Theology by Consensus: How Authority Works in the Orthodox Church



I sometimes write controversial things. I do not do this because I like controversy. I am an introvert by nature. I prefer to keep my head down and mind my own business. I write because I feel like I have to.

It’s not that I mind criticism. I expect it. I actually like thoughtful and respectful critique because it helps sharpen my own ideas. But the inevitable ad hominem attack and occasional phone calls to my priest bother me. When people are mean to me, my wife gets upset. My priest also has better things to do than explain again why he disagrees with what I say. I hate that sometimes I can be a burden to those I love.

My priest does not censure me because, along with being a very patient man, he is also very smart. He knows that silence is not very Orthodox.

Inevitably someone will quote a couple of bishops at me, or cite an official church document, and think that settles the argument. These are usually converts. Most cradle Orthodox (people who were born into the church) know that disagreeing with bishops is one of our most venerable traditions.

Protestants often believe God works by democracy. I suspect many Protestant converts to Orthodoxy are reacting against their old way of doing things. When doctrine is decided by voting, the church often compromises on its beliefs in order to ward off the chaos that democracy can create. (After all, as Charles Taylor pointed out, democracy is the only form of government in which the possibility of destroying itself – being not-democratic – is written into its constitution.)

Many Protestant converts to the Orthodox Church want to stay as far away from “voting for doctrine” as possible. This sometimes means they veer toward the other extreme.

Roman Catholicism teaches that God works through the bishops (the Pope most of all). Many Protestant converts to the Orthodox Church seem to think that, because our bishops also wear funny hats, our authority is strictly hierarchical. But if that were the case, we Orthodox would be Arians, Iconoclasts, and Catholic. More on this below.

(It should go without saying that I am painting Roman Catholic and Protestant polity with a very large brush.)

But the Orthodox Church is conciliar; we are hierarchical like Roman Catholics and democratic like Protestants. Our priests and bishops decide on things by meeting in councils, but what they decide needs to be accepted by the people. We have to give their decisions our, “Amen!” This can sometimes be a very slow, very messy process.

Throughout church history, councils of bishops have promoted teachings that the church today rejects. Some made “orthodoxy” of Arian. Others called for the destruction of sacred icons. In the 15th century, the Council of Florence officially reunited the Orthodox Church with Rome: it accepted the filioque, purgatory, and the primacy of the pope. Holy communion shows the difference between hierarchical and conciliar decision-making. Rome still sees Florence as a legitimate council, so the Catholic Church permits me to take communion in a Catholic mass. I don’t, because the Orthodox Church sees Florence as illegitimate. If I were to receive the body of Christ from the hands of a Catholic priest, I could be excommunicated.

In other words, the Orthodox Church does not work by fiat but by consensus. I must respect the authority and wisdom of those tasked with my spiritual welfare. I must weigh their words carefully and consider my own motivations. I must practice intellectual humility.

But if, after doing all that, I still think my teachers are wrong, I have to say so. This is because, time and again, the Holy Orthodox Church has been rescued from heresy by people who shouted a hearty, “Hell no!”

Whenever I write something “controversial,” I receive random e-mails from strangers – Orthodox Christians – who say to me, “Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking for years.” I write about “controversial” things because, for a person who has seemingly “liberal” views, church can sometimes be a frightening, uninviting place. This should make all of us very sad because coerced silence is not very Christian, not very loving, and it is definitely not very Orthodox.

Has there ever been a time when you felt coerced into silence? What made you finally speak up?

12 thoughts on “Theology by Consensus: How Authority Works in the Orthodox Church”

  1. Quite a contrast to the COTN's general assembly process. That was very interesting to watch this week. I was thinking it took them a long time to elect 2 new generals. Compared to how long it takes to change things in Orthodoxy, it took seconds. BTW, thank you for helping me be more courageous.

  2. I am an introvert by nature.

    Join the club! :-)

    The reason Orthodoxy works by consensus is because the Apostles preached the Gospel to the whole then-known world in the first century. So the majority opinion of the most ancient sources is what’s closest to their teachings. Heresy, on the other hand, is local and new, being the product of one man or at most one isolated culture.

  3. It is, I submit, more precise to say that SOME Orthodox Churches are conciliar while others are demonstrably less so. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (*Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy*, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), some Orthodox Churches have historically been extremely centralized and hierarchical and have in fact had what the late historian John Meyendorff called a quasi-papal and monarchical system of government. The Russian Church under the 1945 Statues is a clear example of this. Others remain much more “decentralized” and conciliar–the OCA is the best, and most admirable, example of this. Still others have a completely sui generis polity–the Armenian Church is the best example of this. There is, in a word, an enormous diversity in Orthodox polities, and I review a dozen such examples in the book mentioned above.

  4. “…where people believe you must be a Republican who doesn’t even think about questioning certain theological points.”

    Say what? If you’re going to a Greek parish then I should forewarn you that if you’re not a moral relativistic Obama-loving Democrat don’t expect too much love either. As a cradle Greek Orthodox, I was blessed with an LCMS father who allowed me to see the Church as an outsider. While I’m making plans for Holy Cross, I do see many issues that should be addressed within our own churches and they’re caused not by the coverts who as the post indirectly alludes to may be attempting to turn Orthodoxy into a liturgically-correct Protestant denomination, but rather cradles who don’t want to evangelize but would rather enjoy their own little piece of the ‘Old Country’. I’d like to again mention the rising moral relativism in those parishes, which Greek priests dare not address, let alone correct.

    Ever wonder why we have phrases like “Faith of a Covert” or why Confessions are much higher in convert-heavy parishes?

    Having said that, I enjoyed the blog post. It’s a good explanation on the subject.

    1. Let me add that as a convert myself, any allusions are made with great irony. (-:

  5. After reading this post, I may consider switching over to the Greek Orthodox parish, since less of them are converts. One of my biggest struggles in attending my current parish is the politicizing and authoritative attitude of the other members. Once the Divine Liturgy ends and I walk into coffee hour it feels like stepping foot into a conservative evangelical church where people believe you must be a Republican who doesn’t even think about questioning certain theological points.

  6. Has there ever been a time when you felt coerced into silence? What made you finally speak up?
    Yes, when I was a member of the Episcopal Church’s conservative “wing” the Church of England while living overseas and then the American version of Anglicanism under the Episcopal Church umbrella upon returning here to America. The thing that finally made me speak up were actually 2 “things” my 2 children and the idea of them being raised in that “Christian environment.” And we had some wonderful Christian people in our Anglican/English churches, but they had lost the ability that the Orthodox Christians have held onto, the ability of the people to put their foot down AND keep worshipping God in Trinity in Spirit and in Truth and Sacarmentally.


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