Conciliarity, Primacy, and Reciprocity: the Foundations of Orthodox Unity



As kind of groundwork I want to look at conciliarity first. This ecclesial principle does not merely refer to equal individuals meeting together to consult and come to agreement with each other as in the world. When the bishops meet in council this too is a mystery, something sacramental.

As humans we have a nature in common. As persons we are called to be in communion. There is a oneness of nature that is given to us, and a oneness of persons we are called to attain through the struggle to have one congruent operation of mind and will. St Paisios the Athonite uses images from when he was a radio operator in the army. We have to be tuned to God and each other. When we are on different frequencies there exists only static, and not any clear communication or harmony of action. This harmony is a gift of God’s; its essence is the Logos.1

When a synod of bishops meets, whether this be in the local diocese, a Patriarchal synod, a pan-Orthodox council,2 or an Ecumenical council, this is a sign of the unity of the Church. It is an image of the Trinity—a oneness of persons in communion. Because it is sacramental it is also an image of, a participation in, Christ and the oneness of God and man. These analogies should not be taken too far, because there is a vast gulf between the created and Uncreated, or Christ who is God-man and us, who are men deified by grace. However, the principle of unity in distinction remains throughout, even if there are different modes that this manifests in. Therefore it is important as we go along to remember that the principle of oneness dwells not solely in having one head, but also in conciliarity.

When as Orthodox we talk about “oneness” we are not talking about something monolithic. The Muslims have one God, but this is not the same oneness as the Christian Trinity. The Christian concept of oneness is always a unity in distinction, without separation, and without confusion. The conciliar nature of the Church then is a basic part of its oneness. This is why the Roman Catholic ecclesiology is rejected. It has at best an inadequate and vitiated theology and practice in this area, and at worst actually precludes a vision of the Church as truly conciliar.

The synod of bishops is an icon of the conciliar nature of the unity of the Church. However, whenever bishops meet in synod there must always be a president, a primate to lead them. This primate is an icon of Christ as head of the Church. In this too is a vision of the unity of the Body under one head. Therefore when we talk about the unity of the Church, this has two necessary aspects—conciliarity and primacy. The glue that holds these together is a certain uniquely Christian notion of obedience and humility.

Reciprocity—the movement of a Christian hierarchy

Some people have advocated that to solve the problem of abuse of authority by primates we should get rid of a hierarchical system altogether. It is rampant in our culture to see God’s providential differences in degrees as “ inequalities” which have to be eradicated. Part of the Western set of values is to call for the destruction of hierarchies in favor of equality. Also at play are American ideals of freedom based in the Enlightenment, which promote a self-willed ideal. We see these values for example in the old Schoolhouse Rock song, “No More Kings”.

“It's very clear you're being unfair, King,

No matter what you say, we won't obey.

Gonna hold a revolution now, King,

And we're gonna run it all our way

With no more kings…”3

Universally taught in our schools is this idea of self-willed individualism along with an idea that social justice comes about by ridding the world of inequality—which to them means getting rid of any kind of hierarchy. These visions of freedom and social justice are often put forward as a Christian ideal. They are not.4 This whole line of thinking arises from Scholasticism, not Orthodox Christianity. The rational and scientific method of Scholasticism causes ideas and values to be isolated and absolutized. In this method things that in traditional Orthodoxy we find in harmony become conflictual. Pope vs. king, clergy vs. laity, rich vs. poor, the will of the Pope/King vs. the will of the people… the list goes on. Two absolutes can’t exist in harmony. They will exist in conflict with each attempting to destroy the other. In order to get rid of this conflict, the trend has been to strip everything of its distinctions and differences. However, the Christian ideal has another way.

In Christian theology hierarchy is not an unjust inequality because there is a motion of reciprocity that brings balance and stability. Christ sets the example for us of this essential motion. He, without losing His riches, became poor so that we could become rich. He who as God deserved complete reverence and obedience, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient even to being killed—condemned as a criminal and traitor to both his people and to the government. Inequality in the Christian tradition is not overcome by destroying the order around us (which we recognize as God’s providence) but by a motion of self-sacrifice and humility that gives balance to that order. This is God’s way and it is the only Christian way. Equality erases this beautiful movement of self-effacing, self-sacrificial humility.

This theological principle of reciprocity can be seen many places in Church life. We see it in the natural relationship between men and women5 and also the sacrament of marriage.6 It exists between clergy and laity. One of the most beautiful is the story of St Zosimas’s meeting with St. Mary of Egypt, in which they each bow down asking for the other person’s blessing. The foundation of this reciprocity is that members of the Church see Christ in each other. Compare this to the world where celebrity idols stand up and say, “Admire me, follow me and I will give you a blessing.” There is also a reciprocity of authority in Scripture and Tradition. We do not exalt one above the other, but there is a harmony wherein one informs the other. Tradition is built on the foundation of Scripture, and Scripture is understood within the context of Tradition. Another example of reciprocity is found in how while the Ecumenical councils hold a primacy of authority, yet they mean nothing unless confirmed by the body of the faithful as instantiated in the local synods of bishops. Orthodoxy does not understand the Ecumenical council as if it is the synodal equivalent of a pope. It is not a council over the local councils but exists as one among them. A close look at history and the reception of the councils shows this in action.

Primate within the synod

Reciprocity is also present in the theological understanding of the conciliar body of the synod headed by a primate. This can be seen for example in Apostolic Canon 34:

It behooves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is the premier or chief, and to recognize him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval: but, instead, each of them should do only whatever is necessitated by his own parish and by his territories under him. But let not even such a one do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For thus will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’."

It is specified here that concord, unity, are found in this reciprocity of obedience. By bowing to the will of others the primate is in the place of Christ setting the example of what obedience is. In being an icon of Christ, grace is activated and he inspires others to obey him. By obeying, the ones under authority bring joy to the primate and honor him as Christ among them. Christ in the primate is obeying Christ who is in all. Christ in each is obeying Christ who they see in the primate. This is the operation, not of a human, but of a divine-human organization.

Notice in this canon how the head does not have the freedom to act without the consent of all, however the freedom of the bishops within their own jurisdiction is affirmed. It may be wise in the current pan-Orthodox meetings to take this into consideration. Right now the agreements state that the Ecumenical Patriarch as pan Orthodox primate can initiate things without consent. This consent is only needed later where things will be confirmed or denied at some future council… And, we see where the violation of this principle of reciprocity has led us.

Respecting the spheres of authority and recognizing God’s providence

If we take a closer look at this canon we find another principle at work within this context of hierarchy and reciprocity. Reciprocity respects the established spheres of authority. In fact living within and respecting the established boundaries is a reality that is present in the whole of creation. This was never questioned by the ancients, but is something virulently denied in our own society. Cultural Marxism promotes the idea that social justice and individual freedom cannot be obtained except by getting rid of any social boundaries. The boundaries of nature are also now being attacked. What started as women suing to get into the boy scouts as a matter of “social justice” has ended in transgenderism.

Getting back to this canon… it recognizes the rights of the bishops within their own sphere of authority,7 and specifies the type of reciprocity that goes on outside of this. The primate is called upon not to interfere within the jurisdiction and area of competence of those under him, and those under the primate are called upon not to go beyond the normal bounds of their responsibility without consulting the primate. This also images our relationship with God. God has given each of us an area of freedom. He is there helping and guiding, but He does not use his authority to interfere. In His divine will He does not overstep these bounds, but providentially provides what is needed so that we ourselves have an area to struggle in with the help of His grace. This is the only way we grow. We cannot grow if God does not allow an area for us to struggle in.

This is an important pastoral principle that is often lost in the West. In Western theology God’s sovereignty and our freedom are absolutized and are thus seen as in conflict. The Fathers though teach that God gives us a contingent area of sovereignty within which we work out our salvation. (His sovereignty still underlies this, like a safety net keeping things from going totally off the rails. Sin is not able to destroy God’s providence.) There have been various articles and sermons in Orthodoxy today delineating the problems with false gerondas or staretzi (elders) who fail to observe this principle , or spiritual seekers who do not understand their own responsibility. It is noted how this is spiritual damaging, and how in these cases things fall apart, often leaving considerable damage.

When God’s providence is not recognized there often arises an impetus by the leader to go in and “fix” things, or an impetus by those under authority to complain that things aren’t getting fixed. Faith calls us to discern how most things we face in terms of the external turmoil caused by politics and the instability in the world are in fact allowed by God’s design, similar to how He did not drive out the pagan peoples all at once when Israel entered the promised land, but left some to test the Israelites.8 If we as laymen are impatient for the bishops to do more, we will fall ourselves into bringing disunity and scandal to the Church.

One of the biggest problems we have today is impatience with our imperfections. This is not a genuine desire for salvation, but merely embarrassment that the world is seeing our fallen state. People now more than ever think that they can by their own efforts bring about world peace and unity. It is well for us to remember the Tower of Babel and humbly accept our lot as a scattered people, repenting of our pride and hoping in God’s mercy and the peace and unity He has promised to bring about in His own time and His own way. What God has instituted only God can remove. It is not for man to remove the curse of the Tower of Babel, which was given as a medicine for man’s pride.

Our witness does not primarily consist in being perfect. Our witness consists in being an example of faith, hope, and bearing one another’s burdens in love. It consists in living in a fallen world with a peaceful dependence on God’s mercy and help. It is good to remember that man’s efforts at unity are cursed and frustrated by God until there is full repentance from the pride of self-exaltation that brought about man’s scattering in the first place. The problem of pride in this world (whether in clergy or laity) cannot be solved through consultations and advice. Only by taking refuge in God’s penitential Providences can man be rescued from satan’s pride, which is still very much alive.


To return to our main point, the effort at reciprocity is how unity is found in diversity. This reciprocity exists within all the hierarchical and conciliar relations within the Body as an image of Christ’s Incarnation, and as a moral imperative within our pastoral theology. It is found in the canons, because the canons grow from and cannot be disconnected from the underlying theological and moral foundation of the Church. This reciprocity is a movement of turning from self-love to love of the other, from self-affirmation and promotion to humility and recognition of the other as better than oneself.9 It is precisely this movement that the primus is responsible for being an example of, and in this others will follow.

To try to interpret and use the canons in isolation and apart from a firm foundation in the moral and pastoral self-understanding of the Church is to deny the very nature of the canons as something sacred and grace filled. Take away their pastoral context and they become mere judicial laws. The despot in the world rules by force of law, which has become an extension of his own will. He thinks that he is being a “benefactor”. The Christian Despota10 rules by becoming an extension of Christ’s will, which is already present and authoritative in the Church. This will of Christ is the salvation of souls, not the establishment of political structures. The Orthodox Despota rules from among, not as over his flock. He accomplishes something beneficial for all by faith and not by force, by humility and not by power. Humility is seen most of all in obedience to all and a proper recognition of the boundaries and Providences of God. Humility recognizes that God has not given us perfection in this world, but penances and struggles to teach and heal us. The will to power was the main impetus that caused the Fall, and the main activity that saves the world is to give up the will to power in favor of “not my will but thine be done.” Christ Himself saves the world, not through the exercise of authority but through the example of obedience and gentleness. This is something natural and simple. People primarily learn by example. A parent’s word will have no impact if the child has not seen the living example of that word in the parents.

The Church is established and built up only when primacy is exercised within the context of conciliarity and reciprocity. The mutual obedience of the all to the one and the one to the all is the motion of unity. If either one of these is broken, then the unity will be broken. A primate does not bring unity through unilateral action or force of power, but only through being part of the Christological movement of coming down off the throne into the midst of the people in order to be a living example. This is why the canons dictate that our primates also be bishops with real pastoral responsibilities. When the bishop is separated from the people, he loses what it means to be a bishop. He instead becomes merely an administrator or ruler. This is why the Local Church is given priority in anything that happens within their own jurisdiction—they are the ones who live and struggle and suffer there, and know what is going on.

Anna Stickles


1 Logos, is a Greek word which is hard to translate, in theology, particularly evident in the writings of St Maximos the Confessor it refers to the divine reason or plan implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning. It is like the script of a play, or the thought behind what we say that contains the true meaning of our words. If someone does not grasp this thought, then the words can be spoken but no communication occurs, only misunderstanding.

2 I refer specifically here to pan-Orthodox council, because I believe it is important to differentiate this from an Ecumenical council. A council can be pan-Orthodox and make important decisions, but not have the same significance, not rise to the level of an Ecumenical council. Having a council be pan-Orthodox does not make it Ecumenical, nor does it necessarily become a robber council. It can be a general pan-Orthodox assembly that is less timeless and universal in its scope than the Ecumenical councils but still important. (For example various Eastern councils were pan-Orthodox after the split from Rome but are not given Ecumenical status. This is not because Rome was absent, but because their importance was generally lesser and/or they have not been confirmed as having the same scope as the seven recognized Ecumenical councils.)

3 Full lyrics here. This idea of independent running it “our way” is put forward as the alternative to the King forcing them to do it his way. This is an example of the absolutism I note below.

4 The Lord says, “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matt 5:39) Also the Apostles teach obedience to those in authority. (I Peter 2:13-16 & 3:13-17, Col 3:22-24) Tradition doesn’t teach that slaves or citizens should rebel against unjust rulers, but teaches rather that when Christians are confronted with injustice they follow the example of Christ, putting their hope in God and being a witness (martyr) by their own example of patience and suffering continuing to do good to those who are unjust to them.

5 I Cor 11:7-11

6 Eph. 5:22-33

7 Other canons deal with the type of reciprocity within the local synod or between the bishop and his flock.

8 Judges 2:21-23, “ I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the Lord, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not.” Therefore the Lord left those nations, without driving them out immediately; nor did He deliver them into the hand of Joshua.” see also Judges 3:1-4 and how this is an analogy of spiritual warfare.

9 Philip 2:3

10 This Greek word is brought into Slavonic and English and used in the services in our special greeting for the bishop.

Anna Stickles12/17/2018 4:50 am
Subdeacon Matthew,
Yes you are right. Thank you for the correction. I am aware of the erroneous doctrines of the Trinity put forward by Met. John Zizioulas that have caused this debate, but when writing the above did not properly watch my language to cover these bases. The idea of person put forward by Zizioulas ends up with a confusion of nature and person, and a loss of integrity of the concept of person as a distinct irreducible reality in its own right. I did my thesis paper comparing western and Orthodox ideas of the atonement. The school is going to publish it, but it is still in process. A large part of it covers the idea of person and nature in a Christological context.
Editor12/16/2018 9:37 am
If you look further in google for Anna Stickles, you will find this:
Nisibis12/16/2018 3:33 am
Dear Editors, and "Ms. Stickles",

Although I agree with a lot of what this author has to say, I am very interested to learn of her credentials, and what gives her the right to write about matters of Canon law? Who is this author? Conscientious readers are always interested to know who the author is, and when I searched Ms. Stickles name, I found a homeschool mother speaking about homeschooling subjects. Is this the Ms. Stickles, that writes for your website?
Subdeacon Matthew 12/15/2018 7:14 am
I would caution readers (and the author herself for that matter) to avoid the error in regards to the Holy Trinity in the beginning of this piece. The phrase from the author “a oneness of persons in communion”, is incorrect. The Church (and Fathers) teach that the the Persons of the Holy Trinity are incommunicable. This communion exists within the shared essence and energy but not hypostasis. There is not a communion of Hypostasis (Persons) within the Holy Trinity. This same idea was put forth in the document during the meeting in Crete in 2016 which Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos objected to and it was eventually removed from the text.
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