‘Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another. . . And so it was that Paul could have accused the Corinthians of many great crimes but he accused them of contentiousness before any other. He could have accused them of fornication, of pride, of taking their quarrels to the pagan courts, of banquets in the shrines of idols. He could have charged that the women did not veil their heads and that the men did. Over and above all this, he could have accused them of neglecting the poor, of the pride they took in their charismatic gifts, and in the matter of the resurrection of the body. But since, along with these, he could also find fault with them because of their dissensions and quarrels with one another, he passed over all the other crimes, and corrected their contentiousness first.’

St. John Chrysostom

Alas, this is not a homage to one of my favorite bluesmen, but a commentary on the Church I love.  In my previous post on human sexuality and the Church, I made a statement, “Anything that divides the Body of Christ, The Church, is not a good thing.  Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it.  How dare we presume that it is ours to alter according to our whims?  My great dream in life is to see a shared communion table amongst all believers, a unified Church.  This should be a goal for all believers.  We can’t allow our own agendas to outweigh God’s agendas.”

I was challenged a short while later by a reader with the question, “What exactly is God’s agenda?”

Now that’s a compelling question.

Rather than answer that query in regards to  a specific issue, such as human sexuality, I pondered it for a bit in broader terms, and tried to frame some ideas from both negative and positive perspectives.  From the negative, I looked at the question in terms of the problem, “Why is the Church so confused over certain ideas, the things that divide us?  How did we get to this point, where we seem to have lost any form of unity over basic beliefs?”

From a more positive framework, I considered the question, “What is the appropriate response, a ‘Proceed in this manner…’ type of answer, that helps us to define, in broad terms, how God wants us to act, even in specific circumstances?  What is a general overview, or dare I say, mission statement (Sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little…), that would allow us to proceed as a Church, unified, and in God’s will in the midst of a culture that wants the Church to adhere to differing agendas and plans?”

In short, I’m defining what I see as the problem, or at least part of the problem, then instead of camping out and complaining about it, exploring a framework or general mindset that would help the Church adequately approach specific issues, such as inclusiveness and human sexuality, as they arise.

Why do we need to do this?  Muddy water is neither palatable for drinking, nor comfortable for diving into.  You can’t tell how deep it is, what lies in its depths, but you can be pretty sure that it would be unpleasant to take a big swig of it.  Even worse, there’s a possibility that something dangerous and ugly is just beneath the surface, stirring up the mud.  In the same way, if we aren’t unified as the Bride of Christ, then we give the appearance to the greater culture of being troubled, unpleasant, and unpalatable.  When we argue and bicker amongst ourselves as believers, we become unappealing to those whom Christ came to seek and save.

We seem ugly.

Here’s my thoughts for today in relation to the questions at hand…

“Why is the Church so confused over certain ideas, the things that divide us?  How did we get to this point, where we seem to have lost any form of unity over basic beliefs?”

If you visit websites for evangelical churches, and explore their “Statement of Faith” or “What We Believe” tabs, you will often find a statement something along the lines of  “The Bible is our sole (or ultimate) authority on matters of faith and practice”.

Now, before my evangelical brethren panic and brand me a theological liberal, I honestly don’t have any problem with the Bible, or the idea that Bible should bear tremendous weight in “matters of faith and practice”.  The problem lies in the question of “Who interprets scripture?”  I’ve heard some pastors say, “Well, you let scripture interpret scripture.”  Find a parallel verse to back up the idea you’re relaying in your sermon, or to build a foundation for the vision you’re presenting to your elder board, and it’s Biblical, right?

Not always.

There have always been disagreements over scripture.  If you read reports from Ecumenical Councils, you’ll see that there were great debates over The Bible, and St. Nicholas himself even got into a fist fight over theological issues at one of these.  Imagine that…Ole’ Santa Claus pimp slappin’ somebody at the deacon’s meeting!

I make light of a serious issue.  Ultimately, though, clarity would find its way through the debates that took place at the historic councils, and the Church would become a more unified body as a result.

There were lots of issues that led to the Reformation, one of which was distrust of the standing hierarchy…The Pope.  As we’ve journeyed through five centuries and the development of 33,000 different denominations since the Reformation, the end result is that we’ve arrived at the evangelical idea that each congregation, or in some cases, denomination, is autonomous.  The idea of “rugged independence” is especially appealing in Western Christianity, where we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and govern ourselves, just as a standard principle. It’s how we do business, how we do life, and how we do church, dadgummit.

The problem with autonomy is that while it might be a good thing culturally, it may not necessarily be a good thing for a unique institution like the Church.  Because we hated the idea of a Pope, evangelical Christianity has evolved into a system of thousands upon thousands of “mini-popes”…men and women, local pastors and denominational leaders, who are interpreting scripture for themselves according to their own revelation or understanding of The Bible, then declaring their interpretations as Gospel.

Look at the simplest and longest-standing of church traditions, the communion table, and the vast disagreement on how it should be viewed theologically, how often communion should be taken (if at all), whether a liturgy should be used, or should a pastor be able to just “wing it”, and so on.  We can’t even agree on this one simple thing!  The same principle applies to baptism, what day of the week we should go to church, etc.  The evolutionary system of “mini-popes” might look to some “Spiritual Father” for guidance…maybe their commentaries, or even a pastor that they once served under, but it is rare that they would acknowledge that the earliest generations of Christians worked diligently to define the faith and the Church as it should be.  Check out your pastor’s bookshelf…If he’s got more John Maxwell than he does John Chrysostom, then he’s likely a mini-pope, as I define them.

If your pastor decides he’s going to challenge his local church to fast during Lent, then starts Lent two weeks later than the actual church calendar, he might be a mini-pope.

If your pastor offers instructional courses on how to speak in tongues, he might be a mini-pope.

If your priest offers communion to a seeing-eye dog that attends church with a blind parishoner, he might be a mini-pope.

If your bishop ordains a practicing Hindu as a priest in your denomination, he/she might be a mini-pope.

If your pastor declares you’ve never been saved, because you didn’t pray a certain prayer, he might be a mini-pope.

If your pastor decides you weren’t really saved the first three times you prayed that prayer, because you tasted alcohol afterwards, he might be a mini-pope.

If your pastor encourages you to be baptized multiple times, he might be a mini-pope.

If your pastor preaches a sermon series on sexual sin, but doesn’t mention adultery, pornography, or any type of heterosexual sin, he might be a mini-pope.

I am feeling really Jeff Foxworthy-ish today.

My opinion is that an episcopal order of bishops, elders, and deacons was established in scripture, and upheld by the early church.  Now, some of the above things have occurred under the watch of episcopal oversight.  It’s not the system that’s flawed, though;  instead, it’s an autonomous, independent mindset that is inappropriately applied to the Christian faith.  We aren’t called to be autonomous.  We’re called to dependence, on God and each other.  We aren’t called to be independent.  We’re called to community.

I also believe that we aren’t called to creatively interpret scripture.  We’re called to “Remove not the ancient landmark, which your fathers have set.” (Proverbs 22:18).  If I want to know how scripture should be interpreted, of course, I want to examine the original language, but I also need cultural and historical context, which is best gained by reading writers who…

1) Were there when it happened, and immediately afterwards.

2)  Are not biased by today’s cultural trends, liberal or conservative political ideas, etc.

Which takes us back to the Church Fathers, pre-reformation times.  These guys worked hard and fought hard to establish the Church, and to define the Church.  It’s unfortunate that much of what they taught us is ignored today.

When I was preparing to write this morning, I visited my own church’s website, and was very pleased to find under the “Statement of Beliefs” tab something very simple and straightforward:

The Apostles Creed.

No words like “plenary”  to confuse the ordinary reader.  No huge list of beliefs to define “what we believe”.  Just a very simple, ancient statement of belief.  It hasn’t changed since about the year 300 or so, and a similar creed was possibly in use as the baptismal affirmation even as far back as Timothy’s time (I Timothy 6:12).  If we are to look forward toward unity as the Bride of Christ, I believe we must look back to the ancient confessions (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds) as the foundations of our faith.

There are a lot of issues that aren’t covered by the creeds, for sure.  What if we could step back for a moment, though, and as a unified body, state, “This is what we believe…” ?  Start from scratch, and move forward from there.

Which leads to the second question…

“What is the appropriate response, a ‘Proceed in this manner…’ type of answer, that helps us to define, in broad terms, how God wants us to act, even in specific circumstances?  What is a general overview, or dare I say, mission statement, that would allow us to proceed as a Church, unified, and in God’s will in the midst of a culture that wants the Church to adhere to differing agendas and plans?”

Again, I believe we need to look back, in order to move forward.  I’m cutting and pasting a rather lengthy piece here, an ancient document known as The Didache.  I know that often we skim through blog posts, but if you’re a believer, I beg you to read through with care, and to share and discuss this with others.  If we conducted ourselves as the early church did, what a different bunch we would be.  Some of the things here might seem dated or mundane, like which day of the week to fast, or whether baptism waters should be warm or cold.  The point of The Didache wasn’t to promote a fundamentalist set of rules, though, but instead, to promote unity and a good witness in the greater culture…to make the waters a little less muddy, a little more tasty, a littler more inviting for those who were thinking of diving in.

Enjoy…

The Didache

The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.

Chapter 1. The Two Ways and the First Commandment. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.

Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Chapter 3. Other Sins Forbidden. My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered. My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered. My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads to idolatry. Be neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to took at these things, for out of all these idolatry is engendered. My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads to theft. Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered. My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy. Be neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered.

Rather, be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.

Chapter 4. Various Precepts. My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be. Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give, nor complain when you give; for you shall know who is the good repayer of the hire. Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal? Do not remove your hand from your son or daughter; rather, teach them the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear. You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything which is not pleasing to the Lord. Do not in any way forsake the commandments of the Lord; but keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom. In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

Chapter 5. The Way of Death. And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

Chapter 6. Against False Teachers, and Food Offered to Idols. See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.

Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism. And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Chapter 8. Fasting and Prayer (the Lord’s Prayer). But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..

Pray this three times each day.

Chapter 9. The Eucharist. Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

Chapter 10. Prayer after Communion. But after you are filled, give thanks this way:

We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.

Chapter 11. Concerning Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets. Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven. But not every one who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit does not eat it, unless he is indeed a false prophet. And every prophet who teaches the truth, but does not do what he teaches, is a false prophet. And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets. But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for others’ sake who are in need, let no one judge him.

Chapter 12. Reception of Christians. But receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, and prove and know him afterward; for you shall have understanding right and left. If he who comes is a wayfarer, assist him as far as you are able; but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. But if he wants to stay with you, and is an artisan, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade, according to your understanding, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to do, he is a Christ-monger. Watch that you keep away from such.

Chapter 13. Support of Prophets. But every true prophet who wants to live among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have no prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.

Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord’s Day. But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”

Chapter 15. Bishops and Deacons; Christian Reproof. Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers. And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.

Chapter 16. Watchfulness; the Coming of the Lord. Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come. But come together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increases, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead — yet not of all, but as it is said: “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.” Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

The Ancient Landmarks are there to guide us.  Lord, please help us, as Your Bride, as Your unified Church, as Your Beloved, to follow them, in Your will.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.


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