A Study of the American Orthodox Church and Congregational Ecclesiology

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 1-1-2005


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Michael Slusser

Committee Member

George S. Worgul

Committee Member

William Thompson-Uberuaga


Alexis Toth, brotherhoods, church authority, Eucharistic ecclesiology, hierarchy, lay societies, sobornost


Orthodox ecclesiology consistently requires that all authority in the church must be expressed in and flow from the bishop. This unity of authority, based upon the laying on of hands, is the lived expression of the oneness and catholicity of the church. American Orthodoxy, however, does not have such an authority structure, especially on the parish level. In the parish, the normal structure is congregationalist; that is, authority is split between a spiritual authority coming from those who are ordained (the clergy) and a material authority wielded by the unordained (the laity). This study explores the divergence of practice from doctrine in the American church in three steps.

First, a historical and theological survey of major Orthodox ecclesiological trends, especially universalist and eucharistic ecclesiologies, demonstrates the consistency of Orthodox thought on the unity of authority. Second, an examination and comparison of the current charters and bylaws of five major American Orthodox jurisdictions clearly shows the congregationalist structure of American parishes. It also shows that on the supra-parish level most jurisdictions are more conciliar and hierarchical in structure. Third, a historical study of the foundational period of Orthodoxy focuses on three major reasons that congregationalism was allowed to develop and remains today: (1) the absence of hierarchical authority; (2) the Toth movement and its after-effects; and (3) the influence of lay societies or brotherhoods.

A comparison of the tenure of Archbishop Tikhon Bellavin to that of Archbishop John Carroll of the Roman Catholic Church highlights both the doctrine of authority and the failure to put that doctrine into practice in America. The study concludes with a theological discussion of the problematic nature of parish congregationalism in Orthodoxy. It points toward the already realized conciliarity of supra-parish structures as the paradigm for a reformation of parish authority structures.





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