Monday, March 27, 2017

Another Jesus

One is tempted to hearken to the siren song of our relativistic and pluralistic society and conclude that all Christian churches believe pretty much the same thing.  There are differences of course—some have bishops and some don’t; some consider the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ, and some don’t.  And of course Catholics have the Pope.  But apart from these incidentals (as the world regards them) all people calling themselves Christians share the same faith and worship the same Jesus.  As long as we confess the same Christ, let’s not sweat the small stuff.
            This approach was not the one taken by St. Paul.  Consider, for example, his approach to his Judaizing opponents.  These were men who followed him about, slandering his character, denigrating his apostolic authority.  In the churches of Galatia, they were preaching that to be saved, one needed more than simply baptism and faith in Christ.  One also needed circumcision—in other words, one needed to become a Jew in order to really be a Christian.  The Galatians were impressed with their arguments, and although they had not taken the definitive step of becoming circumcised, they did begin to otherwise live as Jews, keeping a Jewish calendar of festal days, months, seasons, and years (Galatians 4:10).  These same teachers were dogging Paul’s steps elsewhere, and making trouble for him in Corinth.
            Here we must be clear:  both the Judaizers and the people to whom they were preaching were baptized Christians, members of the church, Christians who confessed Christ.  According to our modern model, should not Paul have simply accepted them and agreed to disagree about “the small stuff”?  After all, they both worshipped the same Jesus.
            Not according to Paul.  To the Galatians he wrote that such “Christians” were preaching “a different Gospel” (Galatians 1:6).   They were “severed from Christ”, “fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).  They were preaching “another Jesus” than the one Paul preached, and offered “another Spirit” in their counterfeit baptisms (2 Corinthians 11:4).  All this, just because some Christians insisted on circumcision as necessary for salvation!  So much for first century ecumenism.
            But it was not just in the first century that the Church “sweated the small stuff”, and declared that such deviance from the purity of the faith constituted apostasy from Christianity.  In the fourth century St. Athanasius also insisted that his foes were proclaiming another Jesus.  Both the presbyter Arius and the deacon Athanasius confessed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, and both could sign on to some sort of the faith in the Holy Trinity.  But they differed on the tiny detail of what the title “Son of God” actually meant.  Athanasius said that it meant the full and undiluted deity of Jesus; Arius said that it meant that it simply meant that Jesus was created by God as the first and noblest of His creatures, and that it was through the Word that God made the rest of His creation.   Couldn’t they agree to disagree?  After all, both considered themselves Christians, and both could confess Jesus as the Son of God.  Even the emperor Constantine initially considered the dispute a merely verbal one and thought they should simply chill out and not fight over much minutiae.  But for Athanasius, the dispute was not over minutiae, but over the basics, and he declared that deviance in this matter of Christology meant that Arius had forfeited any real claim to be considered a Christian.  Accordingly Athanasius called him and his followers not “Christians”, but “Arians”.  The label contained Athanasius’ denunciation of Arius as no real Christian at all.  Arius of course considered himself a Christian, but it was just this label that Athanasius denied him.
            We come now to the twentieth and twenty-first century.  The front line has now shifted from Christology to anthropology, and we now debate matters of gender.  In the fourth century the question was, “Is Jesus the Word as fully divine as the Father?”  In our day the question is, “Is homosexual activity blessable or damnable?  Is it something to be celebrated and accepted, or to be repented of?  Is it legitimate as part of God’s will for His creatures, or is it an abomination?”  Or, put another way, “Does Jesus bless homosexual activity?”  Our news casts and Facebook posts are full of the cultural warfare in North America as people give varied and opposing answers to this question.  Some churches and denominations are answering in the affirmative, and saying, “Yes, Jesus does bless homosexual activity and finds nothing wrong with it.”  Other churches are answering, “No, Jesus does not bless homosexual activity but calls His disciples to repent of it as sinful.” 
Of course other questions are asked in this long and complicated discussion of gender, just as other questions could have been asked about the nature of Jewish Law in the first century, and the Christological debate in the fourth century.  Yes, it’s all very complicated.  But the basic questions still remain:  Does Jesus insist that His disciples be circumcised in order to be saved?  Is Jesus less divine than the Father?  Does Jesus bless homosexual activity?  Answering the first two questions in the affirmative resulted in the Church declaring that you were not a Christian in the first and in the fourth centuries.  I suggest that answering the third question in the affirmative results in forfeiting a credible claim to be a Christian now.  For in all three cases, the person answering in the affirmative is thereby proclaiming another Jesus. 
Think back, for example, to the heresy of the Nicolaitans, a “Christian” movement in Asia in the late first century which tolerated eating food offered to idols and fornication.  Small stuff, right?  After all, there is no reason to think that their Christology was weird.  Like St. John, they also confessed Jesus as the Son of God.  But Christ Himself, speaking in the Book of Revelation, declared that He “hated” the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), and would “war against them” with the sword of His mouth (Revelation 2:15-16)—i.e. pronounce judgment against them.  The Nicolaitans of course did not think that they were doing anything wrong, and that Jesus had no problem with people who ate food offered to idols or with casual sex.  But actually, Jesus did have a problem.  The real problem was that the Nicolaitans were proclaiming another Jesus. 
Those welcoming the gay cultural steam-roller also proclaim another Jesus—one who blesses any sexual union as long as the partners love each other.  This Jesus presumably would have no time for the proscriptions in the Law which denounce homosexuality as “an abomination” (Leviticus 21:13); nor would He thank St. Paul for writing in his epistle that homosexual behaviour was “against nature” (Romans 1:26), and that practising homosexuals were among those who would not inherit the Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  Instead, His anger and indignation would be turned on those who denounce such behaviour and refuse to celebrate it.  This Jesus is a nice Jesus, harmless, sweet, emphatically open, inclusive, and non-judgmental.  There is nothing sinful that He would provoke His condemnation, with the exception of course of fundamentalists and people from the American Religious Right.  This Jesus is of course at odds with the mindset of the early Church and the Fathers; and He would have nothing but derision for the traditional stand which condemned homosexual behaviour.  This Jesus is therefore radically incompatible with the Jesus the Church has been proclaiming for two millennia, and is at least as different from Him as were the Nicolaitan Jesus and the Judaizers’ Jesus of the first century, and the Arian Jesus of the fourth.  If the Church values its traditional past at all it should regard groups which confess this new Jesus as it once regarded the Judaizers, the Nicolaitans, and the Arians—namely as non-Christian groups.  
If it did, this would have immediate consequences for the Church’s ecumenical conversations.  Groups that preach another Jesus and another Gospel are rightly regarded by us now as heretically non-Christian, and thus the Orthodox Church does not have an official ecumenical dialogue with Mormons (that I know of) or with Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Our message to them is simply “Repent and believe”; we do not meet with them for wine and cheese to discuss Christology at conferences or produce scholarly papers at symposia about the thought of Joseph Smith or Charles Taze Russell.  In the same way, any church group or denomination which officially commits itself to blessing homosexual activity or gay marriage is preaching another Jesus, and Orthodoxy should also suspend any official ecumenical dialogue with them.  We badly misread the homosexual debate if we regard it simply as another moral issue (like abortion), and a debate over whether or not a particular activity is sinful.  It is more basic than that.  It is not simply a moral issue; it is a Christological one.   If we continue ecumenical dialogue with groups that bless homosexuality, at best we are wasting our breath.  At worst we are adding credibility to what Paul called “another gospel”. 

The problem, of course, is a perennial one.  In every age there are Christians who compromise with the standards of their age, and accept the world’s values as their own.  These people always call themselves “Christians”, and denounce those who disagree with them as rigid and wrong.  But the Christ whom they preach is not the real Christ.  They in fact misrepresent Him, and preach a Christ made up by themselves, one who conforms more closely to their own secular age.  St. Paul, St. John, and St. Athanasius pulled the mask off them in their day, and denied them the label of “Christian”.  It is time that we Orthodox follow in their footsteps now and do the same to those who offer a counterfeit faith and another Jesus.

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