Saint George Orthodox Christian Church
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
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What is the Church?
Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism: Differing Visions of the Church

What is the Church? It seems like a simple question. However, if we pose this question to people from a variety of Christian traditions, the answers will often differ. In fact, a devout member of the Orthodox Church, a pious Roman Catholic, and a practicing Protestant Christian would each give a significantly different answer. Each of these traditions has a different vision of the Church!

In order to understand why this is so—and perhaps to answer for ourselves this very important question What is the Church—we must briefly examine the relationship between these three major Christian traditions: Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.

The Church in the first millennium
To begin looking at these traditions’ different visions of the Church, we must go back to a time before Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism existed as separate traditions. Before the Protestant Reformation—which began in 1517—the Protestant tradition and the various denominations arising from it did not exist. If we go back further still, even the ancient traditions of Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism did not exist as separate confessions.
   For the first millennium after the birth, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the worldwide Christian community was essentially united. Though there were numerous controversies and struggles with heresy, the Church abided as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. During this time, the Church was a worldwide body of regional churches (also known as “local churches”) following the apostolic teaching and preaching of one Lord, one faith, one baptism(1) who remained in communion with one another through their local bishops.(2) These local bishops shepherded their flocks in the place of the apostles, being chosen for their virtue and spiritual maturity. Through the laying on of hands, each bishop was consecrated in a direct line of succession beginning with the original apostles.
   When need arose, these local bishops would gather together in regional or worldwide councils(3) patterned off of the first Church council as recorded in Acts 15. Here, they would discuss important matters of faith, morality, and church discipline. During such gatherings, to facilitate good order in matters of administration and worship, there was established a canonical system called presvya—the ordering or ranking of individuals according to seniority. During councils, presvya determined which bishop would preside over the meeting; in matters of worship, presvya determined which prayers and petitions the clergy in attendance would recite during the worship services. Over time, this canonical order came to reflect the prominence of the bishops’ communities as based upon size and civic/historic importance.
   Some local bishops were shepherds of important metropolitan centers, whereas others were shepherds of smaller communities. Often, certain bishops were given greater administrative responsibilities due to the size and prominence of their communities. However, no unique gift was given by the Holy Spirit to these particular bishops. Every bishop was a successor to the apostles, every bishop was a shepherd to his own community, and in matters of faith, every bishop’s vote carried equal weight when gathered together in council.
   From her earliest days this is how the Church functioned. Over the centuries, however, things slowly began to change.

The Prominence of Rome
During the first several centuries of the Church, bishops of prominent communities began to be given descriptive titles. Some might be called “archbishop” or “metropolitan” because of the large geographical area or populace they shepherded. Eventually, the five most prominent communities came to be called patriarchates.(4) Even the term “pope” came to be used as a title for the Bishop of Rome, as well as for others.(5) Such titles denoted an honorary designation given by the Church to the bishops of these various communities. Essentially, however, these titles were a matter of presvya. Whether the title was “patriarch,” “metropolitan,” “archbishop,” or even “pope,” ultimately, all of these were simply bishops. Independent of the size of their flocks, all bishops were equal in matters of proclaiming and defending the Apostolic Faith.
   However, over time, a change began to take place in the role held by the Bishop of Rome. From the earliest centuries, the church in Rome had been accorded special honor. Some ascribe this honor to the fact that the Apostles Peter and Paul both served in the church of Rome and were martyred there.(6) However, during earlier centuries, the special honor accorded to Rome was based primarily upon her civic prominence. Simply stated, Rome was the imperial capital. Beyond her apostolic and specifically Petrine roots—both of which were shared by other communities—Rome’s ecclesiastical honor was first a reflection of her civic importance.(7)
   However, the honor and affection accorded to the church in Rome were not entirely due to the city’s political position. As the old imperial capital, the church in Rome was the first to experience widespread and sustained persecution under the Emperor Nero, producing many faithful martyrs. Centuries later, as several heresies arose and were disputed in the Greek-speaking East, Rome and the western Latin-speaking Christians were spared—often being sheltered from controversy by their cultural and linguistic differences.
   During such times of persecution and heresy, the church in Rome proved stalwart in her defense of the Apostolic Faith. Thus, there were occasions when other bishops would appeal to the church in Rome and seek in the pope—as the senior bishop—a partner in defending the Apostolic Faith from the threat of heresy. Due to this fact, and coupled with her civic prominence, the church in Rome also served as a final court of appeal during ecclesiastical controversy.
   Because of this, the Bishop of Rome was given an honorary title as “the first among equals.” While this designation expressed the aforementioned practical role occasionally taken on by the Bishop of Rome, even more, it expressed the Church’s affection. For centuries, this title was understood as an honorary designation and a matter of canonical order or presvya. Simply stated, during this time, the Bishop of Rome was understood to be “the first among EQUALS” rather than “the FIRST among equals.”

The Seat of Peter
Due largely to historic circumstance, the Bishop of Rome slowly came to be looked upon in a unique way in the western-half of Christendom. Whereas there were numerous communities with apostolic roots in the Christian East, Rome was the only local church in the Christian West directly associated with any of the original Apostles. Thus, the see of Rome stood out and came to be uniquely esteemed within the surrounding region.
   Occasionally, isolated claims were made about the pope’s authority over other bishops. In the mid-3rd century, Pope St. Stephen was the first pope to argue for a Petrine justification(8) to support his notion that the Bishop of Rome possessed a special authority over and above other bishops. This argument was strongly refuted by St. Cyprian of Carthage.(9) A century-and-a-half later, Pope Damasus became the first Bishop of Rome to systematically use this particular interpretation of Matthew 16:18 as theological justification for a unique papal authority. Several of his successors to the episcopacy in Rome—especially Innocent I and Gelasius—also perpetuated the notion of unique authority as based upon the person of St. Peter.
   In a letter to the bishops of North Africa in 417,(10) Pope Innocent wrote that all decisions made even in the remotest of places must be referred to Rome. At the end of the 5th century, in an attempt to correct a doctrinal compromise accepted by the emperor, Pope Gelasius exhibited a notion of the papacy that went beyond even that proposed by Innocent. Envisioning an authority extending far beyond Rome, Pope Gelasius wrote that “the emperor ought to submit his neck to the prelates, and above all to the pope as the chief prelate,” and that “the see of blessed Peter has the right to loose what has been bound by the decisions of any bishops whatever.”(11)
   As already noted, this growth in the influence and authority of the see of Rome was based in part upon Rome’s unique position in the Christian West. There, an appeal to the person of St. Peter as a justification for special authority meant something quite different than it would in the Christian East, which contained numerous apostolic, and even Petrine, sees.
   Beyond Rome’s uniqueness in the Christian West as the sole local church with direct apostolic roots, there is another contributing factor that led to this change in the Bishop of Rome’s role. Beginning in the 5th century, Rome began to suffer recurring waves of barbaric invasion. During such periods, when civil authority and basic public services were virtually non-existent, the Church provided the only source of social, economic, and spiritual stability. Naturally, during such times the citizens of Rome turned to their bishop or pope. Forced by necessity into this role, the Bishop of Rome’s ministry began to take on a political character as well as a spiritual one. Over the centuries, this blending of secular and spiritual roles grew.
   It is worthy to note that this particular blending of civic and spiritual authority did not take place in such a way in the Christian East. By the mid-300s, the operating capital of the Roman empire had been moved from Rome to Constantinople. Centered around her new capital, the eastern half of the empire existed in a state of relative stability for another millennium. Though the Christian East did experience wars and the threat of invasions, she was free from the extreme civil upheaval and subsequent “dark ages” that were experienced by Rome and the Christian West at this time.

A Pope’s Words
One of the popes whose tenure contributed the most to this blending of civil and spiritual roles was Pope St. Gregory the Great. While serving as the Bishop of Rome during a period of great turmoil in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, St. Gregory was also effectively the civil governor of Rome. Thrown into this role by necessity, St. Gregory preserved the Church, ministered to his people, and was a source of much needed stability—he is remembered as one of the greatest Bishops of Rome by both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
   Although the authority vested in the Bishop of Rome had been growing for several centuries, it is very interesting to note Pope St. Gregory’s own words on the subject of a unique authority vested in a single individual. Condemning the Patriarch of Constantinople on the occasion of his acceptance of the title “Ecumenical” or “Universal” Patriarch, St. Gregory wrote:

* “Not one of them [the bishops of Rome] has ever wished to be called by such a title, or seized upon this ill-advised name, lest if, in virtue of the rank of the pontificate, he took to himself the glory of singularity, he might seem to have denied it to all his brethren.” (NPNF, 2, XII, Book V, Epistle 18, p. 167)

* “Certainly Peter, the first of the apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John, what were they but the heads of particular communities.” (Epistle 18, p. 167)

* “For what are all thy brethren, the bishops of the universal Church, but stars of heaven whose life and discourse shine together.” (Epistle 18, p. 166)

* “In this rash presumption the peace of the whole Church is disturbed, is in contradiction to the grace that is poured out on all [bishops] in common.” (Epistle 18, p. 166)

* “To assent to that atrocious title is nothing less than to lose the faith.” (Epistle 19, p. 169)

* “Far from Christian hearts be that name of blasphemy, in which the honour of all priests is taken away, while it is madly arrogated to himself by one.” (Epistle 20, p. 170)

* “Certainly the apostle Paul, when he heard some say, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, but I of Christ (1 Cor. 1:13), regarded with the utmost horror such dilacerations of the Lord’s body, whereby they were joining themselves, as it were, to other heads, and exclaimed, saying, Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? If then he shunned the subjecting of the members of Christ partially to certain heads, as if beside Christ, though this were to the apostles themselves, what wilt thou say to Christ, who is the Head of the universal Church, in the scrutiny of the last judgment, having attempted to put all His members under thyself by the appellation of Universal?” (Epistle 18, p. 166)

Papal Supremacy
Despite such clear and strong words as Pope St. Gregory’s against the notion of a uniquely supreme bishop, nonetheless, the pope’s singular authority continued to grow and be accepted in the West. Thus, the historic designation as “the first among equals”—originally given due to Rome’s prominence as the ancient imperial capital, out of respect and affection, and as a matter of presvya—came to be understood and applied in a significantly different way.
   During the time of Nicholas I, who served as Bishop of Rome from 858-867, the role of the pope came to be spoken of in terms even greater than that of Innocent I and Gelasius. According to Pope Nicholas: the see of Rome had the right to summon parties for examination even if they had made no appeal to Rome; popes had been set up as princes over the whole earth and epitomized the whole Church; all Christians were to be subject to the papal rule; without the church of Rome, there was no Christianity; the pope was the master of all the bishops and the mediator between Christ and man; and it was through the pope that “the powers of both emperors and bishops flow.”(12)
   Pope Nicholas exercised this concept of authority in a practical way. While not yet adding the filioque(13) clause into the Nicene Creed for official use in Rome, Pope Nicholas did allow it to be used by the church in Germany. Invited to send papal legates to a council held over an ecclesiastical dispute in Constantinople, Nicholas later overturned the decision supported by his own representatives, instead holding his own council in Rome to declare the rightful Bishop of Constantinople deposed.(14) Nicholas also used the False Decretals to expand his authority, apparently knowing them to be forgeries.(15) Over the next two centuries, the view of the papacy espoused by Pope Nicholas became the dominant vision.

The Great Schism
In the year 1054, a tragic event happened in the city of Constantinople that has continued to shape the face of Christianity to this day. Traveling to Constantinople to resolve political and theological disputes, a representative of the pope handed a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Among other things, the letter demanded that the Patriarch accept the filioque clause and the supremacy of the Roman see.
   After waiting for several months without further communication from the Patriarch, the papal representative leveled a number of spurious charges at “the Greeks,” including their omission of the filioque from the original Creed! Before returning to Rome, the papal representative left another letter on the altar of the church of Hagia Sophia—the preeminent church in Constantinople—excommunicating the Patriarch and his followers. The Patriarch responded, condemning “the impious document and its authors.”(16)
   While this excommunication had been pronounced in the name of the pope(17) against the Patriarch of Constantinople and his followers, the ramifications were much greater. The other bishops and local churches outside of the geographical territory that was now centered upon the Bishop of Rome chose to remain in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople—with whom they continued to share the same faith and practice. This effectively caused a break in communion of the pope and those under his authority from the rest of the Church. Today, this event is known as “the Great Schism.” Tragically, the aftermath of the Great Schism subsequently led to many of the current divisions within Christianity.

Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity
Although it may be historically convenient to place the blame for the Great Schism on the conflict that took place between the papal representative and the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1054, this is not accurate. Rather, this tragic break in communion occurred because centuries of change and distrust came to the forefront and could no longer be easily dismissed.
   The church in Rome—now under the singular authority of the pope—looked at the other patriarchates and local churches and saw in them a lack of obedience, along with a different theology and practice of faith. The other patriarchates and local churches looked at the church of Rome and the pope and saw innovation and heresy. Because of the historical centralization of ecclesiastical authority to the see of Rome, this division essentially fell along East/West lines—the “West” being the Christians of western Europe now under the sole authority of the pope, the “East” being the other ancient apostolic sees and those in communion with them.
   In light of this, the Great Schism was not the cause of division. Rather, it was the result. The Great Schism was the acknowledgement that when Christians in the East and West looked at each other, they no longer recognized a shared faith and practice. Simply stated, the Christian East and the Christian West no longer recognized the undistorted Apostolic Faith in one another. Previously, it had been possible to speak of an undivided Church that had existed in both the East and the West for a millennium. The events of the Great Schism, however, highlighted a sad new reality: the once shared Faith of the Christian East and the Christian West had now become divided into a distinctly Eastern Christianity and a distinctly Western Christianity.

After the Schism
As noted above, when looking at the new reality of Christianity after the Great Schism, it can be helpful to think in terms of a distinctly Eastern Christianity and a distinctly Western Christianity.(18) During the period following the Great Schism, Western Christianity came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church, whereas the communion of local churches in the East came to be known as the Orthodox Church. Thus, if we make use of this East-West model, Western Christianity is composed of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions (which, as will be addressed, arises from Roman Catholicism 500 years after the Great Schism), whereas the Orthodox Church would be the primary example of Eastern Christianity.
   It is accurate to say that the growing differences between the Christian East and West that led to the Great Schism took centuries before finally culminating in a permanent break in communion. It is also accurate to say that in the millennium since the Great Schism, differences have continued to multiply, causing Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity to grow even farther apart. These changes have occurred primarily, if not exclusively, in Western Christianity.

What are some of the innovations that have taken place in the last millennium that have contributed to an increased distance between the Eastern Christian and the Western Christian traditions?
   Perhaps the greatest emotional blow to relations occurred in the year 1204 when the 4th Crusade ended in the sacking of Constantinople and the temporary establishment there of a Latin church hierarchy loyal to the pope. These events effectively crystallized the break in communion that had initially been brought about a century-and-a-half earlier by the Great Schism.
   Theologically speaking, however, a milestone change occurred several generations after the 4th Crusade. Although it had already been the practice for several centuries, Roman Catholicism had yet to officially dogmatize the notion of papal supremacy. This changed during a council held in Lyons, France in the year 1274. Here, for the first time, the doctrine of papal supremacy was formulated and articulated as follows:

“The Holy Roman Church possesses also the highest and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church….To Her all the Churches are subject….The same Roman Church has honored many of those Churches, and chiefly the Patriarchal Churches, with various privileges, its own prerogative being, however, always observed and safeguarded.”(19)

From this time on, a series of theological innovations followed:

* Papal Supremacy—As noted, this doctrine was dogmatized in 1274. This declaration is the ultimate outcome of a long-developing notion in the Christian West. The dogma of papal supremacy effectively sets up the pope as the “bishop of bishops” and the “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.”

* Changing the Creed—The addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed first occurred in the Christian West in the late 6th century in reaction to the Arian heresy. While its common usage quickly spread, the bishops of Rome defended the wording of the original Creed. During the time of Charlemagne—who was a proponent of the filioque addition—Pope Leo III commissioned heavy silver shields etched with the wording of the original Creed (in both Greek and Latin) that were displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Benedict VIII was the first pope to publicly use the filioque in 1014, ending centuries of papal adherence to and defense of the original Creed. The filioque was later officially added to the Roman Catholic version of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Lyon in 1274. Depending upon how it is understood, the filioque is considered to be heretical by the Orthodox Church; its addition to the Creed is also seen as a violation of Canon VII of the 3rd Ecumenical Council.(20)

* The Immaculate Conception—The immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary was made dogma in 1854 by the decree of Pope Pius IX. This dogma states that the Virgin Mary was kept free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. The Orthodox Church has never endorsed this doctrine because they do not share Western Christianity’s understanding of original sin.(21)

* Papal Infallibility—Papal infallibility was dogmatized at the First Vatican Council in 1870. According to this dogma, the Pope is infallible when he defines a particular doctrine to be part of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from the Apostolic Tradition, which is thereby to be believed by the whole Church. According to papal infallibility, such doctrines pronounced by the Pope are infallible even before acceptance by the Church.(22)

* Clerical celibacy—Clerical celibacy became a growing practice in the Christian West beginning in the 4th century. While clerical celibacy is considered a discipline and not a doctrine, it became a veritable law in Western Christianity from the 11th century onwards, finally becoming official Roman Catholic canon law in 1917. Clerical celibacy applies only to Latin-rite Catholic priests (like Orthodox priests, Eastern-rite Catholic priests are allowed to marry prior to their ordination).

* Uniatism—Also known as the Eastern Catholic churches, the Uniates are allowed to retain their particular Eastern rites and practices while being in communion with and under the immediate and supreme authority of the pope. Among other things, the various groups within the Uniate are allowed to use Eastern liturgies, have married priests, baptize by immersion, commune in both kinds (laity receiving both the Body and Blood), use leavened bread in the Eucharist, and say the Nicene Creed without the filioque. Uniates are also called Greek Catholics, and include Melkites and Maronites. Historically, this movement began primarily in the late 16th century as strategy employed by Roman Catholicism to bring Orthodox Christians into communion with the pope. Vatican II affirmed this, stating that the purpose of the Uniate was to provide a bridge to the separated churches of the East.(23) From the perspective of the Orthodox Church, the continued existence of the Uniate remains one of the greatest barriers to a more meaningful dialogue with Roman Catholicism. 

* Other changes—The use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist; Communion in one kind (laity receiving only the Body and not the Blood); medieval Scholasticism; purgatory; the practice of indulgences; changes in the fasting and ascetical disciplines; removal of saints’ feastdays from the calendar; “contemporary masses;” and a growing trend of liberal theology.

The Protestant Reformation
As has been noted, the growing distance between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity occurred largely, if not entirely, due to changes and innovations in the West. Five hundred years after the Great Schism, these changes culminated in the birth of an entirely new tradition within Western Christianity: Protestantism.
   While we can speak briefly of the historical development and subsequent relationship between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, it is much more difficult to give due justice to the genesis and development of Protestantism. The essential problem is that Protestantism quickly became so highly varied and complex. If Protestantism may rightly be called a Christian tradition, then it is composed of many and substantially different sub-traditions.(24)
   As a popular movement, the Protestant tradition can be traced back to Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, monk, and theology teacher. While there were previous developments leading up to it, what came to be known as the “Protestant Reformation” began on October 31, 1517 when Luther posted a document on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The document contested what Luther believed to be particular abuses, primarily those surrounding the practice of indulgences. His initial intent was not to create something new, but rather to bring about what he believed to be much needed reform within Roman Catholicism.
   The movement that Luther initiated quickly spread throughout Western Europe. Soon, other reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin became major voices in what became an increasingly widespread criticism of Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformers attacked what they believed to be spurious and innovative beliefs and practices such as indulgences, purgatory, mandatory clerical celibacy, and papal supremacy. However, they also rejected many ancient and apostolic traditions such as devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, a real belief in the intercessions of the saints, the veneration of holy relics, the divine calling of monasticism, and many of the Holy Mysteries (more commonly known in Western Christianity as “Sacraments”).

Sola Scriptura
In order to bring about the changes they desired, the Protestant Reformers challenged the notion of “Holy Tradition,” which they viewed as a corrupt, supplemental source of church authority employed to support papal supremacy and other abuses. However, in order to do this, the reformers needed their own legitimate source of authority around which to structure their movement. This came in the form of a new concept: sola scriptura (literally meaning “scripture alone”). Citing the Holy Scriptures as the singular source of authority by which all Christian traditions and practices must be judged, the movement found the grounds upon which it could proceed. However, at least for some of the reformers, this did not mean an outright rejection of the teachings of earlier Church Fathers. Luther and Calvin were especially influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo—a late 4th century theologian and bishop from northern Africa who has had a singular impact upon both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.(25)
   While the reformers shared much common ground—especially in their rejection of what they believed to be corrupt Roman Catholic practices—they nonetheless began to disagree amongst themselves on certain issues of doctrine. The notion upon which they had based their movement—sola scriptura—quickly gave rise to varied interpretations between individual reformers, and sometimes substantially conflicting interpretations at that. For example, while Martin Luther had a rather high view of the Sacraments,(26) John Calvin had a significantly lower view, whereas Ulrich Zwingli was decidedly anti-sacramental—all three views purportedly justified by sola scriptura. Such disagreement highlighted what was implicit in this new doctrine—despite hopes that the true meaning of Scripture was easily accessible and self-evident, it became obvious that individual interpretation played a significant role when attempting to apply sola scriptura.
   Given this, it is unfair to view the Protestant Reformation as a cohesive movement based upon a unified body of belief. Rather, it is better understood as an ideological revolution. From this perspective, it is understandable that while the reformers were united in their protest against certain aspects of Roman Catholicism, they themselves were not of one mind in their positive affirmations about the teachings of Christianity.
   However, it is also important to note that the issues raised by the reformers’ conflicting interpretations and doctrines were not simply questions about so-called non-essential details. Rather, the lack of agreement in the reformers’ teachings touched upon issues at the very heart of the Christian Faith. In light of sola scriptura and the divergent individual interpretations it generated, crucial questions arose like: Do we have freewill, or are we predestined? Does God desire everyone’s salvation, or only a select few? What is the relationship between faith and works? What is Baptism? What is Holy Communion? What is salvation? How are we saved?
   By its very nature, the newborn movement could not give a single, coherent answer to such questions. Instead, it implicitly commended every individual believer to trust in his or her own understanding while searching for an interpretation that seemed to make the most sense. 

Divisions and Denominations
Disagreements over interpretation among the reformers—often about central tenets of the Christian Faith that were still held in common by both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics despite centuries of division—quickly led to the establishment of rival Protestant movements throughout Western Europe. Some of the major sub-traditions arising from this time are Lutheranism, Calvinism and its progeny, and the Anabaptist movement. During this era, doctrinal and ideological disputes sometimes even led to outbreaks of violence and war, both between Protestants and Roman Catholics and between the various groups within Protestantism itself.(27)
   As all of the aforementioned happened within the first generation of this new Christian tradition, it is impossible to briefly and accurately describe the subsequent development of Protestantism’s many sub-traditions. The notion of sola scriptura and the divergent interpretations it generated led to the establishment of divergent doctrines, which in turn led to an exponential growth in the number of distinct Christian confessions. Since its genesis five-hundred years ago, the Protestant tradition has given rise to thousands of denominations and sub-traditions, all of which are based on differences of belief and practice.
   While a handful of these confessions claim a direct line of apostolic succession from outside of Roman Catholicism, such claims are spurious. All current Protestant Christian groups—both mainline denominations and self-proclaimed non-denominational groups—can eventually be traced back either by confession or ideology to Martin Luther or one of the other Protestant Reformers. While the genealogy may be complex, every sub-tradition—even those who repudiate any notion of Tradition—is born out of the Protestant Reformation, and before that, traces its theological lineage back to medieval Roman Catholicism.

Several generations ago, individuals within the three major Christian traditions—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—shared more in common than they do today. This is especially true within Protestantism. While we see innovation initially taking place in Western Christianity over a span of centuries, the pace at which change has taken place within the Protestant tradition is astonishing. Because of the sheer number of different denominations and doctrines, we can only look at several areas of innovation. However, while what follows does not apply to every individual Protestant sub-tradition (for instance, traditional Anglicanism), these innovations are nonetheless widespread and generally applicable.
* Sola scriptura—Surprising to many Protestant Christians is the fact that the doctrine of sola scriptura could be classified as an innovation. However, before the Protestant Reformation, such a notion did not exist.(28) While Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism each have a somewhat different understanding of Tradition, both confessions conceive of the Church as a community of direct apostolic lineage which produced the Holy Scriptures—inspired by the Holy Spirit—as an expression of her life and teaching. With the doctrine of sola scriptura, this relationship between Church and Scripture tends to be inverted. Many Protestant Christians essentially believe that the Bible gives birth to the Church, rather than vice versa.

* The Invisible Church—As a consequence of sola scriptura and the subsequent disagreements arising between the various Protestant sub-traditions, many Christians began conceiving of the Church as an “invisible” entity. Within this new conception, the Church could transcend the irreconcilable differences of belief and practice dividing the many sub-traditions. The resultant idea—“the Invisible Church”—is believed to be a confederation of individual believers united solely by their belief in and devotion to Jesus Christ. This is different from the ancient understanding of the Church as a body of believers united to Christ and one another by their shared belief and practice within an unchanging, visible community of apostolic lineage.

* Denial of the Sacraments—While Martin Luther held a high view of several of the Sacraments (see footnote 26), he nonetheless rejected others held by both the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. Fellow reformers went even further than Luther, entirely rejecting a sacramental worldview. Many Protestant sub-traditions now believe Holy Communion to be purely symbolic, rejecting Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Baptism is viewed by many as simply a public confession of faith. Chrismation, Confession, and Unction are generally not practiced; the sacramental quality of Marriage and Ordination are also widely denied.

* Rejection of the Saints—The earliest reformers generally denied the intercessions of the saints, perhaps reacting to particular incidents of Western Christian abuses. Rightfully asserting that the individual believer may have a direct relationship with Jesus Christ, the reformers mistook the saints’ intercession to be a challenge to Christ’s role as the unique Mediator between God and man. Rather than viewing the saints as a great cloud of heavenly witnesses supporting their fellow Christians through intercessory prayer,(29) the reformers mistakenly viewed the saints as necessary mediators through whom the individual believer must go in order to pray to Christ. As a result, veneration of the saints was entirely discarded.

* Iconoclasm—Numerous Protestant sub-traditions experienced a resurgence of the heresy of iconoclasm.(30) This ranged from denying veneration of the saints and their holy relics to the destruction of and prohibition against representational religious imagery.

* Faith vs. works—Reacting to a perceived teaching in Roman Catholicism that salvation comes primarily through good works, the reformers stressed that salvation comes by faith alone (sola fide). This became a central doctrine of the Protestant movement, and an area of recurrent debate between the two Western Christian traditions. Orthodox Christianity does not perceive any division or conflict between faith and works.

* Calvinism—The teachings of John Calvin quickly became popular, and are still very influential to this day. Calvin’s teaching on predestination (or double-predestination), the total depravity of man after the Fall, and the perseverance of the saints (synonymous with the notions of “eternal security” and “once saved, always saved”) have become widely accepted in many of the Protestant sub-traditions. Such doctrines are not in continuity with apostolic Christian teaching.

* General liberalization—In the past several decades, there has been an increasing liberalization within numerous Protestant sub-traditions. This includes: the ordination of women; the acceptance or encouragement of immoral behavior (for example, the blessing of “homosexual unions”); the ordination of practicing homosexuals; a new form of “Christianity” that denies central tenets of Christian faith (denial of Christ’s divinity, Virgin-birth, resurrection, etc).

* * *

Having briefly examined the history and development of the three major Christian traditions, we may be better equipped to address the initial question: What is the Church?

What is the Church—An Orthodox Perspective
The Orthodox vision of the Church is grounded in the understanding of communion. In Orthodoxy, this first and foremost refers to the Holy Eucharist—through which individual believers are united with Jesus Christ, and through Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Being united with Christ though His Body and Blood, the faithful are thus mystically united to one another.
   For the Orthodox, to be in communion with one another means to truly share a common-union. This notion of communion is not defined by the individual, nor by the popular beliefs and practices of the current moment. Rather, the Orthodox vision of communion is understood as an authentic communion with all members of the Church in all places and times. Thus, for the Orthodox Christian, this means sharing in the same faith and way of life as their forbears throughout the entire life of the Church, going back to the time and teaching of the Apostles.
It is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the preservation and transmission of the Faith by working in the hearts of both clergy and laity. By the mechanism of apostolic succession, the clergy are to maintain and pass down the Apostolic Faith unchanged from the preceding generations. By faithfully receiving and living that which has been passed down to them, the laity are also integral to preserving the Faith. Thus, the whole Church, guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit, preserves the apostolic deposit unadulterated, as promised by our Lord Jesus Christ.(31)
   From the Orthodox Christian perspective, What is the Church? The Church is the visible communion of Christ’s followers throughout history, possessing apostolic succession and having preserved the Apostolic Faith unchanged. It is a corporate body of local churches—each of which possesses the fullness of the Church—and which together constitute the Universal Church through the communion of their local bishops. Ultimately, in Orthodoxy, the measure of What is the Church is the Apostolic Faith itself.

What is the Church—A Roman Catholic Perspective
While also possessing a line of apostolic succession, certain innovations have been introduced within Roman Catholicism over time. These changes have led to Roman Catholicism’s vision of the Church being highly identified with and centralized in the office of the pope. Envisioned as the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Roman Catholicism views the pope as the necessary point of communion for all members of the Church, regardless of rite or practice. This understanding is slightly blurred in regard to Orthodox Christians, who are officially viewed by Roman Catholics as having retained the Apostolic Faith while simultaneously being in a state of disobedience for not accepting the supremacy of the pope.
   From the Roman Catholic perspective, What is the Church? The Church is grounded in the office of the papacy and in person of the pope. The pope, as the successor to St. Peter, is believed to possess a unique grace and ministry as the necessary guardian and spokesman of the Apostolic Faith. Given this understanding, the Church is essentially the pope and those in communion with him. Ultimately, in Roman Catholicism, the measure of What is the Church resides largely, if not entirely, in the office of the papacy.

What is the Church—A Protestant Perspective
By initially basing their movement on the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Protestant Reformers removed the source of authority from within the faith community itself and placed this authority above and outside of the community. This creates a notion of the Church that is substantially different from either the Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. By creating a source of authority external to the apostolic community itself, the doctrine of sola scriptura allows for the Church to be conceived of primarily as an ideological entity rather than as a living, visible communion of shared belief and practice. The fruits of this are seen in the fact that there are literally thousands of different sub-traditions within the larger Protestant tradition. Each of these sub-traditions has employed sola scriptura in an attempt to rediscover the beliefs and practices of the Early Church. Necessarily, each of these myriad sub-traditions is based upon differences in belief and practice with other sub-traditions.
   Given this, it is much more difficult to describe an over-arching vision of the Church to which all Protestant sub-traditions ascribe. Generally speaking, however, Protestant Christians conceive of the Church as an invisible collection of individual believers who, though they may have widely differing and mutually-exclusive beliefs and practices, nonetheless share a rudimentary belief in and devotion to Jesus Christ.(32) Amongst more conservative Protestants, there is an understanding that true believers must share the essentials of Christian faith in common—although even these essentials are becoming more open to individual interpretation. Thus, the Protestant vision of the Church can be both highly individualistic and subjective.
   From a Protestant perspective, What is the Church? Generally, the Church is considered to be the total number of individuals who may greatly disagree on a wide variety of doctrines and practices, but who nonetheless have a “saving faith” in Jesus Christ.(33) Ultimately, for Protestant Christians, the measure of What is the Church resides in the personal convictions of the individual believer.

Current State of Relations—An Orthodox Perspective
The teaching of Orthodox Christianity is to distribute the Holy Eucharist (along with the other Sacraments) only to practicing members of the Orthodox Church. This is based upon the aforementioned Orthodox understanding of communion. In this, the Orthodox Church acknowledges the tragic reality that, while Christians of all traditions may share much in common, there nonetheless remain deep divisions within Christianity in regard to belief and practice.
   One common misunderstanding that a number of Protestant Christians have when encountering the Orthodox practice of closed-communion is based upon our different definitions of the Church. For many Protestants, the Church equals Christianity. For Orthodox Christians, this is not the case. Thus, the Orthodox practice of closed communion is not mean a denial of another Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ. It simply means that Orthodox Christians and those of other traditions do not hold all things in common in regard to belief and practice, and thus are not in full communion with one another. For Orthodox Christians, reception of Holy Communion is the ultimate fruit of our unity in the Faith.
   While the Orthodox Christian teaching on the Eucharist precludes sharing Holy Communion with Christians from other traditions, Christians of all traditions can and should work together in doing good works. In regards to such endeavors—feeding the poor, caring for the sick and suffering, defending traditional Christian morality—Orthodox Christians are called to work together with Christians of other traditions to witness to the truth of the Gospel and fulfill the commandment of Christ to care for the “least of these.”(34)

Current State of Relations—A Roman Catholic Perspective
According to official Roman Catholic teaching, it is possible for Roman Catholics to commune at Orthodox churches and vice versa (this is NOT the accepted practice or official teaching of the Orthodox Church). Beyond this exception, Roman Catholicism also practices a discipline of closed-communion similar to that practiced by the Orthodox Church.
   Strides have been taken in recent decades toward more open dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy with the hope of eventual reconciliation. However, while it is true that to a certain extant warmer relations have occurred due to such dialogue, none of the issues that impede a restoration of communion have been seriously addressed.
   One major issue is the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox understandings of hierarchy. Not surprisingly, the Orthodox Church cannot accept the current Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy. However, the different understandings go even deeper. From a Roman Catholic perspective, an Orthodox - Roman Catholic reconciliation could take place if simply declared by the pope. However, the opposite is not true. For such a thing to take place for the Orthodox, the bishops of every local church throughout the world would have to meet and accept such a reunion, and only until the faithful said “Amen” would such a reconciliation be authentic and true.
   Sadly, this very different understanding of how the Church functions is not the only hindrance to an Orthodox - Roman Catholic reconciliation. Many of the previously listed innovations that have taken place in Western Christianity would first need to be addressed.

Current State of Relations—A Protestant Perspective
Most Protestant groups practice open-communion—meaning Holy Communion is open to all who profess faith in Jesus Christ. This is consistent with the general Protestant understanding of the Church. In some circles, Communion is seen as a means of achieving unity. However, many Protestant denominations serve Communion infrequently, and there is a great variety of belief amongst the sub-traditions as to what Holy Communion actually is.
   Currently, a growing number of Protestant Christian groups are moving away from any confessional or denominational identification.(35) Thus, Christian identity becomes more highly individualized with the Church being composed of all sincere believers in Jesus Christ, largely independent of doctrinal belief. With such a mentality—while the emphasis rightly remains on having a personal, living faith in Jesus Christ—important theological differences are often viewed as non-essential, and are thus relegated to the realm of personal opinion, if not simply ignored.

“That they may all be one”
As we have seen from our brief reflection, there are currently many divisions within Christianity. Even the simple question What is the Church gives rise to significantly different answers in individual Christians from different backgrounds. Having looked briefly at the history of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions, we can better understand why this is the case.
   Certainly, the current division amongst Christ’s followers is not the will of God! This is evident when we read our Lord Jesus Christ’s prayer for His followers:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me. The glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and Thou in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved Me.(36)

   In light our Lord’s prayer, such unity is not optional. Rather, it is the very nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and as a manifestation of the love and unity of the Holy Trinity. As Holy Scripture bears witness, this unity comes through the presence of the Holy Spirit.(37)
   Despite a millennium of separation and discord, the Orthodox Church continues to offer the following petitions: “For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all men, let us pray to the Lord;”(38) “Asking for the unity of the Faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.”(39) These petitions offered to our Lord reflect His desire that all would be united in Him. The realization of this unity in the Faith is nothing less than incorporation into His very Body—the unchanging, visible, historic community known as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
   If we understand this to be a difficult task given the history of Christianity over the last 1000 years, we are correct. Long entrenched divisions—ultimately, the results of sinful pride and the desire for our way rather than the Way—stand in our path. However, lest we think that such a thing is impossible, let us remember that while “with men this is impossible,...with God all things are possible.”(40)

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Holy Scripture and Papal Supremacy

Christians of all traditions hold Holy Scripture in high regard, venerating it as the divinely-inspired record of God’s relationship with His creation. In the pages of the Bible, we find the account of God creating the heavens and the earth, the calling of His chosen people, and the record of the life and teaching of the Early Church. Most importantly, we find eyewitness testimony to Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word and only-begotten Son of the Father.

As such, Holy Scripture is unique and indispensible to Christian faith. While holding different beliefs and practices, Christians of all traditions nonetheless appeal to Scripture as a source of authority. In this, the supporters of the papacy are no different from other Christians: Roman Catholics see in Holy Scripture what they believe to be a clear justification for their belief in papal supremacy.

The Preeminence of Peter
The doctrine of papal supremacy is based upon the person of the Apostle Peter. As previously noted, within Roman Catholicism the pope is envisioned as the unique successor to St. Peter, and as such, is believed to possess a unique grace and ministry that have been handed down from the Holy Apostle himself.
   A cursory reading of the New Testament supports the notion that St. Peter held a special place in the life of the Church during the apostolic era. The apostles are an integral part of the foundation upon which the Church was built,(1) and the Apostle Peter seems to have held a special place among them. Several scriptural passages can be cited in support of this—especially worthy of note are John 21:15-19, Acts 1:12-26, and Acts 2:14-41. In John 12:15-19, St. Peter’s relationship with Christ is publicly restored through his threefold profession of love, undoing his previous threefold denial. The apostle is then called by Christ to shepherd His flock.(2) In Acts 1:12-26, the Apostle Peter leads the disciples in filling Judas’ vacant apostleship through the casting of lots. In Acts 2:14-41, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, it is St. Peter who acts as public spokesman for the apostles on the day of Pentecost. In these three instances, we see that the Apostle Peter functioned in a special way as the leader of the apostles. However, while the aforementioned scriptural passages (as well as several others that can be found in the New Testament) indicate that the Apostle Peter held a preeminent position amongst the apostles and often functioned as their leader and spokesman, does this substantiate the notion of papal supremacy?

The Rock and the Keys of the Kingdom
When making a case for papal supremacy, all scriptural passages showing St. Peter’s preeminence are interpreted in light of one particular exchange between our Lord and the apostle. In fact, this particular passage alone carries the entire weight of the argument for papal supremacy; without it, there is simply no scriptural justification for this belief. The passage in question is Matthew 16:18-19:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

   From a Roman Catholic perspective, it is during this exchange that St. Peter is: 1) declared by Christ to be the “rock” upon which the Church is built; and 2) is given the unique grace of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” According to Roman Catholic teaching, these two attributes are believed to have been uniquely held by the Apostle Peter and uniquely passed down to his successors in Rome, giving them supreme authority over Christ’s Church.(3) 
   According to Orthodox teaching, however, the aforementioned interpretation is a misrepresentation of Scripture used to justify the claims of papal supremacy. If we look at the entire exchange (as recorded in Matthew 16:13-20), we see that the exclamations about St. Peter are precipitated by the apostle’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” In a moment of divine inspiration, the Apostle Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In light of this, the “rock” upon which the Church is to be built is St. Peter’s confession of Christ, not upon the apostle himself. Christ alone is the Rock on Whom the Church is built;(4) St. Peter is identified with this Rock insofar as he confesses Christ’s divinity.
   The other aspect of this exchange used to support papal supremacy is “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Plainly understood in light of the verses that follow, “the keys” are simply a metaphor for the authority given to the Apostle Peter to “bind” and “loose” sin. “Binding” and “loosing” are more commonly known in the Church as excommunication and absolution.(5) It is through the exercise of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” that the entrance into heaven itself is either locked or unlocked to the individual believer through his excommunication from the Body of Christ or the absolution of his sin.
   Having understood what “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” are, the question remains: Were these “keys” uniquely bestowed upon the Apostle Peter, thus giving him supreme authority over the Church, as is the claim of papal supremacy? While reference to “the keys” is unique to this particular exchange between Christ and St. Peter, we do see the Lord bestowing this same authority upon the other apostles. In Matthew 18:19, Christ says to a gathering of His disciples, “Assuredly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In John 20:22-23, we also see Him conferring this authority upon the apostles: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Clearly, the authority to “bind” and “loose”—the very meaning of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—was not given to the Apostle Peter alone, but to all of the apostles.

The Witness of Scripture—the Council of Jerusalem
Having affirmed the preeminence of the St. Peter in the life of the Early Church, it is also important to understand the character of his preeminence. A key event that sheds light on the nature of the Apostle Peter’s leadership can be found in Acts 15:6-29—the account of the first Church council held in Jerusalem around the year 49 AD. Numerous apostles were assembled at this council, called in order to settle an important question concerning Gentile converts to Christianity and their relationship to the Mosaic Law. As previously noted, it is evident that St. Peter had earlier functioned as leader of the church in Jerusalem; however, by the time of this first Church council, the apostle had already moved from the region.(6) 
   While the issue of circumcision was being debated during the council, the preeminent apostle stood up as an eyewitness, testifying how God’s grace had been extended to the Gentile converts. Following St. Peter’s testimony, the Apostles Paul and Barnabas also reported to the assembly how God had worked among the Gentiles during their missionary journeys. However, the final person to speak, to render the council’s decision, and to compose a letter that was to be sent to the Gentile churches was not St. Peter, nor was it Sts. Paul or Barnabas. Rather, it was the Apostle James who was the first bishop of Jerusalem and had presided over the council.(7)
   As the bishop of the church in the location where the council was being held, it was St. James’ role to both preside over the meeting and render its decision in accordance with the rest of the assembly. Here, the witness of Holy Scripture challenges the notion that St. Peter held any position of supremacy—during this pressing conflict, the Apostle Peter did not preside or render a decision as the Church’s supreme authority. Rather, as the first among equal brethren, he spoke to those gathered, let the discussion continue, and abode by the decision of the council as rendered by St. James, the current bishop of Jerusalem. While this scriptural account makes clear the nature of St. Peter’s preeminence, it also raises a great challenge to the notion of papal supremacy.

The Words of St. Augustine
While Roman Catholic teaching appeals to Holy Scripture in an attempt to justify papal supremacy, Orthodox Christian teaching disagrees with any such interpretation. Given the historic rift that has existed between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism for a millennium, it is quite fair to question the Orthodox Church’s perspective in light of this contentious issue, especially regarding Matthew 16:18-19, upon which any scriptural support for papal supremacy entirely rests.
   Rather than continuing to debate this point of interpretation, let us look to another source for enlightenment: the witness of an ancient Church Father who lived well before the Great Schism and whose tradition was that of the Latin-speaking Christian West. There has never been a more influential theologian in the Christian West than St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived, taught, and served as a bishop in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Within Roman Catholicism, he is arguably regarded as the greatest of the Church Fathers and the most exemplary scriptural commentator. Here are St. Augustine’s words:

St. Peter, the fervent follower of Jesus Christ, for the profound confession of His Divinity: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” was deemed worthy by the Savior to hear in answer, “Blessed art thou, Simon...I tell thee, that thou art Peter [Petrus], and on this stone [petra] I build My Church” (Mt.16:16-18). On “this stone” [petra], is on that which thou sayest: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” it is on this thy confession I build My Church. Wherefore the “thou art Peter”: it is from the “stone” [petra] that Peter [Petrus] is, and not from Peter [Petrus] that the “stone” [petra] is, just as the Christian is from Christ, and not Christ from the Christian. Do you want to know, from what sort of "rock" [petra] the Apostle Peter [Petrus] was named? Hear the Apostle Paul: “Brethren, I do not want ye to be ignorant,” says the Apostle of Christ, “how all our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor.10:1-4). Here is the from whence the “Rock” is Peter.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the final days of His earthly life, in the days of His mission to the race of man, chose from among the disciples His twelve Apostles to preach the Word of God. Among them, the Apostle Peter for his fiery ardor was vouchsafed to occupy the first place (Mt.10:2) and to be as it were the representative person for all the Church. Therefore it is said to him, preferentially, after the confession: “I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth: shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16:19). Therefore it was not one man, but rather the One Universal Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loosen.” And that it was actually the Church that received this right, and not exclusively a single person, turn your attention to another place of the Scriptures, where the same Lord says to all His Apostles, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit” and further after this, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them: and whose soever sins ye retain, are retained” (John 20:22-23); or: “whatsoever ye bind upon the earth, shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosened in heaven” (Mt.18:18). Thus, it is the Church that binds, the Church that loosens; the Church, built upon the foundational cornerstone, Jesus Christ Himself (Eph.2:20), doth bind and loosen….

To shepherd literally the flock of Christ was acquired by all the Apostles and their successors. “Take heed, therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock,” the Apostle Paul urges church presbyters, “over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of the God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28); and the Apostle Peter to the elders: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof not by constraint, but willingly: not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when is appeared the Prince of pastors, ye will receive unfading crowns of glory” (1 Pet.5:2-4).(8)

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What is the Church? Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism: Differing Visions of the Church

[1] Ephesians 4:5.
[2] Some modern English translations of the Bible render the scriptural word episkopos as “overseer;” however, the most authentic English translation is “bishop.”
[3] While many important decisions have been made in local or regional councils, the Orthodox Church recognizes seven councils as having special significance in the life of the Church. These councils are known as the Ecumenical Councils: Nicea in the year 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451, Constantinople II in 553, Constantinople III in 681, and Nicea II in 787.
[4] The ancient patriarchates are: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch.
[5] “Pope” is an affectionate word meaning “father.” This term was not used exclusively for the Bishop of Rome. Today, the Bishop of Alexandria is still called “Pope.” Priests in the Bulgarian, Russian, and Serbian traditions are also commonly referred to as “pope” or “papa.”
[6] It is worthy to note that both the Apostles Peter and Paul served at the church in Antioch prior to their time in Rome. St. Peter is counted as the first bishop of the church in Antioch, prior to his episcopacy at the church in Rome.
[7] For instance, this understanding is reflected in the 28th canon of the 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon: “For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of Old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious bishops [at the 2nd Ecumenical Council], actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome [Constantinople], justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank after her (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. XIV, p. 287).
[8] Based upon the idea that St. Peter received a unique grace in Mt. 16:18-19: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” See appendix.
[9] When Pope St. Stephen attempted to force his will upon the bishops of North Africa, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, assembled together with 87 other bishops, responded with the following pronouncement: "It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another."
[10] “No decision—even though it concerned the most remote provinces—was to be considered final unless this See [of Rome] were to hear of it, so that all the authority of this See might confirm whatever just decision was reached. From this See the other Churches receive the confirmation of what they ought to ordain, just as all waters proceed from their source and through diverse regions of the world remain pure liquids of an uncorrupted source” (Neuner and Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, p. 216). The authors, who are Catholics, admit that Innocent here has “proposed” something new.
[11] Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 245.
[12] Christian Centuries, vol. 2, p. 78.
[13] “Filioque” is Latin for “and the Son.” The original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed confesses that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” The “filioque” addition first began being used in the Christian West in the late 6th century. Over several centuries, it became widely accepted and used there. The altered Creed was first publicly used by a pope (Pope Benedict VIII) in the year 1014.
[14] Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition, pp. 52-54. As another prominent Orthodox scholar writes concerning this event: “It would be difficult to imagine more misunderstanding, intolerance, and haughtiness than were shown by Pope Nicholas and his successors in their intervention in the internal difficulties of the Byzantine Church.” Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, p. 246.
[15] Oxford Christian Dictionary, p. 501. The False Decretals were forged documents that first appeared in the mid-8th century, purporting to give the pope great authority. The most well-known of these documents—The Donation of Constantine—gave the pope supremacy over the Eastern Patriarchs, dominion as co-emperor over Western Europe, and sole control over the city of Rome. The False Decretals were shown to be forgeries in the 15th century.
[16] Meyendorff, Orthodoxy and Catholicity, p. 167.
[17] Interestingly, unbeknownst to the papal representative, the pope for whom he claimed to be acting—Leo IX—had died in Rome several months before the excommunication letter was drafted by the representative himself and then given to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
[18] While this simple model can be a helpful, it does have its limitations. For instance, there are numerous groups who use an “Eastern rite,” but who are in communion with the pope. Also, a few local Orthodox churches are currently trying to reintroduce a “Western rite” within the Orthodox Church. Another limitation to this model is that “Eastern Christianity” would include several groups such as Coptic and Ethiopian Christians who—while historically and liturgically “Eastern”—embraced certain Christological teachings considered to be heretical several centuries before the Great Schism; such groups are not currently in communion with the Orthodox Church. The scope of this booklet does not allow for a thorough examination of these other Eastern Christian confessions.
[19] Neuner and Dupuis, p. 19.
[20] Canon VII of the 3rd Ecumenical Council (431 AD): “When these things had been read, the holy Synod decreed that it is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa. But those who shall dare to compose a different faith, or to introduce or offer it to persons desiring to turn to the acknowledgment of the truth, whether from Heathenism or from Judaism, or from any heresy whatsoever, shall be deposed, if they be bishops or clergymen; bishops from the episcopate and clergymen from the clergy; and if they be laymen, they shall be anathematized.”
[21] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd addition, p. 821.
[22] Ibid, p. 831.
[23] Richard John Neuhaus, “Orthodoxy and ‘Parallel Monologues,’” First Things, March 2002.
[24] This is perhaps a more useful term than “denominations” for 2 reasons: 1) some denominations arise out of a sub-tradition that was never organized into a specific denomination (for instance, Calvinism); 2) there are many groups today who label themselves “non-denominational,” either rejecting or being ignorant of their historical and ideological genesis from previous denominations and/or movements.
[25] Although there are numerous theologians—from both the Christian East and West—who are highly regarded in the Orthodox Church, there is no one corresponding figure in Orthodoxy to match the singular impact that St. Augustine’s theology has had on both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. While considered a saint by the Orthodox Church, a number of St. Augustine’s teachings are not embraced. Often, these very teachings are central tenets within Western Christianity. For example, some convincingly argue that Western Christian teachings on “original sin,” man’s depravity, and the roots of satisfaction theology and double-predestination can be found in St. Augustine’s writing.
[26] Martin Luther and his followers, however, teach significantly fewer Sacraments than Roman Catholicism. In Lutheranism, there are 2 (or 3) Sacraments: Baptism, Communion, and perhaps Absolution. Roman Catholicism teaches 7 Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation (Chrismation), the Eucharist, Confession, Unction (anointing of the sick), Marriage, and Ordination. The Orthodox Church recognizes all of these as Sacraments (or in Orthodox terminology, Holy Mysteries) but has never tied herself down to a specific number. Through the Holy Mysteries, the believer participates in the Mystery of Christ; through visible, created means, the believer partakes of God’s uncreated grace.
[27] For example, the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and the persecution of the Anabaptists during the 16th and 17th centuries.
[28] The notion of sola scriptura seems to have been first espoused by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521.
[29] Hebrews 11:32-12:1; Revelation 7:9-8:5.
[30] “Iconoclasm” means the destruction of religious icons and other sacred images or monuments. The Iconoclast controversy took place in the Christian East in 8th and 9th centuries. At issue was whether the veneration of the images of Christ and the saints was actually idolatry, or rather, was a means through which one could show proper love, respect, and devotion to God. The defenders of icons saw at the heart of the iconoclastic movement a mentality that undermined of the reality of Christ’s incarnation. See The Orthodox Church, pp. 30-34.
[31] Matthew 16:15-19; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15.
[32] However, in some sub-traditions—such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or the Church of Christ—the Church may be defined along confessional lines.
[33] As previously mentioned, the content of an individual’s belief in and devotion to Jesus Christ is subjective. Today, numerous individuals and groups who claim to be “Christian” do not accept one or many of the central teachings of Christianity—the Incarnation, the Virgin-birth, the divinity of Jesus Christ, etc. Examples of this may be found in individuals or parish communities in a variety of mainline Protestant confessions like the ECUSA, PCUSA, ELCA, UMC, etc. Also, non-Christian groups such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) are now frequently claiming to be “Christian.”
[34] Matthew 25:34-40.
[35] As seen in the growing use of the term “non-denominational” and the genesis of such movements as the “emerging church.”
[36] John 17:20-23.
[37] Philippians 2:1-2; Ephesians 4:1-6.
[38] The Litany of Peace.
[39] The Litany before the Lord’s Prayer.
[40] Matthew 19:26.

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Holy Scripture and Papal Supremacy

[1] Ephesians 2:20. It is interesting to note that, according to the witness of Holy Scripture itself, the Church is built upon both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles—their divinely-inspired teachings, eye-witness accounts, and God-given authority in the Church. From this foundation come Scripture and doctrine.
[2] “That Christ singles out Simon Peter has a twofold significance: 1) Peter was the leader among the disciples, and thus had to be the first to confess his love for the risen Lord. 2) Peter had denied Christ three times (Jn. 18:17, 25-27), and here Christ restores him with a threefold confession of love. It is important to note that the first two times Christ inquires of Peter, ‘Do you love Me?’ He uses the form of the word agape, which denotes the highest form of sacrificial and self-emptying love, the kind of love God has for man and that man can develop only through maturing in God’s grace. Each time, however, Peter is unable to claim such a lofty love. When Peter answers, ‘You know that I love You,’ he uses the term philo, which is a lesser form of love, akin to brotherly affection. When the Lord asks the third time, ‘Do you love Me?’ He has changed to the term philo, condescending to Peter’s weakness and accepting whatever love Peter is able to offer. Nevertheless, Christ knows that Peter will develop agape love for Him, as Peter will eventually accept martyrdom for His sake. Peter was grieved both that the Lord had to condescend to his level of love and that this was a clear, though gentle, reference to his three denials.” Orthodox Study Bible, footnote for John 21:15-17.
[3] See “Power of the keys” and “Pope” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, available on-line at According to Roman Catholic teaching, the unique grace and ministry given to St. Peter have been passed down solely to his successors in the see of Rome—other apostolic sees whose bishops also possess a direct lineage to the Apostle Peter (such as Antioch) have not received this.
[4] Acts 4:10-12; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:1-8.
[5] See the application of this apostolic authority to “bind” and “loose” by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-10.
[6] See Acts 12:18-19. St. James had been made the bishop of Jerusalem sometime previous to the events of Acts 15.
[7] “Note that even though Peter is present, James, being bishop of Jerusalem, presides at this council. He interprets the testimony in light of the Scriptures and finds that Simon Peter’s testimony is in agreement with the OT prophets (v. 15). Thus, James makes his decision by recognizing the consensus of the apostles in light of the Holy Scriptures. When James declares, I judge (v. 19), he does not mean ‘I think’ or ‘In my opinion’; rather, he is making the final decision. Nevertheless, this verdict is not merely his own opinion, but a summary of the testimony of the council.” Orthodox Study Bible, footnote for Acts 15:13-21.
[8] From a sermon delivered by St. Augustine in honor of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29th)