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Who is the head of the Orthodox Church?

Who makes the decisions?

The Orthodox insist that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church.  There is no singular or unilateral authority in Orthodoxy like a Pope.  All bishops are equal and equally responsible for guarding the faith.  They are accountable to one another and to all the Orthodox believers.  No one is considered infallible.  The Church is held together by a common faith, not by a central authority.  The Orthodox understand the Holy Spirit to be the authority that guides the Church.  In times of crisis the local bishops gather to articulate in a new situation what the Church has always believed.

© Fr. Michael Shanbour

Does the Orthodox Church have a pope?

The Roman Catholic Church tragically broke from the Eastern churches in 1054 A.D. largely over the issue of the encroaching authority of the Roman Pope by the western church. The eastern churches consistently rejected this encroachment for 1,000 years of Christian history (and continue to today).


The Orthodox Church does not have a single leader. It is organized into “diocese” and "Archdiocese" following national and historic lines, based on the early Church model of conciliar church leadership seen in the Book of Acts (Chapter 15). Each group is governed by synods (councils of bishops) who have equal authority and who do not interfere in one another’s affairs.


The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the “Ecumenical” (or universal) Patriarch, and since the schism has enjoyed a position of honor or eldership among the Orthodox communities.  But, he does not have the right, for example, to interfere in the internal affairs of other churches.  His position resembles that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican Communion. 


While the early Church bestowed upon the Roman Bishop the honorary title of "first among equals,” the infallibility of the Pope is rejected by the Orthodox along with the Pope's claim to universal authority over the whole Church. For the Orthodox, the Head of the Church is Jesus Christ alone, and the infallible authority in the Church is the Holy Spirit.


Bishops are not “over” the Church, but within Her.  Through the grace of ordination they are called to be the guardians of the apostolic faith and have "authority" only inasmuch as they are faithful to this confession of faith and to purity of life. In the Orthodox Church all bishops are vested with the same authority and are accountable to all other bishops and to the church membership.




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