Hierarchical Governance and Administration of the Orthodox Church

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin


The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical ecclesiastical body, and its administration is governed by “The Sacred and Divine Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles, of the Holy Councils, Ecumenical as well as Regional and of individual Divine Fathers”, hereinafter referred to as the “Canons.” These Canons were established as authoritative and normative, governing the administration and order of the Christian Church, by the Seven Ecumenical Councils held in Nicaea in 325 A.D., Constantinople in 381 AD, Ephesus in 431 AD, Chalcedon in 451 AD, Constantinople in 553 AD, Constantinople in 680 AD, and Nicaea in 783 AD. In addition to prescribing canons determined at the Councils themselves, they also proclaimed that certain canons prescribed at local councils were applicable to the governance of the Universal (Catholic) Christian Church.

The Bishop has absolute authority over his clergy; the chief canon that most concisely defines this relationship is Canon XXXIX of the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which specifies:

“Let Presbyters and Deacons do nothing without the consent of the Bishop. For he is the one entrusted with the Lord’s people, and it is from him that an accounting will be demanded with respect to their souls.”

This Canon is only one of many that deals with the clergy and specifically with their relationship to the Bishop. The Priests and the Deacons within a diocese are unquestionably under the sole and exclusive authority of their Bishop as is attested by numerous canons and as can be indubitably inferred from very many other sources.

Regarding the absolute authority of the Bishop over the property of the church and its administration, the principal canon that most simply defines his role as despot within his Diocese is Canon XLI of the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which specifies:

“We command that the Bishop have authority over the property of the church. For if the precious souls of human beings ought to be entrusted to him, there is little need of any special injunction concerning money; so that everything may be entrusted to be governed in accordance with his authority, and he may grant to those in need through the Presbyters and Deacons with fear of God and all reverence, while he himself may partake thereof whatever he needs (if he needs anything) for his necessary wants, and for brethren who are his guests, so as not to deprive them of anything, in any manner. For God’s law has enjoined that those who serve at the altar are to be maintained at the altar’s expense. The more so in view of the fact that not even a soldier ever bears arms against belligerents at his own expense.”

According to this and various other canons it is clear that the administration and disposal of all church property within his diocese falls under the exclusive and absolute authority of the Bishop.
It should be noted that the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which date from the first century AD were proclaimed as being of universal application by the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD.

It is crucial to understand that there cannot be an Orthodox Church without the spiritual authority of a canonical Bishop.Otherwise the so-called parish becomes nothing but a fraternal society or an ethnic and cultural club; at best such a parish is a congregational entity. This would mean that there was no need for Bishops, nor any need of the validity of the Priesthood of Christ, nor the essential nature of Apostolic Succession. In other words, such an entity would not be the Church of Jesus Christ, but a secular, man-made organization.

Nonetheless, in her concern for Her people, the Church has invited the laity to give input in the affairs of the Church so that the Bishops may make more enlightened decisions. By doing so, however, the Bishops have not abdicated their positions for the laity to become the overseers of God’s holy Church. This is fully appropriate, and indeed Scriptural as the Apostles themselves asked the faithful to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint” (Acts 6:3). These were the first deacons in the Church, and the qualifications specified: “good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” are the prototypical virtues absolutely required of each person who wishes to serve in the church today.

(Text obtained from the Orthodox Diocese of Denver, His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver)