Christianity: Eastern Orthodox

Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Church Structure

The Eastern Church is a fellowship of self-governing churches, which are either ‘autocephalous’ (independently administered and self-governed) or ‘autonomous’ (self-governed but also dependent on an autocephalous church). Bishops of these self-governed churches meet in councils to discuss theological matters through consensus.

Each Eastern Church has its own geographical title that usually reflects the culture and language of that region. of the organisation usually reflect the church’s territorial scope. Several of the autocephalous churches are de facto national churches. However, churches are becoming less geographically or ethnically confined due to the effects of migration and the creation of Greek, Russian and Serbian populations (including other communities). Apart from their cultural and linguistic differences, all Eastern churches follow the same canon law, hold the same position on doctrinal and administration matters, and share the same liturgy and sacraments. Some churches are universally recognised while others are not (which are demarcated with an asterisk in the following lists).

The Ancient Autocephalous Churches

The following four churches are the highest-ranking churches in the Eastern tradition. The heads of these churches are referred to as ‘patriarchs’. Though there is no formal among churches and clergy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is highly respected as authoritative over matters relating to the Eastern tradition.

  • Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Turkey)
  • Patriarchate of Alexandria (Egypt and the African Continent)
  • Patriarchate of Antioch (Syria and the Middle East)
  • Patriarchate of Jerusalem (Israel)

The Autocephalous Churches

  • Patriarchate of Moscow (Russia)
  • Patriarchate of Serbia
  • Patriarchate of Romania
  • Patriarchate of Bulgaria
  • Patriarchate of Georgia
  • Church of Cyprus
  • Church of Greece
  • Church of Poland
  • Church of Albania
  • Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia
  • Church in America*

The Autonomous Churches

  • Church of Sinai (Egypt)
  • Church of Finland
  • Church of Estonia*
  • Church of Japan*
  • Church of China*
  • Church of Ukraine*
  • Archdiocese of Ohrid* (Macedonia)

Social Structure

Generally, there is no standard social structure that underpins a follower of Eastern . This means that many Eastern Christians may use services. Some Eastern individuals may visit institutions that are Eastern oriented (for example, an Eastern school). However, this is usually determined by personal preference.


A common figure in an Eastern ’s life is the role of a godparent. In the Eastern tradition, godparents consist of one female and one male adult, who are usually baptised. Godparents bear witness to their godchild’s baptism and are responsible for the spiritual development of the child. In some predominantly Eastern countries, the relationship between the biological parents and godparents is particularly special. The two couples may hold mutual obligations to one another to ensure the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the Eastern child.

Organisational Structure

There are three general categories within the organisational structure of the Eastern tradition: the clergy, monastics and laity. Part of the Eastern churches’ organisational structure is the organisation of administration based on territorial areas, known as dioceses. Each diocese has a collection of local parishes, which are smaller areas of administration and local places of worship.


The clergy refers to the body of all ordained members of Eastern churches. The clergy hold considerable authority in certain aspects in the life of the church. For example, Eastern clergy tend to the liturgical and ritual aspects of the church as well as teach or otherwise assist in sharing doctrines. The three major holy orders of the Eastern Church are bishops (episcopacy), priests (presbyterate) and deacons (diaconate).

  • Bishops: In the Eastern tradition, the position of the bishop is considered to be the highest within the clergy. All bishops are co-equal to one another. Each bishop only holds authority over his respective diocese. Bishops are expected to uphold the continuity and unity of the Church, teach and guide the , and celebrate liturgical practice, the sacraments and daily prayer. In the Eastern tradition, bishops are required to be single or widowed men.
  • Priests: Priests are ordained by bishops to minister the . The duties of priests include celebrating liturgical practice, the sacraments and the daily cycle of prayer. Priests can be subdivided into two categories, married or monastic priests. A married man may be ordained into priesthood if his marriage is the first for both him and his wife. However, if a single man is ordained, he is required to remain celibate.
  • Deacons: Deacons are the third rank of the major holy orders of the clergy. The duties of deacons include assisting the celebration of the sacraments, leading people in prayer, reading scriptures during religious services and other tasks related to the life of the church. Celibacy is not a requirement of the diaconate.


Monastics refer to those who are not members of the clergy, yet live a devout religious life by upholding public religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A male monastic is referred to as a monk, while a female monastic is referred to as a nun. Unlike the Roman Catholic tradition, Eastern monastics do not follow a specific religious order. Eastern monastics tend to live in buildings known as monasteries that have restricted access to the outside world. Monasteries allow for a highly communal religious practice, meaning that all congregate together to pray, eat and work. Monasteries also allow individuals to practice their life of deep contemplation, study and prayer. As such, monks and nuns tend not to participate in the active ministry of the Church.


The term ‘laity’ refers to lay or ordinary people who are not part of the formal religious order. Lay participation in the church varies from region to region, such as participating in episcopal (bishop) elections, church administration, preaching and theological education.

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