Obstacles on the way to ecumenism


 Short summary of the areas of disagreement

1.    Bible, Tradition and traditions

Tradition is an integral part of any religious body, including all expressions of Christianity. One of main areas of disagreement among Christians consists in the relation of Tradition and Scripture. Understood in a comprehensive and inclusive sense as the summation of the whole Christian faith, Tradition is seen as including Scripture. In a narrower sense, Tradition is interpreted as the “teaching and practice” of the church not explicitly recorded in the text of the Bible or, even more narrowly, as that “belief or custom which cannot claim any divine or apostolic origin”. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition became the object of disputes during the (16th-century) Reformation. Roman Catholic theologians argued that revelation is handed on both in Scripture (libriscripti) and Tradition (sine scripto traditionibus), seen as two parallel and complementary elements. For this reason, “teachings not contained in the Bible may be gathered from the Tradition alone” . Both Tradition and Scripture are interpreted by the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. A similar “two source” doctrine frequently occurs in Orthodox texts from the 17th century onwards.
The Reformers made a careful distinction between the divine revelation of Scripture and post-apostolic tradition, regarding the latter as human teachings. Scripture was declared to be the only and ultimate criterion by which all human traditions were to be evaluated as well as the only infallible guide and the final authority on matters of Christian faith and practice. On this basis, the Augsburg confession (1530) and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1562) endorsed the ancient creeds of the undivided Church since “they agree with Scripture” . At the present time, Catholic and Orthodox authors mainly use the inclusive approach (Tradition and Scripture must be taken together); “two-source” language no longer prevails. At the same time, there is a growing tendency among Protestants to recognize the need of Tradition without compromising the primary role of Scripture.

2.    Ministries and Ecclesial Structures

The existence of different views on the nature, structure and functions of the Church’s ministry is a stumbling block for visible unity since it leads to the “inability of some communions to recognize the ministerial orders of others” . Roman Catholicism and Orthodox churches support the idea of a special role for church orders as well as their distinction from the laity (based on ordination, connected to the idea of apostolic succession). Protestants believe that there is no difference between clergy and laity in regard to their spiritual status; therefore, they either eschew that distinction completely (Quakers and Plymouth Brethren) or understand it in a more functional way (Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists). For Protestant churches, congregational and presbyterian patterns of governance are more prominent. These communitarian forms of church structure are opposed to the “monarchical episcopacy” inherent in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox churches.
Another important area of disagreement is the understanding of the role of the Roman bishop. The Roman Catholic Church developed a theory that the bishop of Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter (considered to be the “vicar of Christ”; cf. Mt. 16:18-19). This idea first appeared in the writings of Cyprian and Tertullian. Pope Leo I (440-61) shaped the theory of Roman primacy, which claimed for Rome full power over the entire Church . The Reformers (especially Calvin and the radical Protestants) wanted to return to the order set by early Christianity, but they disagreed as to what that pattern was. Anglicanism is characterized by a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicans are Protestant in most areas of doctrine, but they retain a hierarchy based on bishops (“historical episcopate”). The issue of a threefold order (bishops, presbyters [priests] and deacons) remains one of the important leitmotifs in discussions of the nature of the Church. The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches have retained this pattern as being of the essence of the Church; Protestant traditions largely embrace a “single pastoral ministry of word and sacrament” . Among churches that retain a “threefold” pattern, there are different views on what the threefold ministry consists of, the relation of the episcopate to the presbytery, and the role of the diaconate.
Another important area of disagreement in ecclesial approaches to Christian unity is the pressure towards a more democratic form of governance, i.e. “mutual and egalitarian collegiality” . The growing importance of the gender issue and its implications for the exercise of church power should not be neglected. Feminism is calling into question patriarchal and hierarchical practices within the Church . The ordination of women has a potential to split churches, especially in post-soviet evangelical denominations that still follow an exclusively male approach to ordained ministry.
In this context, it is worth noting L. Newbigin’s statement that all attempts to make absolute a certain structure developed in church history must be abandoned; there are no eternally valid structures. Structures must change but always in a way keeping with the call of the Church to embody the gospel .

3.    Sacraments

From the earliest times sacraments have been an important and integral aspect of the life and ministry of the Christian community. For this reason, different theological understandings and practices of the sacraments have caused some of the deepest divisions among Christians. Roman Catholic theology accepted the approach of Thomas Aquinas, itself based on the Augustinian notion of sacraments as the visible sign and the “visible form of invisible grace”, the definitions of Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard (“sacrament” encompassed not only the sign, but also the physical medium through which grace is communicated) and the Aristotelian concepts of matter and form. For Aquinas, the sacraments are vessels of salvation and instruments of grace in the hands of God: “they have an effect independently of the worthiness of the celebrant or of the recipient”.  The seven sacraments officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation were: baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction.
Orthodox churches follow the tradition of the ancient Church and interpret the sacraments as “mysterious saving actions of God” . Orthodox sacramental theology is based on the idea that the Christian community is the unique mysterion, in which men’s participation in God is effected through their “synergy”. The Orthodox tradition holds a view that the material elements of sacraments become “grace-filled” by the calling of the Holy Spirit, while Roman Catholic theologians affirm that the sacraments are effective on account of the priest who acts “in the person of Christ.”
The Reformers rejected the Catholic meaning of the sacraments, choosing to place the emphasis on the word of promise. They also limited the number of sacraments to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Luther’s view of the sacraments was that they are a means of grace and outward signs that accompany a promise; the purpose of the sacraments was to encourage the faith of the believer. According to Luther, two essential characteristics of a sacrament were: 1) the Word of God; 2) an outward sacramental sign . Ulrich Zwingli insisted that the sacraments, understood to be memorial-actions (symbols of saving events of the past), do not communicate grace; he understood the word sacramentum in its classical meaning as “a pledge of God’s faithfulness to men or as a pledge of loyalty between believers”. Calvin held an intermediate position: while the sacraments are signs, there is a strong link between the sacrament and that which it signifies.

Evaluation of the most pressings areas of disagreement

In considering different theological approaches, it should be noticed that one of the most debated aspects of Christian doctrine and practice is the question of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church insists on the doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the accidents of the bread and wine remain unchanged at the moment of consecration, while their substance changes to that of the body and blood of Christ. Luther developed a doctrine of simultaneous presence of both bread and the body of Christ in the Eucharist. According to Zwingli’s theory of “trans-signification,” the Lord’s Supper is a “memorial of the suffering of Christ and not a sacrifice” . As Stanley Grenz remarked, despite the nearly universal practice of the act, baptism (as regard to the meaning, the mode and the proper recipients of this sacrament) has also been a source of disagreement among Christian traditions . Another controversial issue is the question of infant baptism and the theological justification of this practice.

Short description of lesser but important areas of disagreement

It should be noticed that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions hold different views on the influence of Tradition on doctrines. The Orthodox Church believes that the Fathers of the Church are the supreme expositors of Scripture, and that their authority cannot be superseded. In order to justify new doctrines (like “papal infallibility” or “the immaculate conception” of the Virgin Mary), Roman Catholicism developed a theory of “doctrinal development”. Areas of disagreement between the Catholic and Orthodox churches also include a different understanding of the doctrine of Papal authority, the doctrine of the Procession of the Holy Spirit (filioque), and different manners of liturgical celebration. While the Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution, most Protestants continue to reject evolution in favor of creationism and intelligent design. Potentially, disagreements may also be caused by new questions of faith and morals, such as the ordination of women, the moral evaluation of abortion and homosexuality, the regulation of birth, and genetic engineering.


  • Ware, Kallistos, “Tradition and traditions” in Lossky, Nicholas et.al. (eds.) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2nd ed.). Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002.
  • Ministry in the Church” in Lossky, Nicholas et.al. (eds.) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2nd ed.). Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002.
  • “Church order” in Lossky, Nicholas et.al. (eds.) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2nd ed.). Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002.
  • Adam Hood, “Governance” in Mannion (ed.), The Rutledge Companion to the Christian Church, 2008.
  • Michael W. Goheen“As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You”: J. E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology. Thesis to obtain the degree of doctor at Utrecht University. 2000.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Fifth Edition, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001.
  • Grenz,Stanley. Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
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