God’s Fellow Workers

About Ministry and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

By Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

Alexei Maximov

Contents: Ministry is an Institution Established by God. Apostolic Succession and Perpetuity of Ministry. Ranks of Clergy and Characteristics of a Bishop’s Ministry. Spiritual Virtues of Clergy.

"For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field,

you are God’s building. According to the grace of God

which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have

laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let

each one take heed how he builds on it.

… Foundation… is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:6-11).

Ministry as a Divine Institution.

The Orthodox Church, as well as all ancient Churches (Armenian, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian etc.), are characterized by the presence of priestly ministry and divine services. Notwithstanding the fact that post-Luther (1520) unions of Christians do not recognize either the former or the latter, both priesthood and divine services have not resulted from some external, anthropogenic factors, but rather have been established by God himself.

Of course, in the spiritual and moral sense all people are equal before God, Who impartially judges and forgives everybody as His child. Nevertheless, according to St. Paul the Apostle, just like the human body needs its different parts to perform various functions according to their designation, the Church needs different orders of ministers. It were not the people, but Our Lord Jesus Christ himself who "gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ [the Church]" (Ephes. 4:11-13), because "as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ" (Romans 12:4-5).

The process of selection and training of the first ministers was taking place gradually. Almost from the very first days of His earthly mission Lord Jesus Christ chose a number of people from the ranks of his listeners, preparing them to be His envoys and followers in fulfilling His mission. He has entrusted them, through teaching and baptism (Matthew 28:19), with attracting new disciples, performing the Eucharist (Luke 22:19), forgiving sins (John 20:21-23), as well as spreading and strengthening the Church founded by Him. "As the Father has sent Me, I also send you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23), and later: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Here, Jesus Christ has not only entrusted His chosen disciples with a mission of apostolic ministry, but has also empowered them with a special gift of the Holy Spirit. After the Ascension of the Lord to Heaven, on the day of the Pentecost, they have received that gift in all its fullness (Acts, Chap. 2).

The Apostles understood all that had happened to them as a sign from above. It was not their own decision, or the society, or any external factors, but God himself who has entrusted them with a mission of apostolic ministry. "Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation," wrote Paul the Apostle about his mission (2 Cor. 5:18).

In the beginning, the Apostles themselves have taught the Christian doctrine, baptized the believers, laid hands upon them to confer the blessed gifts, performed the Eucharist, and governed the Christian communities founded by them. However, it is evident from the book of Acts, the apostolic epistles, as well as from early Christian written sources, that the Apostles had been continuously looking for new assistants ("pastors and teachers"), training them to be their successors and ordaining them to bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Not just everyone willing to do that, but rather the individuals chosen by the apostles, were entrusted by the latter with performing all the functions that the Apostles had originally performed themselves on the Lord’s command. Those were not some isolated incidents of a temporary nature, but a well-structured plan they were universally and unanimously guided by. By doing that, they established a solid, reliable hierarchical structure that was to ensure the correct development and growth of the Church of Christ for all times.

Here is what Paul the Apostle wrote about the necessity of certain ministries within the Church: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if… ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation;… he who leads, with diligence" (Romans 12:6-8). While exhorting the authorized individuals to perform the functions delegated to them with diligence, the Apostle has strictly prohibited the people who showed too much diligence from unauthorized usurpation of any ministries within the Church, because, according to the Apostle’s teaching, "no man takes the honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was" (Heb. 5:4). Therefore, no matter how high his moral virtues or personal skills may be, no man should dare minister or direct others without being duly chosen and ordained by the people authorized to do that in the Church. Paul the Apostle wrote about himself: "an apostle not from man, not through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father" (Gal. 1:1). "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful" (1 Cor. 4:1-2).


Apostolic Succession

and Perpetuity of Ministry.

By comparing different parts of the Holy Scriptures that deal with the selection and ordination of candidates for church ministries, it can be seen that this process is always characterized by a close interaction of two factors: on one hand, we see that a candidate is chosen by God, and, on the other hand, he must be chosen and specially ordained by duly authorized Church officials.

For example, after the Ascension of the Savior to Heaven, His apostles have included a new disciple into their group of twelve to replace fallen Judas. Having prayed to God asking Him to show them the worthy candidate, they cast their lots. And the lot fell on Matthias (not to be confused with Matthew the Evangelist), who was thereon declared by the apostles to be their full-fledged fellow worker (Acts, Chapter 1).

As we can see from the New Testament, as well as from early Christian writings, ordination for a church ministry — including the ministries of a bishop, a priest or a deacon — was always performed by the laying on of hands, i.e. a formal laying of hands of those who were performing the ordination on the head of the person who was being ordained. For instance, the book of Acts of the Apostles says the following about the ordination of seven deacons: "…they [were] set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them" (Acts 6:6). With regard to the ordination of presbyters in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, Saint Luke wrote: "[Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:23). (The word translated "appointed" (Gr. cheirotoneo) means "to ordain by the laying on of hands.") Paul the Apostle gives Titus, who was appointed the bishop of Crete, the following reminder: "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1:5); at the same time he cautions: "do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins" (1 Tim. 5:22) — apparently because the one who ordains is responsible for the one being ordained.

In is important to note that the laying on of hands by the apostles was not only perceived as a visible sign of appointment to a particular ministry in the Church, but also considered to be a medium for the real and perceivable, albeit invisible, Divine power. Only from that standpoint we come to understand the words of Paul the Apostle addressed to Timothy, who had been ordained to be the bishop of Ephesus: "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership"; and, some time later: "Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying of my hands" (1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6).

Meanwhile, the apostles, while ordaining the individuals selected by them to various church offices, have understood that the original source of both selection and ordination was not them, but God: "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). Paul the Apostle told the presbyters of Ephesus: "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

According to the tradition that was doubtlessly established by the apostles, and was already firmly rooted as early as the first century of Christianity, performing ordinations was an exclusive prerogative of bishops. For ordaining a bishop, two or more bishops are required, while one bishop is enough for ordaining candidates to lower-level offices. Below are excerpts from the prayers that are read during ordination to priesthood. "The grace divine, which always healeth that which is infirm, and completeth that which is wanting, elevateth … the most devout Deacon, to be a Priest. Wherefore, let us pray for him, that the grace of the all-holy Spirit may come upon him." In reply, the choir slowly sings: "Lord, have mercy." And then, the bishop prays: "O God great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: Do thou, the same Lord, fill with the gift of thy Holy Spirit this man whom it hath pleased thee to advance to the degree of Priest; that he may be worthy to stand in innocence before thine Altar; to proclaim the Gospel of thy kingdom; to minister the word of thy truth; to offer unto thee spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew thy people through the laver of regeneration. That when he shall go to meet thee, at the Second Coming of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, thine Only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of a good steward in the degree committed unto him, through the plenitude of thy goodness."

From the very early days, the continuity of apostolic succession has been very closely watched in the Orthodox Church; i.e., every new bishop was supposed to be ordained by lawful bishops, whose ordination could be uninterruptibly traced to the apostles. From "History of the Church" written by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (beginning of the 4th century) we know that all local early Christian churches kept the lists of their bishops in their continuous succession. That gave them an opportunity to single out impostors.

According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (middle of the 3rd century), "we can name those who were appointed bishops in churches, and their successors descending down to ourselves"; then, he indeed names the bishops of the church of Rome, in the order of their succession, almost to the end of the 2nd century. The same view on the issue of succession was expressed by Tertullian (3rd century). Here is what he wrote about the heretics of those times: "Let them show the beginnings of their churches, and manifest the succession of their bishops, that could be traced with such continuity that their first bishop would have as his originator or predecessor one of the apostles, or one of the co-workers of the apostles who would have communicated with the apostles for a long time. For that is how the apostolic churches keep their lists (of bishops): for example, the church of Smyrna presents Polycarp (beginning of the 2nd century) who was appointed by John; the church of Rome presents Clement, ordained by Peter; likewise, other churches point to the people who, having been made bishops by the authority of the apostles themselves, were the offspring of the apostolic seed among them."

If the chain of apostolic succession becomes broken for any reason whatsoever, the ordinations that take place thereon are considered invalid, while the divine services or sacraments ministered by people who were inappropriately ordained are considered to lack grace. This condition is so serious that the lack of succession of bishops in a particular Christian denomination prevents it from being a true Church, even if it has managed to preserve the dogmatic teaching in its unadulterated form. The Church has maintained this position for as long as it existed.

At the same time, the sacrament of holy orders, when properly executed, is perpetual. Therefore, it is prohibited to ordain a person to the same office twice. The sacrament of Holy Orders, as well as the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation, alter the essence of a man, giving him the right and the spiritual power to teach the believers and to celebrate divine services. However, such authority and power stay in place only as long as a minister remains in the Church and is fully obedient to it. Sacraments that are ministered by a priest who had been prohibited to minister, are not real.


Ranks of Clergy

and Characteristics of a Bishop’s Ministry.

The fact that Christ is the High Priest (Heb. 7:26-28) means that He must have priests [For texts on this subject, see: Matt. 18:17, Matt. 28:19-20, John 20:21-23, Acts 8:14-17, Acts 14:23, Acts 20:28, James 5:14, 1 Pet. 5:1-5, Rom. 10:15, 1 Cor. 3:9-12, 1 Cor. 4:1-2, 1 Cor. 4:15, 1 Cor. 12:12-31, Gal. 1:1, Eph. 4:11-16, 1 Thes. 5:12-13, 1 Tim. 4:14, 1 Tim. 5:17-18, 1 Tim. 5:22, 2 Tim. 1:6-7, 2 Tim. 4:13, Titus 1:5-10, Heb. 5:4, Heb. 10:25, Heb. 13:7 and 17]. The New Testament mentions three different ranks of ministers: bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons. As the successors of the holy apostles, they continue fulfilling the mission of the latter within the boundaries of their respective ministries.

We learn about presbyters (elders) from the book of Acts. Paul the Apostle, having "appointed elders in every church [of Christians in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch]," prayed with fasting and commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23). James the Apostle has entrusted the elders with ministering the sacrament of Holy Unction in order to heal the sick: "Is anyone of you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (James 5:14).

Paul the Apostle has called upon the faithful to honor the presbyters in a way worthy of their ministry: "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’" (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Speaking on the same subject in another epistle, Paul the Apostle taught: "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:12-13).

The office of presbyters (later called priests) was considered to be lower than the office of bishops; presbyters (priests) baptized, performed the Eucharist, forgave the sins of those who repented, but they could not ordain others.

The book of Acts also speaks about the emergence of the office of deacons (the lowest office in the ecclesiastical hierarchy). The need for the office of deacons was occasioned by the fact that it was inconvenient for the apostles to combine their ministry of the word of God with caring for the poor and arranging meals for them: "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2). After a while, helping bishops and priests in ministering the sacraments and preaching the word of God became the main responsibility of deacons. In the epistle to the Philippians Paul the Apostle greets the deacons together with the bishops (Phil. 1:1). He also describes the standards for the lives of deacons and their families (1 Tim. 3:8-12).

The office of a bishop is the highest. The bishops of the Church are the direct successors of the apostles and the followers of their cause. Paul the Apostle addressed them with the following words: "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). From these words, it can be seen that the bishops are responsible for the Church — for the purity of its doctrine, for the moral accomplishment of its members, and for the improvement of church life. As an example of first-century bishops, one could name Timothy, who is the addressee of two epistles of the New Testament. He was the bishop of Ephesus. Saint Titus, the addressee of one epistle, was the bishop of Crete.

First and foremost, within his ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a bishop is the main teacher of laity and other pastors alike. This fact is manifested in: a) the epistles of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, to whom the Apostle has addressed the following particularly strong orders: "take heed to yourself and to the doctrine." "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (1 Tim. 4:16, 2 Tim. 4:2-5). The Apostle has entrusted Timothy with the training of new bishops (2 Tim. 2:2), so that he would watch the presbyters, and count those who are diligent in ministering the word worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Canon 58 of the apostolic canons says: "A bishop who does not take good care of the clergy and the laity, and does not teach them piety, shall be excommunicated; if he still persists in his negligence and idleness, he shall be cast out."

Apostolic regulations, wherein bishops were ordered to make sure that the purity of the truth is preserved within the Church, as well as the rules of the subsequent Councils, provide that "the heads of all churches should teach the clergy and the laity with the words of devotion every day, and especially on Sundays." This is why the early apologists of Christianity, arguing against heretics, have stated that the true Christian tradition and teaching have originated from the apostles themselves, and have been kept in the Church through no other means but the continuous succession of bishops.

Secondly, a bishop, by the power of the Spirit, is the prime minister of divine services, and performer of the holy sacraments in his diocese. Some divine services — both in the early days and presently — are reserved exclusively for him. For example, only a bishop can ordain someone to priesthood or other ecclesiastical offices based on the Holy Scripture (Titus 1:5, 1 Tim. 5:22), the canons of the holy apostles and the holy Councils, as well as the unanimous teaching of the holy teachers of the Church who considered this rule to be the main advantage of a bishop as compared to priests, saying: "The main purpose of a bishop’s office is to originate fathers; for he is empowered to increase the number of spiritual fathers within the Church. The other office (that of a presbyter), is meant, through the bath of life everlasting, to give birth to the children of the Church, but not fathers or teachers. So, how would it be possible for a presbyter to ordain another presbyter, when he was not rightfully appointed for such ordination? Or, how could a presbyter be called an equal of a bishop? Likewise, only a bishop has the authority to consecrate the myrrh or the antimension, which is also evident from the rules of the Councils and the teaching of the Orthodox Church."

Lastly, a bishop is the main overseer of his church (Acts 20:28, 1 Tim. 5:19). He must oversee the fulfillment of God’s Commandments and ecclesiastical canons, govern the life of the churches in his diocese, appoint priests to parishes.


Spiritual Virtues of Clergy.

In his "pastoral" epistles, Paul the Apostle, on a number of occasions, discusses the subject related to the virtues that clergy must possess. For example, he writes: "… a bishop must be blameless…holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:7-9). Peter the Apostle gives the bishops and the priests the following directions:

"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but creating examples for the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (1 Pet. 5:1-5).

Paul the Apostle instructs Titus that a presbyter [a bishop] appointed by him must be:

"blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or of insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:5-10).

While expecting high moral standards from clergy, the laity must take into account the fact that, although the blessing of orders helps a person in his spiritual life, it does not make that person perfect. A priest or another clergyman is also a human, burdened by infirmities common of all humans, and subject to the same temptations as the laity. That is why the Church has always taught that the effectiveness of the sacraments and priestly blessings depends on the faith and devotion of those who receive them, rather than on the level of the spiritual heights achieved by those who perform them.

In general, the Lord and His apostles have prohibited the laity from judging their pastors, since the latter are responsible before God. "Whoever has been given a lot, will be judged by stricter standards." That is why Saint John Chrysostom (4th century) has said: "I do not think that many pastors will be saved."

Considering that there are very few people willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the spiritual wellness of their neighbors, we should at least appreciate those who have agreed to assume the responsibility of serving God and their neighbors.

"Remember those who rule over you, — says Paul the Apostle — who have spoken the Word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct … Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account" (Heb. 13:7, 17). "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:12-13). "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

Therefore, let us treasure the fact that our Church has preserved not only the teaching of Christ in its original purity, but also the blessed institution of orders, and the sacraments received by the Church from the holy apostles. Most of the modern "churches" have lost all that a long time ago. Let us pray for those who minister in the Church, helping our renewal, and strengthening us spiritually.


Missionary Leaflet # E30

Copyright © 2001Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission

466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011

Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)


(priesthood.doc, 12-17-2001)


Edited by


Donald Shufran