The Constitution of the Eastern Church

In 1942, Russian emigre and lay theologian Nicholas Zernov published a little book on the Orthodox Church under the auspices of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. Much of Zernov’s “The Church of the Eastern Christians” is aimed — no surprise — at educating the British public about the Orthodox Church and advancing the cause of unity between Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox. He also has some things to say about how the Church governs itself that we would do well to reflect upon today.

“The Eastern Church rejects altogether the attempts of the West to locate Church authority in one or another ecclesiastical institution,” Zernov wrote. “It is the Holy Spirit speaking and acting through the whole body of believers who is the teacher and guardian of truth for them.”

In his introduction, written against the backdrop of WWII, he identified two major problems facing Christians: the lack of unity and the rise of totalitarianism, first in Russia following the revolution and then Nazi fascism.

The various divisions among Christians “constitutes a serious obstacle to the victory of faith,” Zernov wrote. He observed that most Christians don’t even know precisely what it is that makes cooperation among themselves impossible so therefore they cannot see the steps that should be taken to remove the barriers to unity. Any movement towards unity must necessarily involve the active participation of the laity.

On the subject of totalitarianism, Zernov said that the Russian Revolution must be considered as “a turning point” in the history of Christianity. That’s because the revolution marked the first time that the Church had its authority challenged — indeed was marked for extinction — in a major European country. While this turn of events for the Russian Church was greeted with condescension and indifference by many in the West, it soon became apparent that the Western churches would meet the same fate under Hitler. “Totalitarianism is prepared to make a temporary truce with some decadent forms of Christianity, but is uncompromisingly opposed to any robust faith and to those who allegiance to the Church is firm and explicit,” he warned.

The following excerpts from Zernov’s “The Church of the Eastern Christians” look at how authority is organized and exercised in the Church:

The Popular Character of Eastern Orthodoxy

The constitution of the Eastern Church is based on the principle of self-government, in which both clergy and laity share. Parochial councils, diocesan conferences and national synods must include representatives of all members. But this constitution is not always adhered to in practice. When it breaks down, it is usually as the result of State intervention. The popular character of Eastern Orthodoxy is the source of its strength; for this reason, whenever the secular authorities have wished to check the influence of Christianity, they have tried to narrow the Church’s constitution and deprive the laity of any part in its administration. Russia, before the Revolution of 1917, was a conspicuous example of this policy.

From the time of Peter the Great’s reforms in the eighteenth century, the Empire of St. Petersburg, on the pretext of official protection, exercised a rigorous control over all the activities of the Church. Lay people were deprived of their traditional right to elect their own clergy and to discuss their Church affairs at parochial and national councils. The Church was constrained to silence, and every attempt to speak in its name, on the part of clergy or laity, was severely punished. The best-known victim of this Imperial “supervision” was Bishop Arseni of Rostov, who was starved to death in 1769 by the direct orders of Catherine II (1796), for his attempts to defend the Church’s independence; and he was not the only martyr of that reign.

In the nineteenth century the same policy was continued, and up to the very last moment the St. Petersburg Government refused to allow the Russian Church to convoke a council. Only after the fall of the Empire in March 1917 was the all-Russian Council at last summoned in Moscow; it met in August of that year after an interval of more than 200 years, its last predecessor being the council of 1681. This council of 1917 was composed of clergy and laity. It restored the proper constitution of the Russian Church, and gave to the laity its share in ecclesiastical government, thus preparing the Russian Christians to weather the storm of persecution which broke upon them as soon as the Communists seized control of both capitals, Petrograd and Moscow, in October 1917.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the rule of the Roman Catholic Poles, the Orthodox Christians in the Ukraine had to face a similar situation. The Government there used every available means to undermine the authority of the Church and induce the Orthodox to submit to Rome. The stronghold of resistance was found in the laity, organized in brotherhoods which so vigorously defended their traditions as to frustrate the designs of the Polish rulers. The latter, therefore, did their best to eliminate lay people from the administration of the Church, hoping that the clergy, deprived of their support, would yield.

These expectations were justified, and it was the bishops who were the first to desert their own Church and go over to Rome. This betrayal on the part of the episcopate was not able, however, to destroy Orthodoxy in the Ukraine; the failure of the “Unia” was entirely due to the popular spirit of the Eastern Church, which made it possible for the laity to ignore the decisions of the majority of their own bishops, and thus preserve their traditional faith and worship. During the long centuries of the Moslem oppression in the Balkans and the Near East it was again close co-operation between clergy and laity which saved the Orthodox Church from disintegration; indeed, this principle is one of the foundation stones on which rests the whole edifice of Eastern Christianity.

Church Authority

The institutional character of Western Christianity makes its members much preoccupied with the problem of Church Authority. Violent controversies have been waged round this point in the past, and even now the West is still far from an agreement. Roman Catholics believe that final authority belongs to the Bishop of Rome, Protestants find it in the text of the Bible, Anglicans search for it in the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the decrees of the early Councils in their Prayer Book and articles of faith. These diverse points of view have one feature in common: they all ascribe the final authority either to some document or to an organ of Church government like the Pope or the Councils. The seat of authority appears as something concrete, external and clearly defined.

This whole way of thinking is foreign to the Eastern, and especially to the Russian mind. The famous Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov (1860) was bold enough to declare that the Church has nothing to do with authority; she is the Divine grace inhabiting the free and reasonable creatures, who share in its gifts only as long as they live in charity and peace with one another and obey willingly the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Church rejects altogether the attempts of the West to locate Church authority in one or another ecclesiastical institution. It is the Holy Spirit speaking and acting through the whole body of believers who is the teacher and guardian of truth for them.

Each Christian therefore hears the voice of the Spirit; but because the same voice speaks to the other members of the same body, only unanimous decisions reached in an atmosphere of humble obedience and perfect concord can be treated as expressing the divine Will. The orthodox believe that the Holy Scriptures contain the word of God, not because they were written by Christ’s disciples or by inspired persons, but because these books were given to the Church by the Holy Spirit as the true record of the teaching of Jesus Christ through the unanimous decision of the early Christians.

The decrees of the Ecumenical Councils are accepted by the Eastern Church not because many bishops were gathered at them, not because they met by the order of the Roman Emperors or because the representatives of the Bishops of Rome were present, but because their decisions were approved by the Holy Spirit through the unanimous acceptance of their canons by the body of the Church.

At the time when Orthodox theology was at its lowest ebb in the seventeenth century and Eastern Christians were hard pressed by Western controversialists, who urged them to define their idea of the seat of authority, some of the Eastern bishops trained in the theological schools of the West and under Western influence maintained that the first seven Ecumenical Councils constituted the final authority for the Eastern Church. This statement was obviously most unsatisfactory, for it implied that the organ of authority had stopped functioning in the eighteenth century and could not be revived unless political circumstances made possible the convocation of another Ecumenical Council. The deficiency of this answer was due to the failure of these Eastern theologians to realize that the Orthodox Church does not see the problem of authority in the same light as the West, and that therefore its members are unable to answer the question in the terms expected by Western Christians.


  1. Arseni, originally of the Kyivan Church, was in fact Metropolitan of Rostov.

    See the following for an accurate presentation of the background and events of the “Uniia:”

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