Obedience and Authority: Dimensions of a Hierarchical Church


The Church of Christ is hierarchical, and this hierarchy "corresponds to an imitation of God," reflecting the order of life "even among the celestial beings."



Authority in the Church is never the monopoly of an ordained few (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12) whether bishops or other clergy. Authority is the responsibility of all (cf. Eph. 5:34). Likewise, obedience is not the obligation of an “inferior” laity or lower clergy, but a requirement of all faithful, lay and ordained. In the history of Christianity, centuries of institutionalism and clericalism, followed by the “lay revolution,” in conservative and anti-hierarchical churches alike, have rendered the concepts of authority and obedience problematic a point of contention and almost disdain. Nevertheless, clergy and laity cannot exist without one another, spiritual elder and child must be existentially united. Together they constitute the living body of Christ; together they experience the mystery of Christ. Any distinction between them is merely functional and provisional, not essential. What is essential is the relationship of love and trust in Christ. Unity lived out even in diversity is precisely the promise of God to His Church. Any form or expression of authority, then, must not be the expression of human pride but of humility before God, of assimilation to the Divine Hierarchy and of obedience to the Will of Him Who alone is called Father (cf. St. Matthew 23:9). Such obedience is of the very essence (“esse”) not simply the well-being (“bene esse”) of humanity. Hierarchy exists in order to reveal the priestly vocation (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) and function of all within a world that is beautifully ordered by its Creator as cosmos.

The Way of the Ascetics

“Obedience is good, but (only) if it is done for God’s sake.”

In the ascetic tradition and spiritual formation of the Church, obedience is considered “the first of virtues.” For monastics, in particular, perfect obedience, understood as “the mortification of the will” (cf. Phil. 2:8), [3] is integral to all ascetic endeavor. Monastic life would indeed be unthinkable without the basic notion of obedience…It has already been noted that the Holy Fathers of the Church do not speak of obedience in terms of normative requirements. Obedience transcends mere submissiveness, with which it is commonly confused. The virtue of obedience occurs within the context of loving trust and personal relationship between two people in Christ, which in itself reveals the presence of Christ (cf. St. Matt. 18:20). Without this special relationship, one gains nothing from authority but pride, and nothing from obedience but guilt. Such feelings, however, defeat the very purpose of spiritual authority and hierarchy in the Church.

The Church of Christ is hierarchical, and this hierarchy “corresponds to an imitation of God,” reflecting the order of life “even among the celestial beings.” Yet the Church is not solely hierarchical in its ministry and service: the Holy Spirit is poured out on all the people of God. Each faithful is considered king, priest, and prophet, while the gifts of the Spirit are many and varied (1 Corinthians 12:28-30). One recalls the influence in the Christian East of unordained, “lay” or monastic elders, which has often proved far greater than that of any hierarch. The sacramental authority of the hierarchy always exists alongside the spiritual authority of the Saints. Both are required and presuppose each other. Ideally, the two work together, like two wings of a bird. They counterbalance and complement one another when needed. The hierarchical order and dimension of the Church cannot be correctly interpreted except in relation to the priestly and prophetic ministry entrusted to the entire people of God (1 Peter 2:9), clergy and laity.

Authority in the Church is always identified with the vivifying breath of the Holy Spirit. There must be synergy, not tyranny. The role of the holy people does not replace the responsibility of the bishops. The bishops are called to lead their people in taking up the cross of love and freedom in Christ. Orthodoxy has never attempted to resolve the Christian faith to a few charismatics, nor has it relied upon the bishops alone. On the contrary, it is the communal aspect of the Church which is constantly affirmed.

That the laity must obey the clergy is a commandment from the earliest Apostolic times. Saint Ignatius of Antioch encourages the Trallians to be:

“submissive to the bishop as to Jesus Christ…and also to the presbytery as to the Apostles…and to respect the deacons…for without these no Church is recognized.”

This of course implies no comfortable theology in either theory or in practice. Saint Clement of Alexandria clearly that “will” is taught, not given:

“To be educated in the knowledge of God, the human will must go through several developmental, pedagogical stages. Obedience is clearly addressed to the ‘genuine’ and ‘rational’ will.”


In briefly analyzing the concept of authority in Church life and spirituality, there has been no intention to question the significance of genuine authority for the integral life and theology of the Christian Church. The sacramental structure of sacred orders is unreservedly accepted and respected as the source of ecclesial authority and identity, finding its original and foremost expression in the priesthood of the “one Mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

…Surely the dimension of “koinonia” is central to the Church. Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to “diakonia” and dialogue, not domination. In order, however, for this to occur, the faithful must be regarded as gifted people of God, and not manipulated as objects or “sheep” to be taken for granted. The vision of endless personal freedom in the Holy Spirit (cf. St. John 3:34) must be the measure of all relationships in the Church, the source of authority and obedience alike. In this manner, the whole dialectic of authority and freedom may be transformed into truth, life, beauty, and joy. In the words of that luminous Saint of the nineteenth century, Seraphim of Sarov:

“When the Spirit of God descends and overshadows one with the fullness of His outpouring, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, because the Spirit of God turns to joy all that He touches.”

The Church, then, must be the reality where the dualism of authority and freedom is ever transcended through “obedience unto death” (Phil. 2:8) and in love toward one another. If the issue of authority and obedience is to be examined creatively, we must, first of all, clarify our understanding about how we, as Church, can become a more loving and serving community. Obedience is a mystery revealed by the Holy Spirit and experienced as sacrament in the life of the Church.

Present realities and structures will continue to exist. Yet we must learn to be more open, allowing the Spirit to be more active in them. In the course of His Ministry, Christ was asked on several occasions by what authority He acted. In fact He never explicitly answered this question. Rather, He responded by the way He lived, that is by the authority of love incarnate. Authority outside this Christ-like love is an arbitrary tyranny. Authority lived in the laying down of life for one’s neighbor (cf. St. John 10:11), on the other hand, is creative and life-giving.

(Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

[The above are excerpts from a study written by Rev. John Chryssavgis]