The Priest between the believer and God?

Some tend to attack the priesthood (hierarchy) as found in catholic churches (Orthodox, Oriental, Roman) as being something between the believer and Christ or God that somehow brings a separation of the believer from Christ. The claim is that every believer should have a direct relationship with Christ and not one through a mediator, other than Christ Himself. Because Christ has ascended then for them such a direct relationship is conceived in terms of only a “spiritual” relationship in the heart and/or mind. The thought of knowing Christ in the flesh is not seen as possible until the second coming. Christ is present only in spirit/thought.

In response, the hierarchy is not about putting something between the believer and Christ but something that enables the believer to have a direct concrete, in the flesh, relationship with Christ. It makes Christ present in fullness to the believer. The hierarchy in its wider sense, and in particular the Bishop, is an icon that enables the person of Christ to become present in a tangible manner. Meeting the Bishop or Presbyter and even other orders of the hierarchy, is having a direct encounter with Christ. The Bishop is the complete icon of this presence in a local church, the presbyter in a parish, an Abbot in a monastery, a husband in a family, and hence why he is shown particular honour and said to be “Master or Lord”. This is not to honour the Bishop (or others) as the man who is serving in the role but to honour Christ, who is present in the man serving this role. (A Patriarch is given the grandest titles because he is an icon of Christ among the Metropolitans, who in turn have grander titles than the Bishops in their regions.)

A direct relation with these various offices is a direct relation with Christ. A blessing from one is the blessing from Christ, sins forgiven by the Bishop or Presbyter are sins forgiven by Christ, the offerings given by them are the offerings of Christ. Joining with them is joining with Christ. Separating from them is separating from Christ and those who decry them as separating the believer from Christ are in reality separating themselves from Christ. Those setting up congregations apart from the Bishops are setting up congregations apart from Christ. One may claim to love Christ and be devoted to Him, even going to great lengths of self-sacrifice for this love, but if done so in rejection or apart from the hierarchy then it cannot bring one to union with Christ because one remains with his rejection apart from Christ, who has made Himself present to him but he does not believe and turns his back on Him, in effect seeking an image of Christ made in his own likeness.

The iconic nature of the hierarchy is such that should a member of the hierarchy fail to conform to the likeness of the icon then he is no longer able to continue his place in the hierarchy; he is deposed. The grace that enables him to make Christ present in his place in the hierarchy is removed and he no longer maintains the place. He does not receive some permanent power from God to exercise it on God’s behalf but acts as an icon in the likeness of Christ so that Christ acts in, through and with him in synergy. Once the icon loses its likeness then the grace is removed because Christ can no-longer be present in him. Thus, a priest who is in schism, or heresy, and so separated from the united hierarchy, which is only One because God is One, is no longer a priest.

So, the hierarchy (priesthood) is not something between the believer and God but is something that enables the believer to meet God. The priest makes Christ present as mediator. He is not a mediator to Christ but enables Christ, Himself, to mediate in concrete terms between the believer and God. Apart from the hierarchy we cannot come to have a complete personal relationship with Christ.


  1. As a 30 year low church Protestant and 3 year convert I have struggled w/ the honor paid to Bishops. As those who make sure we stay w/in the Apostolic teachings I have no problem but when I see them walking around w/ scepters, wearing crowns, sitting on a throne, being addressed as His Holiness etc. I really struggle w/ this. I cannot imagine any one of the Apostles tolerating people treating them this way. Paul wearing a crown or Peter? That’s hard for me to swallow. I like what you say about being an icon of Christ in our midst but this other fluff seems almost counterproductive to the goal of seeing Christ in the Bishop. It’s easier and natural to see just the man as Bishop being in and of himself important and not as a icon of Christ. Then there’s the danger to the man himself. The Bishops are only human after all. Can you imagine any person being continually treated as they are and it not go to their head? Are we not setting up these men for a fall into pride? I would think humans can only take so much fawning before they fall into vanity and pride. Perhaps this is the reason for so much failure among Bishops through the centuries? Was it not St. John Chrysostom who said that the road to hell was paved w/ the skulls of Bishops? Is it any wonder when they are treated as monarchs?

    Understand, I am not wanting a debate or even saying your wrong, I like what you write about Christ being among us but just expressing one of the last difficulties I struggle w/ as a relatively young convert.


  2. David,

    I understand your concerns. Here are some of my thoughts about the matters.

    The Apostles will sit on thrones with golden crowns reigning with Christ and this is God’s appointment, so I can imagine them wearing crowns. The honour given to a bishop both honours Christ and also marks the honour we all will receive in reigning with Christ as a royal priesthood; the bishop even as man is entitled to share in the honour in Christ. I seems to me that to deny the honour is effectively to deny Christ as Lord and ourselves as reigning with Him, as sons of God; that is denying our theosis. So, I see that the honour to the bishop is in part a recognition of the reality of theosis, which is also why we must give the Mother of God such great honour as she is the perfect image of the perfection of man in theosis.

    The bishop may appear in splendour during the service but outside this he usually wears the garb of a monk; that of humility and obedience. There is a time and place for each form of dress to reflect the various aspects of Christ, we should not limit it to one aspect or another, each has its importance and place; Christ is God-man. I am convinced that we need to see both forms of dress to see Christ properly.

    The crowns of the bishops at the present time are relatively recent and are more reflective of the sovereignty of Christ that was seen in the iconic role of the Emperor before the fall of the Empire rather than episcopal rule. I would prefer to see a return to older practice without them, yet having said this, they are not wrong, just better on the head of an Emperor. The omophorion and/or stole is the better symbol of the bishop as a shepherd; the carer of the sheep, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders. Also, a bishop’s vestments should distinguish him from the presbyters but not separate him as they tend to do now.

    It is indeed a fearful thing to be a bishop, or presbyter, and this is what St John Chrysostom wrote and why at first he, among many, tried to avoid this office. Did he advocate to remove the office? By no means because it is needed for the Church. God gives his grace and help to the men in this office, although yet again many have fallen and not lived to the calling. It is better to take men not rushing into the office but rather taking it in obedience to help reduce the amount falling in pride. Even with the risk, the office must be there and we must honour the bishop and the presbytery to properly honour Christ. I think it would help to bring the Bishop back among the presbytery to reign with them in council and to recognise their shared authority and honour with the bishop, yet not by reducing him to a presbyter because he must have his special place that only one can fulfil in each local church. I think that this will help reduce the thought of pride because the honour given and authority is shared by others around him; he is not so alone separate from the others. It helps to be reminded that the reign is with consent and conciliar and not as an autocrat over the others as slaves and that the reign is under the rule-of-law, that is under Apostolic Tradition and the rules of the Fathers not over them. Not to mention remembrance of the account to be given to God on judgement day for each soul in the bishop’s care, let alone that for his own sins. Nevertheless, the temptations are strong and a bishop who rests on his authority rather than on his obedience to the Fathers, is likely to fall into temptation.


  3. @ David:

    I felt the same way as you did but I looked into some things and I also came to understand the liturgy. The bishop was considered analogous to the OT high priest very early in the Church:

    He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable to Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (1 Clement 40)

    The OT high priests wore a mitre with vestments to celebrate the liturgy without being pretentious. There are also testomonies from the early church that the Apostles did the same:

    Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (flourished c.130 – 196) – Polycrates championed the position of the church in Asia Minor, which held to the view of celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan, against Bishop Victor of Rome. While the church in Rome calls upon the tradition of Peter and Paul, Polycrates argues: “For indeed in Asia great luminaries have fallen asleep. . .Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who has fallen asleep in Hierapolis, as have also his two daughters who grew old in virginity, and his other daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit and rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, [ is] John too, he who leant back on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest wearing the priestly “petalon πεταλον” both martyr and teacher. He has fallen asleep at Ephesus.”(Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.2).

    petalon: used in the LXX. of the ” plate, ” or ” diadem, ” of the High Priest (Exo 28:36) a plate of pure gold: The word tzitz, which we translate a plate, properly signifies a flower:
    From H6692; properly glistening, that is, a burnished plate; also a flower (as bright colored); a wing (as gleaming in the air): – blossom, flower, plate, wing.

    It is rendered by the LXX πεταλον, a leaf, and is called nezer, a crown in Exo. 29:6 and διαδημα, a diadem, by the author of the book of Wisdom, 28:24. Josephus says that it was adorned with three rows of the flower which the Greeks call κυανος. It was two fingers broad, of a circular form, suited to the shape of the head, and so long that it reached from ear to ear, and was fastened upon a blue lace or ribband, which was tied behind the head; and as the plate reached only half round the head, the remaining part of the ribband was highly ornamented with artificial flowers.

    Philip Schaff also says that James, the brother of Lord also wore a mitre: “According to tradition, mentioned by Epiphanius. James, like St. John at Ephesus, wore the high-priestly petalon, or golden plate on the forehead, with the inscription: “Holiness to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36).” (HCC Vol. 1: Apostolic Christianity)

    Lastly, whoever tradition says Theophilus was, St. Luke addresess him as “most excellent”. I hope this helps a little.


  4. Thank you both very much. What you wrote is very helpful. It has been the dress and ways of addressing the Bishops that have been bothersome not the existence of their office. I saw the necessity of that back when I was a Protestant. As w/ other things that have been difficult to swallow, as I learned more my “issues” faded away.


  5. Fr. Patrick,

    You said:

    “Thus, a priest who is in schism, or heresy, and so separated from the united hierarchy, which is only One because God is One, is no longer a priest.”

    Forgive me, but I don’t understand how you can believe this. I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy and I have been trying to figure out exactly what I should believe about the Church, especially about its relationship to other churches. When I hear people say that there are never schisms within the Church but only away from the Church (i.e. schismatics tear themselves away from the church) I just don’t see how that hardline belief can be held consistently in the light of history.

    Take for example the recent schism between ROCOR and Moscow. Which one tore itself away from the Church? Are we to say that the priests of the guilty party ceased to truly be priests, and that the people no longer truly received the sacrament? And what are we to think now that ROCOR has been reconciled to Moscow? Surely ROCOR believers do not think that their status as members of Christ’s Body was fundamentally changed by this reconciliation?

    And what about the schism a couple centuries ago between Constantinople and Antioch. Are they to go on believing that the other was outsides the true Church for the duration of that schism? Surely they do not believe that, and if they did then the two patriarchates would have two conflicting narratives of their common history. Is that acceptable?

    What you think about the present schism between Jerusalem and Romania? What do you think about the Macedonian Church? What do you think about the possibility of reunion with the Non-Chalcedonian churches? Must they confess that they have been separated from Christ’s Body for 1500 years before we can possibly be reunited. Would it not be inconsistent to say otherwise?

    I hope I am not sounding too aggressive here, I just feel strongly about this issue, and I really would like to hear how you can reconcile your ecclesiology with the actual history of the Church.

    I hope I have not misrepresented your view. If so, please forgive me and explain what your view really is.


  6. Jeremy,

    Firstly, the ecclesiology expressed is not my ecclesiology as being derived from my own ideas but is that learnt from the Fathers. The quote at the start of your comment reflects the teaching of St Cyprian of Carthage. His teaching has at least been implicitly accepted at an Ecumenical level by the Council of Trullo and also by St Basil the Great in his ecumenically received canons.

    I understand your concern about history and the strict teaching about schism and heresy. The answer is that God is patient and merciful and often in the case of schisms and fights between local churches both sides are still in the Church with Saints and parties in both may be liable for blame, although those causing the division without due justification may be judged for doing so. There is a split and properly it should not be so, however, due to the weakness of man God exercises a fair amount of economy in enforcing the proper result of the schism. Also, most of the schisms to which you refer are only between two local churches which are otherwise still in communion with other Orthodox churches; there is not a complete split with all other Orthodox churches by one church or region of churches. One needs to take the schism and its effects somewhat leniently, not that it lessens the potential effect of a schism and makes it a matter to be taken lightly. A schism that becomes entrenched with one local church or group of local churches separated from the others, particularly from the Patriarchs, whether due to a very clear and intense immediate separation or over many decades of continuing strife becomes one in which one party is almost certainly separated from the Church, from Christ and so lose the Holy Spirit and hence its priesthood ceases to have grace; their priests are no longer priests.

    The case of the Non-Chalcedonian churches is a division that is very deeply entrenched and so a reunion is only possible should all the dividing features be removed. If we are to believe that the Orthodox Church is the Church, then it is the pillar and foundation of the truth, that is in its formally recognised teachings etc there is no error. The Non-Chalcedonian churches refused to accept some of these teachings, the Council of Chalcedon, and so are not in unity with the Church; they are separated in the refusal to be one mind with the Church. They need to accept the teaching of the Church in one mind with Her for reunion; we cannot be united with formally contrary teachings and, because we accept the Orthodox Church as the Church, the Non-Chalcedonian’s in disagreeing with the Church’s teaching thus separating in mind must be those separated from the Church. For reunion, they need to lose any reason for having the title “Non-Chalcedonian” and must be able to called “Chalcedonian.”

    By the way, I am assuming that by converting to the Orthodox Church that you would have made this decision based on knowing what the Orthodox Church is. What was your religious background before entering the Church? What catechism did you receive before being accepted into the Church?


  7. Fr. Patrick,

    Thank you for your response. I understand you much better now, and with the nuances you have added I no longer have a problem with your original statement. And no doubt you are right in saying that you were simply stating Orthodox teaching. Upon reflection I realize that and regret taking issue with that statement the way I did. I was taking the statement in a very face-value, un-nuanced way and that is I why I objected to it.

    But do you see how a overly-simplistic understanding of that statement can be objectionable? That is the point I should have made. And people do use the Church’s teachings about Herself in overly simplistic ways all the time in order to polemicize against the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental Churches. That’s what I was thinking about when wrote earlier.

    It seems to me (and I believe Metropolitan Kallistos has said something like this as well) that the area of greatest theological controversy in the Orthodox Church today is the matter of ecumenical relations with other churches. Perhaps this is why I have heard and read in the Orthodox world so many statements about the Church that seem to contradict one another. I am trying to put it all together, to sort out the patristic doctrine from rhetoric and it is not very easy.

    I believe in the value of ecumenical dialogue and yearn with all my heart to see the reunion of all Christians. But I realize we must true union, not “false union.”

    You ask about my background. I grew up in a strong, conservative Christian family, although my father was a pastor in the UCC (an extremely liberal denomination, though it had not always been so bad). I found Orthodoxy in college. Around the same time, my father left the UCC and has now been ordained a priest in the new conservative Anglican movement (ACNA).

    As for my chatechesis, I don’t think there was anything lacking in it. And believe me, I did my research before joining. The most difficult thing for me to swallow was Orthodox ecclesiology. I came accross some extremely hardline views expressed by Orthodox writers online which disturbed me greatly. When I asked one priest if to become Orthodox I would have to deny the relationship I had had with Christ up to that time, he gave me no clear answer. Fortunately I got to know another priest who helped me to understand that the Orthodox church does NOT not teach that the non-Orthodox must reject all the grace they’ve received previously in order to become Orthodox. Also I read Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Limits of the Church.” In it, he explains Orthodox ecclesiology in a way that made so much more sense to me than what I had heard in some other places.

    I still struggle to fully understand our ecclesiology, largely, I think, because there do seem to be genuinely conflicting views about it. Many of our most respected hierarchs engage in ecumenical dialogues, while many monks and laymen insist that ecumenism is heresy.

    By the way, there was a question in my first post that I would still appreciate hearing your thoughts on: Would we require Non-Chalcedonian churches to confess that they have been separated from Christ’s Body for 1500 years before we could consider reuniting with them? If we did not require this, would we be essentially denying the doctrine of the oneness of the church?


  8. It seems to me (and I believe Metropolitan Kallistos has said something like this as well) that the area of greatest theological controversy in the Orthodox Church today is the matter of ecumenical relations with other churches.

    I’d phrase it a wee bit differently: the area of greatest controversy in the Church today is probably the issue of ecumenical relations with other Christian groups. 🙂

    It is certainly an issue which evokes strong reactions and one with which I struggle. I don’t think there can be much argument against the idea that Christians ought to be united and it would certainly provide a greater witness to the rest of the world, but if we adhere to the position Fr Patrick rightly states:

    If we are to believe that the Orthodox Church is the Church, then it is the pillar and foundation of the truth, that is in its formally recognised teachings etc there is no error.

    then wherever there is a difference in what the Church teaches and what another body of Christians affirms, there is a difference between truth and falsehood.

    Of course, one must first determine if there truly is a difference, but in my own experience, most attempts to deny differences, to claim a misunderstanding has been the cause of an apparent difference, is little more than an elaborate attempt to ‘sweep under the carpet’ very real differences. I sometimes wonder if such attempts reflect the all-too-common arrogance of ‘modern man’ to denigrate our forebears for their lack of ‘enlightenment’.

    Where there are real differences, one must ask if ecumenical relations are not an attempt to either dilute the faith by seeking a least common denominator, a Lewisesque ‘Mere Christianity’, or an attempt to adulterate the faith by mixing falsehood with truth. Either way, such efforts ought to be rejected by all right-believing Christians.

    Despite the above, I don’t reject the idea of cooperation with other Christian bodies (and even non-Christians) on matters of mutual concern such as the increasing spread of secularism/atheism, attacks on the family, etc.

    An image I find useful in considering the status of Christian groups separated from the Church is that of branches of the vine which have been cut away. When a branch is first cut away, its leaves remain green and indistinguishable from leaves of those branches still part of the vine. It may even be possible to graft such branches back to the vine where they will continue to live. But if they remain separated from the rest of the vine, with time those leaves wither and turn brown — the branch dies. (I won’t speculate as to how long it might be before a severed branch of Christianity is completely dead other than to say it depends on many factors just as the time for a branch cut from a vine to wither and die depends on temperature and humidity and maybe some other factors.)

    I think it also helps to remember that, even where there is falsehood, some elements of truth exist. It seems to me any system which was absolutely false would be absolutely unattractive — even to fallen man. The enemy of God uses elements of truth to conceal his intentions and more easily attract his targets.

    I suspect (but I have neither special insight nor God-given knowledge on the subject!) that, just as it took centuries for the various Christian bodies to get to the state of division which exists today, it will take centuries for it to be overcome, and then only if God so wills. I think, of all the Christian bodies outside the Church, the non-Chalcedonians are by far the closest to the Church in terms of praxis and theology, though I do not see a way to overcome very real differences: even if they are not monophysite, they are certainly monothelite (explicitly so); they have canonised Dioscorus who led the persecution (and, ultimately, death) of St Flavian, the same Dioscorus who sided with the heresiarch Eutyches (who even the non-Chalcedonians condemn!). Of course, with God all things are possible.


  9. Jeremy,

    The rite of accepting a non-Chalcedonian into the Orthodox Church, as found in Russian Service books at least, requires a renouncing of the refusal to accept two natures in Christ and then an acceptance to be united to the Orthodox Catholic Faith, thus implying confession of separation but this is not explicitly stated.

    Yes, if we were not to state that they are uniting to the Orthodox Catholic Faith then we would be denying the oneness of the Church as seen in the Fathers. Others may argue various branch theories etc but this is not the Patristic position.

    Also to note is that the sixth Ecumenical Council anathematised those trying to find a compromise solution with the Non-Chalcedonians and cast them from the Church. If this is the case for a partial compromise by those initially in the Church then it could hardly be the case that those holding a stronger difference of opinion already hierarchically apart from the hierarchy of the Church are to be considered as being in the Church.

    The main problem for full reunion of the Non-Chalcedonians is Dioscorus. The Non-Chalcedonians would have to deny that he is a Saint and accept the judgement against him of the Fourth to Seventh Councils. This is something that is yet to be agreed by them. Also many still refuse to use the term dyaphysite (two natures) for Christ because Cyril used the term miaphysite in his writings. Nevertheless, they must accept the term and two natures and the tome of St Leo the Great to be able to come into the Church, no matter what they may say about believing the same things. Again those in the past who tried compromise solutions were condemned by Ecumenical Councils, which is a warning regarding any move to compromise the truth.


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