Category Archives: Church History

Honest Church Expectations

Great Expectations (1999 film)
Great Expectations (1999 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is in the same mold of an ongoing discussion of why people leave congregations.

Some studies (studies… because we can make them say what we want) have shown that people want Churches to be honest. They want to know what “welcome” means. Guess what…

Churches aren’t always welcoming to everyone. Churches have expectations. Organizations have expectations. Units accepting new members have expectations. Then, those same members have expectations as well. Mainly, honesty.

In the end, seekers and searchers simply want the church down the street to be honest. No, we will not accept you if you choose to remain gay. No, we will not accept you if you choose to remain a wife-beater. No, we will not accept you if you choose to remain conservative, orthodox, liberal, a democrat, pro-life, pro-choice, emergent, etc… Yes, we have expectations that you will grow as spiritual beings; yes, we have expectations that you will “faithfully participate in its (i.e., the local congregation) ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.” Even “progressive” churches have expectations of their members.

If you have no expectations, then this is actually an expectation. “We expect you to not expect anything from us and to remember we won’t expect anything from you.”

This is not a bad thing.

And, on the other hand, many people actually want the Church to be “the Church” (in other words, Church-y, however they define it).

Sam has a good point,

Because some churches are listening to this sort of cultural critique, it’s gotten ridiculous. Since some churches actually believe that they should not be churchy, they try to hide their spiritual donuts, if you know what I mean. Participants can attend, be fairly comfortable and entertained, without being confronted with too many spiritual matters. Then, right at the end, a little “Jesus” is slipped in.

If you are looking for a church, congregation, or small group — don’t you want it to be honest with you and not change to attract you? Are you looking for a church or an extension of yourself?

By the way, at no point should the expectation from the congregant to the congregation be that it (i.e., the denomination) does not change. Change is not dishonest. Hiding or refusing to be something you are is dishonest. 

The incomprehensibleness of God – St. Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says, No one has ever seen God, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 167.

There are images of God that are healthy but many that reveal nothing more than our own subjective desires, serving as a psychological crutch to help us make sense of our importance or our tragedies.

For me, in moving from Fundamentalism to Christianity, apophatic theology helped tremendously. It is not a one-sided theology as many often see it, but one part of the theological spectrum. For me, barely scratching the surface, it allows me not to have to worry about an “accurate” definition of God. Indeed, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it, this act and imagination is unattainable. This fact must keep the theologian and every believer humble. God is not ours to define. God the transcendent…

But, instead we focus on God the immanent, which is Jesus Christ. If Christ is a historical person with a historical goal, then we should do our best to understand that, within history and within Christian theology.

But, I am getting off track.

St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that our images of God are all faulty. As good friend of mine has compared God to the image of Disneyland. This is wisdom, of course, to know that we as humans are extremely inadequate in trying to draft an image for the Immortal, Invisible, and Transcendent.

For a good paper/chapter on understanding Apophatic, or Negative, theology, see here.

What do we do at the end of Christendom?

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We live at the so-called end of Christendom. For most of the Western church’s history, its identity has been inseparable from the social, cultural and political institutions of wider society. But now the church’s identity is being slowly and painfully separated from secular society. The result is an identity crisis for the church. We have some vague notion that we are a community called by God to do God’s will, but we seem to lack a compelling description of what exactly that entails.

via Ministry Matters™ | What are theologians for?.

Anytime there is a discussion about the end of Christendom, one person springs to mind — St. John of Damascus (the Damascene). Why? Because when the Eastern empire came to a crashing, and crushing, halt, he survived to give theological aid to Christians living in a world hostile to them. In the end of his Christendom, he could a way to delve deeply into theological controversies in order to strengthen the ship and to aid the Church in ensuring its survival against the Islamic onslaught. He produced solid defenses of Christian doctrine, without backtracking or forgetting anything, finding a way to establish the goodness of God in everything.

Perhaps, as the end of Christendom comes, we should look East to see what role the Church played, what role theology played, and how theologians were shaped.

The dominant narrative of the West is no longer Christian and that is a good thing.

If Jim shain’t listen to the Papist, then what of the Reformed?

God the Father, Cima da Conegliano, Circa 1510-17.
“Slow your roll, Jim” – God the Father, Cima da Conegliano, Circa 1510-17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poor Jim. I no longer know what it is like to have such a deficit in theology — so it is difficult for me to empathize with him. As he would not listen to the Papist, shall he then turn a deaf ear to the Reformed?

This is from a good Scotch theologian:

That oneness of mind with the Father, which towards man took the form of condemnation of sin, would, in the Son’s dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, take the form of a perfect confession of our sins. This confession, as to its own nature, must have been a perfect Amen inhumanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man. Such an Amen was due in the truth of things. He who was the Truth could not be in humanity and not utter it,—and it was necessarily a first step in dealing with the Father on our behalf. He who would intercede for us must begin with confessing our sins. This all will at once perceive. But let us weigh this confession of our sins by the Son of God in humanity. And I do not mean in reference to the suffering it implies viewed as suffering. Christ’s love to the Father, to whom He thus confessed the sin of His brethren,—His love to His brethren whose sin He confessed,—along with that conscious oneness of will with the Father in humanity, in the light of which the exceeding evil of man’s alienation from God was realised; these must have rendered His confession of our sins before the Father a peculiar development of the holy sorrow in which He bore the burden of our sins; and which, like His sufferings in confessing His Father before men, had a severity and intensity of its own. But, apart from the question of the suffering present in that confession of our sins, and the depth of meaning which it gives to the expression, ” a sacrifice for sin,” let us consider this Amen from the depths of the humanity of Christ to the divine condemnation of sin. “What is it in relation to God’s wrath against sin ? What place has it in Christ’s dealing with that wrath 1 I answer: He who so responds to the divine wrath against sin, saying, “Thou art righteous, O Lord, who judgest so,” is necessarily receiving the full apprehension and realisation of that wrath, as well as of that sin against which it comes forth, into His soul and spirit, into the bosom of the divine humanity, and, so receiving it, He responds to it with a perfect response,—a response from the depths of that divine humanity,—and in this perfect response He absorbs it. For that response has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man,—a perfect sorrow—a perfect contrition—all the elements of such a repentance, and that in absolute perfection, all—excepting the personal consciousness of sin,—and by that perfect response in Amen to the mind of God in relation to sin is the wrath of God rightly met, and that is accorded to divine justice which is its due, and could alone satisfy it. (The Nature of the Atonement and Its Relation to Remission of Sins and Eternal Life, 1859; 134–36)

In Which I Respond to Joel’s 1871 Citation of a Papist in Support of a False Theological Claim | Zwinglius Redivivus.

I note this portion of Campbell’s text is quoted in Chris Tilling’s recently edited work on Beyond the New Perspectives.

St. John of Damascus on the Cross as icon

John of Damascus Greek icon.
John of Damascus Greek icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, then, this same truly precious and august tree, on which Christ hath offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sakes, is to be worshipped as sanctified by contact with His holy body and blood; likewise the nails, the spear, the clothes, His sacred tabernacles which are the manger, the cave, Golgotha, which bringeth salvation, the tomb which giveth life, Sion, the chief stronghold of the churches and the like, are to be worshipped. In the words of David, the father of God, We shall go into His tabernacles, we shall worship at the place where His feet stood. And that it is the Cross that is meant is made clear by what follows, Arise, O Lord, into Thy Rest. For the resurrection comes after the Cross. For if of those things which we love, house and couch and garment, are to be longed after, how much the rather should we long after that which belonged to God, our Saviour, by means of which we are in truth saved….Moreover we worship even the image of the precious and life-giving Cross, although made of another tree, not honouring the tree (God forbid) but the image as a symbol of Christ….[1. John Damascene, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. S. D. F. Salmond; vol. 9b; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), 9b80.]

A few notes (for myself). St. John’s language on the sacrifice is one of free-will. Again, St. John allows (demands?) the use of icons, not as a stand-in for worshiping God, but to draw our attention to God.

Further, I think there is something else there. For St. John, what Christ has touched has been made clean — divine?