In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

Heretics and Heresy: On the Intellectual Pursuit of a Christian

Historically, one of the greatest sins in the Christian church has been that of heresy. The theologian Origen was excommunicated when his teachings on the nature of man and God were condemned by the Church. The entire Protestant movement was based in the fact that Martin Luther viewed the Roman Catholic church as heretical, and vice versa. The subsequent divisions within the Church have also been a reflection of this—although some are obviously more apparent and necessary than others.

I once heard a pastor tell how he had been dismissed from his previous church because he was no longer convinced of a pre-tribulation Rapture. To make that clear, this pastor was told he could no longer help shepherd the flock of a body of Christians because he disagreed on a very debatable point in what is the most cryptic and incomprehensible book in all of Scripture.

And so, heresy is one of the greatest sins a believer can commit, but it is also one of the gravest impediments to the Christian journey, both in terms of a personal and intellectual relationship with Christ, as well as in evangelization. So often, we are so concerned about proper theology that we forget that we have tiny little minds. Our relationship with the Son of God is replaced with cute dogmas that we repeat over and over—sometimes from birth, if the situation allows—and we never question them. We attach our ideas to God like a label on a bottle of cheap wine: “Grown in the fertile valley of Old Earth Creationism, this God has already mapped out your days, and will indisputably return to carry his Church to Heaven while he leaves the heretic and the sinner to burn in the fires of tribulation and damnation. Enjoy without questioning.”

And while there is certainly room for dissension and disagreement within the Church, to say that our label of God is impeccably correct is to say that our wine is the only wine. And this is where the cry of “Heretic!” can often become heresy.

As Galileo said, the same God that endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect did not intend that we forgo their use. Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross so that we can go to the grave believing—knowing—that Adam and Eve were literal people, and yet folks like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind make a living attacking Christians who would believe otherwise. We line up across the field from each other, load our muskets, and commence to tear and rip at each other like jackals—all in the name of Love.

Can we see the dichotomy here?

To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in Jesus Christ: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is not to set up impediments for others; we can be firm in our convictions while allowing the difference of belief. Just because one prefers the solemnity and depth of old hymns doesn’t give them allowance to judge another for engaging in contemporary worship. Just because a board of elders believes that Christ will return to rapture his people into Heaven before the Tribulation happens doesn’t mean they have to banish one who may feel otherwise.

The danger of this is that it turns the Church—which should be a community of vibrant, thinking individuals—into what effectively amounts to a cult. Even God the Father, the most severe member of the Trinity, allows Job and his friends to spend 30-some chapters questioning His nature. And when He finally shows up on the scene? The only thing He says is “You can’t understand Me. Ask your questions, but stop expecting answers.” The issue isn’t that Job is trying to understand God, it’s that he assumes himself capable of understanding God.

From the beginning, God has rewarded those who seek. If God cannot guide our intellectual pursuit, wherever that may take us, he would not have given us such a vast scope of reason and imagination. And if that seeking starts carrying one toward the mire of true heresy, it is the duty of the Church to help correct the mistake, bearing in mind that the Church is not your local pastor, priest, or two-bit theologian. It is not the Pope, a Patriarch, or yourself. The Church is the cumulation of human history, subject to God the Father and manifested in a traveling rabbi named Jesus Christ, who, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, founded a demographically and intellectually diverse community he calls his Church. This is the standard to judge by; not the opinion of a man who has nothing more than a seminary degree, a couple years behind the pulpit, and the notion that he has come to grasp Yahweh in all His magnitude and mystery. The intellectual pursuit of a Christian should not be defined by a fear of the Church, but by a love of Christ.

Not that there’s anything fatal about being mistaken; even Peter was an unintentional heretic. But the measure you use to judge will be measured to you, and if you’re prepared to anathematize a fellow follower of Christ over petty doctrine, you had better hope that you have a perfect bead on the infinite God of the Ages. Because if you don’t, you are setting up some unnecessary roadblocks to Heaven. If we judge others based on our personal theology, it’s a safe bet to assume that God will judge us on ours.

This Millennial Isn’t Leaving the Church

I, a millennial, am not leaving the church. Recently there has been a small flashflood of articles unearthing possible reasons and remedies for the ongoing exodus of millennials from the Christian church. I read them as a stranger to the departing crowd.

Rachel Held Evans suggested toning down the trendiness and giving a listening ear to the thoughts and passions of a millennial near you. We are actually thinking about the creeds, science and faith, sexuality, and holiness, but we wonder over them in questions, not “predetermined answers.” Her last word is to “encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

 Brett McCracken rebutted, asking millennials to give a listening ear to age and wisdom. Millennials are highly sensitive to nearby flaky self-images and the nearest one is our own. ‘Tis our season to scrabble through liminal self-perceptions toward a strongly rooted identity. So, the church should take a cue from the millennial and become as sensitive to their potential fakeness as they are to hers. McCracken thinks “that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests.”

Not quite. Evans got timid with her final plea and left it vague. McCracken is being unfair, inserting this scenario when nothing in Evans’ statement gestures to it. Picture this specimen Millennial in a coffee shop with this specimen church-goer/deacon/die-hard. Never mind who asked whom.

There should be mutual listening. If either person actually thought they were coming to give a monologue, they could have found a pulpit or a stage. This is a conversation. Each speaker shuts up every few sentences. Granted, when people are ignored outright, intervention is advisable. But opening the dialogue by staking out one party’s right to be heard over another doesn’t allow for much traction down the road. If we all concede that good listening is lacking but key and then promise to stop tuning out our counselors’ or therapists’ practical tips to improve active listening, real conversations are just around the corner.

Where Evans and McCracken solidly agree, I ask for a significant nuance. In McCracken’s words, “Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived.” I could easily interpret that two different ways: either he means ‘obsessed with first impressions’ or ‘obsessed with the self-image.’ If the latter, then of course we are obsessed with how we are perceived. Christianity nurtures concern for self-image. What begins as a shallow itch for approval is just the shadow of our deep human longing to be seen. We are created: we are created beautiful as well as functional: we are art. As art invites an audience, so we long to be displayed to each other. For Christ to completely restore us to what makes us truly human, we may only expect Him to increase our hunger for more and more attention.

But if in fact we are obsessed with making first impressions, no wonder we are frustrated. First impressions are one or a series of quick insights about a person based on visual (or other sensory) impressions. I don’t say judgments because the word connotes a distasteful opinion that we’ll probably end up dismissing as incorrect. Perceptions could be entirely correct. They just aren’t going to be deep. What we need in addition to first impressions is a certain space to be seen, where those impressions will purposefully become contemplation.

There’s no way to be a functioning human for long in a gallery space. We’re best displayed elsewhere in the space of shared experiences, alongside creations like ourselves. There, seeing and being seen are real possibilities.

Maybe we look to family, friends and professional circles or artistic communities for shared experiences. Yet, in proportion to human history, these are young, recent communities. Additionally, they may be more transient than permanent. They are less-than-guaranteed spaces for shared experience. The church is human history’s longest living community. It offers an extensive architecture of shared experiences (cf. its calendar, reformations and revivals, plus contributions to art). It is a certain space to be seen.

And so I remain a millennial church-goer. While my voice matters, I don’t stay on the condition that I am heard. Although my elders’ wisdom is a far better gift, I’ll persist to give as well as receive. Many, many concerns prick me every time I go to worship—I notice her lack of good discourse on human sexuality, feel her tight rein on artistic honesty, and wonder when her missionaries will feel called to America.  These concerns are powerful enough to activate me toward change and confrontation within the church, but will never rise to become conditions for remaining in the church. I pray to love the church as I hope to be loved: unconditionally. And similarly, I affirm that both the church and millennials have responsibility toward each other—to heed or challenge concerns, not as terms and conditions, but as doorways to unconditional love.

I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.




Pain and the Possible Gain

It is often said “No Pain, no Gain.” But I’d like to propose that along with that saying comes the mindset that to feel pain is to feel weakness leaving the body. I have definitely seen variations of that idea written on the back of multiple sports player’s t-shirts and cringed every time.

So which is it? Can pain be dignifying or is it something that one must hide?

There’s an inherent problem with this saying. It glorifies pain as something that we ought to strive for because it will make us stronger. But there is another saying, and this one is not written out for us like the others. That saying goes something like this: “If you’re in pain, do not let anyone else know because it will show that you are weak. “

For starters, I’d like to classify what types of pain we will feel in life. Let’s start by splitting this up into two simple categories: good pain and bad pain.

Good pain is the pain that tears down in order to rebuild something stronger. A practical example of this is how our muscles work: it hurts to tear them when you work out, but once they are healed they have grown back stronger. This pain is something in which we can pride ourselves. Athletes even roar in pain as they finish races, communicating to others that they are in pain while showing that they are overcoming it.

This rebuilding pain also occurs not just physically: it can also be mental or emotional. Sometimes we must go through new experiences in life and learn new things. The pain of failure can break us down, but to overcome a failure makes one even more successful. What has been torn down is made into something even better.

This is a pain can be likened to that of Dante’s Purgatory; while it is painful for the individuals to climb up the mountain and be refined by the fire, the pain is worth the end. Being refined only makes them stronger and we see an aspect of redemption in this pain as they reach an end goal.

It is what I called bad pain that does not allow for this rebuilding. This is the type of pain that tears down and does not readily heal to any profit. It is that pain that is felt when you scrape your knee, lose a loved one or remain defeated by the troubles of life. It is a pain that can dwell with us for a very long time if we do not learn how to throw it off of ourselves.

When we are told that we ought to hide our pain, our loneliness, our depression or our losses, we learn to dwell in the pain rather than leave it behind. To remain in pain that does not refine is not beneficial; rather we can leave pain in the past by turning it into a pain that will help grow and rebuild us.

There is no entrance into the rebuilding until we learn to share our pain. For it is only by sharing that we are given a different perspective on our personal pain. In community we can find both remedy and empathy.

If we do not share our pain there is no way to find a remedy. In a hospital, if a surgery patient is in pain, that patient must communicate their pain to the nurse in order to receive relief. Only then can the patient receive a remedy–in this case a type of pain reliever. Only once that remedy is administered can the recovering patient feel better and even go through a proper pain that comes with exertion for something like physical therapy. But none of this would have happened if the patient remained silent and never communicated their pain.

By sharing a persistent and degenerative pain with someone else, it can be turned into a rebuilding pain that comes to an end.

There is remedy in the act of sharing. The sharing could lead to something as simple as immediate physical pain relief, or it could be the actual sharing of a painful experience that heals.

But like I said, it’s harder to share than we think. We do not feel that others will entertain our struggles or understand them.

So here’s the bright side for a Christian: they have God. God, who will always listen, always sympathize, and always offer a remedy. That is enough, but we are also meant to live in community. Members of the church are called to be that love, understanding and remedy to other members. We are to bear each other’s’ burdens.

Sometimes God alone is enough, but more often than not God will show himself through the community that He brings us to in a time of pain. This is the community where we can share pain, be uplifted by the stories of those who have gone before us and see from a different light that we too will make it through the pain and put it behind us. But we can only find those who can encourage and empathize by first sharing with them.

It is through sharing that the church can gather around a hurting member and know how to help them as best as they can on the path to restoration.

When Church Becomes Class and Fails to be Family

College students move, a lot. You will never find them in the same place for a long, time unless they need to stay in the library for an all-nighter. Whether it’s moving to different dorm rooms each year, returning home for a semester, or changing colleges completely, it is acceptable for a college student to have no real ties that root them to one place in particular.

In this struggle to find some permanence during the inconsistency of a college experience, many Christian college students turn to the church. Ideally, this is a great way to create a family away from home and remain in a good community.

Church is meant to function as an intergenerational community, much like a family. The older generation validating the younger generation in a way that brings about care and love. These intergenerational relationships are the foundation for a healthy Christian community, ushering in the youth and respecting the passing of the old.

In my own church experience, this has been the case: my parents brought me to church as a child and were able to bring me to important relationships within my church. It was by my parents that I was given relationship with others in the church; my own family somehow gave me validity within my larger church family. Today at my home church I still have that relation with my parents and other members who are a generation older and now relationships with those younger than me. I am connected to the church by all of these generations and so feel connected.

But that membership has been lost since my move to college and I can’t seem to find it in any other church I attend.

Church for the college student who cannot seem to get plugged in has turned into a culture of church hopping and church shopping, but definitely not one of church staying. We are always moving, when church ought to be a place of rest and consistency.

Looking to my previous experience with church, it is easy to see why we struggle to become involved in a local church. If there is no family unit by which we are brought into a church, then the integration fails.

Some of the churches that my peers attend end up neglecting that intergenerational aspect, and church becomes more like an optional Bible class. The teaching is good, worship is great, and I get to go with my friends…but after the service I just go home and start doing homework again. I do not really stop to meet anyone else that attends the church, and no other attendees stop to say hello to me. It would be just as fulfilling for me to listen to a podcast from the church and get the same teaching.

Treating church as this fun Bible class is not how a college student ought to pursue “membership” within a church—it does not even seem like they are a member of a greater body when no community is formed. Both the college student and the greater church body have failed. They have failed because they have forgotten the foundation upon which a church community is founded: relationship between different generations.

So as a college student far from home with no family in sight, how does one go about actually becoming a member of a local church?

It starts by reaching out.

I would so much more appreciate it if the churches I went church shopping at an older member of the church had stopped to recognize I was a new attendee and said hello. But from my experience, that does not seem to be the case. Sure, maybe the first Sunday I attend a church no one will notice, but by the second or third Sunday I would hope someone might pursue fellowship with me, ask me how I enjoyed the sermon or how I might like to sit by them in the service next Sunday. Forming a relationship where I did not have to be the first person to reach out would show me that I was going to a church that valued its new members and wanted them to keep coming. Something simple that a church can do is notice young and lonely looking members and invite them to sit with a family. I know that this would make me feel at home in a new church.

But sometimes this is not the case, especially in a church with a lot of younger attendees who come alone and few older members who come with a family. In that case it’s time for the college student to just try to reach out to other younger members. It does not create the same intergenerational interactions, but it does begin the process of building relationships within a church and adopts more members into the local church community.

There is now reason to attend each Sunday (outside of teaching, which could be supplemented elsewhere) and people to look forward to seeing. The potential for becoming more involved sky rockets when you know someone who is in the know and can introduce you to others.

In light of this, let us members of Christ take initiative to act more like a church.

Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine

Christianity does not exist apart from being expressed in specific people at specific times. There is no version of Christianity so “above” culture that it can be pulled down and plugged into a new setting without adapters. With that, mixing and matching Christian teachings and traditions is very healthy for the life of any given denomination or tradition. Investigating other Christian traditions gives a good idea of the essence of “mere” Christianity, saves theologians from intellectual inbreeding, and restores atrophied parts of a Christian’s own tradition. Continue reading Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine

On Non-denominationalism and Tradition

Last week I wrote a post about doctrines that people feel to be wrong, and I included non-denominational churches as an example of something that I did not feel right about. A reader indicated that I took a very broad swipe at non-denominationalism and that my language was unduly harsh. I agree with that reader’s assessment. I wish to apologize for the unfairly general attack that I made on non-denominational Christianity and more carefully give my views on non-denominationalism and its relationship to theological tradition. Continue reading On Non-denominationalism and Tradition

7 Snapshots of Christology

This summer, I thought a solid hike through the history of Christian doctrine might be a better use of time than sunburning myself at the beach. However, not wanting to break my streak of summer sunburns, I somehow managed to do both. Having a brain so violently overheated as to become insensible to the desires of my readers, I thought you might want to see some snapshots of Christology I collected from the ecumenical councils.

1. First Ecumenical Council: Nicaea, 325 A.D.


A weedy, rather persistent heresy spread around the time Christianity was legalized. According to the heretic priest Arius, “There was a time the Son of Man was not.” In response to uproar among his subjects, Saint Constantine started the ball rolling on this first Ecumenical Council. Good and bad theologians travelled to meet in Nicaea, where the Council decreed that Christ had existed from eternity, “Begotten of the Father before all ages.”

The infinity symbol in this snapshot has three lines to it, signifying the eternal existence of the Trinity, including the heretic-maligned Son. The one line comes down from heaven, embraces creation, and places itself on the Earth, “X” marking the spot (that “x” is “chi” as in the Greek letter starting “Christ”). Additionally, the way it breaks off, there is no point at which the three-lined infinity symbol is broken.

A note on these snapshots: each picture shows four un-intrepreted pieces of information, and one heavily interpreted image drawn from the doctrinal statements. The objective data are the date, city, geographical location (indicated by a red key on the map), and the canons of that council (in the waters, more malleable than the theological doctrine written on land above). The chief affirmed doctrine of each Council shows up in white.

By and large, you’ll notice an important absence in the pictures: heresies. Though heresies are the major catalyst for Councils, they feature here symbolically rather than explicitly; they make up the darkness precisely around the edges of the truth. Heresies defined all of the places where truth was not; both the white of the paper and the truth of theology were there from the beginning, but until the heresy was drawn in around it, it may have been harder to see. (This also saved my unschooled hands from casually drawing holy things; I did not draw them. I just drew very, very precisely around them.)

2. Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 381 A.D.


Having attempted to abolish Arianism and, finally (painstakingly!) succeeding, the church found itself soon enough troubled by new heresies. There were those who – opposite Arianism’s denial of Christ’s divinity – denied the full humanity of Christ. And, there were those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The council completed the creed we know today, fleshing out the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

My image of this doctrine shows Pentecostal fire centering around a Theta, which is the first letter in the Greek word for God (always the theologian’s favorite short-hand for God). Within that image, see that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets,” where the saint is writing on a scroll. Follow the prophet’s robe as it extends down to form the head and beak of a dove (whose wings and tail extend backward, outlined by the flames). The dove descends from the right hand side to the left, as the Holy Spirit comes down to the Christian on Pentecost.

3. Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus, 431 A.D.


Before too long, Nestorius came along to tell Christians that Christ should not be referred to as “God” when speaking of the incarnation by the Virgin Mary. Rather than calling Mary “Theotokos” (the God-bearer), as was already the custom, Nestorius argued that she should be called “Christotokos” (the Christ-bearer). The council convened in 431 to affirm that Christ had two natures, being fully God and fully man. As St. Cyril said, things which could be said of the one person of Christ in His human nature could also be said of Him in His divine nature.

In my drawing of the doctrine, the center is Christ (symbolized by the Theta to indicate His divinity). The lines of the Theotokos mirror the infinity symbol used to establish the divinity of Christ in the first image above (325 AD), with Christ situated at the center of that infinity symbol. In the incarnation, Christ, the infinite God, is made incarnate through the Theotokos, who is inside time.

4. Fourth Ecumenical Council: Chalcedon, 451 A.D.


After Nestorianism was defeated, it didn’t take long for a new heresy to gain sway. Opposite Nestorianism, the pendulum swung to monophysitism, the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures merged together. Whereas Nestorius almost made two persons of Christ, the monophysites almost made one nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. The council at Chalcedon articulated an elegant little confession: Christ was to be “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.” Learn that one – it will get you far.

In the image, behind the cross of Christ, see the light beams radiating out across these four things, striking them out. The top left is confusion: a spiral of blue (humanity) and red (divinity), fusing into purple. The top right, change: an ice cube melting into water. The bottom left is a division: a plain old division symbol. The bottom right, separation: an egg with yolk and white separated. Yes, a separated egg. Alright – it’s a bit of a stretch, but at least it’s memorable.

5. Fifth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 553 A.D.


If you’re looking for politics, this is your Council. The monophysites, having been condemned by the Chalcedonian confession, cried foul. They suggested that the Fourth Council’s failure to condemn a certain three Nestorian bishops proved that the Council members were heretics (supporting Nestorians would have been a failed to uphold fully the third Ecumenical Council). So, the Council met to reaffirm Chalcedon and to condemn the writings of those Nestorian bishops. It’s a bit messy: the ruler, Justinian, had already condemned the writings, though he didn’t have the ecclesiastical power to officially do so. Also, the Pope happened to be in Constantinople, but didn’t want to condemn people who had died in good standing with the church, so he wouldn’t attend the Council (which made Justinian angry). Anyway, the important doctrinal take-away is this: They affirmed the Chalcedonian confession. Once again – learn that, and it will get you far.

This image purposefully echoes the image from Chalcedon, since the main effect of this Council was reaffirming Chalcedon. However, to strike out the heresies (and to represent some the political nature of this Council) I’ve brought in a sword. The last thing the sword pierces is a letter containing a heresy. Also, see how there aren’t any words in the water? For some reason, there were no canons written in this council, as far as I can find.

6. Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 680 A.D.


Well, the monophysites lost two rounds of Ecumenical Councils (you just can’t beat the Holy Spirit, guiding the church into all truth), but a little compromise sprang up some time later, and it sprang up powerfully. A new group, the monothelites, gained power by agreeing that Christ had two natures, but denying that He had two wills. It grew. In fact, at one point, the larger part of the eastern church believed the monothelite heresy. St. Maximus the Confessor, long before the Council in 680, argued against the monothelites. He argued that what is unassumed is unhealed, using St. Gregory’s articulation from the time of the Second Council. For the human will to be healed, Christ had to assume a human will. St. Maximus suffered for the truth, and after his death, was victorious. The Sixth Council agreed with him, and the monothelite heresy was condemned. Thank God the human will is redeemed!

The image shows Christ’s hands holding a cup. His right hand (on our left) grasps it willfully. Lower, as in submission, the left hand holds it the way it might be gently passed along, also mirroring a hand folded in prayer. This serves as a reminder of Christ’s Gethsamane prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” Note that the left hand’s fingers are not taut as though they were pushing away the cup. He isn’t resisting or willing opposition; both hands together support the cup. Notice also, the fingers meet in the center with the Chi, indicating the united effort of the two wills in the one person of Christ.

7. Seventh Ecumenical Council: Nicaea, 787 A.D.


The Seventh Ecumenical Council, resulting in the Triumph of Orthodoxy, centered around the use of images in Christian worship. When the Muslims were gaining territory in Christian areas, the Christian world began to worry that the those iconoclasts were onto something with their refusal to use images in worship. Soon, supposedly Christian rulers outlawed Christian images. However, St. John of Damascus and the theologians of the Seventh Ecumenical Council believed that there was more at stake here than art. At the heart of the controversy was the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ had redeemed matter, they argued. They defended this form of worshipping God on the basis of the incarnation’s use of matter to reveal God and redeem man. (It goes without saying that this did not condone the worship of matter, itself.)

The image above is the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos; here, as above, the image represents the Incarnation of God in flesh. Behind her is the Earth, an emblem of matter. The center of the Earth (and the remaining infinity symbol) is Christ, being Incarnate.