The "Heresy" of Apostolic Autocracy

by Ken Tobin

It has become increasingly obvious in recent years that all forms of hierarchical or apostolic Christianity are suffering from a severe clerical leadership crisis. This is especially true in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Whether or not this is just a problem of the modern era, or one that dates back to a much earlier time, is of critical importance in rectifying the situation.

There is no question that the undivided Christian Church, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, under went profound changes that altered the role and authority of Christian bishops. Soon to become an important part of the secular state, the process began when the still pagan emperor convened the first Ecumenical Council in order to stamp out growing divisions in his future state religion. This precedent, sanctified with the eventual beatification of Constantine, set the stage for bishops assuming secular responsibilities, and more ominously, secular conceptions of their rank and authority.

In the West, the collapse of Roman secular authority led to the Bishop of Rome assuming more and more power in the void that was left. While the Reformation was a rebellion against this development that resulted in even more divisions in Christianity, the Roman See continued to expand its autocratic ambitions, both secular and religious, that culminated in an overt heresy -- the Nineteenth Century declaration of Papal Infallibility.

In the East, the Byzantine State continued for over a thousand years to maintain secular authority in the face of the Islamic onslaught, and in the process protect the kingdoms of the West, and, ironically, the Roman Catholic faith as well, until such time as they could defend themselves. With the final destruction of Byzantium, the Sultan, Tsar and other assorted monarchs became the new secular authorities, and continued to maintain Orthodoxy as an arm of the state, albeit as an oppressed minority in the Islamic world.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the counciliar atmosphere of the first four hundred years of Christianity, was lost in a sea of authoritarianism and autocratic control? As others have eloquently pointed out, a "tradition," even if seemingly hallowed by time, is not unchangeable or even "right" if it is antithetical to its intended purpose, i.e. protecting and guarding the Faith of the Church and, of course, the Faithful. While apostolic ministry seems to entail some degree of hierarchy, it also clearly calls for humility, sacrifice and loving interaction between all parts of the Church. The cold, arrogant, unresponsive and tyrannical model of episcopal leadership so in vogue, for so long, is hardly the image brought to mind of the "Good Shepherd" or for that matter a follower of Christ. It does conform, however, to the image of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Read it and weep!

The time has now come to address this "crisis of leadership" before it further impedes and obstructs the work of the Church. Other diversions need to be set aside until the underlying problem outlined above is addressed. This will be a long and bitter battle affecting the vary nature and purpose of Christian witness for ages to come. Father Hopko has touched upon this subject in some of his previous comments and it is now incumbent for all the informed and educated laity, not to mention our silent theologians, to "weigh in" on this crisis of Apostolic ministry.

(Ken Tobin is an Orthodox layman who is a frequent contributor to He resides on the Delmarva peninsula.)