Report of the international theological dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox family of churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1993-2001)

Report of the international theological dialogue between the
Oriental Orthodox family of churches and the World Alliance of
Reformed Churches (1993-2001)
Adopted at the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias,
Lebanon, January 23-28 2001

Impelled by the prayer of our Lord "that all may be one" (Jn 17.21)
and helped by the Holy Spirit, we, the participants in the Oriental
Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, seek to understand each other's
traditions and grow together towards holistic Christian fellowship and
visible unity.
Reformed churches and the Oriental Orthodox family of churches live
side by side in several countries. However, decades of separate
existence have caused them to drift apart, resulting in little or no
relationship between the churches. In general, biases about each
other have kept the contact between these two communions to a
minimum in spite of the inherited Christian faith expressed in the
Nicene Creed.
The Oriental Orthodox churches are living Christian communities in
Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, India and Eritrea, and in
lands of immigration. They are ancient apostolic traditional churches
in the East which believe in the Creed composed at the holy
ecumenical council at Nicea in 325, and completed at the second holy
ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381. They also follow the
teaching of the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431. As such
they believe in the Holy Trinity and in the divine incarnation of the
Son of God. They follow the teaching of St Cyril of Alexandria about
one incarnate nature of the Word of God. They reject both the
teaching of Nestorius and Eutyches. The one incarnate nature of
Jesus Christ to them does not mean that the humanity of Jesus Christ
was absorbed in His divinity and thus ceased to exist, but that they
were united without separation and without change and continued to
exist in the union.
During and after the council of Chalcedon in 451, the Oriental
Orthodox churches formed a family of churches since they did not
4.accept the condemnation at this council of their St Dioscorus, the
successor of St Cyril of Alexandria, and due to differences in
expressing the mystery of incarnation of the Son of God. Now the
misunderstanding that happened during the Council of Chalcedon is
being removed and Christological agreements are being reached
among Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches.
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has been involved for about
four decades in bilateral theological dialogues with several other
world Christian communions. In 1992 the World Alliance of Reformed
Churches evaluated the results of bilateral dialogues and reaffirmed
the significance of such dialogues for the future relationship of
Christian churches in the world.
The Oriental Orthodox family of churches have been in recent years
in theological dialogue with the eastern Orthodox family of churches,
the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran and Anglican churches. The
unofficial dialogue with the eastern Orthodox started in 1964 and
became official in 1985.
Informal conversations and contacts among the Reformed and
Oriental Orthodox churches during earlier ecumenical gatherings
eventually paved the way for officially organizing such dialogues
between these two Christian communions. Unlike the Reformed
churches, which have the World Alliance of Reformed Churches as a
structure to promote international fellowship, the autocephalous
Oriental Orthodox churches participating in this dialogue (namely, the
Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the
Armenian Apostolic Church [Catholicosate of All Armenians in Holy
Etchmiadzin and Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias], the Ethiopian
Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian
Church) do not have such a central structure, hence the decision to
engage in conversations with the Reformed Christians had to be
agreed to by each of the Oriental Orthodox churches. After an
informal assurance that these churches were open to dialogue with
the Reformed family, a formal letter of invitation was sent out by the
general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to the
head of each of the churches in November 1991. In his letter the
general secretary indicated that Reformed Christians were engaged in
several other bilateral dialogues and that they were committed to
work for Christian unity.
Such contacts and conversations led to a first meeting on August 27
1992 among a group of authorized representatives of the Oriental
Orthodox churches and representatives of the World Alliance of
Reformed Churches at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, Switzerland,
on the occasion of the central committee meeting of the World
Council of Churches. This meeting was co-chaired by His Holiness
Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St
Mark, and Dr Milan Opocensky, then general secretary of the World
Alliance of Reformed Churches.
The representatives of both families were of the opinion that they
and their respective churches were enthusiastic about the possibility
of engaging in dialogue and were committed to pursuing it with all
sincerity and prayer so that these two families could move towards
greater Christian fellowship. An invitation graciously extended by His
Holiness Pope Shenouda III to hold the first meeting at Anba Bishoy
Monastery, Wadi-EI-Natroun, Egypt, from May 2 to 5 1993 was
accepted, and the meeting was held accordingly.
Subsequent meetings were held at "Kerk en Wereld", Driebergen,
The Netherlands from September 10 to 15 1994, at the invitation of
the Netherlands Reformed Church; at the Sophia Center, Orthodox
Theological Seminary, Kottayam, India from January 10 to 15 1997, the invitation of His Holiness the Catholicos Moran Mar Baselios
Mar Thoma Matthews II of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church;
and at Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian School of
Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia, USA from January 10 to 15
1998, at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and
UTS/PSCE; at St Ephrem Syrian Orthodox Seminary, Ma'arat
Saydnaya, Syria from January 10 to 15 1999, at the invitation of His
Holiness Moran Mar Ignatius Zakka I, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of
Antioch and all the East, at the Carberry Tower conference center,
Musselburgh, Scotland from January 11 to 15 2000, at the invitation
of the Church of Scotland, and at the Armenian Catholicosate of
Cilicia, Antelias, Lebanon from January 23 to 28 2001, at the
invitation of His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, where this report was
presented and discussed and then submitted for consideration, as the
result of the seven sessions of the dialogue, to the churches
represented on both sides of the dialogue. During these
conversations both families were informed and challenged in the
process of mutual understanding and listening to each other.
The Oriental Orthodox churches, living in the eastern tradition, and
the Reformed churches, originating from the western Latin tradition,
have inherited different doctrinal approaches to the mystery of God,
accompanied by differences and some misunderstandings of each
other's positions. Therefore, the objective of the dialogue has been to
create an atmosphere of openness and sincerity in order to facilitate
our witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, in accordance with the apostolic
faith in the face of contemporary realities. So the dialogue started by
dealing with the understanding of scripture and tradition in each
other's churches. But such a search was connected to the mission
and ministry of the church today. Needless to say, the progress has
been slow, but also productive.
One of the highlights of these dialogues has been thc adoption, at the
session in Driebergen, The Netherlands, on 13 September 1994, of
the agreed statement on Christology emerging from the biblical
teaching and the patristic roots to which both the partners in dialogue
owe their allegiance. This statement is reproduced below:
Agreed statement on Christology
In our search for a common understanding of differences in
Christology that have existed between us, we have thought it
appropriate to focus upon the Formula of Union, AD 433. This
formula represents an agreement reached by Antioch and Alexandria
following the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, and as such, provides
a common point of departure for both parties. We find the
interpretations in this agreement to be in accord with the
Christological doctrines in both of our traditions.
Agreed Statement
"We confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity consisting of a rational
soul and a body, begotten of the Father before the ages according to
hisdivinity, the Same, in fullness of time, for us and for our salvation,
born of the Virgin Mary, according to hishumanity; the Same,
consubstantial with the Father, according to hisdivinity. For a union
had been made of two natures. For this cause we confess one Christ, Son, one Lord.
"In accordance with this sense of the unconfused union, we confess
the holy Virgin to be Theotokos, because God the Word became
incarnate and was made human, and from the very conception united
to himself the temple taken from her. As to the expressions
concerning the Lord in the Gospels and Epistles, we are aware that
theologians understand some as common, as relating to one Person,
and others they distinguish, as relating to two natures, explaining
those that befit the divine nature according to the divinity of Christ,
and those of a humble sort according to hishumanity." [Based on the
Formula of Union, AD 433]
The four adverbs used to qualify the mystery of the hypostatic union
belong to our common Christological tradition: "without commingling"
(or confusion) (asyngchytos), "without change" (atreptos), "without
separation" (achoristos),and "without division" (adiairetos). Those
among us who speak of two natures in Christ are justified in doing so
since they do not thereby deny their inseparable, indivisible union;
similarly, those among us who speak of one united divine-human
nature in Christ are justified in doing so since they do not thereby
deny the continuing dynamic presence in Christ of the divine and the
human, without change, without confusion.
Both sides agree in rejecting the teaching which separates or divides
the human nature, both soul and body in Christ, from his divine
nature or reduces the union of the natures to the level of conjoining.
Both sides also agree in rejecting the teaching which confuses the
human nature in Christ with the divine nature so that the former is
absorbed in the latter and thus ceases to exist.
The perfect union of divinity and of humanity in the incarnate Word is
essential for the salvation of the human race. "For God so loved the
world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish, but have everlasting life." (Jn 3.16 KJV)
In offering this statement, we recognize the mystery of God's act in
Christ and seek to express that we have shared the same authentic
Christological faith in the one incarnate Lord.
We submit this statement to the authorities of the Oriental Orthodox
churches and to the executive committee of the World Alliance of
Reformed Churches for their consideration and action.
Signatures of co-chairmen on behalf of the representatives of the two
church families:
His Grace Metropolitan Bishoy, general secretary of the Holy Synod of the
Coptic Orthodox Church
Rev. Dr Milan Opocensky, general secretary of the World Alliance of
Reformed Churches
Convergences and divergences on tradition and holy scripture,
theology, church and mission, priesthood/ministry and sacraments
21 The particularity of the various dialogue sessions has been retained in
the presentation of the third part of this report. This third part is
organised on the basis of the themes addressed during these
sessions. Thirty papers were presented, commented upon, discussed
and analysed. Despite a variety of differences in the views of the two
sides, areas of convergence have emerged.
Tradition and holy scripture
The understanding of tradition and holy scripture by the two families
was extensively discussed during the first, second and third sessions
of the dialogue.
The Oriental Orthodox view
The Oriental Orthodox distinguish the tradition of the entire church
regarding matters of faith from local traditions of the various
churches. They understand both tradition and holy scripture as
constituting one reality emerging from the continuing life of the
church. Tradition must be essentially in agreement with the intention
of holy scripture, and the authority of the fathers of the church is
recognized from their acceptance by the church as a whole.
The Reformed view
While the Reformed churches respect the position of the Oriental
Orthodox churches, they affirm the normative character of holy
scripture, which itself embodies the "tradition", in the sense of what
was received and handed down by the apostles (apostolic testimony).
The Reformed churches affirm a critical distance of holy scripture in
relation to "traditions", in the sense of teachings, practices, customs
and interpretations of or alongside the one scriptural tradition.
Hence, the church must always examine and reform its traditions in
the light of holy scripture.
Areas of emerging convergence
Both sides acknowledge the deep relationship between the early
traditions (the total life) of the church, as guided by the Holy Spirit,
and the emergence of holy scripture. The incarnate Word of God is
both the source and the judge of the tradition and the holy scripture
of the church which bear witness to him.
Both sides agreed on the normative function of holy scripture for the
life of the church. The Word incarnate makes use of human means,
including human language and culture. So holy scripture and its
correct interpretation, guided by tradition, witnesses to the Word of
God in our different contexts.
Areas needing further clarification
27. It was recognized that the following areas need to be further
Concepts of history and revelation, with special attention to the
18th and 19th centuries historical-critical Bible study in the
Reformed understanding
Methods of interpreting holy scripture and evaluating tradition
How our historical contexts affect our understanding of holy
The question of canonical books in our respective traditions
Understanding of the holy scripture: its authority and its
The role of the theologian in the Christian community
28. The role and function of theology and the theologian in the
community was discussed at the third session. The two families
affirm that Almighty God's eternal divine essence cannot be
comprehended. Human reason can approach God only when
illumined by the Holy Spirit, through prayers and holy scripture.
Theology is not only an act of thinking but should be practically
related to life and to our salvation.
A Christian theologian is one who is rooted in the faith
community and nurtured by it.
Theologians are called upon to express the beauty and
splendour of the divine presence in their theological work. Story
and poetry, music and iconography, art and architecture, rites
and rituals have been used in various Christian traditions
precisely to bring out this aesthetic dimension of theology.
Our ultimate goal to reach a common theological understanding
which is rooted in our Lord Jesus Christ, is based on the holy
scriptures, and is related to the needs and sufferings of
humanity at large.
29.  The nature of the church and her mission
The nature of the church and her mission were among the themes
discussed in the first and the fourth sessions. The Oriental Orthodox
and the Reformed participants prepared statements expressing their
views regarding this topic.

The Oriental Orthodox view
30 Regarding the church, the Oriental Orthodox affirm that the church is
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and Jesus Christ
is the chief cornerstone. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and
apostolic church. Many names have been given to the church to
describe her nature and mission. Some of these names are:
The people of God (1 Pet 2.9)
The mother of the believers (Gal 4.31)
The body of Christ (l Cor 12.27)
The new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5.17)
The bride of Christ (Rev 19.7; Mt 9.14-15)
The dwelling place of Christ (Eph 2.21)
The house of faith and salvation (2 Pet 3.20-21)
The community of love and joy (I Jn 3.14,16; 4.7,8)
The communion of saints (Heb 12.1)
The temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 6.19)
The church of the first-born (Heb 12.23)
The icon of heaven (Heb 8.5-6)
Unity is a natural characteristic of the church which reflects her unity
with the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is one body,
one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.
Unity in Christ harmonizes the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit in our
different contexts. The continuity of the church in Christ is
maintained and guided by the Holy Spirit through the holy tradition
and the apostolic succession. The renewal of the church is a constant
growth and joy in this new life.
Regarding mission, the Oriental Orthodox affirm that the church, as
the living body of Christ, constantly called together and renewed by
33.the Holy Spirit, worships the triune God on behalf of all God's
creation. This is mission in its totality. The good news (gospel) of
Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the heart of the worshipping
community. The church announces the gospel of life in diverse ways,
always respecting the norm of God's love and compassion for the
world. Proclamation of the Word of God is directed to bring about and
foster the signs of the rule of God in human history. The good news
of the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ is proclaimed with the aim
of bringing salvation to those who believe in him and are baptized in
the name of the Holy Trinity. The church's prayer and pastoral care,
struggle for justice and search for communion are all vital
expressions of her participation in the mission of Jesus Christ, her
Lord and Saviour. This redeeming mission calls upon members of the
body of Christ to refrain from all forms of aggression and cultural
domination in the name of Christ, and instead, to encourage healing
and forgiveness, justice and human dignity, peace and mutual
respect among all the peoples on earth. Our freedom in Christ as
children of God enjoins us to be compassionately open to all human
initiatives for realizing God's will for the created world. The ultimate
form of the church's mission is to carry the whole creation in all its
brokenness and misery before the transforming presence of the
triune God in a perpetual act of praise and thanksgiving.

The Reformed view
According to the Reformed tradition the church is called together by
Jesus Christ to be his body in the world through worship, service and
witness. Together with believers through the ages, the Reformed
confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and in him is their hope and peace.
United by the Spirit to the risen Christ, our participation in the
mission of the triune God flows out in service and witness to the
world. Confessing the lordship of Jesus Christ over the church and
the whole world, we affirm that we are called not for our benefit
alone but for mission and service in the ministry of reconciliation. In
response to that call we participate in the mission of the triune God,
through which God is at work redeeming and perfecting the whole of
creation. As we grow into the likeness of the triune God, we are
conscious that we are called to grow in fellowship with those who
confess the name of Christ, and also to join and welcome those of
other faiths and worldviews who work in God's mission. In order to
communicate the Christian faith, we have the task of translating the
message in different cultural contexts, in ways which are both
appropriate and authentic. This is an ongoing task which involves
both teaching and listening, a task done in obedience to Christ who
draws everything together in him.
We are aware that we have sinned and fallen short of all that God
calls us to do and to be. However, recognizing the power of God's
forgiveness, and confident that God will reconcile all things in heaven
and earth, we press on in hope towards the goal where every tear
will be wiped from every eye and God will be all in all (Rev 21.4; 1
Cor. 15.28)
Areas of emerging convergence
transcends any attempt to describe it in purely historical or
sociological terms. Biblical teachings, and titles and images of the
church contained therein testify to the church's origin in the eternal
purpose of God. Participating in the mission of Christ, the church
36.announces the gospel of life for the healing and redemption of all
The fifth session of the dialogue was devoted to discussion of
priesthood/ministry. It included papers and discussion on the
understanding of this topic as well as the identification of points of
agreement and disagreement on this matter.
The Oriental Orthodox understanding
The Oriental Orthodox churches understand priesthood to be one of
the seven sacraments of the church. It is a divine order and calling
instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ when he ordained his twelve
apostles: "Then Jesus said to them again: Peace be with you! As the
Father has sent me, I also send you. And when he had said this, 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:" (Jn 20.21- 23). Also, during the Last Supper
the Lord Jesus Christ gave his body and blood to the apostles and
ordered them "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11.24). This
divine command of celebrating the holy eucharist with bread and
wine links our priesthood to the priesthood of Melchizedek through
Christ who is the High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
(Heb 6.20)
Priesthood in the Old Testament - The early patriarchs such as Noah,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob offered sacrifices as the priests of the
Lord. Their priesthood was exercised in a clear way. This same
priesthood of the Old Testament was developed in an organized way
through the Mosaic priesthood. It begins with the divine orders
revealed to Moses after which he organized the priesthood of Aaron.
Aaron' s descendents were chosen from among the male Levites to
serve as priests.
Priesthood in the New Testament - In the New Testament priesthood
was not cancelled but changed from the Levites' priesthood to the
priesthood after the order of Melchizedek: "For when there is a
change of the priesthood, there must be also a change of the law"
(Heb 7.12).
The Lord chose a special group of believers. He ordained them and
called them his apostles (Lk 6.13, Jn 15.16). He entrusted to them
the responsibility of leading his church. He appointed them to tend to
his flock, leading them into the path of truth and salvation (Mt
28.20). He gave them the power to hold and absolve sins (Mt 18.18),
and to administer the sacraments for the believers.
The apostles in turn gave these gifts to their successors, the bishops,
by the laying of hands (Acts 20.28). They charged them to instruct
and teach the faithful and to ordain presbyters and deacons: "For this
reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that
are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you"
(Titus 1.5). See also 1 Tim 6.2.
The apostles understood themselves to be priests, and as such,
ministers of the sacraments of God: "To be a minister of Christ Jesus
to the gentiles with the priestly duty proclaiming the gospel of God,
so that the gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God,
sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Rom 15.16).
Jesus Christ on the cross, not as separate from the holy eucharist,
but indeed shown and expressed in the holy eucharist. The Lord
Jesus Christ said regarding the eucharistic cup: " This cup is the new
44.testament in my blood" (Lk 22.20 and 1 Cor 11.25). St Paul also
writes the following: "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink
this cup, you do show the Lord's death till he comes" (1 Cor 11.26).
If Jesus Christ is the High Priest after the order of Malchizedek, who
used bread and wine for his offering, it follows necessarily that the
priesthood of the New Testament is an office to celebrate the holy
eucharist by offering bread and wine. This eucharistic offering is not a
repetition of the sacrifice of the cross, but is the sacrifice of the cross
present in the church everywhere and in all generations, beyond time
and space limitations.
The Lord Jesus Christ commanded his apostles: "Go and make
disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mat. 28: 19). The apostles were
able to ordain baptized believers as bishops, priests and deacons
even out of gentiles without being necessarily descendents of the
people of Israel. This was prophetically mentioned in the Old
Testament: " And they shall declare my glory among the gentiles.
And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord
out of all nations. ..And I will also take of them for priests and
levites, says the Lord" (Is 66.19-21).
Spiritual priesthood - Any believer in Christ can offer up spiritual
sacrifices to God. This applies to both Old Testament and New
Testament, as is written: "Let my prayer be set forth before You as
incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps
141.2) and "By Him therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to
God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his
name" (Heb 13.15). But this does not mean that those who are
offering spiritual sacrifices, like praying and praising the Lord and
helping the poor, are official priests offering the eucharistic sacrifice
and ministering in the church.
A kingdom of priests - It was equally mentioned in the Old Testament
and the New Testament that the people of God are a kingdom of
priests: " And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy
nation" (Exodus 19:6) and "But you are a chosen generation, a royal
priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people" (1 Pet 2.9). This does
not imply at all that the whole people of God are officially priests
serving the altar in the church.
In view of the last two points we can understand (1 Pet 2.5): "You
also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy
priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus
Threefold priesthood - While we acknowledge the spiritual priesthood
of all believers in Christ, three ranks of priesthood - episcopos,
presbyter and deacon - were instituted in the holy church through the
power of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 3.5; Titus 1.5; Acts 6.5-6).
The role of laity - The participation and involvement of the faithful in
the whole liturgical and sacramental life of the church is very
important and this is always affirmed throughout the life and witness
of the church.
The dual role of the priesthood: In offering the holy eucharist the
priest acts as the representative of the whole creation. Priest
represents the people of the church in front of God and represents
God in front of the people and he performs his service by the power
of the Holy Spirit.
Laying on of hands and apostolic succession: Laying on of hands was
practised by the apostles for different purposes. It is not used only
for ordination, but for many other purposes - for blessing the people
as Jesus has done with the children (Mt 19.13), for healing the sick
(Mk 15.18), for confirmation (Acts 8.15-17) and for ordination (Acts
62.6.6; Acts 13.3; 1 Tim 4.14; 1 Tim 5.22).
The authority of laying on of hands for ordination, consecration and
confirmation was confined to the apostles so that Philip, the ordained
deacon and preacher, after baptizing the people of Samaria could not
lay hands on them to grant them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the
church sent the apostles St Peter and St John especially to Samaria
to pray and lay hands upon the people in order to receive the Holy
Spirit (Acts 6.5; 8.5, 12, 14-17). The apostles passed on the
authority of laying of hands to some of the presbyters whom they
have ordained by making them bishops who were able to ordain
presbyters (1 Tim 5.22; Titus 1.5).
This apostolic succession remained unbroken in the church as the
Lord has promised: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and
appointed you to go and bear fruit- fruit that will last" (Jn 15.16).
Service of women in the church - Women are honoured in the church
and can become saints who are venerated at all levels. St Mary is the
most venerated saint in the church, but she was not a priest serving
the altar. They can serve as deaconesses without having a priestly
order. They do not serve in the sanctuary or officiate at the
sacraments of the church, but they can help the bishop and the priest
in many pastoral offices. Women can be prophets, but cannot be
priests or teachers of the church.
The church is following the teachings of the holy scriptures which
declare that the man is the head of the woman although they are
equal in nature: "Now I want you to realize that the head of every
man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of
Christ is God" (1 Cor 11.3; see also Eph 5.22,23,32). Also, the holy
scriptures tell us that women are not allowed to teach men or have
authority over them (1 Tim 2.11, 15; 1 Cor 14.33,34-38).There were
no women priests in the Old Testament, too. The icon of Christ and
the church can be seen in the relation of man and woman in the
The Reformed understanding
The Reformed understanding of ministry begins with the ministry of
the whole people of God who, as the body of Christ, continue Christ's
ministry to the world. This ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit,
follows the pattern of Christ's threefold ministry of prophet, priest
and king through the proclamation of the faith, the practice of
Christian love and the search for justice and peace in the world. This
ministry is the privilege and responsibility of every believer by virtue
of their baptism into Christ. In this context the Reformed tradition
speaks of the "priesthood of all believers". In addition to the general
priesthood of all believers the Reformed tradition also maintains a
ministry of elders. Elders are chosen and appointed from the
congregation to form a conciliar body that is responsible for spiritual
discipline, the exercise of public worship and the governance of the
life of the church.
The Reformed tradition also maintains a particular ministry of the
word and sacrament. This ministry is bestowed on those who the
church recognises as being called and empowered by God to be set
apart to this function. The minister of word and sacrament is an elder
with a particular responsibility for teaching and the celebration of the
sacraments. There is equality between teaching elders (ministers of
word and sacrament) and the ruling elders. The ministry of word and
sacrament is vital for the upbuilding of the church and the edification
of God's people. The importance of this ministry can be demonstrated
by reference to the traditional Reformed criteria for the recognition of
59.a true church, namely a church exists wherever the Word of God is
faithfully preached and heard and the sacraments administered
according to the Word of God.
Admittance to the ministry of word and sacrament follows the
preparation of the candidate through a programme of theological
training and examination by the church. Ordination to the ministry of
word and sacrament requires the call of God's people and is
administered by a prayer of invocation of the Holy Spirit and the
laying on of hands by elders of the church. In this unrepeatable act of
ordination the ministry is formally entrusted to the ordinand and the
ordinand vows to be faithful to God in their practice of ministry. Most
Reformed churches ordain both women and men to the ministry of
word and sacrament. On the basis of their one baptism and their
participation in the priesthood of all believers women and men are
called by the Holy Spirit to the ordained ministry.
The Reformed tradition regards the institutional expression of
ministry as belonging to the bene esse of the life of the church rather
than the esse. As such the precise organization and pattern of
ministry is in principle revisable as the church responds, under the
direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit and in faithfulness to the
scriptures, to changing historical circumstances. Generally speaking,
member churches of the Reformed family do not have a personal
episcopate. The exercise of episcope is vested in communal and
conciliar bodies where ruling elders and teaching elders are
represented on equal basis. The Reformed tradition believes itself to
be in continuity with the faith of the apostles as evidenced by its
proclamation of the gospel, its celebration of the sacraments, its
acceptance of the creeds and its service to the world.
Points of agreement
Both traditions acknowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ is the
foundation of all ministry in the church.
The celebrant of the sacraments in the church should be an ordained
priest/minister who should have a special gift through the power of
the Holy Spirit.
Baptism and eucharist are accepted sacraments in each tradition in
spite of the difference in understanding of the essence and
implications of these sacraments. These differences require further
Spiritual/universal priesthood (as distinct from official ordained
priesthood in the Oriental Orthodox understanding) is granted to all
who believe in Christ, including men and women.
Conciliarity of the church and conciliar forms of government are
expressed and practised in both traditions.
Points of disagreement
The Oriental Orthodox view
The concept of priesthood in the Oriental Orthodox differs from the
Reformed tradition. The Oriental Orthodox believe in a clear
distinction between the official priesthood and the spiritual priesthood
of all believers in Christ in both the Old Testament and the New
The unbroken apostolic succession by the laying on of hands is
essential for the continuity of priestly ministry in the church.
69. The bishop is the successor of the apostles. Only the bishop isentitled to perform ordination by the laying on of hands.
Three ranks of priesthood, namely bishop, priest and deacon, are
clear and distinct in the Oriental Orthodox tradition from the
beginning of the early church.
In order that the Lord Jesus Christ should be believed as the High
Priest after the order of Melchizedek, it follows necessarily that there
should be also priests in the church offering the eucharist using bread
and wine.
The priestly offering of the eucharist makes the sacrifice of the cross
present everywhere and in every generation beyond space and time
limitations, and as such is not understood as a repetition of the
sacrifice of the Lord on the cross.
The following seven sacraments are recognized and practiced in the
life of the church: baptism, confirmation, repentance and confession,
holy eucharist, matrimony, anointing the sick and priesthood.
The ordination of women to priestly ministry is unacceptable based
on the teachings of the holy scriptures.
The Reformed View
It is a common Reformed understanding that a uniform church order
which is universally applicable in all times and all places cannot be
found in the New Testament. The Reformed understanding of holy
scripture does not necessarily suggest the practice of a hierarchical
pattern of ministry. The Reformed churches assert that they are in
continuity with the succession of apostolic faith. The uninterrupted
episcopal succession does not in itself guarantee the pure
proclamation of the gospel and the proper administration of the
In relation to the ministry of word and sacrament, Reformed
churches affirm that the ordained minister does not differ from any
other believer except in function. The ordained minister does not
possess a distinct character or "imprint". The ordained ministry
belongs to the wellbeing of the church (bene esse). Since the priestly
ministry has been fulfilled by Christ, a minister of a Reformed church
does not perform any special priestly function. The Reformed
tradition asserts that the power to ordain is not vested in an
individual person or office but belongs communally to the church. The
call of God, adequate ministerial formation and the invocation of the
Holy Spirit are the indispensable prerequisites for ordination. The act
of ordination does not simply depend on the "laying on of hands'.
Most Reformed churches do not agree that the ordained ministry is
withheld from women. According to the Reformed understanding
there are no biblical or theological reasons for denying ordination to
The last two sessions of the Oriental Orthodox-Reformed dialogue
discussed extensively the doctrine, number and practice of the
sacraments in the two families. Variations and differences between
the two traditions concerning the nature and number of the
sacraments were openly expressed.
The Oriental Orthodox view
The Oriental Orthodox family of churches believes in seven
sacraments; namely, baptism, chrismation, repentance and
79.confession, eucharist, priesthood, marriage (matrimony) and unction
of the sick..
A sacrament performed by a canonically ordained priest in a concrete
form of a special material is an unseen work of the Holy Spirit.
The role of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments is essential because the
gifts of God are "from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit."
(Saint Athanasius wrote: "The Father does all things through the
Word in the Holy Spirit", First Letter to Serapion, Chapter 28,
"Concerning the Holy Spirit" - Shapland pp.134/135).
The minister of the sacrament is the steward of God as is written by
St Paul: "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and
stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4.1), "For a bishop must be
blameless, as a steward of God" (Titus 1.7).
In the Oriental Orthodox presentations, the role of the Holy Spirit in
the seven sacraments was clarified based on the holy scripture.
Therefore, the role of the Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the
The sacraments of the church are experienced as a life that one lives
inside the church and not as something that one just hears about.
One tastes its efficacy and experiences its effect in his life, and the
more he experiences such effect the more his belief in it increases.
The Reformed view
The two sacraments administered by the Reformed churches,
baptism and the eucharist, are always celebrated in the context of
worship. A major difference between the two families is in the
number of sacraments observed. Although the Reformed tradition
does not recognise marriage, ordination, confirmation and confession
and onction as sacraments, their importance as religious ordinances
is not ignored. For example, our worship books contain several
different orders of worship such as morning prayer, Sunday public
worship (including confession and eucharist), baptism, wedding,
memorial service, ordination, installation, healing, and confirmation.
These rich and varied liturgical practices show that we have these
rites in common with the Oriental Orthodox family. From the
perspective of our lay people or members, these ceremonies are very
For the Reformed family of churches, two of these practices are
dominical sacraments, namely baptism and eucharist. Based on the
teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ (Mt 26.26-28; 28.18-20), we regard
them as means of grace made available by God to all people through
the church. While affirming that baptism and the eucharist are
essential, we do not limit God's grace to these means. God's power to
save is in God's hands alone.
In which way are the sacraments means of salvation? We understand
grace to be communicated by God, not in any automatic way. We do
not believe there is anything mechanical about the process of God's
salvation. In the final analysis, it is God's grace rather than human
action and it is normally a lifelong commitment.
Word and sacrament are very closely linked in the Reformed
tradition: "It is the efficacy of the word that is brought to light in a
sacrament, for a sacrament is a proclamation of the gospel - different
in form, but not in function, from the preaching of the word".
Reformed liturgies were developed in the 16th century when the
protestant Reformers, confronted with worship practices they
considered unacceptable, went back to the original sources of
scriptures and worship practices of the early church. Over the
centuries, there have been renewed attempts to reappropriate the
89.biblical meaning of worship. Such changes are implemented by the
highest synodal levels of our churches. They involve lengthy
consultations with theological experts and church members.
Reformed churches regarded the full participation of lay people as
essential to both sacraments. The administration includes always lay
and clergy participation. They are in fact corporate acts of the
congregation. For instance, baptism liturgies commit parents and the
congregation equally to the Christian nurture and development of a
child. Lay people participate together with the ministers in the
preparation for the sacraments. In the eucharist, this includes prayer,
confession and proclamation.
Emerging convergence
While differing on many points concerning the number and nature of
the sacraments, both families affirm that the sacraments are the
gracious gifts of God for nourishing and maintaining the life of the
church and for strengthening her union with Christ.
Our seven sessions of dialogue have been only the beginning of a
process of acquaintance and mutual knowledge between two
Christian traditions that have never officially engaged in dialogue with
each other before. Centuries of separation and minimal or
non-interaction on the ecclesiastical, theological and spiritual levels -
but also on the cultural level - have made our dialogue both exciting
and slow. Exciting, because we felt that we were breaking new
ground by simply getting to know each other and how we understand
and express our Christian and ecclesial identities. Slow, because we
realized that we needed to catch up with each other on many levels
and required much more time together to bear lasting fruit in our
encounters. Nevertheless, the results we did achieve were quite
significant and certainly historic, eg, the agreement on Christology
that resolved a centuries-old theological controversy. We realize that
there are many areas of theological difference which still exist and
need further dialogue.
The Oriental Orthodox-Reformed dialogue has already given the
opportunity to discuss issues of mutual concern. None can foresee
the results clearly today. Any activity intending church unity is an
answer to the call of Jesus Christ that churches exhibit Christian unity
in order to bear witness to his mission in the world. Who knows how
the Holy Spirit has led this dialogue in planting unity among the
Reformed and the Oriental Orthodox families of churches in
generations to come? Hope for Christian unity is both present and
future. We pray that God may use us for the fulfilment of this hope.
We submit this Report to the authorities of the Oriental Orthodox
churches and to the executive committee of the World Alliance of
Reformed churches for their consideration and action.
Appendix I: papers presented
First session: Anba Bishoy Monastery, Wadi-El Natroun (Egypt),
May 2-5 1993
Introduction to the Oriental Orthodox churches (Bishop Matta Roham MarEustathius)
The main characteristics of the Reformed churches (Dr Karel Blei)
Oriental Orthodox view of tradition and scripture (Pope Shenouda III)
A Reformed view on tradition and scripture (Dr Silke-Petra Bergjan)
The nature and the mission of the church: an Oriental Orthodox view (Dr
Kondothra M George)
The nature and the mission of the church: a Reformed view (Dr Samuel
Second session: Driebergen (The Netherlands), September 10-15
Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries (Dr George
A survey of the recent bilateral agreements between the Oriental
(non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox churches and the Eastern Orthodox church
and other Christian communions (Metropolitan Bishoy)
The bilateral agreements between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern
Orthodox: a Reformed response (Dr Silke-Petra Bergjan)
Tradition and its role in the Syrian Orthodox Church (Bishop Matta Roham
Mar Eustathius)
Holy Scripture and tradition: a Reformed perspective (Dr Rebecca Weaver)
Holy Scripture: its use and misuse from an Oriental Orthodox perspective
(Dr Kondothra M George)
The use and abuse of the Scriptures in relation to mission, evangelism and
proselytism from a Reformed perspective (Dr Peter McEnhill)
Third session:Sophia Centre, Kottayam (India), January 10-15
Theology and Theologian: their Function and Authority in the Orthodox
Church (Dr Kondothra M. George)
The Beauty and Service of Theology (Dr Milan Opocensky)
A Brief History of the Reformed churches in India (Dr Franklyn J
Holy Scripture, its authority and its inspiration (Dr Karel Blei)
Fourth session: Richmond, Virginia (USA), January 9-16 1998
Mission: An Oriental Orthodox Perspective (Dr M George Kondothra
The Nature of the Church from a Reformed Perspective (Dr Christopher B
Some Key Issues in Contemporary Mission Debate (Dr HS Wilson)
Fifth session: St Ephrem Syrian Orthodox Seminary, Ma'arat
Saydnaya (Syria), January 10-15 1999
The Understanding of Ministry in the Reformed Tradition (Dr Peter
Ministry in the Orthodox Tradition (His Grace Archbishop Aphrem Karim
Mar Cyril)
The Link Between Priesthood and Eucharist in the New Testament
(Metropolitan Bishoy)
Sixth session: Musselburgh, Scotland, January 11-16 2000
Introduction to the Sacraments of the Church (Metropolitan Bishoy) The Mystery/Sacrament of Baptism (Very Rev. Nareg Alemezian)
Introduction to the Sacrament of Holy Liturgy/Eucharist (Geevarghese Mar
An Interrogation of the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist (Dr J
Jayakiran Sebastian)
The Reformed Understanding of the Sacraments (Dr George Sabra)
Seventh session: Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Beirut
(Lebanon), January 23-28 2001
Introduction to the Sacraments: an Oriental Orthodox Perspective
(Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim Mar Gregorios)
Appendix II: participants
Oriental Orthodox
In the 1992 planning meeting
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (Co-chair), Patriarch of Alexandria,
Coptic Orthodox Church
His Grace Archbishop Aram Keshishian, Armenian Apostolic Church
Dr Kondothra M George, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
His Grace Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim Mar Gregorios, Syrian
Orthodox Church
His Grace Archbishop Timotheos, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo
In the dialogue sessions held between 1993 and 2001
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (Co-chair), Patriarch of Alexandria,
Coptic Orthodox Church [1993, 1994]
His Grace Metropolitan Bishoy (Co-chair from 1997), Coptic Orthodox
Church [1993, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001]
Very Rev. Father Nareg Alemezian, Armenian Apostolic Church
[1999, 2000, 2001]
His Grace Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Apostolic Church [1993,
1997, 1998]
His Grace Bishop Dirayr Panossian, Armenian Apostolic Church [1997,
1998, 1999, 2000, 2001]
His Grace Bishop Moussa, Coptic Orthodox Church [1993, 1994,
His Grace Bishop Serapion, Coptic Orthodox Church [1993]
His Grace Bishop Youssef, Coptic Orthodox Church [1998]
His Grace Bishop Antony, Coptic Orthodox Church [2000]
His Grace Archbishop Abuna Kerlos, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo
Church [2000]
Rev. Seife Selassie Yohannes, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
[1994, 2000]
His Grace Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, Malankara Orthodox Syrian
Church [1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001]
Dr Kondothra M George, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church [1993,
1994, 1997, 1998]
His Eminence Metropolitan Philipos Mar Eusebius, Malankara
Orthodox Syrian Church [invited 1997]
Mr PC Abraham, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church [invited 1997]
Mrs P Lukose, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church [invited 1997]Father John Mathews, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church [invited
Father John Thoma, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church [invited
His Grace Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim Mar Gregorios, Syrian
Orthodox Church [1998, 1999, 2000]
His Grace Archbishop Aphrem Karim Mar Cyril, Syrian Orthodox
Church [1998, 1999, 2000]
His Grace Bishop Matta Roham Mar Eustathius, Syrian Orthodox
Church [1993, 1994, 1999]
In the 1992 planning meeting
Dr Milan Opocensky (Co-chair). Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren
Dr Silke-Petra Bergjan, Evangelical-Reformed Church, Germany
Warc Staff
Dr HS Wilson, Church of South India
In the dialogue sessions held between 1993 and 2001
Dr Milan Opocensky (Co-chair), Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren
[1993,1994,1997, 1998, 1999, 2000]
Dr Jana Opocenska, Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren [1993]
Dr Silke-Petra Bergjan, Evangelical-Reformed Church, Germany
[1993, 1994, 1999, 2000]
Rev. Dr Karel Blei, The Netherlands Reformed Church [1993, 1994,
Dr Samuel Habib, Synod of the Nile of the Evangelical Church, Egypt
Rev. Dr Abdel Masih Istafanous, Synod of the Nile of the Evangelical
Church, Egypt [1993]
Dr Christopher Kaiser, Reformed Church in America [1994, 1997,
1998, 1999, 2000, Co-chair 2001]
Dr Peter McEnhill, Church of Scotland, U.K. [1994, 1997, 1998, 1999,
2000, 2001]
Dr George Sabra, National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon
[1993, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2001]
Dr J Jayakiran Sebastian, Church of South India [1993, 1994, 1997,
1998, 2000, 2001]
Dr Eugene Turner, Presbyterian Church (USA) [1993, 1994, 1997,
1998, 1999, 2000, 2001]
Dr Harold Vogelaar, Reformed Church in America [1993]
Dr Rebecca Weaver, Presbyterian Church (USA) [1993, 1994, 1997,
1998, 1999]
Rev. Emile Zaki, Synod of the Nile of the Evangelical Church, Egypt
[1997, 2000]
Dr HS Wilson [1999], Wartburg Theological Seminary, USA
Dr Franklyn Balasundaram, Church of South India [1997]
Rev. Dr CS Calian, Presbyterian Church (USA) [1998]Rev. Dr Victor Makari, Presbyterian Church (USA) [1998]
Warc staff
Dr HS Wilson, Church of South India [1993, 1994, 1997, 1998]
Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil
[2000, 2001]

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