The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture (Part III)

St. Junia

St. Junia

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin

The Development of Ecclesiastical Centers

The patterns laid out in the New Testament literature and the earliest of the patristic writings were records of the Church in its infancy. They are informative, even determinative of some things, but not prescriptively unalterable as methods of Church governance. Orthodoxy does not agree with, and strongly resists the reductionism of, some forms of Protestantism that argue that unless something is to be found in the explicit writings of the New Testament it cannot be a constitutive part of authentic church life. Orthodox understanding of Christian Tradition is much wider and deeper than this. By the third century the great spread of Christianity around the Mediterranean basin, and in the vast heartland of Asia Minor, led to pressing needs to organize the local churches on more formal models. From this period many forms of governance that are still used today in churches were elaborated in Christian public life. At this stage the great capital cities, such as Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Antioch, began to serve as models of emulation for Christian communities world-wide. Later in the fourth century we can see this process of 'great center imitation' working clearly as liturgical ideas that were first tried out in Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, or Rome (focal points for pilgrim interest) made their way all over wider Christendom. In the great capital cities of Roman late antiquity the bishops of these large centers were assisted by a cohort of elders, and the pattern of establishing a single presiding bishop with a larger circle of presbyters became a standard mode of governance. Deacons were, historically, always seen as the helpers of the bishops, and remained an order more attached to the episcopate than the presbyterate. By the later third century when the very size of the Christian communities led to the need to establish several churches in each diocese (it had been an old ideal to have one church, one bishop, and one Eucharistic celebration, for each town before that), it was the presbyters who went out to form separate churches. These were still under the presidency of the presiding diocesan bishop (the Orthodox now speak about a 'ruling' bishop), but the pattern that would endure was coming into force: an episcopal cathedral church, and a variety of parish churches served by presbyters, with the possible assistance of a smaller number of deacons and deaconesses.

At the third century, monasticism also began to make a strong appearance in the Church. The monastic life had a real flowering in the early 4th century, in both Syria and Egypt, before spreading to Rome, Constantinople, Armenia, and Cappadocia, and eventually all over the Christian world. The early monks, known as 'zealots' or 'ascetes' (athletes) were dedicated to the living out of Christian values in an uncompromising way. They too became zealous defenders of the tradition of theology they held up as the ancestral faith. At times the monks' stubbornness was problematical for the Orthodox bishops, as for example when they attached themselves to dissident positions (such as the anti-Chalcedonian ascetics in Egypt, or Palestine), but generally they were so popularly venerated as defenders of the faith against encroachments by imperial compromisers that by the end of the 5th century almost all the bishops were selected exclusively from the tanks of monastics. It is a practice which Orthodoxy adheres to even in the present, though the very early bishops in the Scriptures were meant to be married before they could be chosen, and some of the great Fathers (such as St. Gregory of Nyssa) were married men. From the later 4th century, the Orthodox Church developed as a single structure with double pillars of support: the diocesan level of churches administered from the cathedral church and bishop's chancery, and also the ringing of monasteries constituting the ascetical life of a province. At the best times of the church's life, the two systems have been in close harmony, one refreshing the other.

The fourth century is often seen as sea-change for the affairs of the Church. With the vision of the Emperor Constantine (now revered by Orthodoxy as Constantine Among the Saints and Equal to the Apostles) in the prelude to his battle with the pagan Emperor Maxentius for control of the Western Empire, Constantine was convinced that the God of the Christians had enabled his rise to power. He was, accordingly, a defender and patron of the Christian movement (also enjoying its support for his administration) and eventually was baptized on his deathbed by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. For the Church, emerging from generations of bloody persecution, his patronage seemed like a dream come true. Soon local bishops were given administrative powers within the empire, and to them was handed over the role of local judgment of matters with Roman imperial administration (other than that regarding tax returns and military defense), as they were frequently the most educated people of the region. By the end of the 5th century a working relationship had been established, that the Church would recognize the 'God-loving Christian emperor' as having a sacred right to rule, and the emperor underlined their sacramental office, and envisaged it as something along the lines of a New David, set over the New Israel.

After the fall of Byzantium to Islam, the imperial model of governance of the state was exported to Russia, where the tsars saw themselves as continuing the office as Church protectors. Even where it was resisted, as in the medieval West, where separate nationalist dreams were always more alluring than the concept of a trans-national imperium of the Christians, it was often followed in default. (Source: The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George

(To be continued)