Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

20 Apr 2015

Three Differences Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism

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St. Michael's MonasteryIn the West, most Protestants are at least somewhat familiar with Roman Catholicism. Many of us have Roman Catholic friends, neighbors, and even family members. And many believers have been saved out of Roman Catholicism. Much less familiar to most westerners is the other main branch of non-Protestant Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy.

Many differences exist between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Some of these are more significant than others, and many of these ostensible differences belie an underlying similarity between the two church traditions. I’d like to briefly discuss three areas in which Eastern Orthodoxy differs somewhat from Roman Catholicism while reflecting a common disagreement with evangelical Protestantism. These areas have to do with the Lord’s Supper, the use of images or icons, and religious authority.

1. When one walks into an Eastern Orthodox church, one of the first things a non-Orthodox person will notice is a large screen or iconostasis at the front of the nave or auditorium. This often beautiful structure is not merely decorative. It serves an important purpose within the Orthodox system by marking off the boundary between the common area and the sanctuary. Whereas the Roman Catholic mass is usually celebrated in full view of the congregants, Orthodox priests pray over the elements on the altar which is located in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis and therefore set apart from the congregants. The sanctuary is sometimes compared to the “Holy of Holies” in the Jewish Temple. Another difference between the Roman Catholic practice and that of the Orthodox has to do with the reception of the elements themselves. Whereas Roman Catholic laity often only partake of the bread, in the Orthodox service congregants consistently partake of both elements (bread and wine, usually served together in a spoon).

On the other hand, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches view the Lord’s Supper as a Eucharist, a sacrament, and a sacrifice. In general, the Orthodox are less interested in precise theological theories, and so they do not usually use the term transubstantiation. However, for all intents and purposes the Orthodox Church holds to a form of transubstantiation. They see the elements of the Eucharist as becoming the real body and blood of Christ, and they see it as having sacramental value in the sense of providing reconciliation or healing (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed., 283–85; John McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 291). In both church traditions, the Eucharist is not simply a memorial or even an ordinance involving the spiritual presence of Christ. It is a means by which one enters into the sacrifice of Christ in some (rather mysterious) way.

2. Another thing one is quickly struck with when walking into an Orthodox church is the pervasive presence and use of icons. In some cases, the beauty of such icons is awe-inspiring, and in fact, that seems to be the point.

However, the icons in an Orthodox church are usually quite different from those found in Roman Catholic churches. Whereas Catholic churches often include statues and carved or otherwise 3-dimensionally shaped crucifixes, within the Orthodox tradition religious imagery is carefully controlled and for the most part is produced on a flat surface using paint or something similar.

As in Roman Catholicism, within Orthodoxy icons are viewed as means that can assist people in their worship. Both traditions make use of images or icons as aids to worship. And so, church goers in both traditions often venerate and pray to images of Jesus as well the apostles and other saints. Both church traditions also make use of relics for similar purposes.

As a side note, with just a little background outsiders can learn to distinguish between a Roman Catholic church and an Orthodox church based on the appearance of the interior of the building by looking for an iconostasis and/or altar and by noting the kind of artwork or icons used in worship. One can also frequently distinguish between the two based on what is heard. In Orthodox churches singing (or chanting) usually takes the place of organ or other instrumental music.

3. Less obvious perhaps to the casual observer is another difference between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy centering around the question of religious authority. Within the Roman Catholic Church, Scripture and tradition are held up as twin sources of revelation or authority (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 9–10). While certainly recognizing the authority of tradition, the Orthodox Church views the relationship between Scripture and tradition somewhat differently. Consider, for example, the following explanation of religious authority in Orthodoxy:

The fundamental bulwarks of the Orthodox faith are: the lives of the Spirit-filled elect, the Holy Scriptures, the ancient traditions manifested in the sacred liturgy and the church’s ritual practices, the creeds and professions (ektheseis) of the ecumenical councils, the great patristic writings defending the faith against heretical positions, the church’s ever-deepening collection of prayers that have had universal adoption and enduring spiritual efficacy and, by extension, the wider body of the spiritual and ascetical writings of the saints of times past and present, the important writings of hierarchs at various critical moments in the more recent past which have identified the correct response that ought to be undertaken against new conditions and movements prevailing after the patristic period (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 100).

St. Sophia's CathedralIn the midst of that one, rather long sentence the reader could easily miss the fact that the Orthodox Church looks to the Scriptures for religious authority. However, within Orthodoxy Scripture is just one of many religious authorities. Or perhaps it would be better to say that tradition is the real source of religious authority within Orthodoxy, and Scripture is viewed as one part of that tradition. McGuckin further explains the relationship between Scripture and tradition this way: “The Scriptures stand as far greater in moment, and richness, than any writing of the saints. But there is not a profound difference in order, and not a dissonance of quality, for it is the same Spirit who inspires his saints in each generation, and inspires in them the same mind of the self-same Lord…. Scripture, for the Orthodox, is one of the purest manifestations of tradition. It is constitutively within sacred tradition, not apart from it” (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 101). So within Orthodoxy, Scripture is inspired, but it is inspired in the same sense that the writings of many saints are inspired. Like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy rejects the full sufficiency of Scripture and necessarily reduces the actual authority of Scripture by making it one of several sources of religious truth. And like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy regards the Church as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 2.10; Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199–200).

Although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are different in a number of ways—some superficial and some substantial, they both set up human priests (and saints) as intermediaries between God and humans. They both encourage the use of images as aids to worship and prayer. And both see their respective Churches as fulfilling the role of authoritative interpreter of Scripture. More anecdotally, they both seem to encourage a great deal of religious ritualism and activity but very little actual study of the Bible.

8 Responses

  1. Kent Hobi

    John is this correct from your article?

    “Whereas Roman Catholic laity may only partake of the bread,”

    In all the masses I’ve seen in the Roman Catholic churches around here all the laity partake of both?? In fact it is so hygienically problematic because they all sip from the same cup.

    Your thoughts…maybe I have it wrong? Most of the masses I’ve observed have been apart of funerals.

  2. John Aloisi

    Thanks for the comment, Kent.

    For many centuries the Catholic Church withheld the cup from the laity. What you’ve witnessed is likely a reflection of the fact that since Vatican II (1960s) the church has compromised on this somewhat by allowing bishops to decide whether or not to authorize priests within their dioceses to serve both elements to the laity. I believe this is still a minority practice, but apparently the bishop over your area is allowing it. I’ve just edited the sentence you quoted in order to make it more accurate.

    Here’s a link to a non-technical explanation of the difference in practice:

  3. Issa Haddad

    Thanks for the clear and simple language you used to write this article. Do you know of good online articles or websites that talk about this topic? I encounter many people from a Catholic and Orthodox and Latin background here in Jordan. I would like to read more about it so I can be able to draw applications in my sermons that help people see the difference between Bible teaching and tradition.

  4. John Aloisi


    Here are a few of sites that help explain some of the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Some of these sites also explain how these two groups differ from most Protestants:

    Further complicating things, in Jordan you probably encounter some Catholic churches that acknowledge the pope but largely follow eastern rites ( ;

  5. Dennis

    Hello, as a Catholic, I just wanted to add a couple comments to your article.

    1. While the Catholic Church is considered the “Western” arm of the Church, there are Eastern rites of the Catholic Church (e.g. Armenian, Byzantine, Ukrainian, etc.). These rites are very similar to the Orthodox Church in that they also have icons and their rituals during Mass differ from what you see here in Detroit. In Plymouth, MI, there is a Melkite Catholic Church which is Eastern rite which has icons, etc. It’s very similar to what you describe about Eastern Orthodox–yet fully Catholic.

    2. The foundation of the Church includes Scripture, Sacred (Apostolic) Tradition, and the Magisterium. So, there are three major foundations for the Catholic Church. Because of the splintering of the Orthodox Church, I don’t think they have as clearly defined of a Magisterium but yet still adhere to Scripture and Tradition.

    3. Catholics are strongly encouraged to read and understand Scripture. The Catholic Church views Sacred Scripture as important as the Eucharist. The problem lies in the fact that many Catholics don’t understand Scripture.

    4. The key differences between Orthodox and Catholics is in the Filioque clause of the Nicene Creed. Catholics (Eastern and Western) believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Orthodox believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The second difference is the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) which stems from the fact that the Political seat of Rome had moved to Constantinople and thus the Religious seat should have moved along with it–among other things.

  6. “… within Orthodoxy icons are viewed as means that can assist people in their worship …” Actually, there is a historical coincidence that veils somewhat the probable reasons for using paintings, icons and esp. also church windows to convey the Christian message: most people until the reformation were illiterate. But while Luther and other reformers insisted that the scripture was the “sole” fountain of Christian justificational theory/theology and that everyone should read it and why then more and mre translation into the native languages were undertaken, that effort would have come to naught had not at around the same time two other things taken place: a) the invention (in the “West”) of the printing press and b) general schooling of even the “lowliest” peasants. Had the printing press been invented and the Bibles been translated, no amount of copies would have served that purpose with still over 90% illiterates. Had illiteracy been so low as today but the printing press not invented, then no amount of hand-copying Bibles could ever have served to bring a Bible to (almost) every home. Which is why these icons and church windows told the Biblical stories over centuries following quite a strict canon of symbolism that only is lost to except a few iconographic experts nowadays but was common knowledge among most of the population so that at least the most popular stories could be “read” from these “billboards” and this is why the Protestants could “afford” to let this tradition “go” – being iconoclasts while not supplying Bibles at the same time would have led the church(es) back to something like heathen times …

  7. Alex

    It is not an accident that that vast amount of so-called Roman “Catholics” and “Eastern Orthodox” are woefully ignorant of scripture. If one would singularly ask the Holy Spirit for guidance when reading the scriptures, and ask for understanding, one would discover that the many of the traditions held by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have ABSOLUTELY NO basis in the practice of a Christian, and are indeed anti-Christian. A prime example is the Roman Catholic myth that Mary was “ever-virgin”. Despite having read man Catholic apologists, none can successfully deal with the verses in Mathew regarding Joseph, “But he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to her son. And Joseph named him Jesus.” So clearly Jesus was born of a virgin, and as appearant throughout scripture, He had bother and sisters as well.

    The argument made by oohna that the icons served as worshiping tools is strange. The clerics had DISCOURAGED people from reading the scriptures for themselves. Luther escaped being put to death for translating the scriptures in German,. In the English-speaking world,. his contemporary William Tyndall, who translated the scriptures into the English of his day was killed. The printing press itself helped ignite the revolution, but the clerics had always wanted to Lord it over the masses.

    I read the Bible for myself as a teenager 40 years ago, saw the heretical errors in the Catholic Church just as Luther did and left them to join the Protestants . In fact, the doctrinal errors with the Catholic Church explain why they are plagued by scandal and lies to this day.