Skip to Navigation

Conciliarity in the Orthodox World View

By Fr. Anthony Michaels

As the Orthodox Church moves into the modern American culture flow, taking her place in line along with other religious institutions and faith communities, she has to redefine words and expressions commonly used. She also has to explain their meanings within her experience of being the Kingdom of God on earth.

We live in a democratic society where equality before the law has become a kind of secular sacrament, a sacred article of faith which holds the whole expanse of ethnic and cultural groups together. Our government exists to ensure and enforce this sacred concept. Similarly, all other words and expressions which relate to this central concept take their meaning from it. For example, the word “conciliarity” would mean decisions and actions taken by a community where each member has an equal right, opinion, and vote. The action taken by a democratic society governed by equality before the civil law is always “conciliar.” Our society would define the word “conciliar” as something that was agreed upon by a whole body in which each member of that body had equal authority and voice and where no one person or group of persons had greater authority than others.

The Church applies a different standard of judgment and a different interpretation to words like “conciliar.” The Church is a symbol and sacrament of the Kingdom of God. As such, it holds together that spiritual, invisible, heavenly world where God, the angels and the saints are, and this present earthly existence. In and through material things, this heavenly realm breaks through like sunlight through a window. The Church is God’s personal life, His whole uncreated existence made present in time. The Church organized on earth is God’s Self-expression displayed in material forms.

For us to understand what “conciliarity” means, we must seek an answer from our experience of the Church as the Kingdom of God on earth. For this we need a different kind of dictionary and commentary. We need to look at the Bible and the writings of the Holy Fathers and get our understanding directly from God.

In the Bible, on its first page we read: “Let us make man in our image … ” (Gen. 1:26). The Holy Fathers teach us that this sentence is the first revelation of the Holy Trinity in scripture. Man is made because, in the counsel of God, in the life of the Holy Trinity, it was decided to create something which exactly reflects and contains divine life on earth, which perfectly expresses God. Man’s life is a conciliar decision!

What does the life of the Holy Trinity show? How is divine life lived? What model of life is revealed through man, who is God’s image? As God gradually revealed Himself in the Bible we know that He is Trinity, the Holy Trinity, Three Persons who share the divine nature. We also know that these Three Persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of St. John completely shows this. The Father is the cause, source, foundation, principle, and Person of origin for the Son and the Holy Spirit. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17). That is, the Father has two Lights, the Son and the Spirit, which He sends into the world to save and sanctify it.

The Father decides to send the Son and the Spirit. St. John of Damascus has said that all things exist for the Father by the Son and in the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory of Nazianzus said that there is a Holy Trinity because there is the Father. It is the Father who begets a Son and has a Holy Spirit, who shares His divine nature with His Son and Spirit.

The Father directs all things to be created; the Son effects the creation of all things; and the Holy Spirit perfects the things that are created. Each Person pursues the same goal but in a unique way. However, it is the Father who initiates and orders all things. This is what the Church understands as the personal character of the Holy Trinity. The Persons of the Trinity are distinguished and identified because of the Person of the Father who reveals them to us and who, in turn, is revealed to us by Them.

We know that in Paradise, this same model of life, this same order was present. As the Father, the Son and the Spirit exist in the divine life, so God, Adam and Eve, lived in Paradise. It was said that God “walked” in the Garden of Eden alongside Adam and Eve. Here we see how this divine life of the Trinity is reproduced. In St. Luke’s Gospel we read that Adam is God’s son (Lk. 3:38). And just as Eve is the helper of Adam (in the Hebrew the word for “Eve” and the word for “Spirit” both mean “helper”), the Holy Spirit helps the Son. Jesus says of the Holy Spirit that He is the Comforter and Counselor whom He sends from the Father: “He will glorify me,” Jesus taught, “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Jn. 16:14).

The Garden of Eden where God was present with Adam and Eve is a perfect picture of God’s life as Trinity. It is the first gathering of God and man. It is the first Church — the word for Church in Greek means “to assemble” or “to gather.”

So long as Adam and Eve listened and acted according to the decisions of God, they were happy and fulfilled, because that is the way the Son and the Spirit act toward the Father, the One who decides. Jesus said to the Jews: “I came not of my own accord, but he (the Father) sent me” (Jn. 8:42). When Adam and Eve acted without the direction of God, when they took their own “conciliar” and independent action, sin and death entered into human nature. Being cut off from the decisions of God made us hopelessly indecisive. Unable to choose God, we fumble around making uncertain choices — and, usually, make a mess of our lives. Only the obedience of the Son and the Spirit of the Father, who had “decided” to save us from ourselves, healed the broken relationship with the Father, giving us another opportunity to live with Him.

In the Orthodox Church, which we have said earlier is God’s personal life with us on earth, the life of the Holy Trinity is once again reflected and restored in the model of Church relationships through the hierarchy of the Church. The bishop is our father who acts through his son the priest and in his spirit or helper, his deacon. Just as the Son does nothing without the Father, the priest and deacon do nothing without the bishop. St. Ignatius of Antioch wonderfully explained this teaching in his letters.

When the world was made, the will of the Father was fulfilled by the work of His Son and His Spirit, the effective and sanctifying causes of creation. In Eden God gave His son, Adam, and His helper, Eve, commandments and directives. In the earthly Church the Holy Apostles were instructed by Christ Himself to ordain bishops as symbols and reflections of the Father in Heaven, so that the life of the Holy Trinity could be sacramentally lived on earth in the Church, so that the paternal love of the Father which He experiences and which maintains Him as Son could be shared first with all mankind and then with the whole creation. This true Trinitarian life is mirrored in the bishop, the priest, and the deacon: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As the Father directs the Son effects and the Spirit perfects, so the bishop acts by his two helpers, the priest and deacon. In all things he is the father. As God serves us by lovingly sacrificing Himself for us, even to the extreme point of dying on the Cross for us, so the bishop, priest and deacon are the servants of the servants of God, sacrificing themselves for God’s people.

When we read and hear about the Church acting “conciliarly,” this refers to the council of bishops who function, in their sacramental calling of reflecting Christ to their communities, like God who in the council of Himself as the Holy Trinity made man in His image, which we quoted above. Conciliarity also has to do with issues related to the teaching about what and who Christ is. Specifically, it derives its meaning from the seven ecumenical councils and the doctrines contained in them. The council of bishops did not make doctrines or create teachings about God, the Holy Trinity, Christ and the Holy Spirit. They expressed the revealed truth in written form to preserve it from error, in order to guard the spiritual lives of the people of God.

Conciliarity is dependent upon hierarchy, just as there is hierarchy in the Holy Trinity, where the first Person of the Trinity is the Father; the second Person is the Son; and the third Person is the Holy Spirit. In the Trinity, as in its reflection, the Church, the position of each Person does not determine the value of the Person. Though the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, this does not mean that He is less than the Second and First Persons. He contains the whole divine nature in Himself, as all the Persons do. His rank in no way diminishes His importance. All the Persons share in the same attributes, properties and powers of the divine nature, but each functions in a unique and distinct way in order to reveal that one, common nature, unity in diversity. So in the Church, the lay person shares in all the life of the Church as does the person of the bishop, but they do different things, fulfilling different roles for the good of each other.

Perhaps the misunderstanding of conciliar action in our culture can be traced to Western Christian teaching on the Trinity. In the West, the personal character of the Trinity seen in the paternal and personal monarchy of the Father within the Godhead was lost when the “filioque” clause was inserted into the Creed (“and from the son”). If the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son as from one source, then the distinction between the Father and the Son vanishes and they appear identical and interchangeable. If the Holy Spirit is the life of the Father and Son, holding them together, then He stands for all of Them, since Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all spirits. This sameness is then reflected in Western culture down to our own times. Democracy and conciliarity defined as equality of authority and decision, where no one person has a greater responsibility or authority than another, is an expression of this non-personal teaching about the Holy Trinity.

This understanding of authority comes from the history of Western religious thought. The Persons of the Holy Trinity are identical in their functions; divine actions seem automatic, impersonal and reflexive. This abstract quality of action is seen in modern democracy as the rule of law, or the legalistic society we live in. Decisions are made by committees and conferences and legislative bodies and in town meetings and in political party conventions. Inevitably, each decision is a compromised one that has aspects of various opinions without any personal dimension at all.

In Orthodoxy, authority is paternal, the decision and desire of a Father for the good of His Loved Ones. Our social and religious life is founded on the family, not on the floor of a representative body of legislators, or at the bar of justice before an objective judge forming opinion on a series of written laws. There is the family of the Trinity with the Father as the Head of His Son and Spirit. There is the father in family units. And there is the father of the bishop who stands in the middle of his children and praises God.

Courtesy of the

November 2006 issue of The Word magazine.

Return to The Word article listing.