How Orthodoxy Understands Other Christian Communities1

The history of Christianity in the east and west is a narrative of growth and schism. From its beginnings in Jerusalem and Palestine, the Church spread into the Gentile world. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the final destruction of the Jewish state after the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132 A.D., the Church began to consist more and more of Gentiles. It spread throughout the Gentile world, establishing major centers in the east and the west, and even beyond the Roman empire in the cities of the Persians.

The Church quickly differentiated itself from those who obviously co-opted and distorted their message (such as the Gnostic groups) and eventually expelled those within the Church whose understanding of Christ was seriously and dangerously in error (such as the Arians). Though the churches of the east and west maintained cultural and linguistic differences, all Christians considered themselves as belonging to one and the same Church. The center of gravity of theological creativity, and of heretical activity, remained largely in the east, and so, it was in the east that all the ecumenical councils were held, under the watchful eye of the emperor, who resided in Constantinople.

As the centuries progressed, the civil division of the empire into western and eastern parts, along with the political instability in the west, furthered an unintended estrangement between the eastern and the western churches. Eventually the churches of the west came to accept certain developments, such as the exaggerated role of the papacy and the Filioque, which led to a mutual alienation from the churches of the east that did not share these innovative developments. The alienation was exacerbated, first by the notorious “Bull of Excommunication” laid on the altar of Hagia Sophia in 1054 by Cardinal Humbert of the Roman church, and then sealed by the western Crusader’s sack of Constantinople in 1204. By the thirteenth century, the Orthodox east and the Catholic west were no longer in communion.

The developments in the Catholic west which the east found problematic were considered problematic by some in the west also, and in the sixteenth century these problems reached the boiling point, resulting in the Protestant Reformation. There was a large-scale rebellion against the Pope and in Roman Catholicism. Some groups rebelled more radically than others, but all the dissenting groups were united in their emphatic rejection of the papacy and key aspects of Roman Catholic teaching.

If the Roman Catholics were separated from the Orthodox Church, the Protestants were doubly so, though the bewildering varieties of Protestantism meant that some Protestants were more inimical to Orthodoxy than others. Some members of the Church of England, for example, appreciated aspects of Orthodoxy, while members of the Anabaptist groups repudiated almost everything that the Orthodox held dear. For the Orthodox themselves, all these western events from the Great Schism onward, occurred outside its canonical boundaries, and were happening to those already in a state of separation.

The Orthodox Church knows itself to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed, and regards other Christian communities as separated from it. The Church cannot cease to be one any more than it can cease to be holy, catholic, or apostolic, for if it does, it ceases to be the Church. Those Christian bodies which have drifted apart from or deliberately left the Orthodox Church have departed from the Church’s sacramental unity and should return.

Some communities are closer to Orthodoxy than others, especially the non-Chalcedonian churches2 , such as the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Armenian, etc. Some Orthodox theologians believe that the difference between our Christologies is merely verbal, and not substantive, and that both the Chalcedonian Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonians are saying the same thing in different words; on the other hand, we still must acknowledge their rejection of the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s two natures. These matters require attention to discern the compatibility of our respective Christologies and to deal with the matter of saints from one group which have been excommunicated by the other.

The Roman Catholic Church represents more of a theological challenge. Even though Rome no longer requires some of its churches to recite the Creed with the addition of the filioque, this does not solve the theological differences posed by the filioque. Additionally, Roman Catholic insistence on a papacy with universal, ordinary jurisdiction (as defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870) remains a significant impediment to unity. The Orthodox have long agreed that in a united Church, the bishop of Rome would have the kind of primacy that was exercised by him in the early centuries of the Church. But a bishop of Rome with authority to unilaterally define faith and morals when speaking ex cathedra is unacceptable to the Orthodox. Thus, the Orthodox confirm Rome’s potential primacy but not supremacy. For progress to be made in re-establishing sacramental communion, the Roman Catholic Church would have to renounce the dogma of papal authority as promulgated at Vatican I. However, as recently as 1995 in the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint, such central papal authority was explicitly reaffirmed. Doctrinal papal proclamations such as the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption as defined by the Roman Catholic Church remain problematic for Orthodox Christians. And among other issues, the problem of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome is particularly troublesome. Other practical issues, such as the Roman Catholic approach to annulment and remarriage, and the wide-spread imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass, with its jettisoning of the much older worship forms and fasting disciplines, make any discussion of unity problematic.

The extreme varieties of Protestantism make generalization all but impossible. Very conservative Protestant churches may hold some traditional doctrines and ethics but without any understanding of the mystery of the Church. On the other hand, the doctrinally revisionist and socially “progressive” Protestant churches have jettisoned not only most Orthodox dogmas, but also have enthusiastically embraced the ordination of women, the marriage of homosexuals, and the promotion of abortion. Additionally, the rise of so-called non-denominational Evangelicals, who are very difficult to definitively describe, requires nuanced responses from Orthodox Christians who seek to make the apostolic Faith known to them. In the last 50 years, some Evangelicals have been more open to the discovery of apostolic and Orthodox Christianity and discussions with these have often proven fruitful.


  1. The use of the term “churches” here does not speak to the issue of ecclesial status of groups outside of Orthodoxy. The term is used here in the same sense that it had in the encyclical of Patriarch Germanus V (see Ecumenism).

  2. The churches which do not accept the findings of the Council of Chalcedon which met in 451 and affirmed that Christ had two natures united in one person.