Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > DC-RC > Final Report 1992 | CONT. > Introduction



    1. After the completion of the first stage of the dialogue between the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church (1977-81) and its agreed account, Apostolicity and Catholicity (1982), it was understood that the current state of ecumenism required serious study of the nature of the Church. This came from our conviction that the Christian identity in itself and Christian mission in the world are inseparable from a clear and deep understanding of the Church.

    2. The choice we made to focus on the Church coincides with the choice made by many ecumenical dialogues today: the Anglican-Roman Catholic, Orthodox-Roman Catholic, Anglican-Reformed, and Disciples-Reformed International Commissions, and the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission in the U.S.A. The same focus is found in the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. This is a sign of our day that reveals the ecumenical movement to be in the midst of a deep probing of the link between ecumenism and the nature of the Church.

    3. For this second stage of discussions, our dialogue met ten times: in Venice, Italy (1983), Nashville, Tennessee (1984), Mandeville, Jamaica (1985), Cambridge, England (1986), Duxbury, Massachusetts (1987), Gethsemani, Kentucky, (1988), Venice, Italy (1989), Toronto, Canada (1990), Rome, Italy (1991) and St Louis, Missouri (1992). In every meeting we prayed together, we met with members of local congregations, and we studied and discussed together the similarities and differences that characterize our two communities. In our meetings we focused on how the Church as communion is linked to the new creation that God wills. We studied the visibility of the Church's communion (koinonia) as revealed in the celebration of the Eucharist and maintained through continuity with the Apostolic Tradition. And we focused on the role of the ministry and the involvement of the whole Church in maintaining the faith of the apostles.

I. The Specific Nature of this Dialogue Withing the Ecumenical Movement

   4. The dialogue between the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church has a specific character. This character may be described in sociological categories by saying that it comes not only from an encounter between a catholic and a protestant ethos1, but more particularly from the ways in which Disciples understand themselves to express a protestant ethos and Roman Catholics understand themselves to express a catholic ethos.

   5. Generally in a catholic ethos great emphasis is placed on sacraments and liturgy. The corporate character of the faith in both the definition of doctrine and its continuing affirmation in the life of the Church is stressed. Episcopal oversight, rooted in apostolic continuity and succession, is regarded as necessary for the preservation of the Gospel and the life of the Church.

   6. Generally in a protestant ethos great emphasis is placed on the proclamation of the Word, the necessity of the judgment of each individual's conscience as it is bound by the gospel, and the individual's responsibility for the appropriation of the Word of God. Episcopal oversight may be considered desirable for the well-being of the Church but not essential. Sometimes it has been denied that a specific form of oversight originates in the will of Christ for the Church. The test of church structures is the extent to which they are faithful to the gospel and facilitate authentic proclamation and Christian living.

   7. These general differences between a catholic and a protestant ethos explain important differences between Disciples and Roman Catholics. Not only are their theological traditions and ecclesial structures different but they have ways of appropriating the Christian mystery in daily life that are not the same. Nevertheless on some vital issues what they share in common is more determinative for them than their belonging to a protestant or a catholic ethos. The customary vocabulary of division between protestant and catholic does not apply exactly to the specific priorities of Disciples and Roman Catholics.

   8. The Disciples movement emerged out of nineteenth-century Protestantism but it had nothing to do with a deliberate break from the Roman Catholic Church and lacked the memories of sixteenth and seventeenth-century controversies. Moreover some of its most specific concerns were criticisms of the way in which contemporary Protestantism understood and lived out fidelity to the apostolic witness. It came from the desire to lead the Church towards a unity rooted in the weekly celebration of the Lords Supper. Alexander Campbell was convinced that ‘the union of Christians is essential to the conversion of the world', an insight which has lost none of its force in the twentieth century2. The Roman Catholic Church too proclaims that it has a specific mission for the unity of the world, and affirms that this unity is signified and given by the eucharistic communion. It too teaches that the restoration of unity among all Christians is linked with the salvation of the world. Indeed Disciples and Roman Catholics pursue these goals in ways deeply marked by their different histories. But they have to discern whether all these affirmations and convictions are not in fact the expression of a very profound communion in some of the most fundamental gifts of the grace of God.

   9. This is why, after a certain agreement had been expressed in Apostolicity and Catholicity, Disciples and Roman Catholics continued their dialogue in order to discover the degree of communion they already share. Their goal is to be together, growing in this communion and fostering it, and to be with all Christians (as the First Letter of Peter puts it) ‘Gods own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light' (1 Pt. 2:9 NRSV).

   10. To be honest and not lead to a ‘cheap ecumenism' this dialogue required two important and complementary investigations. It was necessary first to discuss clearly the issues on which, because of their history and ethos, Disciples and Roman Catholics are different. But then it was necessary to discern in what measure these differences are really divisive. Are they only two diverse ways of manifesting or living out the same basic conviction? If that should be the case, another question has to be asked: how would it be possible to express visibly this existing communion? More precisely: what kind of changes would be required to enable this existing communion to contribute to the full restoration of Christian unity?

Differences in Christian Faith and Life

   11. At first glance the historic differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Disciples of Christ seem to make the division between them irreconcilable. Roman Catholics have understood themselves in the context of the continuous history of the Church: Disciples have understood themselves in the context of their origin as a reform movement (developing out of the Presbyterian Church) committed to find a way to overcome denominationalism. Hence where Roman Catholics have seen the Church throughout its history as continuous with the teaching of the apostles, Disciples have considered that some discontinuities in the life of the Church have been necessary for the sake of the Gospel. Roman Catholics have found in creeds and doctrinal definitions a sign of the assistance of the Holy Spirit to bind the Church into one and to lead it into all truth. Disciples have wanted to remain faithful to the apostolic Church of the New Testament with its vision of unity in Christ, but have been distrustful of many of the creeds, confessions and doctrinal teachings within Christian tradition, finding in the way they have been used a threat to unity. This has led them to be suspicious as well of the structure of episcopal authority which Roman Catholics believe is a necessary means for maintaining continuity with the apostles and with their teaching. Roman Catholics have been convinced that the college of bishops in communion with the See of Rome, teaching in conjunction with other ordained ministers and with the whole Church, is a necessary means of preserving the Church in continuity with the apostles.

   12. The celebration of the Eucharist (also called the Lords Supper or Mass) has been central to both Roman Catholics and Disciples, but the Eucharist has been understood in different ways.

   13. For Disciples the centrality of the Lords Supper has been highlighted by its celebration every Lord's Day. In obeying the Lords commandment, ‘Do this in memory of me', Disciples have understood themselves to be in communion with the faithful in all places and all ages. Hence they have called all the baptized to the communion table and in particular have eschewed any formal creeds that kept Christians from taking communion together. However, they generally did not recognize the validity of infant baptism until the present century. Understanding themselves as a believers' church after the pattern of the New Testament church, the Disciples have practiced baptism upon confession of faith in Christ and have looked upon faith more as a trusting attitude and a life of witness than as assent to doctrinal formulations. They have emphasized the role of the whole eucharistic congregation in witnessing to the apostolic faith, and they have felt free to designate, as part of their church order, members of the community other than ordained ministers and ordained elders to preside at the eucharist, especially if no regular minister or elder should be present. In the practice of believers' baptism and in the recovery of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, Disciples have claimed to be in continuity with the faith of the apostles.

   14. In celebrating the Eucharist, Roman Catholics also have claimed to be in continuity with the faith of the apostles. Indeed, they have seen the celebration of the Eucharist as a way to enter into communion with the whole Body of Christ. They have emphasized that the Eucharist signifies the unity of the Church and so they have invited to the eucharistic celebration only those in communion with the bishop and through him in communion with all the local churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome throughout the world. They have practiced infant baptism and have emphasized the role of the whole community in supporting and nurturing the faith. In using ancient creeds and traditional liturgies, Roman Catholics have understood themselves to be in continuity with the generations of Christians who have gone before them since the apostles. Faith for Roman Catholics is not limited to the assent to such formulations, but it cannot be recognized without such assent. While different members have different gifts in the life of the Church, only the bishop or an ordained minister in communion with him is empowered to preside over the celebration of the Eucharist.

   15. Disciples have been readily critical of some developments in the history of the Church, even seeing in these developments errors needing correction, because of their awareness of human finitude. They have been inclined to recognize sin in many aspects of the institutional Church. Roman Catholics have recognized sin within individual members of the Church but because they believe the Church belongs to Christ and has received the gifts of the Spirit that maintain it in holiness and truth, they are slow to find sin and error in the Church's actions and teachings, and quick to see continuity with the apostolic teaching.

   16. Both Disciples and Roman Catholics approach Church teachings with appreciative yet critical eyes. Their two different general attitudes about the Church as an institution lead Roman Catholics to be more appreciative and Disciples to be more critical. For this reason they differ on the relative weight given, on the one hand, to individual discernment and conscience and, on the other hand, to the communal mind. It can be said that Roman Catholics are convinced that; although they must decide for themselves, they cannot decide by themselves. Disciples, on the other hand, are convinced that, although they cannot decide by themselves, they must decide for themselves.

   17. Indeed Roman Catholics and Disciples appear so different and live in such different ways that for many of their members the proposal that their differences could be overcome is nearly incredible.

A Conversion Of Vision?

   18. Through our dialogue we nevertheless discovered that, despite these real and continuing differences, our understanding of the Church converges on some notable points which both Disciples and Roman Catholics believe necessary for the visible unity of the Church. We are convinced that these convergences are important net only for our two traditions but also for all the communities in dialogue to achieve this goal.

   19. We had already begun to discover this convergence in the first stage of our dialogue. In Apostolicity and Catholicity, we saw that our two traditions had sometimes pursued the same goal using different means. We became convinced that ‘ the Spirit of God has already brought us into Christ and continues to move us toward full visible unity' (p. 4). We recognized that ‘each Christian's faith is inseparable from the faith of the community' (p. 9), and agreed that ‘every generation must come to faith anew through the power of the Holy Spirit and hand on this faith to succeeding generations' (p.10). We were convinced that ‘there can be only one Church of God' (p. 11) which cannot be destroyed by divisions among Christians. We were able ‘to affirm the mutual recognition of baptism administered by Roman Catholics and Disciples, convinced that the oneness we received by the grace of God in baptism must find its completion in visible ecclesial unity' (p. 8). We affirmed a common belief ‘that the Church takes visible shape in history and that one sign of this visibility is the common profession of the Gospel with reception of baptism' (p. 11). The restoration of ‘the unique unity of the one Church of God is the goal,' we agreed, and ‘we are already on the way' (p. 11); we sought a renewed fidelity to actions that would intensify and deepen our relationship.

   20. In the second stage of our dialogue together we deepened our conviction that we are one on some crucial issues, and the goal of this statement of convergence is to elucidate a shared vision of the Church. We do net intend to discuss the extent of communion between Disciples and Roman Catholics. Nor will we focus, one by one, on a number of separate issues that have divided us. Instead we want to present our shared understanding of the whole plan of God to draw together and redeem the human family, and the essential role of the Church in manifesting and bringing about this plan. By beginning with God's offer of salvation to the whole of humanity and the means God gives to remember and announce this offer, we have been able to discover that we share the same understanding of the basic nature of the Church.


  1. By ‘ethos' is meant the social, mental, religious and philosophical atmosphere surrounding a group and influencing its way of life.

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  2. A. Campbell, ‘Foundation of Christian Union,' Christianity Restored, Bethany, Va 1835, 103-4 (more commonly cited in the 2nd ed, The Christian System, 1839, 115). Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), son of the Revd Thomas Campbell, a Seceder Presbyterian minister from Ahorey, Ireland who emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1807, was President of Bethany College, West Virginia and one of the leading figures in the emergence of Disciples of Christ as a distinctive religious movement.

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