Note: This is a historical response to the recent declaration of Pope Benedict XVI who, in reference to his document “Dominus Iesus” written when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that Christian denominations were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities. Pope Benedict referred to the Orthodox churches as having “many elements of sanctification and of truth” but were “wounded” because they did not recognize the primacy of the Pope.
If you are a Lutheran, your religion was founded by Martin Luther, an ex-monk of the Catholic Church in the year 1517. If you belong to the Church of England, your religion was founded by King Henry VIII in the year 1534 because the Pope would not grant him a divorce with the right to re-marry. If you are a Presbyterian, your religion was founded by John Knox in Scotland in the year 1560. If you are a Congregationalist, your religion was originated by Robert Brown in Holland in 1582. If you are a Protestant Episcopalian, your religion was an offshoot of the Church of England, founded by Samuel Senbury in the American Colonies in the 17th century. If you are a Baptist, you owe the tenets of your religion to John Smyth, who launched it in Amsterdam in 1606. If you are of the Dutch Reformed Church, you recognize Michelis Jones as the Founder because he originated your religion in New York in 1623. If you are a Methodist, your religion was founded by John and Charles Wesley in England in 1774. If you are Mormon (Latter Day Saints), Joseph Smith started your religion in Palmyra, New York in 1829. If you worship with the Salvation Army, your sect began with William Booth in London in 1865. If you are Christian Scientist, you look to the year 1879 as the year in which your religion was born and look to Mary Baker Eddy as its founder. If you belong to one of the religious organizations known as the “Church of the Nazarene,” “Pentecostal Gospel,” Holiness Church,” or “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” your religion is one of the hundreds of new sects founded by men within the past hundred years.
However, if you are Roman Catholic, your church shared the same rich apostolic and doctrinal heritage as the Orthodox Church for the first thousand years of its history, since during the first millennium these two churches were one in the same. Lamentably, in 1054, the Pope of Rome broke away from the other four Apostolic Patriarchates (which include Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). He created this break by tampering with the original Creed of the Church, thereby making the pope infallible. The idea of infallibility became a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century at Vatican I Council, thus separating the Church from the tenets of early Christendom.
It is not enough to claim that your church began with the Apostles, with an absolute link to our Lord, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, born in a place and time over 2000 years ago. The catholicity of your church, be it Lutheran,, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed, Methodist, Mormon, or Christian Scientist, must truly identify with “Catholic.” This word is a Greek word used in the Creeds which means that your church identifies with those early communities of Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome that existed more than 2000 years ago. It must include the adherence to orthodox doctrine and belief that those early communities held, and formulated later in Councils. This then should be the format for all meaningful ecumenical dialogue, in the spirit of He, who once said “that they may be one” (John 17:21).
About the Author: Rev. Dr. Miltiades B. Efthimiou is a retired priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of North and South America. He is a protopresybter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. He served as Ecumenical Officer for SCOBA (Standing Conference of the Orthodox Bishops in America) and was co-convener of the “Catholic/Orthodox Metropolitan Dialogue of NY and NJ.” He holds a PhD. in Medieval History. firstname.lastname@example.org