If we were to accept the historical witness embedded within the sources of early Christianity, then it doesn’t follow from anywhere that the organisation of the first Church communities was done in a manner incompatible to the idea and/or practice of democracy – as the latter was known in the ancient world. This, on the other hand, does not mean that the Church had some kind of inherent relationship to the constitutive structures of democracy, for the latter stemmed from a totally different cultural space, namely, that of Hellenism.
The Early Pro-Democratic Days
The life of the faithful in the early Church congregations was governed by criteria that, if anything, were not at odds and/or did not clash with the criteria of the classical or post-classical polis. In particular, within the communities of faith, everyone was regarded – basically and primarily – as disciples and brothers/sisters, rendering thus the Church communities privileged spaces of lived equality.
To be sure, local congregations exhibited lots of structural elements, but they did not – at least necessarily or predominantly – come with hierarchical structural elements. Rather the structural organisation of these congregations was functional and charismatic – always within the context of their liturgical life. And this entails that, whatever the differentiation of roles in the ecclesial body, ultimately it reflected the charisma peculiar to each member.
It was precisely this charisma that was expressed at the levels of administrative care, teaching responsibilities, everyday welfare, eucharist celebration, baptismal ritual, etc. None of these charismatic ministries was understood as being ‘something more’ than the others; all of them had their place within the body of the faithful and all of them were equally expressive of the mystery of the Church.
Two things are perhaps worth mentioning. Firstly, both men and women were called to devote and commit themselves to these ministries. Thus, the early ecclesial lifeworld was founded upon equality, open participation and complementarity regarding all types of ministries. Secondly, the confirmation of one’s calling and charisma was done by the entire community, that is, all its members, in a direct and totally representative manner.
The Shift towards Hierarchical Institutionalisation
However, in the course of time, the Church will have to confront a multitude of problems: persecutions, divisions, social challenges, and so forth. In response to these, the Church will make a crucial decision and opt for a very significant way to look at things: it will choose full-scale institutionalisation. In this way, some tendencies that could be seen previously here and there will become the rule, while the dominant charismatic mentality will be pushed more and more towards the fringe of Church life.
The Church will neglect its own charismatic-eschatological origins and instead will promote their replacement by institutional-historicist solutions. Accordingly, a new rigid, hierarchical form of ecclesiastical ministry will emerge gradually; an overall ministry whereby absolute power belonged to the bishop, the presbyter came to be a kind of representative of the bishop amongst the congregation, while the deacon ended up performing auxiliary duties in the liturgy, teaching, and welfare.
All this is slowly but clearly discernible from the beginning of the 2nd century CE onwards. St Ignatius of Antioch has been put forward as the typical proponent of this institutionalisation, although in his epistles the institutional element has anything but eliminated the charismatic element. Anyhow, we should regard St Cyprian of Carthage as the indisputable ‘father’ of this development. Consequently, during the 3rd century CE the cluster of equality, open participation and complementarity mentioned above was lost at a certain level. The latter was that of the laity within the Church and, for that matter, women…
Notwithstanding, within the confines of institutionalisation the Church retained several elements of democratic character, mainly with regards to the relationship of one bishop to another, as well as the institution of the synod. Thus, the grassroots democracy, so to speak, of the first communities, will shift towards the episcopate. However, the latter will also suffer detrition due to institutional developments such as the Pentarchy: the domination of the five ancient Patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) upon the entire Church.
The Church as Religious State Authority
From the end of the 4th century onwards, the Church as the religion of the Empire will come to be a cardinal State agent. In the East, at least, its whole organisational structure will follow along the lines of the administration of the Empire, while in the West it will constitute in itself a political structure of authoritarian leanings. From now on, the Church will be interested in preserving its own socio-political position and privileges; the question of democracy will become a forgotten issue of the past…
The above, of course, do not entail that throughout the so-called Byzantium there were no cries of protest and/or manifestations of authentic ecclesial phronema, that is, whatever could be seen as expressing the eschatological and charismatic origins of Christianity. But these, sadly, remained cries… The entanglement and virtual identification of Church and imperial politics will lead the former to totally new directions… directions associated with manipulation, domination and self-interest.
The Ottoman period will prove to be a very challenging phase, simply because the Church took on the role of being the Ethnarch of the Orthodox people in their relations with the ‘High Porte’. On the one hand, it paid a very high cost for this sort of accommodation, since in practice the Church administration functioned as an executive of the Ottoman government, loosing thus face in the eyes of the faithful. On the other hand, however, as an institution the Church took special care of local community life, a fact that resulted in the Orthodox world re-living early Christian participation, representation and engagement on the part of the laity.
The Demand for Democracy Remains
Unfortunately, nowadays we are experiencing perhaps the worst period of undemocratic institutionalisation in the history of the Orthodox Church –and this is especially concerning given that we live in a period that boasts so much about its democratic sensitivities… This type of institutionalisation is evident, for instance, not only in Greece, where the Church has the most dynamic laity resources but leaves them more or less untapped and unintegrated; not only in Russia, where despotism has infiltrated so much the Church that the latter’s nostalgia for imperial glory has exceeded by far any acceptable compromise; but also in the so-called ‘Diaspora’, where the Church continues to adhere to a rather paternalistic attitude in its dealings with the ‘flock’…
Everywhere the Church seems to have opted for a liaison with the State that does not promote or cultivate its democratic status or that of society, but simply serves petty concerns of self-interest. Thus, what one witnesses is a growing entanglement with centres of power. In this regard, ecclesiastical democratisation constitutes a pipe dream; a loose end that excessive talk about synodality only exacerbates.
Last but not least, there are certain issues that remain unresolved, such as the stance the Church (has) adopted during civil wars of the past and the present, or its collaboration with autocratic regimes such as the Junta in Greece.
The demand for democracy in the Church, both externally, with regards to its social engagement, and internally, with regards to the organising of its own life, is still unfulfilled, but it cannot and should not remain unfulfilled for ever. The Church must democratise, firstly itself and by extension society, for only a ground-breaking democratic Church can help society to cultivate and deepen its crucial need for more and more democracy…
ABOUT | INSIGHTS INTO GLOBAL ORTHODOXY with Dr Vassilis Adrahtas
"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a weekly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.
Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.