest in the Church. That office or order exists by the Will of Christ, the Founder of the Church. The purpose of the Bishop is to teach, to preach and to lead his flock in worship — the Holy Eucharist. (The “parish priest”, consequently, is only a delegate of the Bishop in a particular Church within his jurisdiction. The “priest” or presbyter acts for the Bishop, he does not displace him). The Bishop represents Christ in his capacity as Head of the flock: he is “the image of the Lord”, the visible sign of Christ’s real presence in the Church. Thus, where the Bishop is, there is the Church, as St. Ignatius of Antioch said, and without him there can be no Church.
This means that the office of Bishop is a Divine institution. The existence of that office, or any office (order) for that matter, does not exist by the consent of the flock. It was instituted by our Lord and possesses the power of government. Although the Orthodox Church does permit, to a limited degree, lay participation in the government of the Church, that government is not vested in the people. Orthodoxy is not “democratic”, but “hierarchical”. Her form of government is what the theologians call, “monarchical episcopate.” If, for example, the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in America has a “board of trustees,” it is not associated indispensably with the Archbishop Metropolitan, but exists by virtue of his good will. He may abolish it with a single word.
Of course, the authority of the Bishop is not absolute. It is operative only within the constitution of the Church and the purpose of his office. He is subject to the doctrine, canonical and moral teachings of the Church. If he violates these, he may be denounced by his flock and deposed by a synod of his equals. No bishop may compel the members of his Church to believe what is not part of the teachings of the Universal Church; nor can he deprive any members of his flock of his rights without just cause; and the Bishop cannot grant privileges to anyone, “for love or money”, which are not provided for by the doctrinal and canonical tradition. He may, it is true, under extraordinary circumstances, interpret “canon law” more broadly and apply it more softly, but he may not break it. The Bishop’s “dispensation” does not mean an ignoring of the law, but an “economical” treatment of it. There are matters which the Bishop cannot even do this, e.g., he cannot give a “dispensation” for a non-Orthodox to participate in a Sacrament of the Church. Sacraments are for the Church alone.
Furthermore, the Bishop is not “infallible”— neither are all the Bishops together “infallible”, neither the Patriarch (high ranking Bishop) nor the Patriarchs collectively. The only thing that is “infallible” is the teachings of the Church, the Faith of the Church, the Truth, such as are contained in the Holy Bible, the Oecumenical Councils, the unanimous doctrines of the Fathers. The “infallibility” is not from man, but from the Holy Spirit which dwells in the Church universal, leading Her into all Truth (John xv, 26). Thus, if the Bishop teaches what he is commissioned to teach, and preaches what he is authorized to preach, that is, the Faith of the Church, he may not be contradicted, for then he is the spokesman of the universal Christian Tradition. Any disobedience to a “good bishop” is sinful and may result in immediate excommunication, immediate expulsion from the Church.
It should be understood from all that has been said that the present tendency among some Orthodox to make the Church a “democratic institution” is false; and it is harmful, because it compares the Holy Church to a political institution, it reduces the Bishop to something like a president. But in a democracy the president and his office exist as a result of a human constitution, whereas in Orthodoxy the order of Bishop exists by the Will of God. It is true that in Orthodoxy the flock have a voice in who will govern them, but this does not indicate “democratic vote” but the “unity of the Church”. And, we repeat, the “power” of government resides with the Bishop, because the Holy Spirit has given to him the charism (spiritual gift) of “power”. The Orthodox Church is hierarchical, the Bishop is the highest member of his Church — he is the Head of his Church, the man who acts for the Church to God, and to the Church for God. He is “the image of the Lord, Jesus”.