Churches suck. Plain and simple. What they offer is conformity of thought with the threat of expulsion and damnation if your otherwise inclined. For some that works just fine, but the rest of us want a place were we are free to be ourselves. To question. To disagree. To love openly whoever we choose to, and not be regarded with side-eyes and offence. Spirituality is a journey we are all at a different place on, so why are we treated as if we should all be the same? Is our beliefs what really matter in the end, or is something else more important?
Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 hammered out among other things the “correct” way of belief on the issue of the nature of Jesus, the powers that be in the Christian world have been bent on establishing and enforcing whatever their official party line is. This obsession with orthodoxy, the authorized and correct belief, has led people to condemn others, groups of people, and even whole nations for being heretical. The word orthodoxy comes from the Greek word meaning ‘right opinion’, and was originally used to describe conformity to the creeds established through various councils of the church. Agree with the creeds and you were orthodox, disagree and you were a heretic. Down to this day people are condemned , kicked out, or shunned, for daring to disagree with official church doctrine, even if the particular church or doctrine wasn’t established until long after these medieval councils. So, for example, a church or that pops up in the 1500s or 1800s and has doctrines that completely go against the creeds of the early church are then after some time considered the new ‘orthodoxy’, so that now you have to agree with this new ‘right opinion’ to be accepted within the community. Even a small town, lone, fundamental church can have its own orthodox beliefs and will faint in terror or shout with rage if you disagree with them, even if they themselves or in the .01% minority of opinion vs the more traditional churches. Ironically, you can be charged with heresy and kicked out of a church who themselves are considered a heretical sect by the mainstream.
The efforts are sincere on the part of most. Constant searching of the scriptures to find a better a truer way to serve God. Trying to see what others have missed. One verse here or there that they believe that has been misapplied or mistranslated. A new discovery! Or perhaps its a call to tradition. A view that you need to uphold the sacred and ancient ways of early church fathers, because surely they new whats correct more than we do 1500 or so years later, so that it is our obligation to guard against any ‘new’ ways of thinking or believing. Truth doesn’t change after all, right? The problem is that this fervor for right belief a lot of the time causes division between those ‘in’ and those ‘out’.
Take for instance the circumstances of the first 300 years of Christianity up to the council of Nicaea. Out first look we have is available in the New Testament where we get a peek at the earliest Church. Over and over again we see a picture of a group of people drawn out from multiple ethnic groups and cultures that are having a hard time meshing with each other because of different ideas. Different controversies are strewn through the writings of the first century, mainly stemming from whether gentile Christians were under obligation to follow the Old Testament law covenant, and then whether Jewish Christians had to still follow the Jewish laws too. After the apostolic age, we again see different viewpoints creeping up in various areas. Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, Monarchism, Novatianism, Platonism, Donatism, Arianism, and any other ‘isms’ you can think of were a constant feature of the times. Letters and treatises supporting and condemning this or that position flew back and forth over the Mediterranean. But while each side considered the other lapsed or false, they were all still in the same boat – that of a religious minority that was hated, misunderstood, and persecuted throughout the empire. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there were bigger things to worry about, and the question of orthodoxy was about who could mount the best argument for their position.
Then came good ol’ Constantine in the early 300s, the first ‘Christian’ Emperor. With the stroke of a pen (quill? chisel?) Constantine legalized the once despised cult in the Edict of Milan in 313. Christians for the first time in its history had the full support of the state and the teeth to enforce religious conformity. Constantine was almost immediately bombarded with requests to settle questions of dogma and schisms in the church, siding with the majority against the ‘Donatists’, doing so with hardly any time to study the issue being debated. The same scenario played out in the much larger ‘Arian’ controversy which led to the infamous council of Nicaea in 325. Like with the Donatist debate, Constantine’s primary concern was not who was ‘correct’ but that the Church, and thereby the Empire, was united – either way the debate played out. Nicaea was the first recognized Ecumenical council of the Church and for the first time they were playing for keeps. When the conventional (orthodox) opinion won out the Church now had the power and the means to enforce the decision. So thus began the centuries of conformity of belief by the edge of the sword. Yes, there was still dissent, but now instead of just strongly worded letters and charges of heresy flying, there was now actual arrows flying. Christians began killing each other and anyone else that didn’t fit in to their orthodox belief, with the line of church and state completely blurred.
In the 21st century, for the most part, Christians are no longer laying siege to each others cities because they dare not affirm that Jesus is of the same substance with the father and not just a similar substance. However, the serious divisions remain. ‘Evangelical’ Christians will condemn to hell over 1 Billion Catholics over differences of belief. Conservative Catholics will say that there is no salvation outside of their Church. Eastern Orthodox Christians will say that they are the ancient church and they alone have kept to the traditions of the fathers. Coptic Christians in the Middle East will just be surprised that you included them on this list because everyone else forgets about them. And Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults will condemn all Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and every single person outside their group to destruction. They sometimes even condemn themselves if they don’t believe strongly enough. I have no doubt that if the laws of the land allowed for it, they would all to easily take up the sword against each other once again for the sake of orthodoxy.
While the person of faith is seemingly obsessed with what you believe, the Bible is surprisingly not so strong on that point. Now before you get out your pitchforks and torches for me, let me say that the Bible does give a lot of attention to theology. What you believe IS important. The Israelites in the Old Testament are given careful instruction to worship only Yahweh, who they are taught is the only true God. Christians in the New Testament are then commanded to believe and have faith in Jesus the ‘only begotten son’ of the one true God, and a lot of pages are used in explaining correct theology as the coming of the Messiah was groundbreaking for 1st century Jews. But, while accepting the basics theology of Judaism/Christianity was important, by far the most time is spent on the conduct and way of life of the adherents. This is easily seen in the Old Testament and specifically in the Law covenant where the Ten Commandments, celebrated by Jews and Christians alike, are almost entirely concerned with how the Israelites were acting. No idols, keep the Sabbath, honor your parents, no murder, no adultery, no coveting, etc. The Jews, through the Law, are commanded to keep dietary restrictions and strict purity distinctions. But social life was regulated also. Taking care of the widow, orphan, and immigrant was highly emphasized. Leaving behind grain in your field so that the poor had food to eat from your fields was commanded. Once you get to the prophets in the OT you get a constant barrage about how the Jews were failing to live up to the life they were called to. They get slammed for turning to other Gods, but hardly a mention of theological doctrines they were straying from. No, the main concern was summed up in Micah 6:8 –
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
You can make the case that the whole Jewish religion is about orthopraxy, right conduct, not orthodoxy. Even today, followers of Judaism are far more concerned with how you act, than what you believe.
In the New Testament you get more instruction in theology. You would expect this, like I mentioned before, because the target audience for most of the NT was Jews who had become Christians and needed to understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together now. But here again, Jesus and the apostles dealt a great deal with the way of life for the believers. In fact, before being known as ‘Christians’ followers of Jesus were known as followers of ‘the way’. Paul in the 1st letter to Corinthians said that Christians proclaimed ‘Christ crucified’. That was the foundation. It was not important to them to proclaim to people the innumerable details that people would later debate. It was ‘Christ crucified’, not ‘Christ [who is the same substance as the father] crucified’, not ‘Christ crucified [so you can be raptured]’, not ‘Christ crucified [so that you wont burn in hell]’, not ‘Christ crucified [unless you’re gay].
Jesus main message was not what to believe so that you can get to heaven. It was the ‘Kingdom of God’ and how to live that reality TODAY in love. It was action. It was a revolution. It was a ‘way’. In Romans Paul told fellow Christians not to judge people who had different ideas on how to worship. Some of them were still incorporating tenets of Judaism into their Christian worship. Paul said to leave them alone (Chapter 15). In 1st Timothy we are told not to debate or get dragged into ‘controversies and disputes about words’ (6:4) and in 2nd Timothy to ‘have nothing to do with senseless controversies that breed quarrels’ (2:23). In 1st John we are reminded that ‘whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’ and ‘those who say they love God yet hate their brothers are liars’ (4:8,20). In James we are famously told that ‘faith without works is dead’ (2:26). Titus 3:8 is wonderful to contemplate about the nature of our worship: “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to….. [Bible study? Preaching? Checking off the boxes of the Churches varying creeds?]….GOOD WORKS. These things are excellent and profitable to everyone.” That’s even followed up with the first words of verse 9: ‘avoid stupid controversies’. Excellent advice! In Romans Paul, after finishing several chapters about points of the faith, begins chapter 12 with what the main thing to keep in mind, and it wasn’t theological: ‘I appeal to you therefore brothers and sisters by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which IS your spiritual worship.’ So the way we use our bodies (our way of life) was what was holy and acceptable to God, even calling our conduct our ‘spiritual worship’.
Indeed, to the pagans in the Empire the Christians were known not for complete uniformity in theology (as all the schisms show), but by acts of love, kindness, and hospitality for strangers, the sick, and the poor. They were united by their worship of the One God, and while they disagreed on occasion, that one belief produced the way of life they were known for. Sure, there were, back then and today, different viewpoints and struggles to pin down what exactly people should believe, but first and foremost our concern should be not the theological details, but the person as a whole. Jesus said we would recognize the good from the bad from the fruit it produced, not the doctrines it taught. It was the life of Jesus lived out in the person’s life that would be recognizable to others. Love was the benchmark. So if you identify as a Christian, I will take your word for it, since faith in Jesus is pretty much the umbrella that all fit under, whatever the details after that are. It doesn’t matter whether if you’re a rosary praying Catholic, a swinging from the lights Pentecostal, a non-alcoholic Mormon with a new book, or a liberal- woman preaching- LGBT affirming- lets take the Bible with a grain of salt- Episcopalian (which I lean towards). What does matter is if your life is patterned by the love that Jesus walked out for us.
As pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says:
‘’We should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people.’’
If you want to discuss theological differences I’m all for it. Grab a few beers or glasses of wine and head on over. Afterwards I am not going to condemn you for disagreeing with me, though I will think you’re an asshole if your beliefs make you discriminate against people or cause harm. All people and all beliefs (even all non-christian beliefs) are evaluated on the love and kindness from the people that support it.
One final thought on the council of Nicaea: Over 300 bishops from around the empire were there to settle the issue. The vast majority didn’t care either way between the 2 minority opinions being debated. The didn’t understand why so much time and energy was being spent on what seemed to be a small point of contention. Constantine himself was puzzled by the disunity on this. In fact, a compromise was proposed but was defeated by the extremist on either side. Finally, what we today see as the ‘orthodox’ position, with the weight of the Emperor’s support behind it, won the debate. Now, before you acuse me of heresy (though if you havn’t already you probably won’t) I will add that I don’t believe the decision that was reached was wrong. But was it neccessary? One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things were just left alone, without official creeds being needed. Christianity today might look a bit different than it does now, with various groups allowed to grow and prosper. While that might make those who favor strict orthodoxy a little uncomfortable, a church history without forced conversions and infighting and bloodshed over heresy might be more tolerable for all. A church brought together not by threats but by a call to share a table together.