St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (Ecumenical Patriarchate)
From Pastoral Life

"From Pastoral Life"

Authority and Accountability

Fr. Bohdan Hladio

January 2010

Common sense dictates that any system or society in which authority is not tied to accountability is doomed to failure.

Anyone who has authority must be accountable, otherwise chaos and corruption will likely ensue. As the saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  Conversely, the person who is accountable for a particular activity or outcome must have the authority to do what is necessary to insure that the given activity is fulfilled or outcome achieved, otherwise the chance of success is small.

A simple illustration might involve building a shed.  On Monday a boss says to her employee “I need you to build a shed by Friday”.  The employee is now accountable for getting the shed built.  He goes to buy the materials, but is told that he doesn’t have the authority to spend the money.  He tries to hire the workers, but is told he doesn’t have hiring authority. Come Friday the shed isn’t built.  The work doesn’t get done, and the employee is fired.  When anyone is held accountable but lacks authority it always ends up in failure and consternation.

The same thing happens in reverse when, for example, someone ignores their own accountability, oversteps their authority, and begins unilaterally to buy, sell, build, tear down, hire, fire, and do all manner of things which ultimately harm their employees, their families, their businesses, their society, the Church, etc.

The principle that authority must be tied to accountability and vice versa is not just common sense, it’s Biblical: 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many  (Mt. 20: 25-28).

“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Lk. 12:48).

This principle is (or should be) evident in the life of the Church at all levels.  The Patriarch of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of all Orthodox bishops, is accountable to the Patriarchal Synod.  He does not govern by decree, but presides at meetings of the Synod where decisions are made in a conciliar manner.  One of the most fundamental problems we Orthodox have with the Papal manner of church governance, where the Pope is accorded universal jurisdiction and infallibility in matters of faith and morals, is precisely the lack of accountability inherent in such a system.

A Bishop is responsible for the state of his diocese.  He is accountable to the Episcopal Synod, as well as before the clergy and faithful entrusted to his care. Likewise a parish priest or members of a parish council are first and foremost servants, whose primary job it is to preach and spread Christ’s Gospel in both word and deed. The priest is accountable to his Bishop and his faithful, the faithful to the priest, bishop and each other. All of us are ultimately accountable before Christ and His Church. 

This issue impacts Church by-laws directly.  From a governance standpoint by-laws will only be successful if they clearly incarnate not only the authority or responsibilities of each individual member of the Church, but also the accountability of every member, whether clergy or lay, and how that accountability is to be publicly manifested. 

Authority is given to individuals insofar as it is necessary for them to fulfill their God-given responsibilities.  Great danger ensues when authority is usurped.  Examples of this might include the priest who rejects an official directive from higher church authorities; laymen who involve themselves in matters which they are not competent to act upon or speak about due to a lack of knowledge, experience, lawful appointment or spiritual maturity; a bishop whose actions do not accord with the canons or civil constitution of the church; or a diocesan council which, when made aware of improprieties or irregularities, fails to investigate or demand accountability from the guilty party. 

This is why it is so important that candidates to the clergy, and especially to higher office in the Church, as well as laymen who are candidates for positions of leadership such as prospective members of a parish or diocesan council, must be very carefully examined before ordination or election in order to determine their capabilities, competencies, and motives.  How often it happens, though, that people are elected or ordained simply because “we need priests”, or “there isn’t anyone else willing to serve”, or worse yet, because they’re on an egotistical power trip?

To be a member of the Church means to be accountable for my words and actions before God and my fellow Christians.  As St. Paul says, “we are members of one another”, and as such bear responsibilities which, depending on how they are fulfilled, will impact our Church and our Christian brethren either positively or negatively.

Anyone who exercises authority without accountability is dangerous.  Anyone who is held accountable but not given the requisite authority to fulfill his or her responsibilities will fail.  Insofar as we hold ourselves accountable for our actions on a biblical, canonical, spiritual, statutory, practical, and personal level our church, our parish, and our personal spiritual journey can’t help but be successful. 

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