Authority in the Church is never the monopoly of an ordained few (cf. Eph. 4:11-12)  whether bishops or other clergy. Authority is the responsibility of all (cf. Eph. 5:34). Likewise, obedience is not the obligation of an "inferior" laity or lower clergy, but a requirement of all faithful, lay and ordained. In the history of Christianity, centuries of institutionalism and clericalism, followed by the "lay revolution," in conservative and anti-hierarchical churches alike, have rendered the concepts of authority and obedience problematic a point of contention and almost disdain. Nevertheless, clergy and laity cannot exist without one another; spiritual elder and child must be existentially united. Together they constitute the living body of Christ; together they experience the mystery of Christ. Any distinction between them is merely functional and provisional, not essential. What is essential is the relationship of love and trust in Christ. Unity lived out even in diversity is precisely the promise of God to His Church. Any form or expression of authority, then, must not be the expression of human pride but of humility before God, of assimilation to the divine hierarchy, and of obedience to the will of Him who alone is called Father (cf. Mt. 23:9). Such obedience is of the very essence ("esse") not simply the well-being ("bene esse") of humanity. Hierarchy exists in order to reveal the priestly vocation (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9) and function of all within a world that is beautifully ordered by its Creator as cosmos.

The Way of the Ascetics

"Obedience is good, but (only) if it is done for God's sake."[1]

In the ascetic tradition and spiritual formation of the Church, obedience is considered "the first of virtues."[2] For monastics, in particular, perfect obedience, understood as "the mortification of the will" (cf. Phil. 2:8),[3] is integral to all ascetic endeavor. Monastic life would indeed be unthinkable without the basic notion of obedience.[4]

Etymologically, the Greek word "thelema" (will) is probably derived from the words "theein lian," which denote "a clear vision" on behalf of the person desirous of something; the word may, on the other hand, originate in the phrase "theletou lemma," implying the possession of that which is desired.[5] Either way, it is never intended that the human will be broken or crushed, but only that it be educated and guided. As creatures of the Triune God, "we are children ... of will."[6] The faculty of free, rational choice is an essential attribute of humanity.[7] Ignatius of Antioch writes: "Will, in order that you may be willed."[8]

In the patristic writings, the only one who is sometimes considered not to have a will is the devil.[9] The faculty of will is a prerequisite for salvation. This implies cooperation with the Divinity who voluntarily chooses to risk moving out, "erotically," in search of the lost human being, who in turn responds to this divine initiative with a mutual return of love and desire.

It has already been noted that the Fathers do not speak of obedience in terms of normative requirements. Obedience transcends mere submissiveness, with which it is commonly confused. The virtue of obedience occurs within the context of loving trust and personal relationship between two people in Christ, which in itself reveals the presence of Christ (cf. Mt. 18:20). Without this special relationship, one gains nothing from authority but pride, and nothing from obedience but guilt. Such feelings, however, defeat the very purpose of spiritual authority and hierarchy in the Church.

The Church of Christ is hierarchical, and this hierarchy "corresponds to an imitation of God," reflecting the order of life "even among the celestial beings."[10] Yet the Church is not solely hierarchical in its ministry and service: the Holy Spirit is poured out on all the people of God. Each faithful is considered king, priest, and prophet, while the gifts of the Spirit are many and varied (1 Cor. 12:28-30), understood as being neither restricted to the ordained ministry nor reduced to the level of obedience alone (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19-20). One recalls the influence in the Christian East of unordained, "lay" or monastic elders, which has often proved far greater than that of any hierarch. The sacramental authority of the hierarchy always exists alongside the spiritual authority of the saints. Both are required and presuppose each other. Ideally, the two work together, like two wings of a bird. They counterbalance and complement one another when needed. The hierarchical order and dimension of the Church cannot be correctly interpreted except in relation to the priestly and prophetic ministry entrusted to the entire people of God (1 Pet 2:9), clergy and laity.[11]

Authority in the Church is always identified with the vivifying breath of the Spirit. There must be synergy, not tyranny. The role of the holy people does not replace the responsibility of the bishops. The bishops are called to lead their people in taking up the cross of love and freedom in Christ. Orthodoxy has never attempted to resolve this seemingly paradoxical two-fold dimension. It has never reduced the Christian faith to a few charismatics, nor has it relied upon the bishops alone. On the contrary, it is the communal aspect of the Church which is constantly affirmed.

That the laity must obey clergy is a commandment from the earliest Apostolic times. Ignatius of Antioch encourages the Trallians to be:

"submissive to the bishop as to Jesus Christ ... and also to the presbytery as to the Apostles ... and to respect the deacons ... for without these no Church is recognized."[12]

This of course implies no comfortable theology  in either theory or in practice. Clement of Alexandria states clearly that "will" is taught, not given:

"To be educated in the knowledge of God, the human will must go through several developmental, pedagogical stages.[13]Obedience is clearly addressed to the 'genuine' and 'rational' will."[14]

The Primacy of Freedom

"The glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21) is a freedom attained through ascesis. Perhaps the most tremendous thing granted to the human person is choice. It is true that this freedom may prove self-destructive for some, yet it is essentially and fundamentally a privilege that only humanity possesses.

It is precisely this vital emphasis on freedom through obedience in the Church that this chapter endeavors to shed light upon. For there is at all times the danger of corporate expediency and utility, the risk of leaving unanswered the vital problems of human relations that determine the reality of life.

The Concise Theological Dictionary offers one definition of authority:

"[Authority is] the palpable, demonstrable trustworthiness or legal claim of a person ... capable of convincing another person of some truth or of the validity of a command and obliging him to accept it, even though that truth or valid character is not immediately evident. The acceptance of a command on authority is called obedience; the similarly motivated acceptance of a truth is called faith. Both are modes of indirect recognition based on the authority of an intermediary."[15]

In an age when movements for securing human rights appear to have achieved so much for the improvement of living conditions, and when the "gulag archipelago," the abuse of vulnerable children and adults, as well as the exploitation of the earth's resources have shocked the world; at a time when freedom of thought and expression is emphasized, and when imperialism and totalitarianism are at all levels questioned, if not rejected; authority should neither be blindly accepted nor unquestionably permitted to be objectivized or institutionalized, and its representatives or ministers in the various structures to assume shades of "infallibility." Everywhere we are witnessing a breakdown of structures of authority and paternity. The duty of Christians is to search painfully for:

" a new reality in the light of the revelation of the Trinity.... The contemporary revolt against the father is not basically a denial of fatherhood as such but a search for a Trinitarian fatherhood lived in loving respect for the other, in order that the life-giving Spirit may be communicated."[16]

The primacy of freedom is difficult to understand. It determines the very limits of the Church, being incarnate yet without end. There is a temptation to objectify this freedom, to make idols of institutional or even individual authority. The problem of freedom, therefore, is one of discerning and discriminating between personal liberty and limitation, between genuine and utilitarian authority. The most appropriate language for describing such freedom is that of selfless love: it is the active love that is at all times prepared: "to find a leper, and to give him one's own body and take his."[17]

Desire for the image of God revealed in the human person led Isaac the Syrian to write:

"Do not reprove anyone for any transgression, but in all things consider yourself responsible and the cause of the sin. Avoid laying down the law, as you would flee from an untamed lion. Do not join in this with the children of the Church, nor with outsiders."[18]

It is an exhortation to personal identification with the other and not to moralistic condemnation of the sinner.

Orthodox faithful, then, should not seek "refuge" in the simplistic belief that supreme authority lies in the hands of a patriarch, or in ecumenical councils, or in certain local synods, or perhaps in the local bishop. Such notions are not entirely erroneous, but they are surely limited, threatening to objectify and institutionalize the Church. Synods and Bishops are sources of authority which operate primarily in cases of conflict and necessity, that is in abnormal situations such as the condemnation of heresy or the establishment of disciplinary order and pastoral care. Authority in the Church is in the final analysis undefinable, never limited to an order or council or to any one individual or group of individuals. Ecclesial authority is the experience of the mystery of God in Christ through the Spirit who guides the Church.

This reality is incarnate and exercised as a mutual subordination of love deriving from the sharing in common of the saving mysterious life of the Church. This is the all-transcending and binding authority, the dimension of the Church beyond any kind of structure and institution and organization.[19]

In the final analysis, the Church can never be identified with authority, since authority as a worldly structure is alien to her very nature.

The Spirituality of Freedom

All too often authority is confused with power, meaning the ability to compel others to do something. What happened in the case of Adam and Eve, where the harmony of mutual relationship was destroyed, also extended to the people of Israel, where the harmony of a people uniquely guided by the will of God degenerated into disobedience and unfaithfulness. By analogy, what frquently occurs in male-female relations may further occur in the Church, where obedience is turned into subjection and domination. Yet to be obedient (Greek: yp-akouo) is not to be subjected to the will of another who is more powerful; it is to wait upon God, to listen (Greek: akouo) and to hear, to be all ears; ultimately to obey is to love.

Listening, therefore, is a crucial virtue for those endowed and entrusted by others with authority. Often one will help others most not so much by what one says and advises, as by one's peaceful, silent presence and attentive listening. Yet the art of listening is not as easily achieved as one might at first suppose, and it is according to the spirituality of the ascetic fathers as infrequently to be found as the practice of pure prayer. Spiritual authority is often characterized by a plethora of words which can unfortunately conceal the Word revealed in hesychia.

Within such a dimension of silent prayer and open love, the ultimate goal of all authority becomes the sharing in the vision and depth of God. God never compels persons, but only redresses evil. God speaks with authority, but never imposes His will even upon those who would reject, condemn, betray, crucify, and kill Him. God does not desire slaves, but friends (cf. Jn. 15:14-15). The whole life and ministry of the Church should be based on the person of Christ, whose Body it constitutes in space and time. Throughout history, it is persons, the saints, who have manifested this attitude of Christ. They have exercised their responsibility for the other and in response to the needs of the other "with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength and with all their mind" (Lk. 10:27). Authority, therefore, means, above all, love towards one's neighbor "with one's whole power" (Mk. 12:30). It is not control over others, but commitment to them, even to "the least of one's brethren" (Mt. 25:45).

Unfortunately, power in the Church is frequently manipulated. The end - the need to teach or the desire to spiritualize - is frequently used to bless the means and justify surrender to worldly categories. People maneuver the souls of those entrusted to them  even rendering doctrine and spiritual teachings "suitable" for the occasion - so as to fit them into a particular mold of "spirituality." Perhaps one is free to choose an elder with an understanding attitude, but the structure is at times so overpowering that there is little room or strength left to distinguish between the healthy and the ailing.

In the spiritual life, "easy" children tend to become "easy" adults who cannot think or decide, who are passive. Yet we are called not to passivity but to active love, to vision and praxis. Unfortunately, the hierarchy are not expected to respect the laity as they should, preferring instead to revere their own ecclesiastical elders. Still less are they able to make use of criticism from below. They are often so established that they cannot "step down" - these might perhaps be the negative implications of the notions of "indelibility" and "perpetuity" of ordination. Tradition is crucial, but always within its communal aspect of trust in and love of the other. The wrongful exercise of authority conceals many dangers, not least of which is that God Himself gets overlooked and ignored, relegated to the "third heaven," from where He cannot reach humanity except through a barrage of layers and levels, all of them so human. The ultimate abuse of pastoral concern is its transformation into spiritual coercion.

Admittedly, people sometimes feel secure in obeying and setting up idols of "our fathers." Here, no distinction is made between contemporary and classical elders, though people are unable to accept without reservation the weaknesses of current Church leaders. Which weaknesses, for instance, of Fathers in the past are readily expounded or easily accepted? And yet, as we have already noted in earlier chapters about the value of brokenness in ministry, these very weaknesses should be part and parcel of the dynamic legacy and living tradition of the Fathers. What defects in the character, morality, doctrine, or speculation of Church hierarchs are emphasized as positive and creative traits? And when a contemporary bishop sins, he loses all credibility; whereas, if a saint is described as erring, the misunderstanding is immediately justified. It is a formidable task to accept, respect and venerate - as God does - the fullness of humanity. We rely upon the "infallibility" of what stems "from above," instead of seeking knowledge of God through obedience to a pastor (cf. Jn. 10:14-15). So the aim of the Christian life is seen in terms of receiving, seldom in terms of maturing through questioning. Is it right, however, that authority in the Church overpowers and stifles every other aspect?


In briefly analyzing the concept of authority in Church life and spirituality, there has been no intention to question the significance of genuine authority for the integral life and theology of the Christian Church. The sacramental structure of sacred orders is unreservedly accepted and respected as the source of ecclesial authenticity and identity, finding its original and foremost expression in the priesthood of the "one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5).

There is, furthermore, no intimation of "revolution" or "liberation" within the Church. A freedom which is asserted in reaction to "fallen" authority is a "fallen" freedom, a pseudo-freedom. There is no real freedom outside the Church.[20]

The aim of this chapter has been to bring to the fore certain fundamental deficiencies in the understanding of the notions of authority and obedience, especially in the practical life of the various institutions and structures. Solutions to such crucial issues should be sought in the God-established origins of the ministries, as well as in light of the ways those ministries have been exercised in history. A critical study of past and present structures can only lead to a clearer vision of what the Church is. Existing institutions are not to be abolished, but they must become less imperious, less patronizing, and more fruitful in service and ministry.

In contemporary western societies, people demand equality, rights of all kinds, freedom from domination and injustice. Without unquestioningly embracing these, the Church should be challenged by them. It is perhaps possible to review the established structures in their practical aspects. Above all, it is necessary to restore a healthy theological balance in the existing hierarchical and spiritual relations by encouraging greater cooperation, communication, and communion. Surely the dimension of "koinonia" is central to the Church. Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to "diakonia" and dialogue, not domination. In order, however, for this to occur, the faithful must be regarded as gifted people of God, and not manipulated as objects or "sheep" to be taken for granted. The vision of endless personal freedom in the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 3:34) must be the measure of all relationships in the Church, the source of authority and obedience alike. In this manner, the whole dialectic of authority and freedom may be transformed into truth, life, beauty, and joy. In the words of that luminous saint of the nineteenth century, Seraphim of Sarov:

"When the Spirit of God descends and overshadows one with the fullness of His outpouring, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, because the Spirit of God turns to joy all that He touches."[21]

The Church, then, must be the reality where the dualism of authority and freedom is ever transcended through "obedience unto death" (Phil. 2:8) and in love toward one another. If the issue of authority and obedience is to be examined creatively, we must, first of all, clarify our understanding about how we, as Church, can become a more loving and serving community. Obedience is a mystery revealed by the Holy Spirit and experienced as sacrament in the life of the Church.

Present realities and structures will continue to exist. Yet we must learn to be more open, allowing the Spirit to be more active in them. In the course of His ministry, Christ was asked on several occasions by what authority He acted. In fact He never explicitly answered this question. Rather, He responded by the way He lived, that is by the authority of love incarnate. Authority outside this Christ-like love is an arbitrary tyranny. Authority lived in the laying down of life for one's neighbor (cf. Jn. 10:11), on the other hand, is creative and life-giving.



[1] Sayings of the Fathers 19 (PL 73: 851-1024), quoted in O. Chadwick, ed., Western Asceticism (Library of Christian Classics XII: SCM 1958) 155.

[2] Cf. Diadochus, Century 41.

[3] Cf. Basil, Ascetic Sermon 11, 2 PG 31:884B; Antiochus, Homily 39 PG 89:1556A and John Climacus, Ladder 4 PG 88:680 and 717.

[4] Cf. article by Archim. Sophrony, in A. Philippou, ed., The Orthodox Ethos (Oxford: Holywell Press, 1964) 270f.

[5] See Athanasius, Definitions 2 PG 28:281 and Anastasius the Sinaite, Director 2 PG 89:61.

[6] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis III, 7 PG 8:1161. Cf. also Maximus the Confessor, Anbigua PG 91: 1085; Athanasius, Against Arians III, 64 PG 26: 457 and Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius VIII, 2 PG 45: 781.

[7] See Anastasius the Sinaite, Director 2 PG 89:64D and Maximus the Confessor, Opuscula PG 91:153A. See also Clement of Alexandria, Fragment 40 PG 9:752A.

[8] Romans VIII, 1. For a balanced understanding of self-surrender and obedience from a Christian perspective, cf. M. McIntosh, Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996) 59-87.

[9] See Heracleon, in PG 14:628C.

[10] Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy III.

[11] Cf. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: New York, 1985) 214-225.

[12] Cf. Epistle to the Trallians II and III. See also Epistle to the Ephesians XX, 2; Ep. to the Magnesians II; Didache IV: 11 and Letter of Polycarp V, 3.

[13]Stromateis VII, 11 PG 9:485.

[14] Cf. John Climacus, Ladder IV PG 88: 729B and Scholion 4 in Ladder IV: 732D.

[15] Ed. K. Rahner and H. Vorgrimler (Herder Burns and Oates, 1965) 44.

[16] From the article "Purification by Atheism" by O. Clément, in Orthodoxy and the Death of God, ed. A.M. Allchin (1971) 33-4.

[17] Cf. Abba Agathon, Apophthegmata PG 65:116.

[18] Quoted in C. Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Press, 1984) 272. Prof. Yannaras describes morality not as obedience to external rules but as fulfilling one's personal nature, that is, as becoming what one truly is. The theme of his book is precisely the adventure of freedom (cf. 2 Cor 3:17).

[19] N. Nissiotis, Interpreting Orthodoxy (Light and Life, n.d.) 29-30. See also A. Khomiakov in A. Schmemann, ed., Ultimate Questions; Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought (N.Y.:Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) 50f.

[20] Cf. A. Schmemann, Church World Mission (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Press: 1979) 184f.

[21] Quoted in ed. G. Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (N.Y.: Harper Torchbooks, 1965) 275.

Source: taken from the book: Soul Mending: the Art of Spiritual Direction