One Church or A Confederation of Churches?

Central to the Moscow Patriarchate’s objection to the recent Tomos of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is that there is no central authority in the Church. Rather, we saw earlier, the claim is that the Church is administratively “a confederation … of independent Churches which are not subordinate to each other, even if by protocol they occupy certain places.” It’s important to remember that this analogy is self-consciously drawn from the realm of secular politics rather than either the Scriptures of the Church fathers. Let me offer a few examples from the Scriptures to help explain why this appeal to secular geo-politics is theologically questionable.

For the Apostle Paul, the Church is the Body of Christ. For example, he reminds the fractious Corinthians that just as the human (or indeed, any) “body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body” we who are in Christ are one.

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact, the body is not one member but many (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).

He draws out the practical implications (vv. 17-18) of this a few verses later when he asks

If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.

Likewise, in Ephesians (4:1-16()Paul goes on to articulate the bodily analogy in terms of specific charisms (spiritual gifts) that are distributed to individual believers for the benefit of the whole Church.

He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;

In addition to the more general goal of building up the whole body, these gifts are also given so that

…we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

The gifts are meant to function both to build up and correct. Or as he tells Timothy about Scripture “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

None of this, to be sure, means the Church is not administratively a confederation of independent churches. It does, however, mitigate against the rejection of a strong sense of primacy in the Church.

St Paul, for example, has no problem publicly castigating St Peter for the latter “compel[ling] Gentiles to live as Jews” and thereby denying by his actions that “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (see Galatians 2:11-16).

Likewise, we read in Acts that the early Church had the authority to impose a universal norm on the whole Body of believers. In response to the controversy that arose because Paul and Barnabas baptizing, but not circumcising, new Gentile Christians “The apostles and elders” of the Church in Jerusalem “met to consider this question.”

After hearing both sides the Apostle James delivers what he explicitly describes as “my judgment” for the whole Church. Gentile Christians need not keep the Law of Moses but only “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:1-22).

While this does not demonstrate a universal primacy, it does give pay to the idea that each local church is independent.

Underlying Moscow’s position, however, is a faulty logical and theological assumption. In the political realm, independence is not absolute. One major point of the UN, to use Hilarion’s example, is so that nations can hold each other accountable to each other in a real and not just abstract moral sense.

In the Church, there are moments when our freedom in Christ can ONLY be exercised through deference. We are, after all, told by St Paul, that to submit “to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21). And, in another place he says, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” It is in this way that we come to have the mind of Christ (see Philippians 2:3-5).

This submission is true not only in the political realm but on all levels of the Church. Child to parent but also parent to the needs of the child. We see it between husband and wife. We see it in the parish between the pastor and the congregation and in the diocese in the relationship of bishop and clergy and clergy with the bishop to the laity.

At one moment or another, we all of us are called by Christ to submit to another. And we do so not out of fear but as the natural consequence of the charisms. Just as the charismata are the concrete ways or modes by which we are in communion with Christ they are also, in Christ, the way in which we are in communion with each other.

To assert that the Orthodox Church is, administratively, a mere confederation of local Churches as Metropolitan Hilarion does, means that in truth we are NOT One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. In all levels of the Church, there are moments of subordination. We cannot place a fence around the local Churches because, if we do, if there are never moments in which one Church is subordinated to another, then there is no accountability, and so no communion.

Moscow’s argument is that each Church is independent and there is no Church is subordinated to any other Church or indeed the other Churches. To say this is to say that the gifts of the Church of Russia are not gifts also for the Church of Greece or Serbia or America or Constantinople.

It is instead to say the Churches exist as parallel social groups.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory