And you think we are a mess

I’ve been reading a short history of the Byzantine Empire this week.

It has reminded me how deeply the church has been divided for a very long time. For a couple hundred years the doctrine of the two natures of Christ caused turmoil in the Eastern Roman Empire. Riots erupted and emperors were rocked by theological controversies about Jesus Christ. If not for the Muslim conquests, the churches opposed to the Council of Chalcedon would have remained much larger and stronger.

I have also read about numerous divisions between East and West, including the time the Byzantine Empire arrested the sitting Roman pope and dragged him off to prison before he died in exile. Long before the final schism that divided East and West, there were centuries of conflict, excommunication, and strife.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of it all.

Is it a lesson to us that the whole Constantinian project was a mistake? Is it a reminder that the church militant has always been and will always be by schism rent asunder and by heresy distressed? Is it a call to a radical return to apostolic simplicity? Is it a sign of hope that even through all that strife and bloodshed the church endured and Jesus was proclaimed?

When I ponder these questions, it leaves me all feeling a bit like Ecclesiastes.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Eccl. 12: 12b-14)

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3 thoughts on “And you think we are a mess

  1. Stories like this remind me of Tony Campolo’s metaphor of what happens when we try to mix religion and politics: it is like mixing horse manure and ice cream. Might not do much to the horse manure but ruins the ice cream!

  2. We have this truth in earthen vessels. Some are stone, some are malleable polished precious metals, and others are frail pottery. The treasure is not diminished by its container, even when the container fails to reflect the treasure it contains.

  3. Or, I could also add, the kinds of conflicts in the Byzantine Church were about the very nature of God. I might submit that’s about the most serious thing the church can ever wrestle with. And it’s magnitudes of seriousness above what we’re dealing with/distracting ourselves with in The UMC.

    Ultimately, our challenges are primarily about discipline, not doctrine– at least if you look at the ways we’re attempting to deal with them, specifically by changing our Book of Discipline.

    Are there deeper doctrinal questions beneath these disciplinary ones? I do believe there are. But I also believe even those who’ve suggested there are haven’t gone anywhere near the core questions– which are in fact questions about the nature of God– that drive them. In other words, we’re still playing on the tips of icebergs if we think the “real issue” is about the authority of scripture.

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