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Which Path to Church Unity? Recognition vs Reception


Beauty so ancient and so new

Beauty so ancient and so new


From time to time my friends and I get into a discussion about Christian unity.  Anglicans and Roman Catholics seem to be especially eager to reunite with the Orthodox and I have to explain why such efforts are difficult, if not improbable.  This position is often met with frustration and perplexity: Why can’t we just be one?  What’s the hang up?  I began to notice that we seem to be speaking past each other.  As I reflected on this impasse I realized that we were operating from different paradigms.  One is what I call the recognition paradigm and the other, the reception paradigm.

The recognition paradigm involves the mutual recognition of the validity of the other church’s baptism, their clergy’s ordination, their doctrines, and allowing for inter-communion among their members.  The reception paradigm involves one church body accepting the other church’s doctrines and practices as normative, and being received or incorporated into the other church body.  Understanding the difference in paradigms can go a long way in helping Christians understand each other.


Invisible or Visible Church?

The question of church unity depends on how we understand the Church.  When I was a Protestant Evangelical I was taught that there was the visible local congregation and the invisible universal capital “C” church which consists of all true “born again” Christians.  Thus, the ideal Church existed in heaven above all the scandalous divisions among Christians here below.

But when I reflected on the Apostle Paul’s teachings in I Corinthians 12 about the body of Christ I began to see a contradiction between what Paul taught and what modern Evangelicals believed.  An invisible body is essentially a ghost, not a genuine body.  This notion of an invisible body of Christ also ran contrary to I John 1:1-3 which taught that Jesus’ tangible and visible body was the core of the Gospel.  This led me to question whether Evangelicalism’s invisible capital “C” church was theologically sound.

I began to move towards the idea of a visible Church as I started reading about the early Church. I was haunted by Irenaeus of Lyons’ description of the early Church:

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house.  She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.  (Against Heresies 1.10.2; emphasis added)

The early Church shared the same faith and worship all across the Roman Empire.  This was so different from Protestantism’s many denominations.  The early Church was remarkably free of denominationalism, why wasn’t the same true of Protestantism?

I was also struck by the early Christians’ emphasis on the importance of belonging to the visible Church.  Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.  (On the Unity of the Church §6)

My view changed further as I reflected on the Nicene Creed’s line: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”  The word “one” means that there is only one Church, not two churches, nor two halves.  Nor does it mean the branch theory Anglicanism proposes or the multitude of denominations as is the case with Protestantism.  The problem with the Anglican branch theory is that it substitutes the church catholic with the church comprehensive.  Anglican comprehensiveness superimposes liturgical uniformity on doctrinal pluralism.  Because there is no precedent for this in the early Church, this approach is highly suspect.  Likewise, I began to see that if one took the idea of the visible Church seriously then Protestant denominationalism is like Humpty Dumpty all broken up in pieces waiting for someone to make him whole again.

In Orthodoxy I encountered a different paradigm: the Orthodox Church IS the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed.  Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Church wrote:

The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians.  There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be. (p. 307)

For Orthodoxy there has always been one Church.  There may have been people and groups that fell into heresy and schism: they have left the Church but the Church always retained her unity.  A leaf may fall from a tree or a branch may break off, but there still remains one tree.  Theologically speaking, it is heretical to believe that where there was one Church there is now two or more churches, or that the one Church is now broken into several fragments, or that one Church is now invisible.  For Orthodoxy the one Church has never been lost.  It has never gone away because it is here in the Orthodox Church.

Many Western Christians are offended by the Orthodox position.  They interpret this to mean that Orthodoxy is superior to other religious traditions, or that God’s grace is found only in Orthodoxy and absent outside.  The irony of the Orthodox understanding of visible church unity is that it has been regarded as schismatic, especially by Protestants!  This can be seen for example in Gordon-Conwell adjunct professor Preston Graham Jr.’s paper on ecumenicism.  Of the Orthodox understanding he noted:

This option seeks to express visible unit by limiting the church to what is in reality only one denomination or “tradition” based on one interpretation of the meaning of apostolic order/succession such as to exclude all dissenting views of apostolic order/succession. The sum effect of this option is to seek after visible unity by means of schism! (p. 26)


Protestant Egalitarianism

Prof. Graham’s rejection of Orthodox ecclesiology is rooted in Protestantism’s almost dogmatic insistence upon egalitarianism.  There is a certain appeal to Protestantism’s ecclesial egalitarianism; all churches are equal therefore Orthodoxy is just one denomination among many.  This insistence on the equality of all church bodies likely stems from the Reformers’ rejection of the Roman papacy.  It also conforms to the modern mindset which favors individual liberty and equality for all.  If all men have an inherent right to an equal liberty, who’s to say that one Church structure and Tradition should be favored over any other?

Protestant ecclesial egalitarianism can also be found in the Anglican branch theory.  An interesting take on the branch theory is the stance that no one branch is the true Church therefore we all need each other.  There is a certain humility in this stance but it also opens the door to theological relativism.  It is a sad fact that Anglicanism today is theologically incoherent and increasingly fractured.

In addition to Protestant ecclesial egalitarianism, there is corollary epistemological egalitarianism.  This takes the form of all Christians being equal with respect to the interpretation of Scripture.  This is a consequence of the Reformers’ rejection of the papacy.  In light of the supremacy of Scripture (sola scriptura), they feel free to reject or disregard what they call “manmade doctrine.”  More recently, Protestant egalitarianism took a postmodern turn with the Emerging Church movement criticizing the traditional church’s “captivity to Enlightenment rationalism.” (see O’Brien 2009)  The Protestant disbelief in a supernatural capital “T” Tradition makes discussion of reunion highly problematic.  Here we see two disparate paradigms for the source of doctrine.  For Protestants it is Scripture Alone; the church plays an auxiliary role but not a determinative role in the making of doctrine.  The belief that there is no capital “T” Tradition, only manmade traditions, implies a disbelief in Christ’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church (John 16:13).

But for Orthodoxy, the Church is the recipient and guardian of Apostolic Tradition.  Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit she preserves and expounds Scripture for the generations to come (John 14:26, Ephesians 4:11).  Theological controversy is best settled through the conciliar method.  The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 provided the precedent for the Ecumenical Councils.  Just as the Jerusalem Council was guided by the Holy Spirit, so also the Ecumenical Councils.

Some of my Anglican friends are appreciative of small “t” tradition, but they view certain Orthodox positions, e.g., Mary as the Theotokos or the veneration of icons, as too extreme.  They see themselves as a moderating center between Orthodoxy and low church Evangelicalism.  But I noticed that like their low church brethren, Anglican Evangelicals reject all supernatural notion of Apostolic Tradition.  The presupposition of sola scriptura held by Protestants, whether low church or high church, constitutes a major obstacle to church reunion.  If Anglicans desire reunion with Orthodoxy they need to be willing to renounce sola scriptura and embrace the very same Holy Tradition passed on by the Apostles.

Scripture Alone does not exclude other sources like ancient church councils and church fathers.  Evangelicals seeking to engage Orthodoxy are often enthusiastic practitioners of ressourcement.  They appropriate from the early Church while blithely ignoring its authority.  This cherry picking approach is fundamentally flawed.  Augustine of Hippo summed up the matter aptly when he wrote:

If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself.

Some Evangelical pastors love to pepper their sermons with quotations from early church fathers but they do this selectively.  Few Protestants have come to grips with the fact that while they embrace certain church fathers as individuals, they ignore the fathers’ Church.  For example, Augustine wrote:

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.  (Against the Fundamental Epistle of the Manichees, Chapter 5)

Here Augustine was warning against an individualistic Christianity divorced from the visible Church.  This is something that Ancient-Future Evangelicals are reluctant to grapple with.  So my question to Protestants seeking church unity is: Are you willing to put sola scriptura on the table?  In a Facebook thread I described what this approach would entail:

If you really want to put sola scriptura on the table consider whether you would be willing to accept the Council of Nicea’s Creed as authoritative, binding on all Christians, and an infallible guide for understanding what Scripture teaches. For me this conciliar hermeneutics provides the basis for theological unity. A departure from conciliar hermeneutics will result in doctrinal pluralism and relativism. Accepting this position wouldn’t necessarily make you Orthodox but it would provide for a common basis for discussion with Orthodox Christians.

It is good to see Evangelicals develop an interest in the church fathers and the early liturgies.  I would also encourage them to learn from the way the early church fathers read Scripture and to see how the conciliar hermeneutics differ from later Protestant hermeneutics.  A patristically informed biblical hermeneutics can help build bridges between Evangelicals and Orthodox.  (See Scot McKnight’s posting “Patristics and the Bible.”)


Horizontal and Vertical Unity

There are two critical dimensions to church unity.  Horizontal church unity consists of unity among churches across space; vertical church unity consists of unity across time – being united with the ancient churches founded by the Apostles.  Key to vertical unity is apostolic succession through the office of the bishop.  It is through the local bishop that the local Orthodox parish is linked to the early Church.  Reading the writings of the early church fathers or using early liturgical texts do not suffice for vertical unity.  The office of the bishop is one key difference between Protestant and Orthodox approaches to unity.

For Orthodoxy horizontal and vertical unity are both critically important.  They are found in the Eucharist and in the bishop who presides over the Eucharist.  Receiving Communion in Orthodoxy means sharing the same faith as other Orthodox Christians around the world today.  And through its bishop the local Orthodox parish can trace a direct historical link to the “breaking of bread” mentioned in Acts 2:46!

Christians interested in church unity need to understand Orthodoxy’s distinctive understanding of Tradition.  Apostolic Tradition is key to understanding Orthodox ecclesiology.   Bishop Kallistos Ware recounted Father Lev Gillet’s definition of Orthodoxy:

An Orthodox is one who accepts the Apostolic Tradition and who lives in communion with the bishops who are the appointed teachers of this Tradition.  (The Inner Kingdom p. 14; italics in original)

The key here is the crucial role played by the bishop in Apostolic Tradition.  At the time an Anglican, Ware found this to be an eye opener.  He recounted:

Orthodoxy, so I recognized in a sudden flash of insight, is not merely a matter of personal belief; it also presupposes outward and visible communion in the sacraments with the bishops who are the divinely-commissioned witnesses to the truth (The Inner Kingdom p. 15; emphasis added).

So with respect to Orthodoxy’s claim to be the true Church, the question is not superiority versus inferiority, but rather fidelity to and continuity with Apostolic Tradition.

In the early Church the bishop was more than an administrator, as the successor to the Apostles he presided over the Eucharist and guarded the doctrinal purity of the Church. This understanding of the crucial role of the episcopacy to the integrity and unity of the Church is an ancient one.  Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:

This is true Gnosis: the teaching of the apostles, and the ancient institution of the church, spread throughout the entire world, and the distinctive mark of the body of Christ in accordance with the succession of bishops, to whom the apostles entrusted each local church, and the unfeigned preservation, coming down to us, of the scriptures, with a complete collection allowing for neither addition nor subtraction, a reading without falsification and, in conformity with the scriptures, so interpretation that is legitimate, careful, without danger of blasphemy. (Against Heresies 4.33.8; emphasis added)

Augustine had a similar high view of the episcopacy.  He wrote:

The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate.  (Against the Fundamental Epistle of the Manichees, Chapter 5; emphasis added)

Many Protestant churches do not have bishops or if they do have bishops are unable to trace an unbroken lineage back to the Apostles.  The concept of apostolic succession is alien to Protestant theology.  Much of the efforts at church unity by Protestants have been focused on horizontal unity with little attention given to vertical unity.  This is the greatest flaw in the mutual recognition approach to church unity.  In its pursuit of horizontal unity it has sacrificed vertical unity.

A local Orthodox parish cannot modify its liturgy or doctrine unilaterally.  If a local Orthodox parish were to do so in order to have unity with their Protestant neighbors they will have severed their connections with the Orthodox Church worldwide not to mention their ties with the early Church.  Moreover, no Orthodox bishop would permit a local parish to stray from Apostolic Tradition.  The bishop’s job is to preserve the unity and integrity of the Church.

There are two types of church bodies: those whose episcopacy can claim linkage to the original Apostles (Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Non-Chalcedonian churches) and those whose leadership cannot make that claim (Protestantism).  Recognition to one degree or another is possible with these church bodies that can claim historic ties to the early Church (see Ware The Orthodox Church pp. 311-316).  But in the case of Protestants who have broken off from the papacy recognition is ruled out as an option.  This means that union with the Orthodox Church is through reception.


Western Ecumenicism

It seems that for Western Christianity church unity is a problem that needs to be solved, that church unity has been lost and needs to be restored.  There seems to be a certain eagerness and anxiety in the West’s endeavors to achieve unity with Orthodoxy.  When it comes to unity among Christians two important issues need to be addressed: (1) the nature of the unity we seek and (2) and the path we are to take to get there.

For example, my Anglican friends insist that they are part of the “catholic church” confessed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  They note that they use the “same” Nicene Creed as the Orthodox and that they too can claim apostolic succession.  In the course of numerous discussions I began to realize that while my Anglican friends don’t hold to Orthodox doctrine or follow Orthodox practices, what they want is for Orthodoxy to recognize the validity of their Anglican doctrines, rites, and clergy.  In other words, they are seeking mutual recognition between Anglicans and Orthodox even with the disparity in doctrine, worship, and polity.

Mutual recognition is also the strategy that Roman Catholics are using with Orthodoxy.  Pope John Paul II adopted the branch theory when he spoke of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy as two lungs breathing together.  They are not asking any changes in Orthodox doctrine and practice; “all” they are asking for is for Orthodoxy to come under the authority of the Bishop of Rome which for Orthodoxy is a deal breaker.

Related to the mutual recognition paradigm is interfaith dialogue.  Many in the ecumenical movement approach interfaith dialogue much in the spirit of labor versus management negotiations: We will give a little on this, if you give a little on that. They believe that doctrine, worship, and polity are all “on the table.”  Another ecumenical tactic is to redefine or reframe theological issues so that both sides, once at odds with each other, can now sign a joint statement.  Orthodox priest Georges Florovsky called this “doctrinal minimalism.” This approach to ecumenicism is based on an ecclesial pragmatism and theological relativism, or a theological reductionism that seeks to frame doctrine in broadest possible terms.

But for Orthodoxy Holy Tradition is the fullness of the Faith and therefore not negotiable.  The Church is not a social construct but a divine creation founded by Christ himself (Matthew 16:18).  Thus, one of the major impediments to ecumenical dialogue is that we differ significantly on the goal (the kind of unity we seek) and the means (the path to unity).


Christian Collaboration in a Pluralistic Society

There are two kinds of goals for Christian unity.  One goal is Christian unity in the form of one family.  The family model of Christian unity is based on the assumption that we are all related to one another and that we live under the same roof.  Given the Orthodox understanding of church unity, union with Protestants through the recognition paradigm is unfeasible.  The only viable path to unity is through reception.

But what if Protestants are not ready to give up their core Protestant beliefs, what then?  I suggest that there is an alternative approach to Christian unity available to Orthodox and non-Orthodox.  That is Christian unity in the form of being friendly neighbors.  We live next door to each other but we live under separate roofs.  We coexist peacefully and work cooperatively on important projects in the name of Christ.


We need to encourage and support friendly cooperative relations across the Christian traditions.  We can respect each others’ different traditions as we seek to work together for a Christian witness in a pluralistic, post-Christian American society.  The annual March for Life in which Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox come together is a good example interfaith cooperation.



In Hawaii I am happy to be part of a monthly get together of “mere Christians” comprised of Protestants, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.  We come together in Christ’s love from our different church traditions for a common meal and a talk on faith and culture.


Unity through Coming Home

What is the reception method like?  In the 1970s a group of Evangelicals became interested in the early Church.  They discovered to their great surprise that early Christian worship was liturgical and sacramental so they became liturgical and sacramental in their worship.  They found out that the early Church was creedal so they adopted the Nicene Creed.  Along the way they found out the early Church had priests and bishops, so they ordained each other as priests and appointed their own bishops!  They even went so far as to make altars and put up tiny postcard size icons behind their altars.  They thought of themselves as “orthodox” until they came face to face with Eastern Orthodoxy.  Peter Gillquist tells the story how this group of Evangelicals was received into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in his book Becoming Orthodox.  But in terms of numbers this paled in comparison with the reception of some twenty thousand Uniates into Orthodoxy in the late 1800s.

There is a great hunger among Protestants today for the early Church and for church unity.  This has led to many rediscovering the early church fathers and seeking to bring back liturgical worship.  This hunger for ancient Christianity manifested itself in the 1800s in the Mercersburg Theology in the US and in the Oxford movement in England, and more recently in the Federal Vision movement and the Ancient-Future worship movement.  This recent enthusiasm for church unity and the ancient faith is very commendable but carries a high price tag.  If one wishes to enter into Eucharistic unity with the ancient Church one must be prepared to give up aspects of Protestantism that are at odds with the ancient Christian Faith.  Reception should not be viewed as an obstacle but an open door.  Thousands of Protestants have already taken this bold step and hopefully many more in the days to come will unite themselves with the one Church confessed in the Nicene Creed.

Robert Arakaki

Other articles:

Former Church of England priest Michael Harper‘s conversion story

A Calvinist Anglican Converts to Orthodoxy” Interview: Joseph Gleason with Mark Bradshaw — Journey to Orthodoxy (24 October 2013)

Episcopal congregation embracing Orthodox faith” by Carla Hinton NewsOK (7 July 2007)

St. Alexis Toth – Confessor of the Orthodox Faith in America

Service Text: “Service for the Reception of Converts” (denver.goarch.org)



  1. guy


    What seems interesting to me is that eve Protestant egalitarianism isn’t what it sounds. All the Protestants i’ve met are still quite choosy about which other Christian groups they feel particularly ‘egalitarian’ about. They still have their limits, and those limits are usually doctrinal in nature.

  2. David

    Fine article Robert, and Guy (above) is right about the limits/selectivity
    of most Protestant “egalitarianism”. This show up in protestant churches
    who imagine themselves on the cutting edge of theological innovation
    and “maturity”. They might pretend in theory to love all “branches” of the
    Christendom…unless you leave theirs for another! While some departings
    are dismissed quietly with sighs of pity for your folly — others are openly
    treated as betrayals…threats to those remaining, who must be publicly
    denounced. It’s one thing to leave their group for another “lesser” protestant church…but woe to you if you leave (even as quietly and gregariously as
    possible) for historic Holy Orthodox Church of the Apostles.

  3. Hinterlander

    I am a Protestant who has been studying Orthodox for a couple years.

    Understanding that Orthodox cannot unify with the heterodox through recognition or reception, what would the Orthodox be willing to concede about Protestants when they refer to them as “Christians”? When Protestants “come home” to Orthodoxy can they affirm that they first met Christ in Protestantism?

    Thank you for the blog. Peace.

    • robertar


      Yes, when Protestants come home to Orthodoxy they can indeed affirm that they first met Christ in Protestantism. That is true in my case. Thank you for the question.


    • Jeff

      From what I have encountered, most Orthodox see that some light exists outside of Orthodoxy, but the fullness of the faith only exists inside of it. As Father Georges Florovsky essentially stated, we can see the canonical boundaries of The Church, but not the charismatic boundaries of it.

      Christ can be and is encountered outside of the One Church – that is how converts are drawn in. I, too, am a Protestant who has been exploring Orthodoxy and am preparing to be a Catechumen. I have met Christ outside and no Orthodox I have engaged with, including the Priests I have spoken much with, have ever denied that – but they have all affirmed that the fullness of the Faith lies only in Orthodoxy.

      I think the economia extended by most (though not all) Orthodox dioceses towards those baptized in other Christian traditions in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when Protestants are received into Orthodoxy through Chrismation is a testimony that they believe there has been an encounter – that there is “something” there, but it is a shadow of the fullness.

      For me, my experience growing up Presbyterian to Campus Crusade in college and evangelicalism later was all a part of the encounter that has led me to where I am now. A seed was planted when I was a teenager to find the early Church, though I decided to work from the present back to the past instead of beginning with Scripture and then proceeding on to Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin, etc. I think our cultural bias to prefer newer things (theology, scholarship, and writings in general) had an influence. It’s newer, so it must be better. That is so different from ancient thought where it was believed that those closer to the Creation were much wiser than those that came later. Law of Entropy, anyone?

      • Anastasios

        Sometimes it’s difficult even to see the canonical boundaries of Orthodoxy! There are 2 Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions that are (I believe) in communion with the EP but are not recognized by nor in communion with Moscow. So there’s as much grey as there is black and white.

        Likewise, the major “schisms” throughout church history didn’t happen all at once. There was still some concelebrations of the Eucharist between Rome and the East for several hundred years after 1054. There doesn’t seem to be one-size-fits-all way to tell for sure who is in schism and who isn’t.

        The Chalcedonian and Ephesian schisms were similar in this respect. As late as the 8th century there was still a limited degree of intercommunion between Orthodoxy and some segments of the “Nestorian” and “Oriental” churches. That is why all three communions recognize St. Isaac of Nineveh despite the fact that he lived 300 years after the schisms that separate them supposedly occurred. More at here:


        • Jeff

          I tend to think there is less issue in the East and that overall the Eastern Orthodox & the Oriental Orthodox is quite close. It seems like the Church of the East is as well, though I don’t know where they now stand in regards to calling Mary the Theotokos. I have read in some places that they now accept the Council of Ephesus, which was where a schism of sorts began.

          I do think there is a way for the Oriental Orthodox to accept Chalcedon as well, because it is not at odds with their miaphysitism. There may only primarily be linguistic barriers between the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Church of the East at this point. I don’t know enough about the Assyrian and Chaldean church to really know that.

          I know the schisms did not just occur and suddenly all communion was cut off. There was a more gradual separation. The schism with Rome is the greatest (and the Protestants schismed off a schism) and hardest to surmount due to the Papal claims. There’s also such a wide gulf in theology now, that it would be difficult for Rome to walk that back.

          • robertar


            I have interacted with the Coptic Christians and with the so called ‘Nestorians’ (Eastern Catholics) in Hawaii. One thing I’ve learned is that the grass roots reality is often quite different from what I read in the books. When I meet them I try to listen carefully and sympathetically to what they have to say.

            Quite often they will tell me: “We are Orthodox just like you are Orthodox.” Their thinking may not be all that different from mine but difficulties begin to emerge when I ask about their liturgy or whether they agree with the Seven Ecumenical Councils. At this point the priest’s personal views of agreement shifts when it comes to official actions in the form of the Liturgy and the Councils. At this point they balk or they say, “I don’t know.” Oftentimes I will come away from a conversation thinking: “So close and yet so far!” These conversations have helped me come to a better understanding and appreciation the Orthodox Tradition. I don’t know how many of these kind of face to face conversations you have had but I’m sure you will find them enlightening.


          • Jeff


            Thanks for the response and insight. I have had no interaction with Eastern Catholics or the Assyrian Church of the East.

            The Copts I have had much interaction with. This area (Tampa Bay) has both a large Coptic Egyptian community and a large Greek community, with some Russians thrown in as well. There are five large Coptic churches in the area and many more Orthodox (Greek, Antiochian, OCA, and ROCOR). The Liturgy the Copts use, as far as I can tell, is a version of the Liturgy of St. Basil.

            The Ecumenical Councils are definitely more hairy. The priests I have spoken with (two of them) both have little issue with Chalcedon and beyond, though that is not the official stance of the Coptic Church. They also had familiarity with discussions between the Chalcedonian Church and the non-Chalcedonians – and seemed to think there had been much progress in discussions; that there has been a bit of a language barrier.

            I’d guess that there are still issues, but I think there’s a much greater closeness between the Copts and the Orthodox than between the Orthodox and the Church of the East or the Roman Catholics. I have yet to talk to an Orthodox priest who doesn’t generally consider the Copts to be “mostly” Orthodox. Not a full on endorsement, but Copts have been received locally by confession – just saying they accept the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Other Trinitarian Christians, including Catholics, generally are accepted through Chrismation. At least that is what I have been told in relation to the Copts – I haven’t seen it myself.

          • robertar


            I agree with what you just wrote. When I’m with the Copts I feel like we’re pretty much on the same page, like we are both rooted in Holy Tradition. When I’m with my Roman Catholic friends I sense this sizable gap. In my opinion this gap is due to the rise of Scholasticism in the eleventh century which distanced Roman Catholicism from their patristic roots. With the Copts it is only when I get into more detailed discussion about doctrine and the Councils that differences surface between me and my Coptic friends. One thing I find quite encouraging is the fact that Coptic Christians have attended Orthodox seminaries and gone into the priesthood of the Coptic church. I think we should take the time and effort to get to know each other. In time this may lead to an eventual resolution of a longstanding schism.


          • Jeff


            Really enjoying this discussion. Wanted to add a bit I found interesting from Egyptian Copts I’ve spoken with. They say in Egypt that those under the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and those under the Greek Patriarch are allowed to accept the Eucharist from one another – so a Greek Orthodox in Egypt under Alexandria is allowed to do so in a Coptic church and visa versa. This is not reciprocated with the Melkite and Coptic Catholics as far as I have heard (though the Catholics generally offer the Eucharist to any Orthodox).

            I agree on the scholastic problem. Dr. Clark Carleton has spoken with that at length on his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio (Faith and Philosophy). He’s also warned Orthodox to be wary of certain types of ecumenism (the kind that encourages compromise of Tradition), though being will to talk. That said, he’s interacted a lot with Copts and has encouraged deeper discussions with them. His primary point is that we may be able to come to an agreement if we actually believe the same thing, but say it differently. The Copts cite St. Cyril in the arguments for miaphysitism and speak of two natures in one nature. I’m no bishop or priest, so those discussions are beyond my authority, but I think it is certainly possible that we do believe the same things. The Councils remain a sticking point, but I see nothing in Chalcedon and beyond that really condemns or contradicts what I know of the Copts and other Oriental Orthodox.

            I’ve been told in the past that it has been felt that Chalcedon was used as an excuse for Alexandria to break away. There was conflict with Constantinople over who should be second behind Rome in honor and it was felt that the Greeks kept putting Greeks in Alexandria as the Patriarch. The last matter is a problem in my eyes – the Bishop should come from the region he represents. The current Greek Patriarch in Alexandria was born in Greece whereas the Patriarch of the Copts is Egyptian. That hardly settles the Councils issue, but I think if a way can be found for the Oriental Orthodox to accept the Seven Councils without any compromise to Tradition then it should be used.

            The West is more of a problem, though I think the Eastern Catholics offer some hope as they are much closer to the Orthodox. They do not use the filioque. The give the Eucharist to infants after baptism, as soon as they are able. Their priests can marry and they mostly use the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in a slightly truncated form. The central problem is the papacy, but they are granted great autonomy. An interesting bit I’ve heard from Catholic priests here is that there are many Catholics that are advocating moving to the Eastern Rite and aligning with the Eastern Catholics – and Rome is allowing churches to realign with the Patriarchs they have placed in the East. It’s encouraging to see that the interest in Eastern Christianity is growing. I think that will lead most closer and closer to Orthodoxy – and the closer bodies become to Orthodoxy, the easier it will be for them to become Orthodox.

            A major problem with Catholic theology, I think, is the essence/energies distinction. For mainstream Catholics, that is a tough wall to climb because it undermines much of the scholasticism, but with the Eastern Catholics it may be more likely. I also understand that they don’t accept the teachings on the Immaculate Conception or Purgatory – so there is hope since the Papacy has allowed that. Baby steps we can at least hope for, though I think Vatican II did a lot of damage. If they could step back and get rid of Novus Ordo, they’ll be moving in the right direction.

          • robertar


            You’re right that it is the clergy who have the authority to make church unity official but the laity have an important role to play as well. All four orders of the Church — laity, deacons, priests, and bishops — need to be involved in any act of union.

            You wrote that you saw nothing beyond Chalcedon that would be problematic for the Copts but in a recent discussion I asked a Coptic priest if he agreed with the Sixth Council’s condemnation of monotheletism and he gave me a blank look. I left feeling dissatisfied. Ignorance of each other’s theological background is one major impediment in the dialogue between Orthodox and Copts. Until we become knowledgable of each other’s theological methods and sources, these kind of dialogue will proceed rather slowly. But I am encouraged that there are Orthodox Christians like you who are open to dialogue with the Coptic Christians.

            I know of one Orthodox priest who is quite critical of the Copts. We need to take people like him seriously in order to make sure that we are not rushing into a hasty and premature union of church traditions.


        • Jeff


          Funny you bring up monothelitism. I’ve had that discussion more recently. I’ve been blessed to work in a place where I interact with many Coptic Christians, so I was naturally curious and have been for some time. I thoroughly explored the Copts while digging for the Ancient Church, but the failure to accept the Seven Councils was a major issue for me (just as the construct of Papal Supremacy and jurisdiction coupled with the innovations that stem from it proved an issue for me with Catholicism – on top of the over emphasis on scholasticism and it feeling incomplete due to a lacking of a mystical understanding of the Faith; the Orthodox had so many answers – and still more questions, yet the sense of truth was so much stronger). A few months ago I had a conversation with a local Coptic priest that I interact with many times a year with.

          As best I can describe it, they could also be called miathelites just as they describe themselves as miaphysitists . For them, they believe in two natures and two wills, but it is essential that they understand them as unified. To the Copts, they saw the language used at Chalcedon as opening the door for classical Nestorians. That was the ancient problem for them, but it is not an issue today due to the lack of the Nestorians in the modern world (in a traditional sense). So they look at Christ as of two natures united into one nature, stressing that He is not two different beings, but one in the same. Same for wills – He has two wills, human and divine, united into one will, His own. The chief concern seems to be that they want to squash any attempt of those who would claim that the Logos descended on a man or the Jesus was created in any way. All that said, there is room for debate and discussion here. It’s not clear that both really do teach the same thing and say it differently.

          I still have yet to attend a Coptic liturgy service and some of my Egyptian friends and acquaintances have expressed interest in attention Orthodox services. That’s a good place to start, but I agree that we shouldn’t rush into union. It’s important to learn of one another and listen to the critics. Above all, Holy Tradition cannot be sacrificed for the sake of union. If we agree that we believe the same things, adhere and accept the Seven Councils, but may say things differently, there is a possibility for union. If not then union only comes when they become Orthodox – an unpopular statement in today’s world. Yet there is much to talk about with the Oriental Orthodox. I think it is most important to speak with clarity and honesty so we know where we both are and what we both believe.

          • robertar


            You might be in a good position to do a blog on Orthodox-Coptic Christian dialogue. If you could team up with some Coptic Christians you would be able to maintain an informative blog that many would find helpful. I know that I would be interested in following this kind of blog.

            Wishing you a blessed Holy Week!


  4. David

    Indeed, if I’ve understood Met. Kallistos (Ware) rightly, Christians
    can and do meet Christ outside the Orthodox Church — and DO partake
    of the grace of God in many sincere and fruitful ways. It is that “the
    Fullness of the Faith” is found only in the Orthodox Church. Again,
    this rubs many sincere Protestants and Roman Catholics…until they
    honestly and concede they essentially believe the same thing about
    their church — that IT is the best/fullest expression of the Christian
    Church TOO, and any defection to other is by default…a step down.
    The point here being, that Orthodoxy does NOT believe that the grace
    of God is limited exclusively to the Orthodox Church. Rather, that the
    Fullness of that faith is found Only in Orthodoxy. Happy for someone
    to correct me and say this better.

    • robertar

      Dear Folks,

      One reader sent in 14 questions in response to this blog posting! The tactic often known as “Just Asking Questions” is strongly discouraged here. The purpose of the comment section is to allow for people to enter into a civil and charitable conversation. People often come to this site with questions. That’s fine so long as it leads to a conversation. A courtroom inquisition is not what we want.

      Also, this same reader also wrote to encourage people to attend and purchase items at a particular conference. This is not appropriate especially since he did not obtain my approval to do this.

      All of us should be aware of what constitutes common courtesy. I expect people to know this. I want the comment section of the OrthodoxBridge to be a place where open and constructive dialogue takes place. I reluctantly block certain comments in order to ensure an open and positive atmosphere for all readers.

      Thank you for your understanding and support.


  5. Patrik L

    What about all these protestants coming home to Roman Catholicisn these days, often after many years of struggle and Early Church studies?

    For catholics it seemes to me that the focus lies more on standing on the rock which Christ has built His Church upon (Peter, and the forthcoming petrine succession), while for orthodox “the rock” is more about the one, true confession and Church Unity under the same orthodox “roof” so to speak.

    Any comments about that?

    • robertar

      Dear Patrik,

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!

      In my closing paragraph I noted that there is a deep hunger among Protestants today for the ancient Church. This has resulted in some converting to Roman Catholicism while others become Orthodox. The two different understandings of the rock on which Christ would build his church pretty much summarizes the differences between the two traditions. As to why I became Orthodox and not Roman Catholic. You might want to read my posting: “Why I did not become Roman Catholic — A sort of response to Jacob Stellman.”


  6. Patrik L

    …Which also experience that truth actually is that Christ’s own House is divided and His body scattered. As with the protestants who need to see the unnecesserity whith sola scriptura, the Orthodox, I believe, need to see that the “branches cut off” actually are brothers united in Christ but very sadly separated, though belonging to the same body and House, much in ruins because of the big separation/gap.

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