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Reflections On The Scandal


Democratic Perspectives
Fr John A. Jillions, Ottawa, Canada

So Archbishop Job has been criticized by some of his fellow bishops for his allegedly “democratic” perspectives. This is a charge that has been swirling around the controversy from the start, not only against +Job, but against anyone who makes calls for transparency and accountability. There is the widespread belief that democracy is somehow alien to Orthodoxy, which must guard against its intrusion into our hierarchical tradition. But is this true? In fact, North American assumptions on governance, about the accountability of its leaders and its respect for and responsiveness to the people may have a lot more in common with earliest Christianity than the autocratic outlook that now largely defines episcopal governance in the Orthodox church.

The church was born into an era that promoted the republican ideals of the early Roman Empire, and these—rather than the later despotism of the Byzantine emperors—shaped the initial impulse of the Church and its leaders. Most of the “Christians known from the New Testament were practically all drawn from communities living under civil institutions of the republican kind. The thirty or more places from Caesarea to Rome for which such groups were specifically attested are all republican.” This assessment comes from historian Edwin Judge, whose studies since the 1960s have given a much clearer picture of the social context of early Christianity (see David M. Scholer, ed., Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century: Pivotal Essays by E.A. Judge, Hendrickson: 2008, 7).

To say that Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and the other towns where St Paul established communities were “republican” meant that their inhabitants shared a number of assumptions about the ideals of organizational life rooted in ancient Greek political thought going back to the 5th century BC. There was a collective memory of what this had been in ancient times.

"On a practical level this displayed itself in the extraordinary spontaneity of Greek democracy. The maximum and equal participation of all members of the republic in its administration was ensured by a variety of means. Sortition [selection by lot] was preferred to election in order to cut out the effects of family connection, wealth, and even ability, on the filling of public offices, such qualifications being undemocratic. The delegation of power was reduced well below what a modern democracy would regard as the minimum for efficiency. Even day-to-day decisions were retained in the hands of the popular assembly" (Judge, 11).

"The residents of ancient Greek city-states like Athens thought of themselves as having the right to speak, to be heard and to be consulted on matters of public interest. And they were also prepared to remove rulers who ignored those rights and ruled them oppressively. In later centuries, even when this ancient Athenian model was regarded as a lofty ideal not found in practice, the fact remains that “for a thousand years educated men persisted in thinking of the republic as the standard form of political organization” (Judge, 12).

If by New Testament times political life had become much less republican, this instinct still found an outlet in the many civic and private fellowships (koinonia) that marked Greco-Roman society. The early Christian churches were just such fellowships, and to outsiders they looked much like any of the others, at least in terms of their governance. Indeed, St Luke wrote the book of Acts with a Greco-Roman audience in mind who would find much that was familiar in this religious association and the way it ordered its life on republican lines. An outsider considering how the body made its decisions would find nothing especially remarkable. Take for example, how they might have understood the appointment of Matthias, the election of the first deacons and the proceedings of the Jerusalem Council.

"The first vacancy in the board of special commissioners who administered the community was filled by the recognized republican method of sortition from a preselected field (Acts 1:23, 26). When an additional board was needed to deal with financial affairs, it was elected by the membership summoned in an assembly by the original board, who then asserted their own right of appointment by confirming the election (Acts 6:2-6). This relationship between the board of management and assembly of members was developed into a regular system of government…, with the addition of an advisory council of senior members. This latter body was bracketed with the board of management who consulted it. Business was submitted to the two jointly, but reports were first made to the assembly. When a proposition was made from the floor of this meeting, the board and council withdrew for a full discussion, during which controversial views were aired and a decision reached. They then returned to the assembly, the originators of the business presented a formal report on the situation that had provoked it, and a spokesman for the board (not the person who had resolved the conflict in council) introduced a formal motion, inviting the assembly to act. The decision was expressed as taken in concert by board and council, together with the assembly. The document conveying it was drafted in the name of the board and council (acting as executors), referring to the joint enactment (Acts 15:2, 4,6, 12, 19, 22, 23, 25)." (Judge, 33).

The content of this fellowship’s life was centered on Jesus Christ—this is what made it unique—but the republican manner in which they went about governing and ordering their community was familiar to the citizens of the day who were being invited to join.

Contrast this respect for openness, organizational order and the voice of the people, with the contemptuous attitude of the religious leaders who had sent soldiers to arrest Jesus.

The officers then went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, ‘Why did you not bring him? ‘The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, ‘Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed (John 7:45-49, RSV).

The republican spirit of early Christianity was soon lost under the pressure of bigger issues to address: internal threats from mushrooming heresies, external threats from persecution, and then, from the fourth century, adapting to life as a virtual branch of a government whose head was an emperor with limitless power. An argument could be made that strong central leadership was needed to face these crises, and the church quickly adapted. This reveals an interesting paradox in church history. While the fathers and councils of the church were unanimous in upholding tradition and opposing innovation, in fact they regularly introduced adaptations that they felt responded to the needs of the time and the direction of the Holy Spirit. One of these adaptations was the monarchical episcopate. As Prof Veselin Kesich writes, St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107) was the first to speak in these terms. “Ignatius clearly states the bishop ‘presides in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons be entrusted with the ministry of Christ’ (Ign. Mag. 3:1; 6:1).” Ignatius attempted to ground his new model of governance on the relationship between Jesus and the Father in John’s Gospel. But the fact remains that he was introducing a new concept of episcopacy. “These analogies are a clear sign of a special, considerable development in the hierarchical structure of the church” (Formation and Struggles: the Birth of the Church AD 33-200, SVS: 2007,128).

The monarchical model would be further developed and entrenched under Constantine and his successors who expected that ecclesiastical leadership would follow the imperial pattern. Episcopal authority became increasingly autocratic, and conciliarity was reduced to meetings of bishops. Whatever the historical reasons for this, and however the Holy Spirit may have used the much-flawed history of the church, the downside was suppression of the earliest republican and conciliar tradition that had once included a strong voice for the laity and clergy.

Fortunately, this aspect of the tradition was rediscovered by Alexis Khomiakov and the 19th and 20th century Russian theologians who rejected the tight identification of Russian czarist autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. And it was this newly discovered sense of sobornost, of a church both hierarchical and conciliar, demonstrating collaboration of bishops, clergy and laity under the headship of Christ, that inspired the All-Russian Council of 1917 and the early councils of our own Church in North America.

Far from being alien to Orthodoxy, “democratic perspectives” may be closer to the original inspiration of church governance than the Byzantine and autocratic models now being practiced as the normative Orthodox way.

Fr John Jillions is Dean of Annunciation Cathedral in Ottawa, Assistant Professor of Theology at Saint Paul University and a member of the OCA’s Pre-Conciliar Commission.