Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Strange Story of Arius

It was a scene very few of us in the Western Church today can imagine. In 325 more than 200 bishops, most from Asia Minor, gathered in Nicea. It was the first church wide council in history and it had been called by the new emperor Constantine who, it was reported, was a Christian or at least had Christian sympathies. From wherever Christianity had spread the bishops came. One was from Persia, one from Crimea and another from Armenia. There were a few who had already become well known for their theological acuity. But most of them were simple pastors. And they had been called together by the new emperor! What had happened to their world? Only a few years earlier they and their churches had been harassed by the empire and some of their brethren had been tortured and even killed. One of the bishops who had come to the council had had his eyes put out during the Great Persecution and when Constantine arrived at the council he made a point of bending low and kissing the pastor's empty eye sockets. What sort of new world was this?

They had come to settle a dispute that had riled up the Church. The Church, not a phrase that has the same meaning today when we have so many independent churches and not one Church as the Church was known then. This Nicean council was Roman, ecumenical and catholic. There was unity in the Church across ethnic and geographic borders. That's not to say there was agreement and harmony among all the churches but there was an attempt to preserve the unity of the Church. This council was an attempt to do that. In Egyptian Alexandria a conflict between the bishop Alexander and a popular leader named Arius had surfaced. By 318 it had spread throughout the Eastern Church. It was the first of many Christological controversies that consumed the Church during the fourth century. Arius, who was a strong leader and a good speaker, had the manner and bearing of a philosopher and was in charge of the devoted virgins in the Alexandrian church. He was a disciple of Origen who taught a subordinationist Christology which made Christ inferior to the Father. Arius took this one step further saying Christ was begotten and before that he did not exist. Arius had been condemned by a synod of Egyptian bishops and banished from the city. But another synod in Bithynia was more sympathetic and reversed the Alexandrian decision. A third synod in Antioch condemned and excommunicated the bishop (Eusebius) who called the Bithynia synod. As tensions escalated, Constantine chose to gather all the bishops at Nicea. This had never been done before. An emperor convening a Church council. There was no precedent to follow. Some historians have found a heavy hand in the proceedings and charged Constantine with rigging the outcome. However, he was invited to attend the meetings, and sat separately from the bishops and he had more than met his match if he thought he as going to railroad the outcome. Athanasius, for one, rebuked the emperor to his face.
True, this was a whole new ballgame for Constantine as well as for the bishops. Some were gunshy about being in the presence of the emperor since it was not so long ago they were being chased down and their churches closed down by the preceeding emperors. Some probably basked in the new freedoms Constantine offered. Many undoubtedly wondered if this was too good to be true and were waiting for a trap to be sprung. But they were not pushovers. They were used to suffering for their faith and managing congregations on very little. They would not be led astray by the new emperor.
At Nicea, the term "one substance" was introduced to describe the critical relationship of Father and Son. Arius was condemned, excommunicated and exiled. Only two bishops out of 250 or so did not sign off on the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately, Arius continued to stir up the pot. Even Constantine helped him do that since he lobbied to have Arius readmitted to the Alexandrian church (can't we just all be friends, you know, for the sake of the unity of the church). Athanasius was the new bishop of Alexandria and he was not having it. Constantine in a snit threatened to have him removed. When Constantine would not let the issue alone, Athanasius traveled secretly to Constantinople to confront the emperor and he successfully persuaded him to take his (Athanasius's) side (Athanasius may have done a little more than argue his position theologcially - he may have threatened to interrupt the transport of grain through his area to Constantinople). But it was not long before Athanasius's enemies met with Constantine and persuaded him to change his mind, again. Constantine exiled Athanasius to Trier. Arius continued to appeal to Constantine to be readmitted to the church faking an orthodox confession of faith which Constantine accepted as valid. However, on his way to church to be readmitted, he died, strangely, perhaps poisoned. Yet, Arianism lives on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Church of Lepers

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the true story of Neil White who was a successful Louisiana entrepreneur and magazine publisher. He was active in the community and his local church. He was married with two children. Then he was arrested and charged with check kiting and financial fraud. He was convicted and sent to a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana. Even though the security precautions were minimal he still lost his freedom, and had to work at a series of menial jobs. He was an inmate and had little privacy and dignity. Additionally, Carville was unique in that the prison shared space and facilities with the only remaining leper colony in the US. At first, White admitted to being afraid of coming into contact with one of the lepers or touching anything they had in common. Prison at the leper colony was nothing like the genteel Southern life he was used to. In the course of his year long imprisonment, his life changed dramatically. His wife divorced him and he had little contact with his children. This was devastating in itself but he also experienced inner changes, too. His pride was challenged as he worked alongside people he would never have associated with on the outside. And he got to know some of the lepers, especially one older woman in a wheelchair named Ella. She had lived at Carville most of her life. When she was younger it was common for a person with leprosy to be uprooted from their home and life and forced to live at Carville. Lepers were lepers and people did not understand the disease and were afraid of catching it. Conversations with Ella helped White face himself and confront the personal issues that landed him in prison in the first place. Since White attended church on the outside, he often attended the Catholic services in the prison chapel. There the lepers and the inmates broke bread together. It was a transforming encounter. For the first time, White experienced true Christian community. When he left prison Ella had some advice for him: find a church. He wanted to find a church like he had known at Carville. This is how he described it: "where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask for forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image and money."

He didn't know if a place like that existed outside prison walls but he was determined to find it if it did.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Michael Vick and Second Chances

I am not sure what to think. As a sports fan it seems like every week I am being asked to cheer for a star player who allegedly sexually assaulted a young woman or was convicted of running a brutal killing farm for dogs or some kind of similar criminal misconduct. Michael Vick had one of the greatest games a quarterback ever had last Monday night. He has had several good games since he began filling in for the injured Kevin Kolb. He has made the Philadelphia Eagles a super bowl contender. He is being mentioned as a MVP candidate. He is also a convicted felon and out of prison for less than two years. Last year he saw limited action as a backup to Donovan McNabb. The Eagles were harshly criticized for giving Vick another chance at football so horrendous were the conditions of the dogs found at his dog fighting kennel. Yet, McNabb and Tony Dungy took him under their wings and advocated for another chance. For his part, Vick said all the right things, and has spoken of behalf of the humane society several times. He has owned his actions and called them wrong and been remorseful for what he has done. He served 18 months in a federal pen. What more can he do? There are many people who feel he has not done enough and cannot forgive him. Still, his football play is turning many of his critics back into his fans. Funny how that happens. Same thing happened with Ben Roethlisberger. And Kobe Bryant and ARod and on and on. The playing field becomes the field of redemption. Salvation through sports.

Or politics. We have seen the same scenario there. We are reminded that we need to keep a persons personal life separate from his public life. Political expertise and athletic prowess are what matters. Not how he or she lives their so-called private lives. But just how do we separate the two. Does that reasoning work with your spouse or children or parents. Would it work for a minister?

There have been some high profile cases of ministers where his personal life became an embarrassment to his family and his church. In some cases he stepped down and went through a process of repentance and counseling. In some cases, a group of advisers pronounced him ready to return to public ministry. That seemed to be a reasonable course of action. But that is the church. Not sports or politics.

When Bill Clinton went through his own personal/public sex scandal,he sought out ministers to help him get his moral bearings again. He has gone on to serve in the public sphere especially with the international rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

The Gospel is not for perfect people. We are sinners who stand in the need of grace. Daily. The public spheres of politics and sports play out the drama of redemption for each of us. Even in those spheres there are usually costly consequences for our sinful choices. Forgiveness and redemption, if they come, come at a price. Some people never forget. The path to redemption may be sloppy but it usually includes the steps of repentance, public remorse, penance and wise counsel or mentoring from elders. Who deserves a second chance? Probably none of us. Do we get second chances? Who wants to throw the first stone? That's called grace.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Constantine is a huge name in history, especially Church history. He lived around 300 AD and depending on who you talk to he was responsible for either: compromising the essentials of the Christian faith or enabling Christianity to grow into an influential world religion. As emperor of the Roman empire, he declared full legal toleration for Christianity in 313 AD in the Edict of Milan. Up to this point, Christianity had been harassed and persecuted by a series of Roman emperors. They belonged to a growing but still minority religious fringe group whose freedoms were severely restricted. Constantine's edict changed all of that. They were able to worship freely and all the former restrictions were removed. Constantine even built churches and clergy (Catholic) were given prestigious offices. In 323, he summoned a Church council to decide the Arian controversy and the Nicene Creed was the outcome. He moved the center of the empire from Rome because of its pagan past to the new city of Constantinople which he hoped to found on Christian principles.

Constantine is a controversial figure to this day and historians continue to debate his accomplishments and motives. One area of controversy is the genuineness of his Christian faith. Was he really a Christian? Why did he convert to Christianity in the first place? He placed his conversion in 312 AD at the battle of Milvian Bridge, north of Rome. Before the battle he claimed to have seen a vision of the cross of Christ that assured him of victory. He wore an emblem of the cross into battle and won. He became the protector of the Church of Christ although he was never baptized until right before he died. Some historians insist he was a megalomaniac who used Christianity for political and military purposes. He kept his distance from the Church but called himself the "servant of God" and the chief bishop of the Church. Yet, many of the decisions he made and the ways he used (and abused) power have raised many questions as to the validity of his faith. Either way, his Edict in 313 virtually made Christianity the faith of the empire.

In contrast to many recent studies that question not only Constantine's reasons for adopting Christianity but also whether it was good for the Church's long term growth and health, Peter Leithart has written a new book in which he defends Constantine from his critics. Called, Defending Constantine, Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian, who genuinely tried to apply his faith to life, living in difficult times.

One of Constantines main critics within the Church has been the Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder. Yoder has maintained that Constantinianism changed Christianity from a minority faith that required courage and obedience from its adherents to a faith that was politically and socially privileged so that it was assumed everyone was a Christian. Yoder states that prior to Constantine you knew a Christian by how she lived but after Constantine church membership meant very little. Yoder, as a pacifist, also charges that before Constantine Christians were pacifists but after him, they were not. Christians now believed violence could be justified if history needed a nudge in the right way. Post Constantine the fundamental tension between the world and the church changed and the Church no longer followed a suffering Christ but now saw themselves as the victors.

Leithhart's book is a lively re- presentation of Constantine's life and beliefs and the consequences that we are living right up to this day. Constantine is an important figure for the issues he still raises today. We are very much living his legacy in the church. More on that legacy later as I get further into the book!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jeter's Gold Glove

Now is the time for good New York Yankee fans to stand up and cheer. Even if you're not a Yankee fan you can still say a good word for Derek Jeter. Jeter just won another gold glove for his play at shortstop. What an outrage the sports journalists are shouting. According to some arcane, complicated statistical formula that purportedly showed Jeter not getting to groundballs he should have gotten to - the fact that he only had 6 errors while playing nearly every game and then a few in the postseason doesn't count- he oughta give the gold glove back and confess to being the fraud he is. One Yahoo sports commentator ( he really is a yahoo) suggested that Jack Wilson of the Mariners and Andrus of the Rangers ( nearly forgot his name because he had such a forgettable World Series) were much more worthy candidates for a gold glove than Jeter. Ridiculous. Like any GM is going to take Jack Wilson over Jeter if he has the chance. Wilson missed most of the season and when he was healthy he hit about 240 with maybe one home run. Jeter had an off year offensively and still hit 270 with 10 home runs. In the postseason he hit over 300. Now lets see, how many postseasons has Wilson been in? Jeter is a winner. A class act. His off field conduct has never been a distraction. He honors the game and plays it like it was meant to be played. Maybe he has slowed down a tad and doesn't get to a few grounders like someone else might. Still if you have a choice for any shortstop in the league, wouldn't you take Jeter? I would and I am not biased.