Bishops - Part 6: The Other Canons
Fr. Thomas Hopko · February 14, 2011
Fr. Tom talks about the other canons of the fourth century in addition to the Council of Nicaea.
In this, the sixth of our reflections on the bishop and the clergy generally in the Church, I would like to reflect a bit about the other canons of the fourth century. Last time, I reflected on the 20 canons of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, but there are other councils in the fourth century that also had canons, and many, many, in fact, the majority of these canons also had to do with bishops and presbyters and deacons and the Church structure.
So I’d like to comment a little bit on them now, but also to mention that, in addition to the 20 canons of Nicaea that I commented on last time, there are a list of Arabic canons that are attributed to the Council of Nicaea. I’m not quite sure of their origin, but they are in the canonical collections, and they also have to do with bishops and priests and deacons. I’d like just to quickly mention a couple of these canons from this collection.
They go through the same type of thing as the 20 that we referred to, but there’s some interesting ones. For example, the first canon of the Arabic collection says, “Insane persons should not be ordained.” So you have to make sure that a person is mentally balanced. I like that. “Bondservants may not be ordained.” In other words, someone who is under the authority of someone else cannot be a bishop because he can’t be under somebody else’s authority. That’s something that we’ll see through history as well, even in Alaska, for example, the missionaries were forbidden by the Russian Church to ordain to the priesthood American natives and Aleuts because they were considered incompetent or whatever, but this whole question of having to be freed from bondservice in order to be ordained, that was very important in history.
Then you have also the canon which forbids cohabitation with women. You have the canon that you have to have the bishop confirmed by all the bishops of the region. You have the canon that someone excommunicated by one bishop cannot be received by another bishop. We have the canon that the provincial council should be meeting twice a year to straighten everything out. We have the canons which tell who are the metropolises in the various regions. In northern Africa it’s Alexandria. How the bishop of Jerusalem is now considered to be a metropolis in that particular region. We have the canon who says that if a bishop ordains someone that he knowingly knows does not accept the Orthodox faith, they both have to be deposed. We say that those who force themselves into ordination without election or examination have to be deposed.
It says here that no one can even become a monk without the bishop’s permission. If you go out into the desert, you have to be blessed some way, and if you are a monk in the desert, you have to be with a bishop; you have to be with a church, under a bishop, under the guidance of a bishop. It says that honor should be paid to the bishop and to the presbyters and the deacons. Perhaps there were people there who were not honoring them. In the life of St. Anthony, we will see how that he even kissed the hands of deacons. So all the really authentic monks were always very, very obedient and honoring of the bishops of the Church. You don’t have, like, freelance charismatics who are over and against the bishops. We’re going to talk about the monks in the fourth century a little bit in another talk, another reflection here.
Then you have canons about how you receive the various people from various sectarian groups, whether they are heretics or schismatics or whatever, and what should be done with them. So you have many of the canons that are the same in this Arabic list, this Arabic canonical list. Then, of course, there’s one here that’s a little bit different: Clerics are forbidden, not only from lending money, but they’re forbidden from being witnesses in criminal cases. They’re to hear criminal cases and to judge them, but they’re not to be witnesses in other cases, because that can then be compromising their freedom and authority as bishops and pastors of the flock.
You have a canon that says, “Anger, indignation, hatred should be avoided by the priests and the bishop, especially because he has power of excommunicating others.” So anyone who’s a rage-a-holic or [is known] to be angry and easily offended shouldn’t be a bishop because he might use his authority badly; he will use it for personal reasons and not properly. So you have that there. Then you have, in various places, who should be, like in Ethiopia, in Cyprus, how these areas should be ordered. You have additional things that are attributed to the Council of Nicaea, and how appeals could be [made], how a patriarch can admit a complaint or judgment of an archbishop against an archbishop. In other words, if two bishops are quarreling with each other, they can appeal to a higher one. You have a canon that says no bishop should choose his own successor; they have to be elected by the people.
You have a canon that says no simoniacs can be ordained; in other words, people who buy and sell sacraments or who try to buy the sacrament, to pay to become a priest. That’s very important now because customs in some churches are that when someone is ordained, they have to give the bishop a gift, sometimes even a big, very expensive gift. I knew one fellow who was being ordained, consecrated a bishop in one of our Orthodox churches—I will not name which one—who said, “I don’t know if I can afford to be ordained.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, in our church we have the custom that you have to give a really good gift to the bishops of the synod who have chosen you, and a really good gift like a wristwatch or something like that, or a set of vestments,” he said. That’s a terrible custom, and I’m just too poor. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not rich enough to become a bishop.” Well, that would be terrible if somebody was ordained a bishop and felt that he had to give money or gifts to the bishops who consecrated him, but apparently that has gone on and was going on in the fourth century already. People were bribing bishops to ordain them as presbyters or deacons.
You also have the canon: “There shall be but one bishop in one city.” That’s here repeated also. Generally, it’s a kind of a repetition in actually 80 differently little canons than the 20 you find in Nicaea, but they’re basically repeating what is there. Again, you have: “If a bishop be convicted of adultery or similar crime, he must be deposed.” And you have to be careful of ordaining relatives, or putting sisters into the widowhood or the diaconate or things like that.
So you have these things that are already attributed to the Council of Nicaea, but let’s take a look at some of the other canons of the fourth century, and just see what we find in them. For example, there was a council in 314, during the time of Constantine the Great, of Anycra. There [were] canons of the council of Ancyra that we find in the lists of the canons of the Church. Some of these are pretty much repetitious of what we’ve already heard. It’s interesting that even before Nicaea, some of these things were already going on. For example, the very first canon of Ancyra says:
With regard to those presbyters who have offered sacrifices, and afterward returned to the conflict, not with hypocrisy but in sincerity, it has seemed good that they retain the honor of their chair, provided they have not used management, arrangement, or persuasion so as to appear to be subjected to the torture when it was only applied in seeming and pretense. Nevertheless, it is not lawful for them to make the oblation nor to preach nor, in short, to perform any act of sacerdotal function.
Which means: if presbyters lapsed in the persecution and then they returned to the Church, let them stand among the presbyters, but not do any of the duties. No offering the oblation, that means they can’t serve Divine Liturgy or the Eucharist; they can’t preach; they can’t do any of the sacerdotal functions, but they can be received into the Church as communicants.
It says the same thing with deacons. If they have fallen and have sacrificed to the gods and then repented of it and came back to the Church, they should be given indulgence, but they should not be allowed to celebrate and to serve in those particular functions.
There’s a lot about lapsi in these particular canons because so many times there were people who were being persecuted for being Christians who did not admit their Christian faith, who simply collapsed—lapsed, collapsed, fell. So what should they do? Sometimes you have those who are participating in heathen sacrifices, and then what are you going to do with them, because they have lapsed also?
Canon 10 is interesting in Ancyra, because it says:
They who have been made deacons, declaring when they were ordained that they must marry, because they were not able to abide so, and who afterwards have married, shall continue in their ministry, because it was conceded to them by the bishop, but if any were silent on this matter, undertaking at their ordination to abide as they were, and afterwards proceeded to marriage, these shall cease from the diaconate.
What does that mean? And actually, this was changed later by the Fifth-Sixth Ecumenical Council [which] changed it. But at this time, in the fourth century, it said if a man told his bishop that he wanted to get married, and was going to get married, the bishop could ordain him and then allow him to marry. But if he did not profess that he wanted to be married, and then was ordained a deacon, then he had to stay that way; he could not get married. So what it really means was there was a time when a man could say to a bishop, “I’m going to get married,” and be ordained deacon before the actual marriage.
But my understanding—maybe I’m wrong—is it didn’t mean “I, in general, want to get married.” It meant that “I’m pursuing a marriage. I’m going to marry somebody.” Maybe they were separated because of illness or distance or whatever, and the Church needed the deacon, so you could ordain him and allow the marriage after. But if the person didn’t say that, and then was ordained, then they had to stay the way they were, and then, of course, later on, it will be the teaching: You must marry before being ordained deacon, priest, or bishop. If you’re ordained a deacon, priest, or bishop, you can’t get married afterwards.
Canon 13 of Ancyra says:
It is not lawful for chorepiscopoi to ordain presbyters or deacons, and most assuredly not presbyters of the city, without the commission of the bishop given in writing in another parish.
Now, these chorepiscopoi [disappear] in history; we don’t have them any more, though some churches do; some of the Syriac churches and Nestorian churches and so on have them. They were country bishops who were kind of halfway between presbyters and bishops. They were under a bishop. They could celebrate the Eucharist—they were assigned to do so. But chorepiscopoi could also ordain, [while] a presbyter could not. But they couldn’t do so, this canon says, unless they had the permission of the bishop in writing. They couldn’t just ordain anybody that they wanted to.
Canon 14 will say:
If any of the clergy, presbyters or deacons, bishops, abstain from flesh, but after shall taste of it and then abstain from it, they may disdain it, but they cannot say that it is evil to eat the flesh.
In other words, they should do what they have promised to do. If they’re going to eat herbs only, they should do that. They should eat what is given to them, but no one should be abstaining just because they think it’s vile or wrong, and we will see that there are other canons and monastic practices in the same way. You cannot disdain any food that is given by God. You may be a vegetarian, but you cannot disdain or condemn those who eat the flesh-meat, if it’s properly received with thanksgiving.
So you have, again, these kind of canons that we see that are very similar to the canons at Nicaea. Interestingly, Ancyra also has a canon forbidding abortion by anybody. So this is the Ancyra.
Neo-Caesarea in 315 also had a council, and it had these canons. Again, it’s before Nicaea. Canon one:
If a presbyter marry, let him be removed from his order. If he commits fornication or adultery, let him altogether be cast out and excommunicated.
So if a presbyter is already ordained and gets married, he may stay in communion, but he can’t be a presbyter anymore. But if he fornicates, he’s supposed to be excommunicated. So you have this teaching about, again, the twice-marriage. Here we will have the [canons] of the seven Councils will be very clear: none of them will permit a second marriage to a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, and allow them to remain in office. If that happens, it’s really some very exceptional oikonomia; none of the canons allow that.
But more about the clergy. Canon seven of Neo-Caesarea says:
A presbyter shall not be a guest at the nuptuals of persons contracting a second marriage, for since the bigamist is worthy of penance, what kind of a presbyter shall he be who, by being present at the feast, sanctions the marriage?
So a presbyter can’t go to a second marriage. People may have second marriages, as we’ll see, but the presbyter cannot give credence to it. Later on, there will actually be a Church service for second marriages if the people are truly penitent, but just normally speaking, the Church is very strict about monogamy—one marriage only for anybody, and certainly for the clergy.
Canon nine of Neo-Caesarea says:
A presbyter who has been promoted after having committed carnal sin, who shall confess that he has sinned before his ordination, shall no longer make the oblation, though he may remain in his other functions on account of his zeal in other respects. For the majority have affirmed that ordination blots out other kinds of sins, but if he does not confess and cannot be openly convicted, the decision shall depend upon himself.
In any case, if there’s carnal sin at all, at any time, no offering the oblation, but it says he may stand among the presbyters, and here it says he may even preach or teach or do other things, but he may not offer the holy Eucharist.
Likewise, if a deacon has fallen into the same type of carnal sin, let him have the rank of a servant.
Here you have also, very important—this is Neo-Caesarea, canon 11:
Let not a presbyter be ordained before he is 30 years of age, even though he in all respects be a worthy man, but let him be made to wait, for our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach in his thirtieth year.
I have to confess to the whole world on Ancient Faith Radio that I am uncanonical. I was ordained a presbyter when I was 24, and, in fact, [it was] in those days, when, as one of my friends used to say, “few were called and all were chosen,” and there was such a great need for presbyters. There were three big churches open, and I was given my choice to go to any of the three I chose, because they just simply needed a presbyter, and better to have a younger one, I guess they figured, who was theologically educated, than not.
But in any case, it’s very clear that the canon says that you should be 30 to be an elder. It’s interesting [that] it doesn’t say about deacons or bishops. Of course, later on, you couldn’t be a bishop unless you were a presbyter first, but at this time you could be. At that time, you might be a bishop younger, but you couldn’t be a presbyter younger. So this is what we find here.
Country presbyters, or country episcopoi, may not make oblation in the church of the city when the bishop or presbyters of the city are present, nor may they give the bread or the cup with prayer. If, however, they be absent, and he, that is, the country presbyter, alone is called to prayer, then he may distribute the gifts.
So that means those who are given special permission to celebrate the Eucharist and to celebrate the gifts should do so only under those special conditions, and if they’re in the churches where the bishops and the presbyters are, they follow the normal order. This is what is taught there.
Very interesting canon, canonical code, also there in the fourth century, you have the canons of Antioch. In 341, there was a council in Antioch, which also had canons which mainly had to do with the clergy again. Some of them are just repetitions of what we have in other places—which shows that, in a sense, they’re not repetitions of Nicaea, some of them, because the council was done before Nicaea. But this Antiochian council is after Nicaea, and it begins with the canon one that says:
Whoever does presume to set aside the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in the presence of the pious Emperor Constantine concerning the feast of Easter, when it shall be celebrated, shall themselves be disciplined.
[That means] that you have to follow what was decided for the whole empire at Nicaea under Constantine and not continue following what other local practices you may have had. This indicates that there is now a kind of universalization of practices in all the churches in the empire. In other words, the emperor will start decreeing things so that there would be uniformity in the churches. Certainly, they wanted the uniformity on the date of Pascha. That was decided by the First Ecumenical Council. However, we should know that even till today, there’s a dispute about what actually was decreed, what actually was decided, how it is to be interpreted. We still have the problems of calendar, and we still have problems of the date of Easter, even in the 21st century, even though Constantine tried to solve that in the fourth century.
We have also canons about people leaving their churches and going into other churches. We have canons of bishops of some churches interfering in the internal affairs of other churches. We have bishops who have been deposed by a synod, deacons and presbyters who have been deposed, who then still continue to celebrate or to do some of their ministry after having been deposed. We have that in our time, too. All this is already there in the fourth century. Those who have been excommunicated by their bishop, they have to be restored by their own bishop and not by another bishop. There must be conciliarity and there must be discussion among all the bishops to make sure that what is done in each of the churches is decent, in order, and united with what is done essentially in the other churches.
You also have the teaching in Antioch that the persons in the villages in the districts who are the chorepiscopoi, these kind of suffragan bishops, who have received ordination to the episcopate by bishops; they still have to preserve the limits to their own office relative to their own bishop. They may ordain readers, subdeacons, and exorcists, but they cannot presume to ordain presbyters or deacons without the consent of the bishop of the city, the main bishop in that particular region. In other words, the presbyters and the chorepiscopoi are all under the guidance of the one bishop of that one city, the chief city of the particular region.
There’s an interesting canon also in this Antioch that no bishop, presbyter, or any clergy shall presume to appeal to the emperor for any purpose without the consent and letter of the bishop of his province, particularly the bishop of the metropolis. In other words, no clergy can go and ask something of the emperor without first asking permission of his own bishop to do so. This is, of course, also to keep everything decent and in order, and to go first to his own metropolitan. The metropolitan then may say, “Yes, you may appeal.” Then he may do it, but he can’t do it first.
Then, of course, you have canon 13 of Antioch, that bishops can’t go from province to province. They can’t be wandering around. They can’t enter a diocese without permission. They can’t do sacraments without permission. If they do, they are null and void. And, again, these show that there was plenty of disorder in the fourth century going on, if you have these kind of canons.
So this is what we see in the canons beside those of Nicaea in the fourth century. There are plenty of other, very similar things, very commonsensical things, you might say, but which do show that things were going on. For example, it’s forbidden if a church which is in a certain region becomes empty, a bishop of another region can’t come take it over. He can’t take it over under his guidance if it’s without clergy, but still is [in] another region and therefore has another bishop who’s supposed to be taking care of it.
You also have a canon here that:
If anyone has received ordination of a bishop and has been appointed to preside over a people, like a presbyter, but won’t accept it and will not be persuaded to proceed to the church that’s entrusted to him, he shall be excommunicated, until, being constrained, accept it or until a full synod of bishops shall have determined concerning him.
In other words, if a presbyter or a deacon is ordained and assigned by a bishop to a certain church, he’s got to go there, and if he refuses to go there, he cannot have holy Communion until the matter is settled. He’s either got to go there, or the whole synod of bishops have to act on his behalf, with his own bishop. But you can’t be ordained to go to a church and then refuse to go there, within a church and then refuse to serve within that church.
But what this shows also is that by the fourth century bishops and presbyters and deacons were not always being found within their own churches as they were in the first three centuries. They were being taken from other places and assigned to particular churches, which is something new and something that has to be come to terms with; you have to deal with it.
Of course, today that is simply the practice. Virtually no diocese and no parish in the Orthodox Church today has a member of its own parish or its own diocese as its bishop or priest. Sometimes even people think, “Thank God,” because they would have been too involved in the affairs of that church to be a good pastor to that church. But in any case, nowadays, almost all of us presbyters and bishops, we come from other churches and are assigned to other churches, but we have to still be assigned to the church that we’re sent to and have to be accepted by the people where we are and have the local bishop affirming our service there. Everything has to be, as St. Paul said in the letter to [the] Corinthians, “decently and in order.”
Of course, we have again this repetition that a bishop cannot be ordained without a synod and the metropolitan’s permission. Two or three bishops can’t just get together and make another bishop just because it’s valid, because you have to be two or three. No, it has to be a conciliar, commonly accepted act, with everybody involved being on the same page, so to speak. You can’t have conflict; you’ve got to solve the conflicts before ordinations take place.
Canon 20 even refers to this. It says:
With a view to the good of the Church and the settlement of disputes, it is declared to be well that synods of bishops, of which the metropolitan shall give notice, shall be held, every province twice a year, to settle all disputations.
How often that is repeated. In other words, how necessary that is, and how perhaps, very much, it was being violated, that the bishops were not meeting together. It says in the New Testament in the letter to [the] Hebrews: “Do not neglect to meet together.” This is something with tremendous canonical enforcement in the canons of the fourth century.
Canon 22 of Antioch says:
Let not a bishop go to a strange city which is not subject to himself, nor into a district which does not belong to him, either to ordain anyone or to appoint presbyters or deacons, to places within the jurisdiction of any other bishop, unless with consent of the proper bishop of the place. If anyone shall presume to do such a thing, the ordinations and appointments shall be void, and he himself shall be punished by the synod.
Then you have a canon also that the bishop, even at the end of his life, cannot appoint a successor to himself. It’s got to be done by the people with the affirmation of the entire synod.
A very interesting canon here, the last one of the Antioch, canon 25, says this:
Let the bishop have power over the funds of the church, so as to dispense them with all piety and in the fear of God to all who have need. If there be occasion, let him take what he require for his own necessary use and those of the brethren living with him, so that he may in no way lack according to the divine apostle who says, “Having food and raiment, let us therefore be content, and the ox is not muzzled who threshes out the grain.”
If he shall not be content with these, but shall apply the funds to his own private uses and not manage the revenues of the church or the rent of farms with the consent of presbyters and deacons, but to give authority to his own personal servants and relatives, brothers or sisters or sons, [so that] the accounts of the church are secretly injured, he himself shall submit to an investigation by the synod of the province. But if, on the other hand, the bishop or his presbyters shall be defamed as appropriating to themselves what belongs to the church, lands or properties or monies, so that the poor are oppressed, and accusation and infamy are brought upon the account and on those who administer it, let them also be subject to discipline and correction, the holy synod determining what is right in every case.
Here it shows that the bishops really had the power over the properties and the monies and the goods of the Church, and had to dispense them properly. One of the reasons in the sixth century why they will make the rule that the bishops have to be celibate is exactly because nepotism grew up, that bishops were actually giving properties to relatives, to their children (because they were married at this time), and then it was a mixture between what was theirs and what was [of] the Church. This canon says it’s got to be very clear what belongs to the Church and what belongs to the bishop personally, so that it would be known what belongs to whom.
You have the canons of Laodicea, you have the canons of Gangra—all in the fourth century—which repeat, more or less, these same things over and again, over and again. It means that they must have been very, very prevalent, very much happening.
Canon three, for example, of Laodicea (343 [or] 381), says:
He who has just been recently baptized ought not to be promoted to the sacerdotal order.
In other words, you don’t ordain someone just recently baptized.
You also have:
Those who are of the sacerdotal order (that’s the priesthood) ought not to lend and receive usury.
We saw that already in the earlier canons.
It says here, canon five:
Ordinations are not to be held in the presence of hearers.
In other words, the ordination [should] take place only in the Liturgy of the Faithful, and not when catechumens and other people are present.
It actually says in canon six:
It is not permitted to heretics to enter the house of God while they continue in their heresy.
It meant for the witnessing and the celebration of the holy Mysteries, because at that time, of course, only the faithful, not even the catechumens, could be present at the holy Mysteries of the holy Communion. This is what we find here.
Another interesting canon of Laodicea says:
The election of those who are to be appointed to the priesthood or episcopate is not to be committed to the crowds.
In other words, you have to have elections that are decent and in order, and you can’t have tumultuous crowds deciding who the bishops are. This is something that was very much kept in mind at that time, because there was so much, what can you say, competition of who might become the bishop of a particular church.
So this is what you find in Laodicea in these particular canons. You have members of the priesthood, of the clergy, and even laymen, should not club together for drinking entertainments. Meetings of the presbyters and the priesthood and the bishops and clergy must not witness the plays at weddings or banquets, and they must leave and depart before the players and the music arrives. They’re not to dance and leap at weddings, it says in the commentary. The presbyters and the bishops are not supposed to be partying.
Another canon of Laodicea says
Presbyters may not enter and take their seats in the bema before the entrance of the bishop. They must enter with the bishop unless he be home sick or absent.
So there should be decent order in the churches. This is what we find in these kind of canons, which show that there was plenty of disorder going on, plenty of things happening in that way.
The council of Gangra also is an important council at this time, particularly because of sexual things. The canons of the council of Gangra were against those super-duper ascetics who refused to receive communion at the hands of a priest because he was married, or a bishop because he was married. Or those who entered the monastic life because they despised sexuality; or women who entered ascetical life and dressed like men and cut their hair off, allegedly for ascetical purposes; or those who fast on the Lord’s Day, on Sundays and feast days, because they think they’re holier than the other people; or women who would abandon their husbands and their children because they abhor marriage, and enter monasteries in that way. So there was a kind of a whole list of canons that have to do with the fact that bishops can be married, marriage is honorable, no one should abhor it, and if people enter monastic life, it has to be [with] a pure heart for their doing so, and not because of their despising of sexuality or marriage or sexual intercourse.
These are what we find in the fourth century, which show that a whole lot of things came up which were not present earlier in the first three centuries. They primarily came up, we have to say, because of the new situation in the Church, because of the toleration and even the establishment of Christianity and because, from the time of Constantine himself, clergymen, particularly bishops, were given a very prominent, powerful place in society, with power, with position, with possession, with properties, with funds, with money, with grain, with goods, and with Church buildings and so on, and then this led, of course, to abuses. But this is what happened in the fourth century, and it will color and it will carry on through the history of the Church through this time.
In the fourth century, you have treatises on the priesthood, not only canons, which bear witness to what was happening then. I believe it’s worthwhile to spend a little time just thinking about a few of them, which we will do next time.