The History of the Church….

What matters to those who look to history for important lessons is that something was lost in the fourth century that permanently changed the nature of Christianity. If we do not recover that spirit of loyalty to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to saluting the Nicene Creed, the decline of the church will continue. If we persist in arguing across our theological divides in a perishing world, then the church deserves its fate. If we cannot reverse the move away from praxis and toward doctrine that was sealed by Constantine, the church will become, and deserves to become, the relic of another age.
It was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin (an inherited disease for which the institution that makes the diagnosis also claims to have the only cure) and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.
Are we born bad and must be saved, as conservatives assert, or are we born good, as liberals maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world, or is this the ultimate form of Child abuse?

The words above are from a book entitled The Underground Church by Robin Meyers. I must admit that this book along with the book by Harvey Cox entitled The Age of Faith have fundamentally changed my perception of what the church should be. The words above were an “aha” moment for me. When I discovered that much of what I thought was from Jesus but in reality came many years later from man it changed my perception of what being a follower of Jesus really meant.

When I took the time to study early church history it opened my eyes to some truths that were hidden from me and from so many others today.  When I realized that for the majority of its history Christianity has been in a constant conflict about its theology it made me realize that some of what I am told to just take as truth may actually just be the version that won out in a previous church conflict.

As the quote above states a major shift happened in the Church when Constantine changed it from being groups throughout the empire who followed the words of Jesus to a State mandated religion it changed the church in a very basic way. The power that came along with this dictate was corrosive to the church leaders and thinkers.   In order to rescue the church from the mistakes made during these periods we must get back to the pre-Constantine  church.  Simply parroting the doctrine of past theologians will no longer hack it with many who are looking for a more spiritual foundation for their faith.

The emergent movement that is taking place today within the church says that it is ok to believe that some of the things from past leaders could have been wrong hearted. It is ok to say we don’t fully understand the heart of God. In other words it is ok to say that we and all those who preceded us are human beings with human foibles and weaknesses and just may have gotten some of it wrong. That inevitably include the past leaders and theologians. Yes, even the popes.  I’m sure even Martin Luther would agree with that last part….

Changing From Within….

Let me start this post by bringing back some words from a recent post about emergents.

The emergent movement is not a new denomination threatening to take over but instead a new way to thinking. Here is how Wikipedia describes that concept:

Emergents can be described as Protestant, post-Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, post-evangelical, liberal, post-liberal, conservative, post conservative, anabaptist, adventist, reformed, charismatic, neocharismatic, and post-charismatic…. Some attend local independent churches or house churches while others worship in traditional Christian denominations. Proponents believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature…

One of the most interesting parts of the emergent movement it that it is not another flavor of Christianity but instead is for the most part an attempt to change from within.  Emergents are currently inside many of today’s Christian denominations. They are trying to gently nudge their brothers and sisters away from their current trends of exclusion back into one of inclusion.

I can personally attest that this approach of changing from within is not going to be easy!  I joined a small Lutheran Congregation about ten years ago. I was a regular participant in weekly Bible study. I always tried to get the point across that there are many ways to view most bible verses. I asked some pretty difficult questions. When a new minister was brought into our congregation who was obviously a very conservative exclusionist things changed. When I questioned some of his biblical interpretations he became quite uncomfortable. Another person in those studies asked questions as frequently as I did and that often brought others to join in. Within a year or so both of us were told that since we did not agree with some Lutheran tenets, primarily Sola Scriputra,  he was starting the process to exclude us from membership. My questions and nudges were just too threatening to his ministry.  Instead of going through a formal inquisition I chose to give up my attempts of changing from within and leave voluntarily. That meant leaving friends there as most seldom continue friendships outside their particular faith bubble.

I can understand the logic behind my exclusion from that small congregation. It is very difficult for any clergyman to align to something not authorized through a strict denominational hierarchy.  The bosses just don’t like it when their authority is questioned. It is very hard for the local clergyman to take a stand on things not authorized by his superiors.

Martin Luther had no plan to upset Christianity as he ended up doing.  He was simply trying to change the Roman Catholic church from within. In some way you could have been one of the first emergents. But  since he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that he might not have all the answers. He started the practice of exclusion instead. Trying to change within is not an easy matter.

Will the emergent movement have much success within many present denominations? I personally kind of doubt it but I am hoping that at least a few will actually open their hearts and listen to the message of inclusion. It is a hard to admit that you just might be wrong about anything in life let alone things in the spiritually sphere. As with the Pharaoh, hearts are just too hardened now to accept any brutal truths and it is a brutal truth to learn that you may be wrong about some of the things you base your spiritual existence on. Tragically some are just totally unwilling to accept that premise.

Merely Human Rules….

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.  You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 

Mark 7:6-9

Jesus spoke these words to the religious establishment of his times. The Pharisees asked him “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”  I don’t think they expected Jesus to call them hypocrites!  I wonder what Jesus would say today to the current religious establishments? I kind of thing it would be in the same vain.

Not only have we now split into 39,000 different versions of Christianity but we probably also have that many or more different “human rules” for being Christians. Being that is the case I’m pretty sure that Jesus would once again say You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 

When asked to sum up what it means to be a follower of Jesus he gave us two simple commands. He knew that we get distracted easily and run off on tangents so he kept it simple.  He said it all boils down to two simple things. Love God and love each other. How did we screw up such a simple command.? How did we end up with so many different versions of his church?

I would also include all the creeds and doctrines generated after Jesus’ death and resurrection as being human rules and traditions.  The church leaders throughout history just can’t seem to see how simple he meant the church to be. They insisted that we also believe hundreds of other things. Just look at the creeds and such they invented. The Nicene Creed is a perfect example.  While I am attuned to many of the statements in that document I  know it is made up of “beliefs” that have little to do with actually being a follower of Jesus is about.

When creeds and such are used as a way to separate the church into different factions, as they often are, they are more destructive than they are helpful. Let’s just concentrate on what Jesus told us to do and love him and each other.  When we honor Jesus with only our words (lips) but not in our hearts (action) then we are worshiping in vain.

I’m not saying that human traditions and belief have no value to us. They help us understand the history of the church and what some of the previous followers thought about God and that is very helpful. But when those traditions and beliefs get in the way of the two loves we must understand that they are not from God but are someone’s meager attempts to describe an indescribable being.

Those Non-Western Christians…

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that I take the creeds of the Christian church to have done more harm than good.  Here are some words about that by Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

Creeds were always something theologians invented, often to stake out spheres of authority. The vast body of lay Christians knew little about them and cared less. Their faith was embodied in stories, saints’ days, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But these everyday people constituted, after all, the vast majority.

The priests and theologians always remained a tiny minority. Consequently the recent emergence of “people’s history” is facilitating the recovery of Christianity’s original faith orientation. As the revival of religion and the change in religiousness spread around the world, it becomes clearer why the extraordinary growth of Christianity beyond the West is helping Christianity regain its initial impetus.

These areas lie far removed from Plato’s orbit. To be a Christian in India or Korea or Africa today does not mean to be a Christian à la grec. It means to be what is sometimes called a “postdogmatic” Christian. The content of the faith of non-Western Christians is much like that of the early church, even though the embodied style of their religion often resembles that of their non-Christian neighbors….

Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations.

As you can see from these words things are changing at the root level in Christian churches. You might say that you have not seen much of a change but if you were a Christian in the southern hemisphere you would not question what is going on.  Western Christians want to point to the fact that the church is growing so therefore this “emergent movement” really doesn’t have much muscle. The trouble with that belief is that like many of the current beliefs/creeds present in the western church are naive at best or wrong at worst.

Much of South America is made up of Roman Catholics but they are not like the ones you come across in your Sunday visits. They are literally giving the pope heartburn with their non-allegience to many of the things the church hold dear. They are not aligning to all the things they are told to believe. Many of them in fact have embraced liberation theology. I know from the 2008 elections that was a dirty name in this country but not so in other parts of the world.

Yes, Christianity might be holding its own  overall but all of the growth is actually occurring  outside Europe and the U.S and it is a very different Christianity than what we know.  As the quote above says it much more closely resembles the early church than the modern church of the western world.  I personally think that is a good thing.  I kind of like the term post-dogmatic Christians. It has a nice ring to it.  I will be covering some of this in future posts because it will be a critical issue in the post-modern/dogmatic church of the twenty-first century by the emergent movement among others.

Prosperity Gospel And Joel Osteen — Fact or Crap……

I am going into the attack mode this morning. I don’t do this often but sometimes one of those 39,000 versions of Jesus Christ  around today severely strike my ire. That is the case with the “Prosperity Gospel”. When I came across these calendars in a stand recently their position next to each other got my immediate attention. Here are some words from Christianity Today that speak to the issue of the prosperity gospel:

Source: Joel Osteen vs. Rick Warren on Prosperity Gospel | Christianity Today.

Fact or Crap17 percent of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61 percent believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31 percent—a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America—agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. … Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three—Joel Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta—are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits.

Lets make no mistake about this, the primary purpose of the “prosperity gospel” is for the prosperity of their leaders. They say that the more money you give to them the more money God will give to you.  Plain and simple that is a greed motivated theology and has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ! To put money and God on the same level is to make money the ultimate idol! In a country where 7 out of every 10 jobs will soon be at minimum wage levels it is not surprising that the dream of wealth is so subversive. Shame on these supposedly “Christian leaders” for  taking advantage of this condition in the name of God! To pervert the Bible is such a way is vulgar to me! (a lot of exclamation points here and all are necessary)

Here is what Rick Warren said about “theology prosperity” in the same reference article:

“This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, [Rick] Warren snorts. “There is a word for that baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”

Or I could even say in the face of so much poverty why is there anyone in the church who are millionaires. Jesus had some words to a rich man about that.  Fact or Crap, I know where I put Mr. Osteen and those like him in those categories…

A Priest Following His Conscience…..

PriestIt always saddens me to see yet another instance of a Christian church exercising exclusion but that is what this article is all about. This time it is the Roman Catholic church. They stripped  Rev. Bill Brennan, a 92-year-old Jesuit priest (that is him in the picture here) of his duties because he performed a liturgy in with a female priest not sanctioned with the Roman Catholic church. Here are some bits and pieces from the source article for our discussion today:

source:  Priest stripped of duties for celebrating Mass with woman priest – U.S. News.

A Milwaukee-area Catholic priest was stripped of his priestly duties after he presided over a Mass with a woman priest last month in Georgia….

The Catholic Church prohibits women’s ordination, saying it has no authority to ordain women because Jesus chose only men as his apostles….

About 59 percent of American Catholics are in favor of women’s ordination, according to a 2010 poll by The New York Times and CBS, but the Vatican sees the initiative as having the potential to cause a rift in the church….

Brennan, who lives with other retired Jesuits in the Milwaukee area, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he understood the risks when he decided to perform a liturgy alongside a woman priest.

“Sometimes in our lives we have to trust our conscience and bring about the consequences,” he told the newspaper. “I wasn’t trying to show off for the ladies.”….

I have heard of two reasons now why the Catholic church does not allow priests to marry. The first was that King Constantine who hijacked the church in the fourth century to make it a State religion did it so that priests could not pass on their power given by Constantine to their children.  He insisted that he alone had that power and that is would not be inherited.

The second reason now is that all of the apostles were men and therefore Jesus did not intend women to be faith leaders. If you know even the slightest amount of history during this period you know just how little power women possessed in those times. They were for the most part considered property of either their fathers or their husbands. Documents that have been appearing in archeological digs since the 1940’s sheds a seemingly new light on early Christian female leaders. Mary Magdalen comes to mind first but there were several other women leaders in the early church despite the fact that it was generally culturally prohibited at the time.  I’m just a simple guy but this excuse for limiting spiritual leaders to only men seems kind of lame to me standing here in the 21st century.

So here we are with a 92-year-old priest who has given his life for his God being chastised by the church hierarchy for trusting his conscience.  There seems to be an ongoing conflict between American Catholics and the Vatican in recent years and this is one of those cases. But, like most other Christian churches the Roman Catholic church is has a very vertical hierarchy. The person at the top is given predominate power over those below him. That often results in very slow changes from the grass roots level.

It is sad to see the church spend more time excluding others than to welcome the stranger as Jesus taught us. I am hoping that the emergent church movement will eventually correct this anomaly.

Saving Jesus — (Part 3) About the Gospels….

This is part three of my review of the book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus by Robin Meyers. This is somewhat the continuation of the study of the pre-Easter Jesus and the after-Easter Jesus mentioned in the previous text. Here is the quote for this post:

The simple fact, that the Bible came to us through a process of review and selection by human beings who condensed an enormous amount of material down to four gospels, a pseudo-history we call the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters that complete the New Testament, is remarkably unknown to most Christians…..

The Bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints— but the Bible is not what we worship. The God to which the Bible points us is what we worship, and the claim of the first followers of Jesus was not that he was God, but rather that he revealed the fullness of God at work in a human being. For our part, however, the evolution from symbol to idol is inevitable. We are always tempted to make golden calves out of the instruments of revelation, and the result is more than just the sin of idolatry. Jesus becomes the Christ, and then Jesus is lost. We stare across the abyss of adoration at a deity we can worship, but not emulate.

Claims of biblical infallibility are identical to claims of the metaphysical divinity of Jesus. Both make idols of the temporal, and idolatry is the mother and father of all sins. What we learn if we study the Bible carefully is that this library of books, this far-flung and diverse collection of literature….

What it preserves is not a formula sufficient for salvation but the repository of wisdom from a particular people living in a particular time and place, elevated through a human process to the status of sacred scripture. As scripture, the Bible is therefore “authoritative” for the community that regards it as scripture, and then that community is shaped by those divine encounters, which continue to spark new encounters with the divine…..

Prior to this quote was the mention of all the gospels that did not make it into our Bible. Mr. Meyers goes into great detail in pointing out the shift from the pre-Easter Jesus to the post-Easter one. I certainly agree with his conclusion that the bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints and that I don’t worship the Bible but instead use it as a source of understanding, through human hands, the nature of God.

When the church insists that the Bible itself is to be worshipped as coming directly from God with no possibility of human error and is to be taken literally they do damage to the body of Christ.  They, as Mr. Meyers says make an idol of the document about Jesus instead of making his words the center of our lives.  When we use the Bible to further understand the messages of Jesus, instead of adoring the book itself, then we have the perspective that Jesus intended.

 

Oh That Founding Father Origen…

As we have learned in several of my recent posts Origen was one of the most influential theologians in the early church who was later deemed a heretic and then after that a saint again.  He spent quite a bit of time reading the “scripture” of his day. I put scripture in parens here because there was no Bible as we know it today in existence.

Today Origen is definitely not one of the more popular early Christian figures with some in our establishment churches. That is particularly true of those that believe all of the Bible comes from God’s lips and is totally factual and inerrant. That belief has never been as universal as some would have us believe. Here is another quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story  by Diana Butler Bass.

Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed, The object of all these statements on our part, is to show that it was the design of the Holy Spirit, who deigned to bestow upon us the sacred Scriptures, to show that we were not to be edified by the letter alone, or by everything in it—a thing which we see to be frequently impossible and inconsistent; for in that way not only absurdities, but impossibilities, would be the result; but that we are to understand that certain occurrences were interwoven in this “visible” history which, when considered and understood in the inner meaning, give forth a law which is advantageous to men and worthy of God.

Origen believed that scripture was much like Jesus’ teaching in that he used parables which are fictional stories to relay a message and so to do the other writers of ancient script.   Origen was not an infrequent visitor to the scripture. In fact he spent twenty years on his Hexaple which was a massive work of Old Testament analysis. There was probably no one in his day that had more knowledge of the ancient writings than him.

This will probably conclude our study of Origen. As I have said before he definitely shows that the earliest versions of Christianity were very diverse. It was not until the power struggles that frequently occurred within the church establishment did this willingness to accept a diversity of belief become stifled. I celebrate the fact that the current emergent movement is willing, in fact they actually celebrate diversity in their midst.  They accept that there is more than one “right” way to being a follower of Jesus Christ and that gives me confidence that the church of Jesus Christ just might live to see a bright future.

Saint to Heretic to Saint Again…..

With this post I will begin looking at some of the early church leaders.  We will start with Origen.

Here a quote from another Diana Butler Bass book. This one is entitled A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

While Tertullian emphasized the negative aspects of the military to Christian discipleship, Origen pointed out the positive vision of a life of Christian peacemaking. He criticized the army as a society of “professional violence,” pointing out that Jesus forbids any kind of violence or vengeance against another. “We will not raise arms against any other nation, we will not practice the art of war,” he wrote, “because through Jesus Christ we have become the children of peace.” To him the spiritual life means rejecting all forms of violence, an “absolute pacifism.”

Origen lived between 185 – 254AD. He was considered one of the most distinguished writer of the early church. One of his beliefs was in the pre-existence of souls and universal reconciliation. That is he believed that all our souls have been in existence just waiting for our time on earth. He also believed that because God loves all of mankind and wishes all of them to be saved that he will indeed bring all souls back to him. Origen was not the first prominent person in the church to believe this as Clement of Alexandria, whom we will be studying soon was also in the group.  When Constantine era bishops took power this is one the ideas that they rejected. They therefore deemed Origen a heretic. But today he is again generally regarded as one of the Church Fathers by the Catholic church.

Origen also believed that there was just too much inconsistencies within the documents that made up the then bible for it to be taken literally. He believed that it was necessary to gather all of the existing copies of many documents in order to try to discern just what the original writer intended. This included many of the document that later made up the “official bible”.

Origen’s views of the Trinity were also contrary to later authors. He saw the Son of God as subordinate to God the Father and not as an equal. This later became a common view of many of the “ante-Nicene Fathers” For this and many other beliefs that were later purged in the post-Constantine church where he was deemed a heretic but fortunately, unlike many declared heretics that followed him, some of his writings survived the purge to be included in church history.

Here are some additional comments made about him in Wikipedia:

Origen was born in Alexandria to Christian parents. He was educated by his father, Leonides of Alexandria, who gave him a standard Hellenistic education, but also had him study the Christian Scriptures. Name of his mother is unknown.

In 202, Origen’s father was martyred in the outbreak of the persecution during the reign of Septimius Severus. A story reported by Eusebius has it that Origen wished to follow him in martyrdom, but was prevented only by his mother hiding his clothes…

Eusebius reported that Origen, following Matthew 19:12 literally, castrated himself. This story was accepted during the Middle Ages.  Scholars within the past century however have questioned this, surmising that this may have been a rumor circulated by his detractors.

As you can see from this commentary Origen held many beliefs that are not part of the “official” beliefs of the current day church. But it was not until the purges of the post-Nicene period that he posthumously felt the sting of the “church”. To end this post Origen was one of those mentioned previously who was a  Saint then a Heretic and then a Saint again.

Church history is messy indeed….

The Church Is Not a Democracy….

We in the U.S. know that one of the primary foundations of our democracy is freedom of speech. That is being able to say something different from our leaders and not suffer serious consequences. In my opinion this is what has allowed our country to remain so strong over the centuries. Many times criticisms lead to change and though we might not realize it at that time that is good for us. It makes us better; it makes us stronger. Without freedom of speech I doubt our country we even exist today.

Anyone who has studied church history at all knows that it is not a democracy but instead has for most of its history a very vertical oriented top-heavy organization. When the leader of the church, or even most of his immediate underlings said something everyone was expected to quickly get in line with his words. Dissension is just not allowed.  Anyone who even hinted of a disagreement were quickly handled.  In the past anyone proclaimed a  heretic, which basically meant they didn’t agree with their leaders in some aspect, had all of their writings burned so they would not pollute the church.  And many followed their books into the flames.

Thank heaven at least in the last few centuries heretics are not so severely handled but that does not mean that they are not severely dealt with. Many think only of the Catholic church when they think of the power structures. No Catholic, especially the cardinals and bishops would go against anything that the Pope proclaims.  But this situation also occurs amongst the Protestant denominations as well.

If you even hint that you don’t agree with all the various creeds and statements given by your denomination’s leadership you will also be chastised or even kicked out. I know personally of a Lutheran minister who was brought back from an overseas mission and stripped of his sermon rights because he dared to join in prayer with those in other Christian groups.  It seems that most denominations and that includes the Catholic church (although they don’t like being called a denomination) just won’t accept any straying from the stated doctrine of their group. They all claim that it would stain their institutional purity. About the only denomination that I am aware of that doesn’t do this are the Quakers. But since they are adamantly opposed to creeds in general that seems a natural to them.

This lack of accepting fellowship with other Christians is one of the most serious problems causing the generally sharp decline in the institutional church.  Their arrogance in thinking that they are pure and others are not is driving away membership especially among the younger generations.  The emergent church movement, although not yet well-defined , generally prefer a very horizontal structure if they have a structure at all. Creeds and such are just not important to most of them.

I will be posting more about the emergent movement in the coming weeks. There are several books that are well worth the read if you are interested. I will be getting into that in later posts.