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Why the Nicene Creed?

confessing one faithHow does one choose the most significant Christian confession?

There are thousands of different creeds, catechisms, and confessions which Christians have used in liturgy and for instruction over the centuries.  From the earliest centuries until today, various Christian bodies have searched for ways to distill Scripture and tradition into statements that serve the church in forming disciples.  These statements are ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, Reformed and Arminian, progressive and evangelical.  How does one decide?

The World Council of Churches, in a series of meetings and documents throughout the 20th century, decided to use the Nicene Creed.  First drafted in 325 and approved at the First Ecumenical Councils in Nicea, it was modified and again approved in Constantinople in 381 (thus its formal title is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).  In 1991 the WCC produced a document, Confessing the One Faith (Faith & Order #153), expounding on this creed as a basis for the doctrinal work needed to work towards full visible unity of the constituent churches.  The essay addresses up front why the WCC chose the Nicene Creed for this important role:

Why was this Creed chosen? At a time when erroneous positions on Christ and the Holy Spirit were already tearing the Church apart, the Ecumenical Councils set forth the faith of the apostolic community which it is the Church’s mission to safeguard, defend and transmit. The essential truths of this faith were summarized and articulated in creeds or confessions of faith, most often in the liturgical context of baptism.

The credal statement known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is a typically Eastern creed, the core of which dates back to the Council of Nicea (325), while its third article is linked with the Council of Constantinople (381).  Because it is used in the liturgies of both East and West it is undoubtedly the best witness to the unity of the churches in the apostolic faith, as Faith and Order affirmed at Lausanne (1927). It reminds all Christians and all communities of their faith, and links it with the faith of all ages and all places. The churches of the Reformation have included it in their credal books as a reference text that objectively expresses the faith, making no concessions to religious sentimentality, and drawing directly on Scripture.  (Preface, ix.)

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

The World Council of Churches has judged this statement of faith so significant that they made it the basis of ecumenical dialogue for nearly a century.  This alone should be reason enough for Christians in 2016 to embrace it.  For in confessing together this creed from the 4th century, we join with Christians across time and space.  The WCC document continues:

The Nicene Creed as a confession of faith belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the Nicene Creed the individual joins with all the baptized gathered together in each and every place, now and throughout the ages, in the Church’s proclamation of faith: “we believe in”. The confession “we believe in” articulates not only the trust of individuals and God’s grace, but it also affirms the trust of the whole Church in God. There is a bond of communion among those who join together in making a common confession of their faith. However, as long as the churches which confess the Creed are not united with one another, the visible communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains impaired.

Just as in baptism the confession of faith is made in response to God’s grace, so too the Church’s on-going confession is made in response to God’s grace and love, most particularly vouchsafed in the preached word and celebrated sacraments of the Church. Hence the Church’s liturgy is the proper context for the Church’s confession of faith.  (pp. 15-16)

This is why the Nicene Creed is, as its broad use across a number of communions and by the chief ecumenical body on the globe testify, the preeminent statement of Christian confession.  As Christians have recognized since 381, nothing else witnesses to the unity of the apostolic faith in the undivided church with both the theological beauty and ecumenical authority that can match this ancient confession.

Why the Nicene Creed? There is simply no substitute.

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The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.”  The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish.  For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.

In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish.  But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break.  It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?

I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:

The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.[1]

Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net.  The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well.  In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net.  All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.

The net is one.  We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.

The church should reflect that.

Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.

But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body.  The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.

How is your corner of the net looking?

 

 

[1] Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.

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Strangers Before Schism

broken chalice

“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 -Hebrews 10:25, CEB

Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation.  In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:

“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)

It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either).  But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.

It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly.  The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus.  When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts.  Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

orthodox church wareWe could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide.  In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.

I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities.  The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement.  Whether raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience.  He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other.  To love each other, we must first know each other.  We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other.  I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist.  Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.

This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.

It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters.  At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.

This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith.  The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest.  That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ.  As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.

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Nuclear Joy

I recently completed Signs Amid the Rubble and I cannot recommend it enough.  The lectures within – ranging from the 1940’s to the mid-1990’s – contain insights that are just as fresh today as when they were written.  The very last lecture in the book, given at Salvador, Brazil to a missionary conference, struck home with me.  He concludes with the following observation:

“I find it strange that conferences about mission and evangelism are often pervaded…by a kind of anxiety and guilt – as though this were a program that we have a responsibility to carry out and about which we’ve no been very successful.  Isn’t it remarkable that according to the New Testament the whole thing begins with an enormous explosion of joy?  The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God!  It seems to me, the resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal but life-giving, and that the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord.”

I think anyone who has been a part of discussion within Mainline Protestantism can relate to the anxiety and guilt that Newbigin names which, in my experience, often do reign in clergy gatherings and conferences.  We sometimes talk as if all of this is up to us, and bearing God’s message is a task to complete rather than good news to share.

Instead, as the great Bishop reminds us, the mission of Jesus Christ is one of joy – a kind of radioactive cloud emanating across time and space, in which we participate as witnesses and heralds.  Thanks – and joyful, exuberant praise – be to God.

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 121.

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The Other Side of Progress

Early on in his storied career as a pastor, bishop, ecumenist, and missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures entitled, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress.”  In the first lecture, he makes the following observation:

The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.

Any Christian view of the state should always be heavily chastened by the doctrine of sin, which should keep our faith in progress (which, in modern democracies, often trumps faith in God) in proper check.  Newbigin invites us to something more nuanced than much contemporary political discourse: a view that is neither triumphalist nor fatalist, but one which recognizes that even within the brightest moments of human achievement, seeds of real evil can be planted.

One would think that the goddess Progress might have been slain after two World Wars and countless atrocities, but methinks she is a hard deity to bury.

 

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 16.

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Good Ecumenism, Bad Economics

A group of protestant bishops and other leaders, mostly from the mainline, recently wrote a letter to congress urging them not to make serious tax cuts because of its potential to impact the poor both at home and abroad.

A noble sentiment, to be sure, but is it good economics?  It includes this line:

Discretionary programs that serve the poor and vulnerable are a very small percentage of the budget, and they are not the drivers of the deficits. Unchecked increases in military spending combined with vast tax cuts helped create our country’s financial difficulties and restoring financial soundness requires addressing these root imbalances.

There is no mention of the housing crisis; of the poor stewardship and worship of the almighty dollar and the American dream that led many to purchase homes they couldn’t afford.  Instead, the blame is laid at the doorstep of two things that the left does not like: the military and tax cuts.  Nevermind that the military is a major distributor of aid and assistance to foreign countries (think of the Marines following the Tsunami) and in domestic crises ( the Coast Guard following Katrina, or the National Guard after, well, everything).  And nevermind that tax cuts free up capital to be used for job creation – which is precisely the medicine needed to treat poverty.

The nanny state is untenable.  I think I could make a case that it is un-Christian, too. In his “Choruses from The Rock” T.S. Eliot wrote,

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

The transfer of moral agency away from the individual to the state is a serious problem in modernity.  By and large, the Church has bought into this notion that the state can do our morality for us.  There was a time when it was the duty of the churches to build hospitals, care for the outcast, and feed the hungry.  After Marx, we are apt to worship the state and look to it to do all our ministry for us.

More and more I think that we get the politics we deserve by not doing our job in the social sphere.  If Britain is any example, the state is evolving into a beast too hungry to satiate, and we want to keep feeding it.  All the social welfare programs in the world will not best the original program of social justice: Christ working the world through his Church.

Let us lament that the state still has anyone left to help.  If Christians in America were doing our jobs, the state would have much less room to step in.

Still that increasing a few taxes and cutting military spending will solve things?  Check this out:

P.S. I only found out about this letter because I am on the mailing list of the IRD.  I don’t like the IRD; I think they are as obviously in the pocket of the right wing as this letter indicates our church leaders are in the pocket of the left wing.  But I stay on their mailing list because it’s the only way I find out about crazy things like this that my church does.  A necessary evil, I suppose.

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“Don’t let them take your Jesus…”: Education and Fundamentalism

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…a good illustration of what many fundamentalists think happens to young Christians who go off to “dangerous” non-Christian schools...

I keep meeting more and more pastors with the same story.  It goes something like this:

-Narrow, fundamentalist upringing

-Little exposure to the outside world and/or culture(s)

-Strongly defensive of values received from family of origin and/or church community

-Goes off to college or seminary, and gets “the speech”…

Here is “the speech”:

“You gotta watch out.  Don’t go off to school and let these liberal professors question your faith.  They are all just a bunch of atheists, and they’ll try to make you doubt the Lord.  Remember what WE taught you and hold fast.  Don’t let them take your Jesus!” (1)

I think speeches like this precipitate a lot of young people going off to fundamentalist-oriented colleges and seminaries instead of risking exposure to ideas and people different than those with whom they are raised.  Not that I see no value in Christian education.  I am the product of a great deal of such (pricey) education.

For me, the scary thought is being born into, raised, and educated solely within a fundamentalist environment.  I have dear friends – great people – who spent all of their childhood and adolescence within a fundamentalist Baptist milieu and then went off to a college that would do nothing but reinforce all of their stereotypes.  I find this sad.

As for education “taking your Jesus”…well, there is probably an element of truth to that.  I think it is a vastly overblown narrative in evangelical circles, but there is a kernel of real experience there.  Many secular departments of religion are filled with people for whom Christianity is a mere intellectual excercise, a field of study devoid of personal content or value.  Or, even worse, you find people like Bart Ehrman: ex-fundamentalists who seem to relish challenging the fragile worldviews of undergrads who strongly believe in a faith that they do not know is a house of cards.  This is the equivalent of Dan Gable wrestling 8th-graders.

Consider this an extension of my previous piece on picking a seminary: a Christian environment is a good thing, if done well.  By ‘well’, we mean Christian in the CS Lewis sense: “mere” Christianity.  Christianity defined broadly, orthodox and ecumenical, in touch with the deepest streams of the Church tradition and yet interested in living out that tradition in the present.  Such a place will not “take your Jesus,” but it should enliven your faith, deepen it,  and broaden.  Challenge it? Yes, but in the sense of “iron sharpening iron.”  No faith is true unless tested and refined.  ‘

The difference between a Bart Ehrman doing that and a Christian mentor doing so is analogous to the difference between a stabbing and a surgery: one uses a knife, the other a scalpel.  One’s intent is to destroy, the other is to help.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I am continually thankful to my own mentors who guided me, sometimes kicking and screaming, from fundamentalism to Christianity.

1. Adapted from a version of “the speech” that I received from various folks upon learning that I was going to seminary at Duke.  None of them, of course, had the theological acumen to realize the irony of this.  Now I can go back and tell them, proudly, “I am so anti-liberal that I am postliberal!”  Of course, this is funny only to a bookish elite.  Props to George Lindbeck!

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Geoffrey Wainwright and World Communion Sunday

This Sunday marks the annual celebration of World Communion Sunday, in which many Christians from around the world go to the Lord’s table as a sign of the unity to which we are called.  In preparation for this celebration, I read from Geoffrey Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialogue.  This collection of essays and addresses is culled from the British Methodist’s decades of participation in the ecumenical movement, and broaches both general principles for ecumenical dialogue and the results of recent bilateral work (Methodists with Catholics/Lutherands/Episcopalians/etc.).  This is a brilliant book from a teacher I truly enjoy and admire.

World Communion Sunday brings together themes – church unity and the Lord’s Supper – that Wainwright has himself written on extensively.  I could think of no better way to recognize this Sunday than to quote from Wainwright, whose example shows us that one can be deeply embedded in a tradition and yet firmly committed to relationships and reconciliation with other communions:

…Christians involved in the ecumenical movement have already found it possible to discern sanctity also beyond one’s own ecclesial institution.  If, then, according to the Russian Orthodox dictum, “the walls of separation do not reach up to heaven,” the recognition of graced lives in other Christian communities should encourage the divided Churches to make unity in Christ more manifest on earth. (Methodists in Dialogue [Nashville: Abingdon 1995], 33.)

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Glenn Beck: Restoring Jack Squat

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I am continuously astounded that many on the far right – which has a large contingent of fundamentalist Christians – have been more than willing to overlook Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because they like his brand of low-brow, popcorn-density “journalism.”  I think that his particular blend of civil religion – one that confuses any reference to “God” to an endorsement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and cannot distinguish enlightenment Deism from orthodox Christianity – is so vague than many of these Christians on the right honestly can’t tell he’s coming from a different place from them theologically.

A friend of mine pointed me to an article by Dan Webster over at Episcopal Cafe’ that makes some interesting connections between Beck’s Mormon faith and his political program:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, believes Christianity fell into apostasy when the original apostles died. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, believes he was called by God to restore the gospel that Jesus taught but had been radically changed by second generation Christians and those who came after.

So when Beck says America has been “wandering in darkness” and that he is here to help lead the country back to God he is emulating the founder of his religion. He wants to restore America’s greatness just like his church believes it is called to establish the “restored gospel.”

I don’t agree with Webster on all points, but he makes some interesting arguments that I have not seen elsewhere.  Webster also points out that, while Beck is vague on his own theological proclivities, he isn’t shy about attacking the details of others’ faith.

He’s expressed discomfort with Obama’s brand of Christianity (hey, props for calling Obama Christian!) due to its affinities with liberation theology, which he calls “socialist.”  And to an extent, he’s right.  Where he is wrong is finding any expressions of a strong faith in Obama’s policies.  It may be there, to the President, at least.  But Obama’s not really talking about it; whether because it’s not there, or he’s trying to distance himself from Bush, his outspoken evangelical predecessor, is not really possible to know.  Beck has made too much hay out of something he knows little about.

In his piece, Webster argues that Beck is channeling Joseph Smith moreso than Martin Luther King, Jr.  And so far as that comparison goes, he’s spot on.  But Smith wasn’t really a restorationist; he wasn’t restoring an existing church, he was making a new one.  The LDS church is a creation of his own mind, which I think makes him equal parts huckster and genius.

Like Smith, Beck isn’t really trying to restore anything so much as create something that never existed and in the process garner a great deal of attention, wives, money, and power: a pristine, just, and prosperous America that is simultaneously the sole superpower and completely God-fearing (though,significantly, the question ‘whose God?’ is never asked).

I think that makes Glenn Beck more like the Pied Piper of legend.  A man playing a flute, making pleasant noises, leading us away like children…on a journey to nowhere.

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Hal Lindsey on Ecumenism and Antichrist: Suffering through ‘The Late, Great Planet Earth’ Part II

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I don’t know if there are purple hearts in the study of theology, but in helping some of you to avoid this atrocious book, I hope you can see that I am jumping on a grenade on your behalf.  I’ve never read anything that made me want to throw things, weep, and laugh all in such short succession.

Today, for your intellectual abuse stimulation I have a few bits of Lindsey’s wisdom about the ecumenical movement.  These are culled from chapter 10, “Revival of Mystery Babylon,” in which he argues that a renewed interest in the occult across the world, combined with a unified but apostate church, will serve to empower the coming Antichrist (who supposedly is coming from a renewed Roman empire, which Lindsey claims is basically the EU).  Now, be prepared for your laughter to be turned to mourning:

We believe that the joining of churches in the present ecumenical movement, combined with this amazing rejuvenation of star-worship, mind-expansion, and witchcraft, is preparing the world in every way for the establishment of a great religious system, on which will influence the Antichrist. (Lindsey, 104)

There is, in this chapter, an astounding gap: nowhere does Lindsey endeavor to explain what will become off all the other religions of the world and their practitioners.  One can only assume that he either thinks there will be no more Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims at this time, or else he puts all of them in league with the hippie kids dancing in the forest.  At any rate, it is a major flaw in his argument.  Not that the argument itself is strong to begin with, of course.

There is obviously a free-church bent here, insofar as the target is very clearly Mainline Protestantism (that is, all the major denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians).  He also has a very stunted ecclessiology, simply saying that the “true church…includes all believers in Christ.” (116)  I wonder if he would include Mormons in that list? Jehovah’s Witnesses?  If the only criteria is “believing in Jesus,” understood in a purely intellectual and consensual way, then he really has a broader definition of church than he should be comfortable with.  I suppose it was too much to hope, at a minimum, for something like Luther’s definition of true Word and sacraments.

And now for a real gem:

When people move away from Christianity the church will lose its power and influence to a great religious movement, a satanic ecumenical campaign…

Years ago when we first heard about the ecumenical movement, we couldn’t pronounce it(*) but we thought it sounded like a great idea.  It seemed plausible that all the “good guys” (**) in the churches should join together to fight all the evil on the outside.  There are many fallacies in that way of thinking.  When all of the various churches begin to amalgamate in one unwieldy body, soon the doctrinal truths of the true church are watered down, altered, or discarded. (119)

At this point, I can only suggest that you find a bottle of Advil, take two – with water – and perhaps look into some blood pressure medication.  If you’re anything like me, you’re now infuriated. In the unlikely circumstance that you care about Jesus but aren’t infuriated by Lindsey’s sentiments, then go read John 17 and reconsider.

*I take this to mean that they don’t use big words at Dallas Theological Seminary, Lindsey’s alma mater.

**Oh, c’mon.  I don’t need to say anything here, do I? You know why this was stupid.

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