Institutional Purity…..

The primary reason there are 39,000+ Christian denominations is that each are trying to maintain “purity” of beliefs. Here is how that logic usually plays out:

” If we allow differences of opinions among us then we will soon reach a slippery slope where we will slide into heresy. For that reason we must be on the constant watch to exclude anyone among us who asks the ‘wrong’ questions or dares to disagree any of our creeds or beliefs.”

I have personally felt the stink of one of these churches. But what these church authorities espousing this view overlook is that they are looking at Jesus through the lens of many others who came before them. Things like their recent stubborn insistence that every word in the Bible came directly from God is putting themselves into a straight-jacket that is almost impossible to wear, and very uninviting to those outside their clique.

Of course institutional purity is not new to the twenty-first century. It has been going on since the time of Constantine in the fourth century and probably even before that. Here are some words from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

 During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. The year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. Christian fundamentalism had claimed its first victim. Today Priscillian’s alleged theological errors hardly seem to warrant the death penalty. He urged his followers to avoid meat and wine, advocated the careful study of scripture…

There are countless similar stories from the years following. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness.  And of course we all know that in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. In the twentieth century she became a saint.

Here are some additional words by Philip Gulley in his book The Evolution of Faith about trying to maintain institutional purity:

Some Christians have thus concluded that we are our own worst enemies, that our best option for a viable future lies in our determination to embrace a rigid faith in order to stave off the adulterating influences of other cultures and religions. But I would contend that this has been tried repeatedly throughout our long history and always ends the same suspicion, intolerance, exclusion, division, and, finally, war. No, if the church has a future indeed if our world has a future it will rest in the church’s ability to honor and assimilate the best of each religious tradition,  just as Jesus found virtue in Samaritans, publicans, centurions, and Gentiles. How this good man came to be the focus of a creedalism that ultimately excludes others is a mystery for the ages. The incorporation of other traditions into our own will undoubtedly change us, but for the better, for it will lead us toward one another, which is also and always a movement toward the Divine Presence and the universal grace that Presence represents. 

Inspiring words indeed! We should not be locking and bolting the church door against others beliefs but instead should be embracing them if they celebrate the Divine Presence of Jesus Christ. In other words we should do as he did.  And that is what I hope the coming emergent church will bring about.

Institutional Purity & the Diet of Worms

I know some of you might be confused by the title of this post. Let me assure you up front that it is not about how you make your body pure by eating worms 🙂 . This topic is much too heavy to settle well in your stomach even if it were steak.

The theme of the next three posts is really about is that we have done a great disservice to the Body of Christ by believing that we are the only ones who totally understand what being a Christian is really about. The belief is that since we are the only ones who have it right we must keep our institution pure no matter what is required. We must not let the heretic get a foot in the door. In my mind this grossly inflated belief is one on the primary reasons we have more than 35,000 different flavors of Christianity today. So let’s get on to the first round of this idea. More posts will follow this one on this topic.

For the first fifteen hundred years or so the Catholic Church had pretty much the sole authority and power when it came to being a Christian in the western world (no I am not forgetting about the Eastern Church; I just choose to not address that here). They decided what the heart and soul of God was about. Not many, at least successfully, challenged that authority. Then along came a lowly monk by the name of Martin Luther. He was a person who was totally obsessed with his sinful nature. To try to find some relief he studied the Bible and discovered a small verse in the Epistle of Ephesians where it is told that we only saved by the grace of God and absolutely nothing else. He clung desperately to this tiny verse for relief of his long time suffering of inadequacy. Using that verse he studied the Bible to find other possible confirming words. He was convinced that this small verse was at the very heart of what it meant to be a Christian and the Catholic church just had it wrong. The Catholic Church at the time did not put much credence to that particular sentence. Since “they” were to sole authority when it came to being a Christian they insisted that Luther recant his words. They insisted that he publicly admit that he was wrong and to therefore return to the true Christian fold. The Diet of Worms was an edict put out by the Catholic Church to admonish Luther. Here are some of the words:

For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

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Of course this was not the first time for the Catholic Church deemed someone a heretic. They had done it many times before. The most notable instances were the Inquisitions of the 13th century. There they tortured thousands and thousands of people in some of the most grievous ways possible in order to get them to “admit” that they were wrong and the church was right about this or that.

After more than a millennium of autocratic authority the Catholic Church had some pretty serious problems. It was time to take them down a notch or two and that is what Luther ended up doing. He challenged the institutional purity concept of the Church and to a certain degree won out.

Next time we will delve further into this topic of institution purity. Did this idea disappear after Luther successfully challenged it? Absolutely not. As a matter of fact as a result of his actions it then grew exponentially! More on that the next time.