The Church and Eschatology
The Church belongs ultimately to the age to come; here in this age, it is only sojourning on its way to the Kingdom. That means that although there are earthly and institutional elements to the Church (e.g., the existence of officers and leaders, of rules and boundaries), it can never be fully defined in institutional terms. The Church is, in fact, the Kingdom of God on earth in sacramental form, as seed.1
The entire world has been redeemed by Christ and is therefore on the way to becoming the Kingdom of God. The Church is that part of creation which has submitted to Christ and begun to experience that final transformation now, in this age. The Church is therefore a microcosm, an image of what all will become in the age to come. It is set in this age as a promise and prophecy of the future triumph of Christ over all. The Church is the presence of the future, the presence now of the Kingdom of God is which “already and not yet.”2
In its historical sojourn, the Church has had a long journey, from the catacombs to Byzantium, from being a hunted sect to being ruler of the Roman world. In its current state, the Orthodox Church consists of 15 individual bodies called “autocephalous churches”—churches spread throughout certain geographical areas in which the bishops within that area all look to one bishop as their leader and coordinator. Sometimes this leader is called a “patriarch”, but the title varies, as does the size and spread of the autocephalous churches.
The term autocephalous is comparatively modern; it now refers to the fact that each individual church has its own head (Greek kephale) and so functions independently of the other autocephalous churches. Thus, there is no single leader with power or jurisdiction or leadership responsibility for all the Orthodox churches, functioning in the same way as the Pope functions in the Roman Catholic Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople occupies a place of honour as the first among equals, the place once filled by the Bishop of Rome before the west split from the east. But he has no canonical authority whatsoever outside his own jurisdiction.
It is the same within an autocephalous church: the head of an autocephalous church, the primus inter pares and leader of the synod or gathering of bishops, has no jurisdiction outside his own diocese. The diocesan bishop, though answerable to the synod as a whole, is sovereign within his own diocese. Despite the multiplicity of episcopal titles (such as Patriarch, Metropolitan, Archbishop) the hierarchy is relatively simple, consisting of the diocesan bishop and the clergy under him.
Since many autocephalous churches identify with the national goals and aspirations of the nations which often constitute their boundaries, the temptation exists for those churches to function as the spiritual handmaiden to the nation, submerging their eschatological identity and the priority of the Gospel to national identity and goals. But however much the temptation exists for churches to serve political agendas (especially in time of war), this temptation should be strongly resisted.