In seminary — 30 years ago, in seminary — we were required to learn about the great church councils. The early church councils, Nicaea (1st and 2nd), Constantinople (1st, 2nd and 3rd), and Chalcedon were convened by various Roman emperors between 325 and 787 in order to agree on the “correct” faith of the church. Each of them came in response to some question or another about doctrine, and each of them settled the questions by deciding what was “true” and what wasn’t. What wasn’t was labeled “heresy”, and those who insisted on continuing with believing those things were excommunicated, cast out.
Back in those “good old days”, those who lost the debates were hunted down and eliminated. The councils were called by the emperor. Their decisions carried the weight of law, enforced by imperial armies.
The last of those councils, Nicaea 2, ended 1330 years ago last week (October 23, 787). It declared, basically, that people who destroy icons (sacred symbols) were to be hunted down and wiped out.
None of the heresies ever really died out. They just went underground for a while and assumed other names. The Boy Scouts are a perfect example of Pelagianism, alive and well in America (not that any Boy Scout I’ve ever met knew squat about Pelagius).
That’s because most people in the 3rd millennium know or care about 1st millennium Roman imperial politics. And yet, the church — even the “Main Line” Protestant churches — still insists on measuring the qualifications for ordination by whether someone conforms to doctrines like “Jesus Christ: two persons, one substance” and the Nicaean (325 version) declaration about the trinity.
None of this has anything to do with the New Testament. The Bible says nothing about the trinity, nor does it care much about the metaphysics of Jesus. (There is Luke’s story about Jesus’ birth, which is a story, not a thesis on ontology. And there is John’s Jesus talking about “I am in the Father…”, which is a call to action, not a propositional statement.)
My saying that makes me guilty of plenty of heresies. Perhaps all of them.
What modern Christianity needs, though, is less believing and more knowing. There are some things about Jesus that we can know from the Bible. None of them conform to the kind of religion Mike Pence wants us all to declare our national allegiance to.
The Bible’s Jesus was an iconoclast. He fed hungry people. He took care of children. He turned over the tables in the stock exchange. He questioned authority. He made the fundamentalists who had sold out to the enemy of his day so angry they killed him. None of it has to do with making up rules about who can and can’t belong. It has everything to do with taking care of one another, taking care of your community, and taking care of the world we live in.
If the church acted on what we can know about Jesus rather than hiding behind what the imperialists of 2 millennia ago made up about him, there might be a good reason to go there on Sundays.