The form of Orthodox Church Government is neither authoritarian (monarchial) nor majority-rule (purely democratic). It believes in sharing of authority, keeping in view the special roles of the Clergy and the Laity – the mind of the community.
An exposition of this concept is given by Fr. Dr. K.C. Joseph as follows:
The Orthodox Church is organized according to the Episcopal System. As St. Ignatius put it, the Church is where the faithful are gathered around their bishop. To understand St. Ignatius rightly, the background of his Epistles has to be kept in view. St. Ignatius Jived and taught and wrote his Epistles as the Pastor of a Church under persecution, to console and strengthen people whose loyalty to Christ was being tested in the crucible of suffering inflicted by enemies of the gospel. When he asked those harrowed Christians to preserve their unity by keeping close to their bishops who were themselves under persecution, his words were surely not meant to support any authoritarian claims of individuals who wanted power over others. In traditional Roman usage, Episcopacy came to mean something rather different from what St. Ignatius had in mind. Monarchial Episcopacy, in which the Bishop is conceived of as the source of authority in the Church, is a carry-over from the government of Imperial Rome. The Orthodox conception of episcopacy may be described as Pastoral Episcopacy, where the Bishop is not the monarch or ruler, but the Shepherd or Father of the people. The Bishop is counselor and guide rather than magistrate and rules by consent rather than by fear. The Roman promotion of Episcopal autocracy inevitably led to the growth of Congregationalism in the West. The Orthodox Churches did not pass through this kind of revolution because the Orthodox Episcopal system was not incompatible with some of the values which Congregationalism arose to conserve, and which the old Roman Episcopal system did not permit. Even Rome is beginning to recognize this and make adjustment.
The Orthodox system of Church government is based 0/1 what may be called “the mind of the community”, which depends neither on the “infallibility”, of person or any section of the Church nor on a democratic vote. Dictatorship, and “majority rule”, is both alien to the spirit of Orthodox Church administration. It is a perversion of ecclesiological concepts to teach or act as if ‘conciliarity’ or ‘synodicality’ means that the Episcopal synod has some kind of infallibility or stands above any need for correction by the whole body of the Church. If St.. Irenaeus believed that the best guarantee of ‘apostolic’ faith would be the bishop in the ‘apostolic succession’; he surely did not ever imagine that the laying on of hands would make any bishop infallible in all matters of Church life! In the Church, the Bishops have an honored place because they are the custodians of sacramental grace, but they are not the whole Church and their authority is not meant to be dictatorial. The clergy have a special position in the life of the Church because they are the instruments through whom sacramental grace is conveyed to all members of the Church, but they are only a section of the Church and cannot be treated as a whole. The Laity are the most numerous elements in the Church; they are, in fact, the Church in its relation to the world, and on the Laity will depend the impact of the Church on the world. Nevertheless, the Laity too, in spite of numbers, must be subject to “the mind of the whole community”. The point is that no section of the Church should arrogate to itself exclusively the authority of the Church. All sections should have a share in this authority and every separate section should be subject to the authority of the whole. This is the basic principle of Orthodox Church Government.
Fr.(Late) Dr. K.C. Joseph (Christian Counseling Centre-Vellore) _ The Laity’s participation in Orthodox Church Administration-Speech delivered at a Seminar in Madras, 13.2.1977. Note: This article is based on a paper which the author presented in 1966 to a high power Constitution Committee for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church-Published as Supplement to The Church Weekly, 20.3.1977.