The Nature of the Presbyterate
by Fr. Lawrence Farley, Surrey BC
In the recent comments section of this website, I read the words (in a very calm and reasonable post) that, “When a man is ordained to the Holy Priesthood it is with the understanding that he serves at the pleasure of the bishop.” I recall hearing such an approach to the nature of the presbyterate before. One person (not a bishop) recently said that the presbyters must always carry out the directions and will of the bishop because they are simply his agents. That is, presbyters are to have no will or wisdom of their own. Rather, they exist only because the bishop, the only one with real authority, cannot be in every place in his far-flung diocese, and so the presbyters serve at these places as his legates (to borrow a word from another context).
Such an approach seeks proof-texts for its legitimacy in, for example, utterances such as those of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said, “We should look upon the bishop as we would upon the Lord Himself” (Ephesians ch. 6), and “As many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop” (Philadelphians, ch. 3). In this approach, the bishop has sole authority in his diocese, and the presbyters are, canonically speaking anyway, simply his employees. The obedience owed to him is all but absolute, so that unless he orders one to commit a sin, he must simply be obeyed. Admittedly, this approach is very wide-spread, and, after the establishment of what may be called the Byzantine model of church government, all but universal. But there are problems with it.
The first problem with it is in the historical sources themselves quoted to support it. A more careful reading of St. Ignatius reveals that the bishop does not exist by himself (in what C.S. Lewis once called “a solitude of power, like a sea-captain in the days of sail”), but as part of a college of presbyters. In a word, episcopal power was shared. St. Ignatius himself assumes this shared collegium of local authority. That is why he writes that one should “be subject to the bishop and the presbyters” (Ephesians ch. 1), and “As the Lord did nothing without the Father...so neither do anything without the bishop and the presbyters” (Magnesians, ch. 7), and “It is necessary that you should do nothing without the bishop, but should also submit to the presbytery” (Trallians, ch. 2). The presbyters were not under the bishop’s sole authority, but shared that authority. This is not “Presbyterianism” (as one bishop called it, if memory serves), but Church history and apostolic Tradition.
This understanding of the authority of presbyters continued into the third century. When St. Cyprian of Carthage—a monarchical bishop if ever there was one—wanted to rule his see, he did so only with the express will of the presbyters, relying upon their wisdom and counsel. That is why when he went ahead and ordained a subdeacon and a reader without their blessing, he felt he had to justify himself.
As Dix writes in his Jurisdiction in the Early Church, “one has only to read the anxious apologies which Cyprian sends to his clergy (Ep. xxviii.) for having in an emergency ordained a subdeacon and a lector [i.e. a reader] without their express consent, to realise how limited was the bishop’s prerogative in such matters”. The issue is not whether Cyprian was justified in proceeding with his ordinations to minor orders; it is that apart from the blessing of his fellow presbyters, the bishop could do nothing. The presbyters ruled and the bishop acted and liturgized. The bishop was not set over the presbyters as their ruler, but within them, as the primus inter pares. To quote Dix again, the bishop “has initiative, leadership, a recognized pre-eminence. But the power of authoritative decision is not yet his. That is still the prerogative of the collective Sanhedrin [i.e. council] of presbyters”.
This is how the presbyterate functioned at that time, and it has never been canonically altered to the best of my knowledge. The situation de facto has altered—as anyone watching the current Antiochian drama being played out can see—but the historical and canonical authority of the presbyters remains just where it was. The modern “Presbyters Councils” are not a modern invention, but the recovery of something ancient and apostolic. That is, presbyters are ordained not simply as appendages of the bishop, like the tentacles of an episcopal octopus, but as leaders in their own right. The cry of axios, offered at the ordination of a presbyter, does not mean that the newly-ordained presbyter has been successfully lobotomized. Rather, it is a recognition that he has the requisite gifts and wisdom to offer counsel and to help rule the local church.
It is just here, in the matter of locality, that the historical difference between the times of the early church and its canonical legislation differ most dramatically from our own. In the early church, the bishop was the local pastor, and his liturgical and canonical authority was rooted in his local pastoral work. That is, ordination to the episcopate gave him the authority to act as local pastor, and he performed that task along with his fellow-pastors, the presbyters. The words of St. Ignatius (who died about 107) telling the flocks to submit to their bishop meant telling otherwise fractious flocks to submit to their local pastor and leaders. He is not telling communities to submit to the pastoral decrees of one far away who has little or no direct knowledge of them. For Ignatius such a situation would be unthinkable.
It is otherwise now. Bishops are not the local pastors, but remain at a geographical distance, whether they want to or not. If someone has a pastoral emergency, it is not the bishop who gets the late night phone call, but the presbyter.
Moreover, the local nature of pastoral authority exercised offered a kind of “check and balance” (that concept so dear to Americans). The bishop and the presbyters might say and decree whatever they liked in those days, but it would only “fly” with the faithful if the faithful recognized and accepted their moral authority to rule. Otherwise, the leaders might be dumped in the metaphorical river—as supposedly actually happened to erring bishops returning from the Council of Florence after having sold out their flocks and their Orthodoxy for the sake of safety and expediency.
St. Ignatius presupposes then that the bishops are local pastors, not distant CEO’s. There was such a trans-local authority, but it was exercised not by the local bishop but by a distant Metropolitan, but even he did not interfere in the lives of the local sees directly, but only by influencing the local bishops. For example, the trans-local authority of the bishop of Rome is recognized in canon 5 of the Council of Sardica. If someone had a local grievance with his pastor (i.e. bishop), he could appeal to the distant authority of Rome and the Roman bishop could, if he saw fit, order a new trial—but that trial was conducted by locals themselves, not by him. The real and effective authority was local and would have to be if it was to bear fruit.
In this collegium of each local church, we see the principle of conciliarity at work. That is, final authority is not exercised by one man alone, but by a group of men, together seeking to discern the Lord’s will. This is the outworking of the Lord’s directive to His disciples about authority: “You are not to be called “Rabbi”, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called “masters”, for you have one Master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:8-12).
This understanding of authority was revolutionary at the time, and still is. Christ refuses to use the structures and concepts of authority used by the world, but utterly overturns them. There must be authority in the Church, but this authority is built upon a radical spiritual egalitarianism—for “you are all brothers”—and expressed in a radical servanthood. This is the true basis of the authority of the laity, their “royal priesthood”. All authority in the Church is a form of service, an offering to the laity, for whom all this authority ultimately exists, so that they may finally “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). Final authority lies only with God, and unconditional obedience can only be offered to Him. Our derived ecclesiastical authority only “works” and bears fruit insofar as it discerns and reflects the divine will. And it is in the local consensus—the agreement of presbyters, including the bishop—that this divine will is discerned.
Fr. Thomas Hopko once wrote in 2007 that “our present disease, disorder and dysfunction [in church scandals and crises] are not simply a matter of personal weakness, incompetence and sin. They are also the result of erroneous theological understandings and misguided practical policies about the nature and operation of Christ’s Holy Church.” I believe that the view that the presbyterate is simply an appendage of the bishop and that all authority lies solely with him is an “erroneous theological understanding”. Until this is faced and resolved, our present “disease, disorder and dysfunction” will continue.
Instantaneous return to the model of governance of the pre-Nicene church is, of course, impossible. But certain steps may be taken.
First, the true nature of the presbyterate as the governing council of the bishop should be recognized, and Councils of Presbyters established in every diocese as expressions of this. A wise bishop will seek to benefit by the collective wisdom of his presbyters.
Secondly, the number of bishops (i.e. dioceses) should be slowly multiplied to allow the bishop to increasingly fulfil his historical role as pastor. It is not possible, of course, to instantly put a bishop in every city, as was the case in the early church. But a beginning should be made—we want more bishops, not less.
Finally, the multiplication of episcopal sees should be recognized as being dependent upon a revival of monasticism. (Opening the episcopate to married priests is not, in my opinion, the answer. Such a move would certainly result in wide-spread schism, and would only exchange one set of problems for another. My Anglican experience with a married episcopate does not encourage me to see married bishops as a panacea for our Orthodox problems.) In speaking of a revival of monasticism and multiplication of monasteries, I am asserting that we want bishops who are true monks—men committed to humility and prayer. Taking any single man, and tonsuring him a monk with little time for him to learn monasticism, can produce unfortunate results—as this website abundantly documents.
Gregory Dix, Jurisdiction in the Early Church, p. 39.
Ibid, p. 43, italics his.