Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church

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(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 3)

When discussing false teaching in Christianity, it is common to hear evangelicals blame the early church fathers for wandering from the gospel and accepting false teaching early on. This is really not much more than an example of Catholiphobia. You have seen Catholiphobia. That is what is going on when you hear someone say, “That seems sort of…you know…Catholic.” Which is code for, “If a Catholic does it, it must be wrong.” Dropping the Eucharist as the normative weekly worship for Christians, clergy dressing like clergy so that non-Christians know a clergyperson when they see one, and full-body worship (like marking oneself with the sign of the cross) all come to mind as examples.[1] Perhaps the biggest mistake of Catholi-phobia: dropping bishops as leaders of churches.[2]

One seminary professor of mine expressed the Protestant anti-bishop bias like this, “The problem was bishops…a problem we solved by giving the church to teams of elders in the Reformation.” For some reason intelligent, God-fearing people don’t hear the implied heresy in the accusation. What my professor was really saying is that Jesus was wrong – that the “gates of hell” did prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18) for some 1400 years until the Reformation…or some other restoration movement of the 19th century (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, LDS) or the 20th century (Pentecostalism). It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

This will take a bit of setup, but it is necessary to get to our final installments on apostolic succession: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church. And, Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disagreements.

Organization in the Early Church

Early Christianity is a study in organic organization. In the gospels we read of Jesus of Nazareth, a compelling and unique itinerant rabbi who spends three years going from town to town with a core-group of followers. Like the rest of the public, the disciples are fascinated by Jesus’ public teaching and healing. They, however, were given private instruction into the meaning behind his teaching and miracle working…that he was ushering in a new kingdom through a new kind of king: “God with us,” a fulfillment of the meaning behind their scriptures. Jesus did this in the ultimate of informal environments: Three years around a fire with him.

After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the spreading of the message of Jesus by those apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. As Acts opens, we see the Jewish disciples of the Jewish rabbi leading in predictably Jewish ways. Change begins in Acts 8, when persecution forced many to leave Jerusalem. It took nearly a decade, but the scattered disciples finally begin to consistently extend the story of Jesus to non-Jews in Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). In Acts 11, the Jewish Christians were confronted with what to do with the increasing number of gentile converts. By the end of Acts (Chapters 20 and 24) we see the beginnings of formal organization: bishops (usually translated as “overseers” by modern Protestant translators) and deacons (usually left untranslated) appointed as leaders of local churches. Another word “presbyter” (usually translated “elder”) is sometimes used synonymously. Since churches met in households you would have multiple presbyters or “elders” in a town, and a single bishop (overseer), that would “oversee” them. It was a model co-opted from Roman government. The early Christians faced other core decisions besides organizational and leadership ones, of course. Questions like: What specifically would Christian’s believe? (A question they would solve with creeds)? And what books would comprise the Scriptures? (A question they would solve with canon-which books would be included in the New Testament.)[3] But in the book of Acts, we see the earliest church engaged, not with the story of the creation of the scriptures, but in living the faith out by the human successors to the Jesus story taking the message of faith to the next generation.

The Rise of Heresy

Very quickly, “strange ideas”[4] also reared their head. These were predictable: First, as I just pointed out, the young Christian church was still organizing itself. There were no New Testament scriptures.  The urban, diverse and, early on, rather under-educated Christians had no written source of authority to which to appeal.[5] Second, the witnesses to Jesus left a degree of vagueness about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (was Jesus God “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” or was it, as Jesus also said, “The father is greater than I.”) Belief had yet to be systematized. Third, Christians had opened the door to increased confusion by our evangelism methods. We were using Greek and Roman philosophers to explain and validate the new Christian faith to the Greco-Roman world.[6] Some folks took this too far and moved from explanation to syncretism-melding the two. Fourth, surely some were intentional false teachers, unscrupulously and opportunistically taking advantage of Christians’ reputation for generosity.[7] But mostly there was a lack of discipleship due to Christianity’s rapid spread. Evangelistic success led to a shortage of mature Christians to see to the training of new converts in the faith. The earliest of the “strange ideas,” Gnosticism, held that it was necessary to learn the “secret knowledge of their spiritual essence” in order to receive salvation.[8] The big question was: How would an emerging movement face conflict? And to what source would they make their appeal?

The answer will surprise you.

Next up: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church.

[1] I am not critiquing the actual theological problems with Rome, such as allowing the tradition to actively overrule scripture through modern dogmas such as papal infallibility (1869), or the Immaculate Conception (1854) or the over-reactions of the later meetings of the council of Trent against the very reactive Protestants (1550s-1560s).

[2]This is an area that most Protestants, steeped in a materialistic worldview, generally don’t see as anything near a central issue. For sacramental Christians, touch and teaching both are quite important.

[3] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. (London, Penguin Books, 1967), 41-44.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html. Book one lists the bizarre beliefs of many heretical teachers.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Mass, Prince Press, 2008. 50-51.

[6] Starting with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) Christians struggled with the question of how to communicate faith to people who don’t accept the authority of the Scriptures.

[7] Gonzalez, 51.

[8] Robinson, B.A., “Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern Beliefs & Practices”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/gnostic2.htm

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Scales and Playgrounds: Why you need the Creed (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 2)

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Creeds over Confessions

Last week one more friend, one with a graduate degree in theology proudly said, “I don’t say creeds. I’m non-creedal.” This friend is both orthodox and devout in his Christian faith, yet he says, “I don’t want to be bound by statements that limit the faith.” Like so many, he is confusing “creedal” with “confessional.”

A Big, Big Playground

Creeds are not about limiting the faith, but rather about pushing the faith’s boundaries out to their widest possible limit. A creed is about how little one can believe and still be recognizably “Christian.” Creeds give the edges of what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Confessions, which came later, do exactly the opposite. Confessions attempt to narrow the conversation from “how little can one believe” to “how much should one believe.” If beliefs are a dartboard, a creed is the outermost circle. “You hit the target, way to go!” A confession is the bull’s eye.

Belief as a bull’s eye is, of course, my friend’s real issue: Whose bull’s eye, whose confession are we to use? Augsburg? Belgic? Heldelberg? Helvetic? Thirty-nine Articles? Baptist? Westminster? …And those are just the ones written between 1430 and 1630! A creed is a fenced playground, but a creed represents the largest playground possible. A confession is the kindergarten play ground – very small and safe. The Nicene Creed is the high school ballfields – a square half mile. If you can’t find room to play at the high school, you really just don’t want to be there.

We Fear Creeds

Creeds have been ignored by evangelicals and progressives alike. Evangelicals busily moved past the creeds in a desire to be culturally relevant and a fear of the world creeping into the church – so evangelicals tightened the reigns with detailed, specific, narrow confessional boundaries. “Are you a Reformed, dispensational, pre-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist?” “No! I am a Reformed, dispensational, mid-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist.” “Oh. Sorry, we can’t be friends.” This resulted in “many protestants” – a now collapsing array of denominations.

At the same time liberals were also busy jettisoning historic creeds. For liberals though it was a desire to be theologically relevant and a fear that the world was creeping out of the church.

Scales Before Jazz

photocredit: ehow.com

photocredit: ehow.com

When my children suggested to their piano teacher that they learn popular songs, their piano teacher would patronizingly reply, “We learn scales before Jazz.” The reference was lost on my kids who had never heard Jazz. What they wanted to play was the theme to the after school cartoon, “Arthur.” But the teacher was right, if you know your scales you can play any musical. Creeds are the substance of the faith – The “scales” to teach to every child and newcomer. By definition, creeds are catholic (universal), confessions are sectarian genres. Everyone has a genre preference. But if one doesn’t know the basics, regardless of the genre, what we end up with is bad music.

Creeds unite us around the basic Christian story (the “who” and “why”) rather than the symbols of our tradition (the “how” and “what”). The symbols of our tradition are rich and powerful, but our traditional actions and symbols never stand alone. Their power is that they point to greater truths-the truths specifically expressed in the creeds. Confirmation programs, for example, lose power specifically when our teachers have forgotten to keep the main thing (salvation in Christ Jesus) the main thing. And one cannot master Jazz who has not first mastered their scales.

So Christian, don’t give up your creeds!

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Ring: The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.