Have you ever told someone you were Orthodox and they responded with, “Oh? So you’re Greek?” Curious, isn’t it, how so many outside the Orthodox community don’t understand the structure of the Eastern Orthodox Church? Opponents of Orthodoxy think her divided and nationalistic because of the ethnic titles associated with our churches (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). But nothing could be further from the truth. In this post, we briefly explain the overall setup of the Orthodox Church across the globe and the hierarchy within each regional church.
What is the Orthodox Church?
The word Orthodox is a combination of two Greek words orthos and doxa. Orthos means “straight” or “correct.” Doxa means “glory,” “worship,” and “doctrine.” So, the word Orthodox means both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine.” Eastern Orthodoxy (sometimes simply called the Orthodox Church) has an organic and continuous 2,000-year history spanning from the time of Jesus’ apostles to the present. In other words, what we call today the Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC) is the original Church that wrote, compiled and canonized the Holy Scriptures. It is the Church that formulated the traditional doctrines of Christianity. And it remains largely unchanged to this day.
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Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox?
Historically, the term “Greek Orthodox” has been used to describe all Eastern Orthodox Churches in general. In these cases, “Greek” referred to the heritage of the Byzantine Empire. Theologians utilized the Greek language in early writings, and Greek was spoken widely throughout the Empire. Over the next several centuries, most parts of the liturgy, traditions, and practices of the church of Constantinople (Greek in their nature) were adopted by all, and still provide the basic patterns of modern Orthodox Christianity. Thus, the Eastern Church came to be called “Greek” Orthodox. This is similar to the way the Western Church is called “Roman” Catholic.
Beginning in the 10th century, Orthodox Christians around the globe began abandoning the “Greek” identifier, replacing it with their own ethnicities (Serbian, Antiochian, etc.) Today, only churches explicitly tied to Greek or Byzantine culture call themselves Greek Orthodox.
External structure of the Church
Most Orthodox churches today fall into one of two main categories: Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy. In addition to these main groups, other churches exist that have no affiliation, mostly in the West. In this article, we focus on the EOC, as its churches are the ones Americans will mostly likely come in contact with.
Within the EOC there are 14 autocephalous regional churches (plus the Orthodox Church in America*) that exist in full communion with one another. This esssentially means these churches share the same core beliefs about doctrine, Holy Tradition, and interpretation of Scripture. The only differences you might find would be cultural (language, architecture, local customs) or administrative (different priests, bishops, etc.). All Eastern Orthodox churches follow the same basic hierarchical structure, but the people in those positions differ depending on jurisdiction.
Conciliar vs. Hierarchical
The governance of the global Orthodox Church is conciliar, which means no patriarch or jurisdiction has more authority than any other. At the same time, the Orthodox Church also has a hierarchy in place within each of its autocephalous churches. This allows for internal order and stability, while also preventing one hierarch from claiming control of the global Church (as we see in Roman Catholicism).
*Only the Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, the Czech-Slovak churches recognize the Orthodox Church in America as autocephalous. So, depending on which archdiocese you attend or visit, the number of autocephalous churches is either 14 or 15.
Internal hierarchy of the Church
As we mentioned earlier, within the Orthodox Church there are various autocephalous churches. Each autocephalous church institutes a hierarchy of clergy (see Image 2 below). Underneath the chart are brief descriptions of each position.
You may notice the position of Ecumenical Patriarch at the top-most position under the Bishop category. That’s because the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople holds the position of Primus Inter Pares, or the First Among Equals. It may sound like the Ecumenical Patriarch is the head of everything. However, his title is merely honorary; in other words, it does not grant any authority over any of the other Patriarchs.
Description of Hierarchy Positions
Patriarch – head of an ethnic church (e.g. Serbian, Antiochian)
Archbishop – head of the capital city or Orthodox country (e.g. Syria, Thessalonica)
Metropolitan – head of a large city or a diocese
Bishop – oversees a special community of Orthodox Christians or a diocese and possesses complete priesthood; ordains clergy; selected only from monastic priests
Titular Bishop – assistant to Bishop; not in complete charge of a city
Archimandrite – title of honor awarded to monastic priests
Protopriest / Protopresbyter – titular honor given only to non-monastic priests
Archpriest – title of honor given to non-monastic priests; placed over many parishes
Hieromonk – destined priest (aka “priest monk”)
Presbyter / Priest – presides over an individual parish
Protodeacon – titular honor awarded to non-monastic deacons
Archdeacon – senior deacon in a diocese; in charge of serving in hierarchical services; normally with the bishop
Hierodeacon – deacon monk
Deacon – ordained servant who assists the priest
The Minor Orders
Subdeacons aid the bishop or priest in multiple ways, but never with administration of the sacraments. Readers read scripture during services.
Still seems a little confusing…
Think of it this way: the Orthodox Church is structured as One Church. However, that Church has several “jurisdictions,” which were established by the immigrant communities who came to America a couple centuries ago. The doctrine and worship of each jurisdiction and parish is the same. But in some, languages other than English might still be used in services. Simple, right?
Russian, Greek, Serbian, Antiochian – it is all the same Orthodox Church. To illustrate this, our parish here at Saint John’s is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, which traces its roots to first century Antioch, the city in which the disciples of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. In contrast, just down the river in Ambridge, there is another Orthodox Church that exists under the Greek Archdiocese. We believe the same as they do and celebrate the same Divine Liturgy they do, but our architecture and language are a bit different.
The Orthodox Church is a lot simpler than people believe when first encountering her. She is an incredibly beautiful, diverse family of followers of Jesus Christ, who all worship according to local customs and tradition, and collectively follow the doctrine set forth by the Fathers in the days of the ancient Church. We are not all Greeks. We are not all Serbs. The Orthodox Church embodies every ethnicity, every language, every race. And we are all the children of God.
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