The fallibility of the Church

Do we believe in it?

I'm sure we don't agree with the Catholic concept of Papal infallibility, but in general do we believe that our church statements are always correct?


  • From what I've learned, the Pope is not infallible. However the Ecumenical Councils and the decisions that are reached by all of the bishops on behalf of the church are indeed infallible. I will try and find more sources for you. Hope I helped :)
  • i think the church is more likely to be right than i am!
  • Individuals of the Church are not infallible; however, the Church is the Body of Christ, and so the ecumenical body is infallible. In order for an council to be Oecumenical (Οἰκουμένικος, pronounced 'eekoomEneekos'), it must be convened by an Orthodox emperor, attended by the bishops of the five Apostolic Sees (or two representatives per bishop if a bishop cannot attend), and attended by the bishops of each Patriarchal See (the representative rule applies here too). The bishops of the Apostolic Sees include the Bishops of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. I am not currently up-to-date on the current Patriarchal Sees, and it is likely that many of the Patriarchal Sees of the Eastern Orthodox Church are not recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

    In order for a verdict to be reached by an Oecumenical Council, a nearly unanimous vote must be reached amongst all bishops present. As an example, I'll provide an instance that occurred during the Council of Nicaea, in which Saint Nicholas of Myra (commonly recognized in the West as "Santa Claus") became disgruntled during the proceedings. Arius, who had become extremely popular among Christians, had delivered a speech in defense of his position against the divinity of Christ. Good old Saint Nick promptly stood and stated that we Christians have suffered and died in the name of Christ for generations, and now that Christians are no longer persecuted, Arius intends to destroy our faith. After speaking, Nicholas stepped down and landed a punch in Arius' jaw.

    Saint Nicholas was told that he was unfit to vote in the proceedings, and still, even all but 2 of Arius' supporters voted against him.

    Such is a similar case in each Oecumenical Council (the ironic majority votes, not the fist-fights). In the Council of Ephesus, both the initial supporters of both Pelagius and Nestorius voted against Pelagianism and Nestorianism.

    Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, we believe that Oecumenical Councils are guided by the infallible Holy Spirit. We will need Father Peter to verify that this is the same in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
  • [quote author=gregorytheSinner link=topic=8810.msg110445#msg110445 date=1265928851]
    Do we believe in it?

    I'm sure we don't agree with the Catholic concept of Papal infallibility, but in general do we believe that our church statements are always correct?

    In our Orthodox understanding it is the Holy Spirit who is infallible. He preserves the Church of Christ through difficult times so that 'the gates of Hell shall not prevail'. I agree with Mixahls that it is the Holy Spirit who is infallible.

    I find it much more helpful to think in terms of truth and authority, rather than using the word infallible. If something is true then it is authoritative, its measure of authority depends on how widely applicable it is considered to be.

    The ecumenical councils of the Orthodox Church - Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and perhaps Ephesus II - are ecumenical using the word in the sense of 'throughout the Empire', or 'universal'. And they have authority because they gathered together a significant number of bishops from around the Empire, who were able to come to some agreement on the truth. So their authority lies in the fact that many bishops agreed on the witness to the truth from many parts of the Church.

    Now in our Orthodox understanding these councils are not set above and beyond the Church, they are part of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church. At one extreme we have the great councils where many local Orthodox Churches are represented an at which the truth is described in a way that is authoritative for all people and places, but on the same scale, yet at the other end, we have the local Synod of a local Orthodox Church, or even the local Council of a bishop with his priests and representative lay people. In all of these conciliar activities the Holy Spirit is active, and we turn to Him to lead us into truth. Now the truth of a local bishop's council may be just as true, but it will lack the universal scope and authority of a national Synod and of an ecumenical or universal Council.

    The local bishop with his priests will deal with issues which are relevant to his area of authority. He will seek to discern answers to particular questions bearing on his own congregations. And we may rightly believe that these will be true judgements which come out of such very local councils, if the participants are seeking the mind of Christ in the Holy Spirit. But though these judgements might be true and right, they will only have authority in his own diocese. They will also tend to be related to practical matters. If it is determined that the collection be taken up in such a way and at such a time then this local council has the authority to insist that having reflected and prayed about the matter then THIS is the way it will take place here and now in this Diocese. But the authority of this local council would not bind a neighbouring Diocese, even less a Diocese of a different Orthodox Church, and would not bind any successor bishop either, if circumstances changed.

    When the local National Synod meets, they also seek and expect the help of the Holy Spirit to determine the will of God for the Church and to bear witness to the truth where it is challenged. The issues which are dealt with at such a level will be more authoritative because a greater number of bishops have come together and their prayerful reflection will have implications for all of their Dioceses. They may discuss relations with other groups, they may consider disciplinary matters, they may reflect on doctrinal responses to new forms of old heresies. They will seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and then, as they bear witness to the truth, so their witness has the authority of the truth, and its wider scope will be reflected by the wider participation. Their reflections are not more true than those of a single bishop in his own council, but because of the wider participation they can have greater scope and authority.

    Finally, at an ecumenical council, where many national Orthodox Churches are represented, there is the possibility of dealing with issues which have the widest scope, and can be considered authoritative in all places and among all people. The three ecumenical councils also deal with many practical issues, as well as doctrinal ones, and they are also set in a particular time and context. But within that context and with a right understanding of it, we consider that their deliberations are authoritative in our own times as well, especially in doctrinal matters.

    The trouble with the idea of infallibility is that it introduces a false notion that some councils are set above the Church, or descended from Heaven, or are like the Qoran. All councils take place WITHIN the Church, and therefore we can see and understand various pressures and controversies which are reflected in their deliberations. It is also the case that some councils which were representative of many bishops and Churches did not witness to the truth. Our own Orthodox Church rejects the council of Chalcedon, even though many bishops were there, because we have been taught that it fell to much towards the error of Nestorius. So numbers are not a guarantee.

    Likewise, circumstances change, and so our bishops are not bound by every practical canon, which were the response of bishops to the situation of their own time - even though our bishops will seek to put into practice the same spirit, but in our own circumstances. When it was forbidden for Christians to visit a Jewish hairdresser it was in a certain circumstance. That circumstance has changed, and I have never heard of any bishop insisting that this rule must always apply. Yet the spirit of the rule should apply.

    Also it is the case that understandings change. When Nicaea was held the creed it produced was enough for that time, but a little later and other errors needed to be dealt with, therefore the creed was expanded and changed a little, to deal with false thinking about the Holy Spirit. Even at Ephesus I there were those who insisted that by denying Christ was truly God the Word they were only being faithful to the previous councils. Yet they were in error.

    So the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church goes on. It is not enough to say - here are 3 or 4 documents, accept them and you will never go wrong - almost any human document can be misread, misunderstood and misapplied. This is why our bishops, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, lead us into truth, and into a proper understanding of our Faith. It is an ongoing journey, and at every step there are expressions of the grace of the Holy Spirit in teaching us the truth. The scope of that truth is the measure of how much authority it has.

    In general - because all humans make errors - our church statements are true because the Holy Spirit leads our godly bishops, over 2000 years from the time of St Mark - into reflecting truthfully on those things which affect the Church, and by their reflection together as bishops, both in the See of Alexandria, and with other Patriarchs and bishops from other local Orthodox Churches, a clear understanding of the truth is discovered and witnessed to which has authority in all of our Churches. This understanding and witness is not a static thing, but by the Holy Spirit working in our bishops becomes always new and always relevant. Nor does it mean that the decisions of the councils at various levels are relative.

    On a practical matter, I do not believe that we would consider any Imperial involvement to be necessary for an ecumenical council to be called. The Imperial involvement was more often than not a hindrance to the Church bearing witness to the truth and ignored the fact that a great many Christians lived outside the Roman Empire. It would be expected that representatives from all of the Orthodox Churches be present. The pan-Orthodox conference in 1965 is an example of the sort of meeting which could be organised, although that did not claim to be an ecumenical council.

    Father Peter
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