Contextualizing the Authority of the Ecumenical Councils: Some Thoughts on Met. Hierotheos’s Comments


Recently His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos made the comment that “all other Patriarchates bear the title only through economia and the good pleasure of Constantinople. They are in some sense not full and complete autocephalous Churches, because they exist at the discretion of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and have never been ratified by any Ecumenical Council.”

This does not accurately reflect the authority structure of the Church nor the context of the Ecumenical councils. The Metropolitan’s statement assumes that the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils are the highest authority in the Church. The Patriarch of Serbia, though, is more correct when in his letter to Patriarch Bartholomew (August 13, 2018) he states that the autocephalies of the Churches are grounded in historical circumstances and in the pan-Orthodox agreement of the all the Churches, recognizing these as the main authority.

Met. Heirotheos fails to recognize that an Ecumenical Council has no authority of it’s own. It receives its authority as “ecumenical” by virtue of the whole Church accepting it as authoritative. If the whole Church accepts the current autocephalies as genuine, then no Ecumenical Council is needed. If Constantinople wants to change or abolish the current order he is going against an agreement that already exists. Thus his new order will be the one that will be insubstantial and will not exist as “full” without the approval of all the other Churches. Met. Hierotheos is getting things reversed and putting the “good pleasure” of Constantinople above the “good pleasure” of the whole. Historically and ecclesiologically no one part of the Church has absolute authority or the final say, only the agreement of the whole. Often the initial word of authority comes from somewhere unexpected, someone not immediately in charge (a deacon of Alexandria, a bishop of Ephesus, a monk in the desert) and then the final word is worked out over time as something conciliar. The life, order, and truth of the Church is not the purview of a single Patriarchate nor a single council. Constantinople may have issued the various Tomoi, but historical circumstances and the recognition of the other Churches is what has made the final determination.

I would like to point out that there are two different ecclesiologies floating around right now, and not everyone has really looked at the implications or sources for the views they are holding, so it is good to bring them more into the light. The first view is what might be called the political institutional view of authority in the Church. The source for this view is the example of the way political organizations in the world work. For example in the world the final authority rests with a president and congress, or a supreme court in the judicial area, or it might rest with an autocrat of some type. What is common to all of these is that the final authority rests with a man or group of men at the top of some kind of man-made authority structure.

The political institutional view of the Church postulates an authority structure like this. Authority rests with a particular pan-Orthodox hierarchical-synodal structure such as an Ecumenical or pan-Orthodox council, or in the judicial realm it rests with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, or in the Catholic church it rests with the Pope as an autocrat. While in a nation this reflects the actual self-understanding of a nation’s legal system, the Church has a different self-understanding.

The other ecclesiology understands the Church as a spiritually-Christologically centered structure. Final authority does not rest with some supreme bishop, but rests with the mind of the Church as a whole, which is the mind of Christ. This mind becomes evident over time as a struggle occurs of submitting to the truth of Who Christ is, and His goals, means, and operations.

What does this mean in real life? Well, in the world’s order of things the ruling of a given supreme body is the highest order of things. If the supreme court meets and decides what the law means, that is the end of the story. The only recourse is submission or revolution.

However, the Church has never had any “highest law”—not even the pan-Orthodox councils. Of the pan-Orthodox councils called by the emperors on special occasions some were rejected as robber councils, and some accepted as “Ecumenical”, i.e., as expressing the universal truth of the Church. What authority made the decision of which council to accept and which to reject? Who decides what is the universal truth of the Church? Not the council itself. Not any particular Local Church. Rather a council received authority as ecumenical only after there was the agreement of the Church as a whole. This agreement is something that comes about organically, not through institutional means. As St. Justin Popovich notes, the Church is a Divine-human organism, not a human institution.

Also it is noteworthy that the decisions of an Ecumenical Council are not made authoritative by later councils, but later councils merely confirm what is already recognized and accepted.

Did the term “Theotokos” become an authoritative term for the Virgin only after being confirmed at council? Or was it first authoritative by traditional usage and general agreement, and the council merely recognized this in the midst of Nestorius stirring up confusion? Likewise with the canons. The disciplinary life of the Church is not propagated by the councils as some kind of legal precedent. Rather the disciplinary life of the Church is part of its foundational pastoral and practical life, and the disciplinary canons are put out as responses to particular historical situations in order to help keep this life straight and in order. Unlike a supreme court, or a ruling of congress, the Councils are not a source of legislation, but rather a center of truth around which clarification can happen in the midst of confusion.

In the Church there is space for Christ to act. There is no one supreme political source of authority for creating order, rather Christ’s order as Logos is the basis of Church life—His order built into creation and which finds its most perfect expression in the saints, and which is an active and living presence in the life of the Church. In the Church this order is not promulgated as some man made law, but is recognized and submitted to as being from and of Christ. There is a mutual recognition of Christ in each and all—of the people recognizing Christ in the bishops and obeying them, and the bishops recognizing Christ in each other, and of all recognizing the example and teaching that Christ and the saints have left us about who we are as the Ecclesia.

Historical circumstances also make up part of God’s providential authority that plays into the administrative order for the Church. Constantinople was raised to second place against the wishes of Rome, but this order was eventually accepted as a given part of historical circumstances. The various changes in boundaries, the loss and re-institution of autocephalies has to a larger degree been driven by political circumstances. The Church does what it can to provide both stability and flexibility such that She can best live out her purpose of sanctifying the peoples that She dwells among. But this pastoral and spiritual understanding of Church organization is very different from a political understanding of her organization.

A political organization’s purpose is self-preservation and the increase of its own power. It organizes itself to promote this purpose, and this self-preservation is understood in terms of certain material powers, structures, and resources. The Church’s purpose is to bring about the deification of mankind and ultimately all creation. It organizes itself in such a way as to bring about this goal. Thus part of what determines the organization of the Church is the divine economia.

Economia is not merely some kind of condescension on the part of an authority towards those who are lesser. Economia is rather God’s good household management for bringing about the salvation of mankind. It operates within and despite the changing political circumstances. The flexibility of this economia is shown in how the Russian Church flourished spiritually even when the tsars abolished the Patriarchate making it a synodal Church, and it continued to produce saints when the communists abolished the whole hierarchical power structure. This economia operated even under the Ottoman’s unnatural ways of putting in and getting rid of various patriarchs. Holiness still lived on and thrived there. No one administrative structure is absolute in Church life. Rather there is always an adjustment to whatever good or bad circumstances the Church finds herself in. What is consistent is not an institutional-administrative structure or source of authority, but rather a certain way of life in Christ. It is lack of knowledge of this Way that can cause so much confusion.

In summary we can say that the current autocephalous Churches exist at the discretion and good pleasure of Christ. Their existence was brought about under God’s providence as a result of historical circumstances. They exist according to God’s economia—His decision that this is the best way to witness to and bring about salvation for those under His care. The actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were a leading part of this care. However, the new autocephalous Churches exist not solely according to the good pleasure and recognition of Constantinople, but also according to the good pleasure and mutual recognition toward each other. These three: historical circumstances, mutual recognition, and the leadership of Constantinople are what brought about the current situation. If Constantinople pulls its approval, this doesn’t invalidate the existence of any autocephalous Church, but merely puts things in a confused situation like a three-legged stool with one leg broken that is no longer stable. A council is not needed to approve what already exists and is agreed upon and there is no contention over. A council is only needed when confusion is brought in, and then the job of the council is to pinpoint and restrain the source of confusion, protecting the good order and truth of the Church.

I can sympathize with the Metropolitan though. No doubt Constantinople could wreak a lot of havoc in the Greek Church and maybe this is what Met. Hierotheos is trying to say. He is afraid that if his Church does not cooperate, the CP could even decide to revoke its Tomos. Let us keep our Greek brothers and sisters in prayer, since so much pressure is on them, and let us also trust that God will guide them. I am the first one to admit that I don’t understand the ins and outs of the struggles going on internally there. But ultimately Christ will support those who are struggling toward Him, and He will guard all those who are His.

Anna Stickles


See also
Ecclesiological Principles Cannot Be Ignored. The Albanian Church’s Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew Ecclesiological Principles Cannot Be Ignored. The Albanian Church’s Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew Ecclesiological Principles Cannot Be Ignored. The Albanian Church’s Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew Ecclesiological Principles Cannot Be Ignored
The Albanian Church’s Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew
It is universally recognized as a basic ecclesiological principle that the ordinations of heretics and schismatics, and especially of those who are deposed and excommunicated, as a “Sacrament,” celebrated by all the Churches, are invalid. This basic principle is inextricably bound with the Orthodox teaching on the Holy Spirit and constitutes an unshakeable foundation of the Apostolic succession of Orthodox bishops. It is our conviction that this principle cannot be ignored.
Greek Theologian: Patriarch Bartholomew is a Threat for the Orthodox East! Greek Theologian: Patriarch Bartholomew is a Threat for the Orthodox East!
Demetrios Anagnostou
Greek Theologian: Patriarch Bartholomew is a Threat for the Orthodox East! Greek Theologian: Patriarch Bartholomew is a Threat for the Orthodox East!
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An article from the latest issue of the Greek Orthodox gazette “Orthodox Tipos.” The author is a well-known theologian and publicist.
About Good Doctor Aibolit and the Greek Orthodox Church About Good Doctor Aibolit and the Greek Orthodox Church
Priest Sergei Begiyan
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To understand that Patriarch Bartholomew is by no means a good doctor, that he pursues completely specific materialistic goals, we must forget for a while about the current conflict and recall another. We must remember the Greek Orthodox Church.
Getting to the Essence. A Look at the Schism Through the Eyes of Professor Osipov Getting to the Essence. A Look at the Schism Through the Eyes of Professor Osipov
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The following is a translated transcript of a Spas (Savior) Orthodox TV channel special edition of their program, “Straight to the essence”. In these extremely disturbing times, people want to hear a familiar, trusted voice of experience and sound theology. Professor Osipov is that voice.
A Canonical Crisis in the Orthodox Church A Canonical Crisis in the Orthodox Church
Met. Jonah (Paffhausen)
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Primacy, Conciliarity and the Ecumenical Patriarchate
Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen)
The actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP) in its process of granting a Tomos of autocephaly to the schismatic groups in Ukraine have created a canonical crisis.
The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople
St. John (Maximovtch) of Shanghai and San Francisco
The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople
An overview written in 1938
St. John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco
The moral authority of the Patriarchs of Constantinople has likewise fallen very low in view of their extreme instability in ecclesiastical matters.
Ioannis4/19/2019 1:40 pm

You say "I may be just a simple layman and no expert in canon law"
Well, if you carefully read the Canons, i.e. both the letter of the Canons plus the spirit/logic of the Canons (why the were made)
and if you also read the first history of the Church
then you will understand what our Bishops are really expected to do
and compare with the wrong application by some of them.
You can then politely draw their attention to correct themselves.

Download from:
Ecclesiastical History:

The Rudder (Pedalion), compilation of all canons of the Church:
Iconodule 4/16/2019 8:37 pm
Thanks for taking the time to write this article Ana!

For those of us who are converts to Orthodoxy we are very grateful for people like you and others taking the time to critique erring Hierarchs.

I may be just a simple layman and no expert in canon law. The way I see it is Patriarch Bartholomew is clearly in error and it appears that he loves power more than Christ by his actions.

Every Bishop in our Church is equal and I desperately hope and pray that a Council is called with all the Bishops to settle these issues and restore good order to the Church.

May Christ our True God and Head have mercy on us and help us!
Gary Cox 4/14/2019 2:57 pm
Anna, we appreciate your articles greatly. There is a saying in the southern united states regarding not allowing the stupid people to discourage you which seems appropriate concerning the ecumenical patriarch's followers. Don't let the Turkey's get you down. ( pun very much intended ). But seriously, please keep up the good work! Gary Cox
Ioannis4/13/2019 3:43 pm
God bless you Anna.
May I humbly add some more info you might want in a future update?
From Rudder (Pedalion), p.273:

"the Bishop of Constantinople ought to receive priviledges of authority because various Patriarchs and Prelatesused to come to the Emperor to beg for his help in their exigencies and it was necessary for them first to meet the Bishop of Constantinople, lend them assistance, and through him they were enabled to approach the Emperor..."

Nowadays, Constantinople is not the capital and Turkey has not may O.Christians. So in the spirit of Canon 28, Constantinople or even the capital Ankara e.g. an Orthodox Bishop from the U.S. or Russia or Greece etc.

John D.4/12/2019 8:31 pm
Thank you Anna.
Disappointing from one who has guided us seekers and lovers of truth into Holy Orthodoxy. After all, he's only human.

Met. Hierotheos should re-familiarize himself with St. John's very accurate analysis of the EP.See link below:
Mikhail4/12/2019 6:24 pm
Anna, Fr Daniel set forth this comment:

"The ecclesiology you're espousing is without question foreign to Orthodoxy, will inevitably pit saint against saint, synod against synod and result, not in cohesion but fragmentation. Stop reading and propagating pop Orthodox theology – it's garbage!"

To me, it sounded as if he was attacking you for espousing a foreign ecclesiology and propagating pop Orthodox theological garbage. I interpreted that as an ad hominem attack. But if you do not interpret it in that way...I stand corrected. However, I see it as extremely uncharitable.

For the record, I would like to thank you the most reasoned response to date regarding the Metropolitan's comments.
Yiannis4/12/2019 3:40 pm
I think it is unacceptable for any serious person whether layman or even Patriarch to

write a comment like the one signed by "Fr.Daniel".
It is very easy for him to write "it's garbage" but it is more difficult to document this.

Has he ever read the Rudder compiled by Saint Nikodemos, Rule 28 of the 4th Ecum. Synod?

The Rule itself but especially the commentary by St.Nikodemos explains in detail:
The reason Constantinople was the the throne of the Ecumenical Patriarch was only because

there was the throne of the Head of State (Emperor) of the christian nation.
Even a child in Elementary School understands that Constantinople is no more a capital of

a country and certainly Turkey is n
Anna Stickles4/11/2019 8:35 pm
Fr Daniel, What pits synod against synod is if each synod only sees Christ in itself, and sees itself as having the fullness of truth. When each sees Christ in the others, and understands that they have ecclesial existence +only+ in relation with and recognition by the others (not in their own right) then unity is maintained. This is what is so dangerous about the theology behind the self-ordination of the schismatics. Their very existence starts with a claim to self-sufficient existence - this claim to self-sufficiency is Protestantism. And any unilateralism which sees everyone else dependent on one and the one dependent on no one is Catholicism. See Met. H's other statements elsewhere.
Anna Stickles4/11/2019 8:20 pm
Ad Hominem means against the person. Fr. Daniel makes no personal attacks here. Just disagreement with and concern about my position, which from his comments he seems to be misunderstanding, since my view is not that the mind of the Church is an authority outside of nor over the bishops but found in the common mind of the bishops whether that be at a local or pan-orthodox level. All need to struggle to be united in Christ in a reciprocal movement, not a unilateral move toward union in one man's idea. Met. Hierotheos himself is in support of conciliarity, but these particular comments of his are contradictory to that and lead back to unilateralism.
Mikhail4/11/2019 4:28 pm
Dear Father Daniel:

There is no saint....there is no synod.....which would support the EP's innovative "first without equal" mindset. Perhaps it would be best for you to return to your "never comment rule" instead of hurling ad hominem attacks.
Bob4/11/2019 5:55 am
Does anyone remember that CP just reinstated unrepentant anathamatized schmatiics who are intent on merging with the Unia and recognizing LGBTQ? All this while at the same time delegitimizimg Met. O. So it is OK for “first among equals” to unilaterally disband all the rules without consulting the “equals?” This is the root cause of the problem many of you are brushing under the carpet. Don’t start sounding off about “Moscow the Third Rome,” Protestantism, etc. What’s wrong is wrong. That is what has to be dealt with!
John4/10/2019 11:26 pm
Steve: Are you making things up as you go along? Why doesn't anyone want to address the issue at hand: that Constantinople is not the first without equal and it has acted wrongly--very wrongly--and a Pan-Orthodox Council needs to be convened in order to properly deal with it in the Orthodox manner.
John4/10/2019 11:19 pm
Fr. Daniel: Your categorical, emphatic remarks and exhortations to stop writing/posting begs the question. Who are you, what is your jurisdiction, and what qualifies you to order people around like that? Can you back up what you are saying with something more concrete?
Steve4/10/2019 11:16 pm
The authority of a Local Church comes from her interdependent participation in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of which Christ is Head. The Throne of the Church is Christ's. However, as Christ is not yet enthroned on earth until His Second Coming, He is today enthroned on earth in the hearts of men and with the incarnation of an earthly hierarchy. This hierarchy on earth culminates in a First-throne of the Church on earth until Christ's Second Coming. Even though the EP has historically been wrong many times, recognition of Christ's primacy through His First-throne on earth is what gives the Local Churches their authority, both inside and outside of council.
Fr. Daniel4/10/2019 8:09 pm
Dear Anna: I broke my never comment rule to comment on this article because not only is it inaccurate and speculative, it's also profoundly dangerous. I do not know where you have picked up these ideas but I sincerely ask you to stop writing/talking! Editor – stop publishing. The ecclesiology you think you're opposing (in the metropolitan, etc.) isn't what you think it is – it's far more subtle and rooted in our actual history and canon law. The ecclesiology you're espousing is without question foreign to Orthodoxy, will inevitably pit saint against saint, synod against synod and result, not in cohesion but fragmentation. Stop reading and propagating pop Orthodox theology – it's garbage!
Mikhail4/10/2019 5:33 pm
After Metropolitan Hierotheos' superb critiques of the 2016 Cretan robber synod, I was caught by surprise when he came out with these comments. It would be an understatement to say that I am extremely disappointed. St Mark of Ephesus pray for us!
m. Cornelia4/10/2019 8:29 am
Steve: Although I don't know which statements of Met. Hierotheos you are referring to, I have to note that the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome was never a theology, and it is a big mistake to view it that way. It is a historical/political development. Rome fell to the barbarians, Constantinople fell to the Turks, and Moscow was coming into it's own as a political power after the Mongol-Tatar yoke. It was free to pursue and Church/state symphonia that Constantinople was no longer free to even think about. It has nothing to do with a Russian hegemony in Church matters, although if you view the Orthodox world through the notion of Greek hegemony then you might unreasonably worry about it.
Gary Cox4/10/2019 6:07 am
I think the article is spot on. It gives a balanced ( which is very Orthodox) approach to the horrible situation the Church is going through. Protestant ethos??? Most of the protestant ideas I know of are very legalistic in their thinking and would love Constantinople's viewpoint if they were in his place. They would love being the big dog and being in control. The Orthodox way of discovering the ways of God under the various circumstances of the world are the way to go. If the Church was meant to have a one man ruler unaccountable to anyone then Bart should submit to the pope of Rome. I bet that won't happen.
Steve4/10/2019 4:10 am
Long before this situation in Ukraine began, Metr. Hierotheos has noted the false and dangerous ecclesiology once again reemerging of "Moscow as Third Rome". So it's not fair to presume that Metr. Hierotheos is under any pressure from the Ecumenical Patriarch, no more than to presume the author of this article is under any pressure from her own bishop to criticize Metr. Hierotheos' opinion.
Anna Stickles4/9/2019 11:52 pm
Fr Daniel and Steve, You are reading my statements out of context. I did not say the"mind of the Church" exists outside of the hierarchy, but precisely in it and its mutual recognition and seeing Christ in each other, as well as in the saints, Scriptures, canons, etc. My view is comprehensive, not exclusive. My point is that Met. Hierotheos was not comprehensive enough. He only recognizes the source of authority in Constantinople's good pleasure, he does not recognize the rest of the bishops/synods of the Church as having any place or authority unless they are specifically meeting in a council. Not only I but others have noted that mutual agreement does not have to be in a formal council.
Editor4/9/2019 10:34 pm
Fr. Daniel: In response to your accusation of us not wanting to hear the truth in the form of your comment. Before you (rather heatedly and unbecoming of a "father"--forgive us) jump to conclusions, know that our moderators are not always able to open comments as they come in, simply because we are very busy. We may also not see every comment, as we are not robots.
Bob4/9/2019 10:26 pm
The wisdom of Orthodox Church organizational structure is precisely that it is counterintuitive to man’s hierarchical structure, as we see most clearly in the Roman Catholic structure. Anna summarizes that well by saying a hierarchy with one man at the top must work then to preserve itself. One man at the top is what CP is trying to be, and even when he is wrong, he wants everyone else to follow. No, the current structure actually prevents destructive Protestantism, especially when it starts at the “top.”
Nun Irinea4/9/2019 8:59 pm
The metropolitan's stand seems also to have some relation with geopolitics though, because a while ago he had an encounter with the US ambassador in Greece Pyatt (well known for his part in Maidan as ambassador to Ukraine) who these days seems to have an irresistible attraction to Greek Church people, Mount Athos and the like.
Fr. Daniel4/9/2019 6:47 pm
Aside from the donatism on clear display in this article, it's also historically false, ecclesiologically indefensible and completely protestant in ethos. It's donatist because it insist that only the "saints" are authoritative and legitimate. It's historically false because St Cyril's Anathemas against Nestorious had to be judged by the Council and only then became authoritative (as was the case with all the theology examined and judged by the Councils). Its ecclesiology is indefensible because it utterly undermines the teaching and pastoring authority of bishops and synods by subjecting them to a vague notion of the "mind if the Church." The ROCOR pastoral school should be embarrassed!
Rdr Andreas Moran4/9/2019 6:13 pm
Regarding Steve's comment on the author's words he quotes, I think they need to be seen in the full context of the paragraph where these words appear and the following two paragraphs, especially where St Justin Popovich is mentioned. Then, so far as I can tell, the author is not describing the Church in a way which attracts reproof. Schismatic and heretical groups can make claims for themselves which resemble what Orthodoxy, in all humility, says of itself but obviously such claims are false.
Steve4/9/2019 3:54 pm
This is resorting to protestant argument. Any schismatic group can claim they understand the Church as a "spiritually-Christologically centered structure" where "final authority does not rest with some supreme bishop", and that the "mind of the Church as whole" exists outside of the hierarchy and synod they oppose. In fact, that's what most schismatic groups claim.
Мomčilo4/9/2019 1:25 pm
Christ is in our midst! Disappointments and scandals keep coming. I was shocked when i read Met. Hirotheos reasoning. Shocked and dissapointed. After Mt Athos another great blow from an unexpected source. Churches exist because of good pleasure of Constantinople?! What happened to all those ancient Churches of Asia Minor that Apostle Paul was writing about? Most dissapeared. Christ rules over His Church, not Constantinople. No Local Church is guaranteed. If unworthy Christ can and will replace us.
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