The East-West Schism
Before progressing any further, I want to briefly review the Great Schism of 1054, aka the East-West Schism as it helps us to better understand what laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. In short, the Christian Church was one Church for the first one thousand years. They had some issues including Arianism and Gnosticism pop up every now and then, but the church as a whole stuck together and weathered through difficulties.
The Importance of Council
When several of the greatest difficulties arose, they were settled by what is called an ecumenical council. I won’t go into the details of each council, but the purpose was to ensure every voice was heard, truth prevailed, and that the true Church remained one. Councils displayed a somewhat democratic process that the Church hierarchy practiced. Each bishop was in charge of a small region. There were hundreds of bishops; and every one of them was given the opportunity to voice support or opposition to whatever the issue at hand was. They would then vote, and each bishop would cast his vote.
A bishop represented the people from his region, and he was accountable to both the hierarchy and laity. The final part of an ecumenical council was that the bishops would bring the decision back to their congregations for the approval of their people. Bishops were highly respected spiritual leaders, and I’m aware of only one instance where a majority of the people disagreed with the final decision of their leaders and overthrew them (Council of Florence, 1489)
The Great Schism
The East-West Schism divided the once united Church into the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East. This schism was due to several factors such as political, cultural, linguistic, and physical separation from the deterioration of the Roman Empire. However, the most significant factors were likely doctrinal: a change in the Church’s Creed unilaterally enforced by Rome and a reinvention of ecclesiology to make papal authority universal to every Christian.
The head of the Roman church was always highly honored, but had no authority outside his own district. Whenever issues arose and an ecumenical council was held, every bishop had a single vote including the Roman archbishop. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the Roman See decided that his word should be absolute; that the other bishops and archbishops served as nothing but advisers to him. The whole Eastern Church rejected his power-hungry grabs at authority, and the two excommunicated each other.