Thursday, July 29, 2010


So, I write what should be at least a provocative blog and almost no one comments. John leaves town and suddenly there is nothing to talk about except some youth pastor from Chicago.

Yes I'm a bit jealous.

COME BACK JOHN! "There's no place like home."

Monday, July 26, 2010


I have seen the assertion which is the title of this blog many times in church.   Many congregations print them in the church it is an integral part of Protestant ecclesiology.  We say we believe in the “priesthood of all believers.”  Frankly our practice says that this assertion is suitable for fertilizing the pasture.

One of the fundamental principles that we all should have learned and put into practice is that there is only one class of people in the Church: the “Laos.”  Laos is a Greek word for people.  Unfortunately we have imported the word into English as “laity” which was not the intention of Paul.  There is no separation between laity and clergy in the New Testament.  There is only the laos or the people of God or the body of Christ.

Paul makes this clear in the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians.  Christians are not and cannot be divided by rank.  To do so is to deny the very truth of the Gospel.  All are sinners, all come to the gathering of the people of God as equals: all are sinners that have been forgiven through Christ.  Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 is that different people have different gifts.  We can argue with our Pentecostal friends as to whether the lists of gifts in Ephesians, Romans and 1 Corinthians are extensive or whether there are other gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s point is that being blessed (or cursed) by the Holy Spirit with one gift or another does not raise one Christian above others and that all gifts are necessary.  The hand cannot say to the eye “I have no need of you.”  All gifts are needed and no matter how spectacular one gift seems that gift is the equal of all the other gifts including the seemingly mundane gift of “hospitality” which, if one were to rank gifts, I believe should be most honored.

None of this is to say that the Church should encourage sin.  As Paul says in Romans 6 we died with Christ and our sinful selves died with him.  We rose to new life.  But as Paul points out in Romans 7 we don’t always do what we want to do.  What he doesn’t say is that sometimes we even want to do and choose to do what we know we shouldn’t do!  So while Christ sets us free from sin we struggle seeking sanctification.  But sin does not necessarily disqualify someone from membership in the Church or being blessed with a gift of the Spirit.  Although Paul had to go and make it complicated in 1 Cor. 6 by talking about excommunicating a man who had sex with his stepmother (or maybe his biological mother?).  It seems that there are sins and the affirmation that they are not really sinful can be the cause of separation from the Body of Christ.  But what about ordination?

The word “ordained” enters the picture in our ecclesiology and messes up the whole vision of the Church as one people, one body in Christ.  Yes when ordaining deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament we say that some are called to particular duties in the Church and that these duties do not make someone more important than others.  Those duties are dependent on gifts of the Holy Spirit.  And yes, Jesus calls on those who would be great to be the servant of all.  So when the church ordains someone they are told to be the servant of all.  But is that how we really see elders, deacons and Ministers of Word and Sacrament (MWS)?

We say that the ordained are actually the servants of the people of God.  Frankly this statement while well intentioned is a lie at least as we practice our ecclesiology.  Church members think that ministers of Word and Sacrament are an exalted class with elders and deacons one step below..  Our education sets us apart.  Our apparel in worship sets us apart.  In Bible studies when we come in as merely “members” of the Bible study when a tough question comes along everyone’s head turns toward the MWS.  After all we have the training.  We know.  We got all that education so that we would know.  We are the resource for the Church.  We are the ones who truly know how to do evangelism.  If the pastor doesn’t visit you in the hospital the Church has not really reached out to you.  Curiously this is even truer in a multi staff congregation.  If the “senior” pastor doesn’t visit you in the hospital then the Church has not really come to you.  (Thank God for Stephens’ Ministries that is overcoming this prejudice!)  Prayer by the pastor is considered more effective.  Flowery prayer by the pastor is considered to be better than the simple prayers of church members (which frankly are often more profound in their simplicity than the most eloquent prayer of a pastor praying extemporaneously or reading from the Book of Common Worship!).

And sadly being a deacon is considered a step toward becoming an elder even though these callings have different gifts!  A deacon who knows who is in the hospital and always sends a card or makes a visit clearly has different gifts than an elder.  Some elders would make terrible deacons but are superb elders.  Some deacons would make horrible elders.  And some MWSs would be terrible elders or deacons.  Elders are called to be spiritual leaders of the Church (and not just those who run the financial business of the Church).  Deacons are called to be servants to the people and those who point to injustice in the community.  Too often these roles with their accompanying gifts are considered the true role of the pastor. 

In so doing we destroy the central concept of the Church that all have gifts and all are to use their gifts for the good of the body of Christ.  We believe, in effect, that Paul was wrong.  If the pastor is the big toe of the body the big toe cannot say to the eye “I have no need of you.”  Yet that is the practice of our ecclesiology!  The pastor is held up as the person with all the gifts and “regular” church members do not have gifts and do not have any calling other than to come to worship and listen and maybe sing quietly.  The robes and the stoles the pastor wears mark him or her as different from the “regular” church members.  The very apparel of the pastor underlines a false ecclesiology!

Should pastors not receive proper education?  I suspect that there are many out there sitting in the pews that would make better pastors than the person in the pulpit.  But since we in the Presbyterian tradition have valued education we seem to think that those who get good grades in seminary and pass all their ordination exams are fit to be pastors.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While it is wonderful to be able to study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew and be able to quote the early Church Fathers those abilities will not make one a good pastor.  Most true pastoring is learned in the first few years of ministry after seminary or not at all.  Why do so many MWS drop out in the first few years?  Maybe it is because they don’t have the gifts to be pastors. 

I therefore ask the critical question: is ordination a good idea or even a Biblical idea?  In the Old Testament God called Moses to lead the people of God.  But even Moses had to be told that he wasn’t the be all and end all and that he needed help.  So the first elders were called.  These elders served as judges in the case of conflict between Israelites.  Prophets spoke the word of God to the people and most particularly to the social elite.  The kings and the priests had their callings and their roles.  How then did the pastor become prophet and priest (and in some congregations also the king!)?  Through false ecclesiology. 

In the New Testament Jesus calls disciples by merely saying “Follow me.”  There was no kneeling and laying on of hands.  Any seminary training the disciples received was through following Jesus and making a lot of mistakes.  Notice that the disciples were not the most educated or most holy people in Israel in their day.  They may have been illiterate!  But they followed. 

And yes, there were those seven Helenistic Jews chosen to make sure that all widows got their food.  Here we see real Presbyterianism in action.  The people chose the seven.  The Apostles laid their hands on the seven and prayed over them.  This is one of the two passages that come closest to our ordination ceremonies.

But these men then go off and do other things besides making sure the widows get fed!  Stephen preached the gospel in Jerusalem and died for it.  Granted what he said was offensive.  Philip preached in Samaria and then to an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza.  Clearly calling to a particular task by the Church by the voice of the Church did not necessarily mean that one could only operate in that role.  (Although strangely enough the Samaritans didn’t receive the Holy Spirit because they came to faith through Philip’s teaching.  Peter and John had to go down to give the Spirit to the Samaritans?)

The other ordination we see in the New Testament (also in Acts) is when Paul and Barnabas are chosen by God through the voice of the Holy Spirit spoken by what one could call a session.  The Spirit spoke, the elders laid hands upon them and Paul and Barnabas went out as apostles.  We have no idea why God chose these particular people although it seems that God had a joke in mind by sending Paul the Pharisee of the Pharisees out to preach to the Gentiles.  But as far as we can tell Paul and Barnabas were not chosen because their Greek was better than that of others or because they knew the Old Testament better than others. 

If what we see as the actions of God in calling people to particular tasks in both Old and New Testament God seems to have an insidious method of choosing the least likely, the ones with no power and the big sinners.  Jacob would be no one’s choice to be a patriarch of Israel.  If Jacob came to dinner you would count your silver spoons after he left!  Moses was a murderer who begged God not to send him down to Egypt because he just didn’t have the gifts or frankly the desire.  Against all cultural norms God chose Deborah as a Judge.  God called Ruth the Moabite to be the great grandmother of David the king (through the scheming of Naomi and some planned hanky panky on the side) yet the law in Deuteronomy specifically says that Hebrews shall not marry Moabites!  Samuel the child was called.  David the youngest was called.  Amos the trimmer of date trees was called.  And Jesus, whose female ancestors named in Matthew were all notorious and whose mother had the gossips of Nazareth buzzing because she clearly got pregnant before she should have (at least as the gossips counted out the months) was the Messiah! 

Put to death on the cross Jesus was the equal of criminals.  But he was also the only one who is truly prophet, priest and king, the one Messiah. 

So what are the requirements for ordination?  The Book of Order says that those who are ordained are to be held to a higher standard.  But should they?  If we really believe that all members of the congregation are ministers (or what we say about ministry is a lie) then call to service in the Church is given at baptism and confirmed when a child or an adult has reached the point where she can understand God’s calling to her.  And if all who are called to ministry are sinners (and we all are, ordained or not) what sin is too great so as to disqualify someone from a particular calling from God?  The only thing that seems to disqualify someone is continuing in sin that is known to be sin to the point that the Church excommunicates the individual. 

I have been ordained for over 30 years.  If education and ordination exams mean anything I am empowered to officiate at weddings, administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and to preach the Word because theoretically I know more about those actions than someone who has not been to seminary.  I do think such knowledge is necessary for someone in a congregation but I am not sure that one needs to be ordained to be able to explain the meaning of marriage, baptism or the Lord’s Supper. 

So we come back to the beginning: is ordination good for the Church?  I suspect not.  Ordination seems to be a holdover from Roman Catholic tradition that says ordination is a sacrament and that only those have received that sacrament are able to perform the miracle of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.  And only those who have received the sacrament of ordination (named the sacrament of orders, actually) are able to offer the forgiveness of God to others. 

Theoretically we Presbyterians left all that behind.  Isn’t it time to let go of the vestiges? 
If we have to have a ceremony for those who take on tasks according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and receive what education is needed to use those gifts maybe we should commission them to the task?  And we should do it for all who have received particular gifts of the Spirit, no matter what those gifts may be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Much has been made of the wearing of stoles of late, particularly rainbow stoles worn as a statement concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians. There has been criticism and support. In this highly charged climate it might be helpful to consider the wearing of stoles and by whom over the history of the Church. Most of this information comes from a delightful site called “nerd country.”   If the information is wrong please blame the folks at nerd country or me if I have failed to interpret them correctly.

“The word stole derives via the Latin” as a word borrowed (as often happened) stola, from the “Greek . In its ancient form, it is the language of classical ancient Greek literature and the New Testament of στολη (stolē), "garment", originally "array" or "equipment".  (The word is used eight times in the New Testament in each case referring to "a loose outer garment for men extending to the feet, worn by kings, priests, and persons of rank.")

The stole was originally a kind of shawl that covered the shoulders and fell down in front of the body; on women they were often very large indeed. (My note: the stola therefore was originally a garment for women. What might that say about “clergy?”). After being adopted by the Church of Rome about the seventh century (the stole having also been adopted in other locals prior to this), the stole became gradually narrower and so richly ornamented that it developed into a mark of dignity. Nowadays, the stole is usually wider and can be made from a wide variety of material.

There are many theories as to the "ancestry" of the stole. Some say it came from the tallit.  A tallit (taleth or talet in Sephardic Hebrew and Ladino) (tallis in Ashkenazic Hebrew and Yiddish) is a Jewish prayer shawl worn in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, and while reciting morning prayers (Shacharit), as well as afternoon (Mincha) and evening prayers (Ma'ariv) by many Sephardic Jews. The tallit has special meaning because it is very similar to the present usage (as in the minister puts it on when he or she leads in prayer) but this theory is no longer regarded much today. More popular is the theory that the stole originated from a kind of liturgical napkin called an orarium. In fact, in many places the stole is called the orarium. Therefore it is linked to the napkin used by Jesus of Nazareth in washing the feet of his disciples, and is a fitting symbol of the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service.  (the word stola is not used in the John 13 to describe the cloth Jesus used to wash the feet of the disciples.)

The most likely origin for the stole, however, is to be connected with the scarf of office among Imperial officials in the Roman Empire. As members of the clergy became members of the Roman administration, they were granted certain honors, one specifically being a designator of rank within the imperial (and ecclesiastical) hierarchy. The various configurations of the stole grew out of this usage. The original intent then was to designate a person as belonging to a particular organization and to denote their rank within their group, a function which the stole continues to perform today. Thus, unlike other liturgical garments which were originally worn by every cleric or layman, the stole was a garment which was specifically restricted to particular classes of people based on occupation.

(The above is mostly from the nerd community with some editing. The following is my comment.)

In other words the stole is NOT a symbol of humility or a follower of Christ. It is a symbol of one’s place and office in the Roman Empire and the Church. It is a symbol of separation between laity and clergy. One could argue then as is often done, that a stole should be worn only by ordained clergy. (Deacons in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions wear a stole in a different configuration, over the left shoulder, across the chest and the back to the right side of the body.)

In the early Church, however, those who read, preached and celebrated the sacraments wore everyday clothes like everyone else attending worship. It was only as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire that clergy began to wear stoles as a sign of office.

One could argue therefore that the wearing of stoles by clergy is a statement about the Church, that there is not true equality in the Church between those called to serve as Ministers of Word and Sacrament and the so called “laity.” If we Presbyterians truly believe that the laos, the people includes all Christians pastors either should not wear stoles or all Christians should.

As to the wearing of stoles as a political or religious statement by one or more groups in the Church the stole should not be worn by as a symbol of difference but rather as a symbol of unity. That, I believe is one of the intended messages of those who wear rainbow colored stoles at meetings when the issue of ordination of gays and lesbians is to be voted upon. All should wear the stole or none unless of course we believe that Ministers of Word and Sacrament are somehow more important or to be elevated above other members of the Church. I hope we are past the Roman days at least in the Presbyterian Church. If not I will gladly stop wearing a stole.


The Presbyterian Church (USA) finished its biennial General Assembly earlier this month.  One of the hot topics was Israel.  A report from the Middle East Study Committee came to before the Assembly along with calls (overtures) for condemnation of Israel as an apartheid regime and calls for disinvestment in Caterpillar, Inc.  Caterpillar is a well known producer of building equipment and equipment that can be used to tear buildings and other things down.

The report was amended to be more even handed when talking about Israel and Palestine.  Still Caterpillar was distinguished for specific condemnation. 

For those who have not followed the disinvestment debate the Presbyterian Church (USA) has debated this for years, starting back in 2004.  On a regular basis people produce pictures of Caterpillar equipment being used to destroy a home, uproot an olive tree or build a wall.  And it does happen.  Israel is a country.  It certainly isn’t a perfect country.  It also isn’t the worst example of bad government even in the Middle East.  Some examples:

In Egypt radical Muslims beat up, kidnap and kill Christians and destroy any attempts by those Christians to make sufficient space (or any buildings) for their worship services.  The government does not respond to Christian pleas for justice.  And if a Muslim dares to convert to Christianity that person may well be killed.

In Saudi Arabia if anyone who is not a Muslim (and I think this would also include Muslims who do not follow the Wahabi teaching that is the government sanctioned form of Islam) dares to have a worship service they will be arrested.  During the first Gulf war Christians who sought to worship went by helicopter to an aircraft carrier so that Christian (and one presumes also Jewish) worship would not pollute the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia.  This was the rule while troops from a wide variety of countries kept Iraq at bay so that Saudi Arabia would not fall as Kuwait had. 

In Pakistan Christians are regularly threatened with accusations of blasphemy against Islam when a Muslim wants what a Christian has.  And while the Churches in Pakistan protest little is done.  Christians get thrown into jail for blasphemy or killed and if by some chance they are acquitted of the charge they have to move because their Muslim neighbors will kill them.  Others receive notes on their doors telling them that they have to convert or they will be killed.  This is not a joke.  Some were killed very recently. 

These are our allies.

In Iraq, and curiously it’s worse now than before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Christians are subject to threats, bombings and kidnappings.  Those who make the threats mean business.  People have been kidnapped.  Others have been killed while at worship.  Many have fled to Jordan and Syria for protection. 

Iranian police break up Christian worship and threaten anyone who converts to Christianity with death.  For that matter if you are an Iranian and don’t like the fast and loose way the former leader became the current leader through a corrupted counting of votes you may well end up in prison and be tortured.

Christians providing loving families for orphans in Morocco were all kicked out the country earlier this year on the possibility that the children they care for might become Christians.  I suppose this was a real possibility even though the families didn’t try to convert them.  After all those Christian families had been the only people who had loved them!  Now those children are in orphanages.

In Turkey a couple of years ago three Christians were killed, two because they were Muslims who had become Christians and one because he operated a Christian printing press.  And if you dare to bring up the fact that the former regime in Turkey killed hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians by murder, rape or failing to provide food to those in concentration camps Turks will be offended and say that you are denigrating their country with lies.

I freely admit there are things that various Israeli governments have done that I disapprove of or at least regret as a necessity.  Having seen the security barrier/wall (mostly a barrier with barbed wire and guards) I hate it.  And yet suicide bombings dropped off to nothing after the barrier/wall was built.  I call for the barrier to be on the Green Line, not through the farms of Palestinians.  Not only is it unjust but some of these folks are my Christian brothers and sisters!  I strongly object to talk by a few Israelis that the Palestinian problem should be dealt with by kicking all Palestinians out of any territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.  And my list could go on.  Curiously I find my Jewish friends willing to criticize actions by the Israeli government that they think are wrong.  They can go to Israel and shout it at the top of their lungs!  What would happen to a Muslim standing in Saudi Arabia who dared to criticize the oppressive government of Saudi Arabia?

But I have to ask, why Israel?  When Christians are persecuted in Egypt why does the Presbyterian Church (USA) not say a word?  When Christians and others are arrested in Saudi Arabia for daring to sing hymns quietly in their homes why does the Presbyterian Church (USA) not condemn?  When Christians are killed (and to be fair Muslims as well) in Nigeria why does the Presbyterian Church (USA) keep silence?  When the Greek Orthodox Church urges the government of Greece to pass laws outlawing the establishment of other Christian groups what does the Presbyterian Church (USA) say?  Nothing.  Is Israel the government with the worst record of abusing its citizens and others in the Middle East?  It is not. 

All I can conclude is that there are probably at least two reasons:
  1. Israel as the people of the Covenant, the people that God called, must be held to higher standards than others and particularly Muslim states.  Is our message that we expect Muslims to be evil and therefore we don’t even bother to criticize them?  Or is the message that Jews are different?  It is somehow acceptable to criticize Jews and not Muslims?
  2. While there are a variety of Muslim states in the Middle East (and no one complains about that) a Jewish state is not allowed.

None of this justifies sin and oppression.  But it does make me wonder: why Israel?

BTW I found an interesting picture on a website called “electric intifada, a Palestinian site.  It is a picture of a back hoe presumably destroying the house of a Palestinian family.  And the machine was built by Caterpillar, er. no Volvo?  Why don’t we hear about Volvo at General Assembly?  Here is the link and the picture:

So in two years when we talk about divestment in Caterpillar again shouldn’t we also talk about Volvo?  And about Christian Church buildings that are destroyed in Egypt?  Blown up in Iraq?  Christians being killed and threatened with death in Nigeria or Pakistan?  Should we divest in companies that sell bulldozers to Egypt?  Or don’t we care about what those other countries do?  And if we think only Israel is to be condemned what does that say about us Presbyterians?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


The blogosphere, when used incorrectly, is a relatively anonymous place to say nasty things about the ideas and character of others. At its best the blogosphere confronts us with ideas that are different from our's and occasionally leads us to blogs we never would have found without the references of others.

Consider this: John Shuck and I aren't exactly in the same theological camp.  Actually that's like saying that the solar system is part of the Pinwheel Galaxy (go ahead, look it up!).  I think John would agree that we have rather different theological ideas but somehow we still manage to get along.  I won't try to define John as I'm not sure even John can define John!

BUT it was on John's blog that I first saw a reference to Dr. April DeConnick, expert in early Christian literature, both that which later became orthodox and that which did not become orthodox and some stuff that was always really way out there.  Dr. DeConnick persuaded me to buy a couple of her books, not by recommendation but rather by her writings on her blog.  So now I know more about the Gospel of Judas (and the disagreements about it) than I ever expected to know.  I read regular posts about this and that Gnostic group and pleas that all scholars who actually want to do scholarship on early Christian literature must also learn Coptic.  (And I thought I was uneducated because I never learned Latin and I've let my Hebrew slip!)  She continues to plan and schedule conferences that I am unable to attend (she is in Houston TX and I am in Philadelphia PA) and recommend papers that will be read at the meetings of the Society for Biblical Literature which I can also not attend.  How could I ever explain to the Session that hearing papers on obscure Gnostic texts will somehow help the congregation?

Yesterday Dr. DeConnick recommended a new blog by a colleague of her's from England Larry Hurtado who's specialty is Textual Criticism and other things pertaining to it.  Someone named David commented on one of Dr. Hurtado's blog posts which directed me to an old book.  Which brings us to the part where I talk about the internet.

One of the nicest things about the internet is that you can find just about anything information you want if you just put the right words together in a web search.  That, BTW is how I found the Pinwheel Galaxy.  I just googled galaxy names and found a list.  On a more serious note David mentioned a book that is an absolute must have for those who are interested in how to do Textual Criticism, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction and Appendix by Hort and Westcott, the folks who really turned Textual Criticism into a science (and who list every possible text available to them in their texual notes in their Greek New Testament).  Fortunately their book is old enough to be in the public domain and I am in the process of downloading it right now (it's over 29 mbs). I plan to read this baby on my vacation this summer (which confuses my children and amuses my wife).  It seems that libraries are scanning their older texts and placing them online in PDF format.  If one is a student at a registered school one already has free access to all kinds of papers available online.  Now the books are becoming available too.  BTW you can find Mark Twain free online too.  So don't neglect that celebrated jumping frog!

And I wouldn't have found Hort and Westcott's book if I hadn't been reading John Shuck's blog which referred to Dr. Deconnick, who referred to Dr. Hurtado on who's blog David commented and made a reference to Hort and Westcott.  Thank you John and Dr. Deconnick and Dr. Hurtado (who's blog I have added to my bookmarks) and David!

Who would have thought that when Al Gore invented the internet :) that it would be a scholarly resource for theologians and Biblical scholars and people like me who think reading such is fun!  And for free too!  As a Scottish immigrant who is a member of Tully Memorial (she's 92 and going strong) says, "There's no point in being Scottish unless you work at it!"  Free literature is where it's at!

6 more mbs to go!  Have fun out there on the internet ya'll.  And be careful out there!

Just a few years ago

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Every time General Assembly happens in the PCUSA I spend the summer calming down irate church members.  A lot of members think all General Assembly talks about is sex (and homosexual sex at that) as that is what is usually reported in the secular media.  But every once in a while the General Assembly makes some proclamation or another that really gets people steamed, like the decision in 2004 about divestment and Israel.  That got church members so upset they forgot about homosexuals!  Well, not really.  So part of me is kind of grateful that we have General Assembly every other year now. 
And after most General Assembly meetings these days some person who calls him or herself an Evangelical get’s all upset and says they’ve had it, they are leaving the denomination.  Sometime in the next couple of years a few more congregations will leave the PCUSA either through making a quiet deal with their presbyteries or through loud newspaper stories and civil court actions.  Every time this happens I think “Donatist.”
I was almost a Church Historian but through the grace of God became a pastor instead.  But I love and find much instruction in Church history.  There is very little that happens in the Church that hasn’t happened before.
Anyway, remember the Donatists?[1]  During the last terrible persecution before Constantine came along and made Christianity the religion of the empire the Roman government got really smart and decided not to go after the little fish this time.  The soldiers went out and rounded up the priests and the bishops, figuring if they killed off the leadership the Church would fall apart.  They also tried to gather up all the Christian books and sacred vessels used in churches.  (If there were leaders there could be no teachers.  If there were no books there would be no way to recover the Good News.)  They didn’t catch all the leadership.  Some of the leaders that were caught went ahead and died, refusing to deny Jesus or to give up books or vessels or the names of other Christian leaders.  Some specifically refused to say that Caesar was Lord and not Jesus and offer incense to Caesar.  And some didn’t die because they did deny Jesus or gave up books or sacred vessels.
After the Church became legal in the midst of all the battles about Jesus’ divinity and humanity and the Trinity and Gnosticism there was an often forgotten heresy called Donatism.  It’s named after its one of its leading proponents Donatus (who may have been one Donatus or another depending on which history you read).  The Donatists looked at those who had been in prison and had denied Christ and lived or gave up books or sacred vessels and refused to accept their supervision or to receive the sacraments from them.  They said that those who had held onto life or gave up books or sacred vessels weren’t really Christians anymore.  So when those who had survived the persecution through giving up books, etc. anointed someone and ordained them the Donatists would say that person wasn’t really a bishop.  And when that person who had denied Jesus in jail presided over the Eucharist the Donatists would say that it really wasn’t the Lord’s Supper, that the bread and wine hadn’t become the Body and Blood of Jesus.  They also rebaptized people because they believed that the baptisms performed by those who had denied Jesus were invalid.
The Church back then (including many who were tortured and did not give up their faith) surprised the Donatists by saying that they were the heretics!  There is a terrible irony here.  Those defending the honor of Jesus were heretics?  The Donatists must have been shocked.  They got kicked out (and I suspect some of them left in a huff too) because they wouldn’t take communion from a sinner who had denied Jesus or gave the soldiers a copy of the Bible.  Of course it took over 100 years for the heresy to die down.  It was a big mess.  And we are much more polite these days than they were back then.  The Donatists and the Catholics killed each other while consecrating separate bishops for the same towns.
The Donatists forgot something very important.  Peter, the first Pope (the Donatists were in Western Africa) had denied Jesus.  He did it three times and he wasn’t even under arrest or being tortured.  He was looking for a way to avoid being arrested and tortured.  This is one of the most important stories in the Gospels.  Every time a leader in the Church gets to feeling all high and mighty he or she ought to be required to read the story about Peter denying Jesus.  After all, we are all like Peter.
One of my favorite stories of St. Francis tells of a time when a great and angry crowd met him on a road in the country.  They demanded to know if he was the one who had killed a certain person.  Francis replied that he didn’t remember killing that person but that he was a sinner and had done equally evil things and sometimes worse.  The crowd was preparing to hang Francis when a local dignitary rode by on his horse and asked what was going on.  The crowd said that Francis had said he had killed someone.  The dignitary said, “Oh that’s just Francis.  He didn’t kill anyone.  He’s crazy.”
I suspect that Francis was the only sane person that day.  Who indeed has not committed sin, equally evil or worse?  We enter and stay in the Church through the grace of God in Jesus not through our own holiness.
The core points here are:
  1. All are sinners both before and after we become Christians.  Who among us knows what they would do if threatened with death for not handing over a Bible or refusing to deny Christ?  We all hope we would stand strong but who knows until s/he is in such a position?  If Peter could be forgiven by Jesus should not all who fall be forgiven and received again with grace?  Those who pronounce the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper are sinners.  Those who lay on hands at ordinations are sinners.  Those who baptize are sinners.  Those who preach are sinners. The sins of the one who baptizes do not make the baptism invalid.  If it did no baptism would be valid. 
  2. This is not to encourage sin but rather to proclaim the grace of Christ.  Christians seek to be made more holy through the Holy Spirit.  We struggle and fail or sometimes struggle and are victorious.  But we can never claim the victory ourselves but only give glory to Christ. 
  3. The Church is one.  There is only one Body of Christ.  While we Protestants have gone out of our way to split into smaller and smaller factions over issues from infant and/or believers baptism to whether bishops should be allowed (we Presbyterians get really incensed at the idea of bishops) the Church of Christ is still one.
  4. The examples of Luther and Calvin provide great instruction.  They never sought to leave the Church (that is what we today might call the Roman Catholic Church).  They sought to teach the Truth.  They knew that the Church down throughout history had fallen again and again into sin and heresy but the Church was still the Church.  They didn’t leave the Church they were kicked out, excommunicated. 
  5. There is no holier Church outside the one Church. There is only the one Church. We together are sometimes more holy or less and more heretical or less.  But leaving and seeking a more holy Church will never produce the result sought. When one goes seeking a more holy denomination they only find new fights about new issues. 
So as General Assembly begins we already know from reading the overtures and the business brought before the assembly that there will again be controversies over sexuality, over Israel and Palestine and over a proposed new Form of Government.  It is more than likely, given our inability to see the future that there will be some issue unknown to us at this time that will create even greater controversy.  But leaving the denomination to find a more holy denomination or even to establish a more holy independent congregation will never succeed.  Every assembly that I enter receives sinners if it receives me. 

[1] Information about the Donatists can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia at  All errors in use of and interpreting the information are mine.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Death and Spam

When you die there are certain things your loved ones (or your executor or executrix) have to do.  They need more death certificates than most people imagine because all these government agencies have to be told.  If you own a house they not only have to sell it but have to clean it out first.

All of which set me to wondering about the electronic, that is net stuff that you leave behind.  I have a bunch of email boxes.  Will my loved ones remember to delete them or will they go on forever?  And I average around 50 pieces of spam everyday at one email.  Even if my loved ones delete my email box will spam be sent to me forever?

I just realized that the internet is the gift that keeps on giving . . . maybe into eternity.  Or when Jesus returns will all spam be sent to hell and good emails be rewarded?

Life was much simpler when there were radios and TVs for entertainment and the TV only got three channels.