A Pastor’s Dilemma: The Ecumenical Councils and What Really Happens When We All Get Together

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A couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Paul returned from his first missionary journey and, as the Apostle Paul was prone to do, began a conflict.

The Gentiles were joining the church in great number all across Macedonia and there was massive confusion about how “Jewish” these Gentiles had to be in order to be accepted as full members.

In a decision that would set church precedent for 2000 years and counting, a council of elders was called to figure this out.  They hashed out the different sides of the argument and in the end rallied to the Apostle James when he declared, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19b)

It was an important decision with huge implications.  And it was the right decision.  Jesus had died to make it easy to turn to God, therefore the church decided not to throw up road blocks.  Our theology and our church became bigger.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that another council was called to deal with massive theological rifts in the church.  Over the next centuries several more followed.  These councils were fundamentally different from Acts 15.  They were not called by apostles or even bishops and pastors but by emperors.  Every time they met, our theology became a little bit narrower and our church a bit smaller.

Acts 15 was about pointing the finger across the table and saying, “of course you are welcome here!”  The other councils were about voting people off our island.

As for the massive theological agreements that were struck, I totally agree.  I confess all the creeds they produced.  I believe in the Holy Trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, the eternally begotten son and the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

But I am still a child of the 21st century.  The thought of calling councils to make our Christianity narrower makes me uncomfortable.  The thought of saying, “let’s make it a little bit harder for some people to be Christian” rubs me the wrong way.

I posed this dilemma to a class in church last Sunday and I made them uncomfortable too.  We all agreed that calling a council to deal with huge things like the identity of God was probably a necessary thing.  We agreed the idea of the Trinity was around long before it was officially canonized.  Jesus almost certainly taught it.  Likewise the early apostles almost certainly referred to Jesus as fully human and fully God.

Still at Nicea fingers were pointed at two particular bishops who led successful and thriving ministries.  They were not just told, “You are wrong.”  There were told, “You are banished!”

I also asked how we do this today?  What do we banish people for?  What successful ministers do we banish and for what reasons?  Unfortunately in the 21st century we have this love/hate complex going on with celebrity pastors.  We love everything they do until we don’t.  Then we crucify them and for much lesser reasons than the identity of God.

The question of the councils and creeds is even more difficult for those of us who live in 21st century Utah.  We are surrounded by a very prominent religious sect whose scholars will freely tell you, “we are pre-Nicene Christians.”

Are they?  Of course they are pre-Nicene.  Does that mean they are still Christian?  A lot of people living before 300AD would have thought so, though not nearly as many as Dan Brown would suggest in his entertaining but ultimately ridiculous novels.

For the record I am pre-Nicene too but not concerning the nature of Christ.  I am pre-Nicene because at Nicea the council also voted into law twenty canons or rules, many of which my denomination no longer follows.  We never talk about that.  The same council that put together our Christology also gave us other laws that we do not follow today.  Many good Prostestants even mock some of those laws.

For the record, Nicea was one of the better councils.  Some of the other ones were comical train wrecks not far off from your average Three Stooges sketch.  Do we really think this is the way to govern ourselves?  Should we get together to make our theology and our practice smaller and vote our favorite celebrities off of our islands?

Yes, we should.

Albeit with much humility.

There is great value in getting together every once in awhile and hashing out the issues to figure out a way to agree enough to pursue mission in the world.  Though in humility, we should not call our decisions “eternal” but admit that in this time and this place with this congregation/denomination we have agreed to abide by this theology and these rules.  This leaves room open for another generation to come along and tweak our mistakes.

I’m not sure my class reached any easy conclusions on all this.  But a veteran pastor and army chaplain closed our time together by reminding us of the now famous words that date back to Augustine:

“In essentials unity, in non essentials charity, in all things love.”

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