Messy Church

The persecution that took place under Diocletian (303-313) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith, was a very difficult pastoral question, especially when they were priests or even bishops.

Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, only after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and Bishops, if readmitted to the community, could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and Bishops could also return to their ministries.

By the time of the fifth century, the positions had become so polarized that the North African Church split into two competing churches. On the one side, the Donatists insisted that the Church, and especially its leaders, must be pure. On the other, the Catholics held that before the kingdom of God came in its fullness, a certain amount of messiness was unavoidable.

St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.

I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us. We do so with particular verve in social media, where one’s enemies are anonymous and therefore demonized—that word is used deliberately–much more easily.

We act in this way because we want a pure church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to his Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.

Already I can hear my neo-Donatist critics sharpening their rhetorical swords. “Christians should not tolerate [insert preferred ideological opponent here]! We need to exercise discipline! We need to call them to repentance!” I have no answer to that, because I largely agree. When the behaviour of believers become a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates this believer as a prophet, or a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.

Here’s my point: what is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right, and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.

So before you share that next meme that so skewers Focus on the Family or Sojourners, ChristianWeek or Geez, for their latest failure, remember Augustine and the Donatists. Leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.

Christ With Us in a World Gone Mad

Here is my latest column at ChristianWeek. I am very fortunate to be a contributor to this fine publication. If you’re not already familiar with it, take some time to look at its stories and columns. It is an important venue for Canadian Christians to express themselves and listen to each other!

BTW, if the column strikes a chord,  comment, whether there or here!

On The Ontario Budget, 2012

Well, the Ontario Liberals tabled their budget today. Mr Hudak and the PCs are agin (no surprise). Ms Horwath and the NDP are waffling–wanting to consult Ontarians through a 1-800 number. Could someone closer to her than I please tell Ms Horwath that consulting Ontarians is what is normally called an “election” in a parliamentary democracy? She and her party must now do what they were put in Queen’s Park to do. Vote on a piece of legislation.

Somebody Say Something! (More on the Queen of Heaven)

I need to begin this post with a few qualifiers. I am not a Pentecostal or charismatic. I have been formed in a Christian denomination that is intertwined with the history of Pentecostalism in Canada. I have very good friends and loved family members who attend, are even ordained in, PAOC churches.

I am an Anglican priest, serving in the Diocese of Algoma in Sudbury Ontario Canada. I need to say that for three reasons. First, because it means I really don’t have an axe to grind over the US political scene. That scene does interest me, but it does so from a distance. (Politically, in Canadian terms, I am an old fashioned Red Tory. Which in US terms, I think, makes me a Blue Dog Democrat–but I’ll let any American readers comment on that.) Second, it means I have a kind of complicated political life. Most of my parishioners and practically all of my clergy colleagues tilt center-left; I tilt center-right. For both reasons, no one should call what follows a hit-job on Republicans.

The third reason I mention my church and national affiliation is to highlight that I do come to what follows as a theological matter with ecclesiological and political significance. There is no hidden agenda. It’s all on the surface.


I would be very grateful for Christians other than me or my friend, Greg Metzger to do something. But they need to be particular Christians. I am an Anglican; Greg is a Roman Catholic. That means the people who need to hear what we are saying aren’t listening to us. I am calling on people from Pentecostal and Charismatic backgrounds, or from backgrounds with sufficient overlap with those movements. Neither Greg nor I have a terribly large profile, either. So, I’m calling on people from those or similar backgrounds who have a higher profile than ours.

Here is what I am calling you to do:

For the sake of the Gospel, you really do need to name the New Apostolic Reformation, C. Peter Wagner, Cindy Jacobs, Sam Rodriguez and Harry Jackson as false teachers, who are not simply an embarrassment, but are actually doing great harm to the Body of Christ.

Not because they like Republicans. You may or may not find that problematic. Like I said, though, that’s not a debate that interests me at this juncture. You need to call them out on their false teaching because it is false.

I’ll give you a specific example: The Queen of Heaven “demon.” Among the more bizarre beliefs: this demon has had sex with the emperor of Japan; this demon lives in an ice castle in the Himlayas; Wagner’s and Jacobs’ prayers to overthrow this demon resulted in the death of (among others) Mother Theresa, who–like many Roman Catholics–worshiped her in the guise of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

So, what’s worse: that this is just plain dumb on its face; that it exults in the death of a woman who was, quite simply, an example of Gospel living, that it impugns the finished work of Jesus, who on the cross won the victory over sin death and the devil; who was shown to be the Victor by his resurrection and glorious ascension; that there is simply no biblical warrant for any of this (not even the encounter between Daniel and Gabriel comes close); that it comes within a whisker of inciting or justifiying violence against those who might demur?

I find it particularly alarming that folks like Rodriguez and Jackson get almost entirely positive coverage on the pages of Christianity Today, to say nothing of Charisma, which seems to know no end when it comes to the promotion of foolishness.

Please, will somebody say something?

Review–Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine

Peter J. Leithart,

InterVarsity Academic, 2010

Thanks to the generosity of InterVarsity Press, I was given a copy of this book in order to use it in a larger review-essay which would have also focused on Peter J. Leithart’s new book on Athanasius (Brazos, 2011). And I do think a larger essay could work, focusing on the sharp ways in which Leithart uses history for other ends. In Athanasius, for example, history is deployed to explore contemporary issues and challenges in exegesis, metaphysics, and theological method. In Defending Constantine, similarly, Leithart’s compelling historical narrative is pressed into theological, polemical, and ethical service.

But, I won’t be writing that essay. And the reason is quite simple: Defending Constantine is of sufficient importance to stand on its own. Athanasius will have to wait.

Readers of First Things will recognize Peter J. Leithart as one of that journal’s regular contributors. He is also senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College and a pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, both in Moscow, Idaho.  The author of several books and a regular contributor to the religious and secular press, Leithart is among a growing number of Christian essayists in North America seeking to carve out a distinctively Christian political voice. Many of that number—Chris Hubner, Doug  Harink, Paul Doerksen, for example—stand squarely in the tradition of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Leithart is almost unique in his unwavering insistence that “Yoderwas” (if Terry Eagleton can coin, Ditchkins. . . .), is wrong.

I first ran across that wonderfully liberating thesis in Leithart’s earlier and shorter book, Against Christianity. And I am very happy to see it expanded and developed here.

Defending Constantine functions on four levels. It is, first of all, a work of history. As such it is not, nor does it intend to be, original. Rather, Leithart draws from widely available translations of ancient sources and the very best secondary sources to give to a wider audience the historical consensus about Constantine. His purpose: to refute the claim made by writers as diverse as Dan Brown and John Howard Yoder that Constantine’s conversion is the “fall” of Christianity from a state of relative purity maintained by persecutions to a politically compromised, ecclesiologically corrupt, and theologically hollow institution.

Leithart’s narrative effectively silences the “fall” account for two reasons. First, he shows that the Church was neither as uniform nor as “pure” prior to Constantine as Yoderwas needs it to be for his version to stand. The Church—this is the most significant example—was divided on how best to live within the Empire and support its military well before the fourth century. And such divisions had, as often as not, not to do with Christian participation in coercive violence but how to deal with the non-Christian religious expectations that came with such service.

Second he shows—again powerfully—that Constantine’s conversion should be written without the scare quotes. He really did become a Christian. Did he continue to sin? Yes. Leithart, for example, faces squarely the charge that the Christian Emperor murdered his wife and son. Did Constantine delay his baptism until he neared death? Again yes. And Leithart does observe that once Constantine relinquished the Imperial purple for the baptismal white, he never took up the purple again. Suggesting—contrary to Leithart’s own case—that the Emperor himself recognized he could not fully execute his office and be a disciple at the same time.  These are, for Leithart, side questions. The real issue is Constantine’s legistlative record. Were the laws he passed seasoned by the Gospel of Grace? Did they make Rome not simply more Christian, but more humane? Here, the answer is, absolutely. Constantine’s legislative record went beyond favouring Christianity—though it did that. It was genuinely pluralistic (in a way unfollowed by later Christian emperors). It desacrificalized Roman public life so that Christians could participate in government but without outlawing either pre-Christian religions or Judaism. It strengthened the positions of women and children while weakining the status of the pater familias. It curtailed the bloodsports so prevalent in Roman society. Christian Rome was not, at the end of Constantine’s life, the Kingdom of God (the claims of Eusebius notwithstanding). But it really was Christian Rome. It was different from what it had been before. It had, with its Emperor, been baptized.

As I say, this is not a new interpretation of Constantine. It is a popular presentation of a scholarly consensus for an audience who, if they know anything about Constantine at all, likely believe he was a very very bad man indeed. Leithart’s picture complicates things. And that is very, very good.

Defending Constantine is, however, not only a history. It is also theology. And theologically, it has to do with sacrifice and baptism. The impact of Constantine’s conversion can be assessed negatively or positively. Negatively, he desacrificialized Rome.  This is no metaphor. Constantine removed the sacrificial requirements embedded in Roman public life and in so doing, gave human society a first: a polis—a public life—that was not founded on the literal shedding of blood. For, as Constantine well knew, the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, remembered in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist had forever ended such bloodletting.  Positively, Rome, like her Emperor, was baptized. Rome did not thereby become the Kingdom. But a real journey of discipleship—as displayed in Constantine’s legislative record—did begin. Every baptism—and that of Rome and of Constantine are no different—is an infant baptism in this way: it is the start of the journey of discipleship.

Third, Defending Constantine is a polemic—in the proper and best sense of the word. It is a sustained argument against Yoderwas in particular and the Anabaptist theology/ethic of withdrawal in general. Leithart contends that Yoderwas’s Constantinianism—when the Church loses its apostolic message and becomes content to do ethics for Caesar—rests on a particular telling of history. What we have called the “fall” narrative above. He shows—to my mind persuasively—that Yoderwas’s history is contorted, misleading and in many places, simply mistaken. And if the history is, then the heresy is too. Were there times when Bishops and Kings were too close? Certainly. Did Christendom bring in the Kingdom? No. But—and this is what Yoderwas asserts—was it a mistake from the ground up? Leithart argues—I think persuasively—that the answer again is no.

Finally, Defending Constantine is an ethic. Leithart writes with a view to taking a stance vis-a-vis public life today. And he is worried for our culture if too many follow Yoderwas to the isolation of the colony. Leithart does believe that cultures, legislative agendas, and even emperors can be baptized. That they can grow into Christian faith and practices. He agrees with Yoderwas that the West is re-paganizing, re-sacrificializing. It is returning to altars sated with blood, only this time, all of it human. He disagrees about what to do about it. Leithart’s conclusion—and he is right—is that the solution lies not in withdrawal, but in evangelization rooted in the conviction that today’s emperors can—like Constantine in the fourth century—bow the knee to King Jesus. That they can indeed be baptized.