January 12, 2008

Discord and Dissension: The Early Years

One of the prevailing myths of Christianity is that the Church was more or less of one mind until the Reformation. Like unto this, the Reformation myth is that the Scripture itself is a seamless garment, and it is bad form to point out or make anything of the contradictions or tensions within it.

However, neither myth will serve us well in addressing reality: the reality of our present tensions and disagreements. On the contrary, it is helpful to make use of the disagreements in the apostolic Church, attested to in Scripture, and hold them up as a mirror in which we may helpfully see our present controversies reflected, and take heart that the Church survived.

One can point to the tensions between Peter and Paul, or Paul and John Mark as obvious points of disagreement, leading to sharp words and separation in mission. (Paul does seem to have been at the center of a good bit of dissension, doesn’t he?)

Obviously the greatest controversy of those days concerned the place of Gentiles in the Church, and what was to be required of Gentile converts. After much ad hoc and informal argument and a few tussles, a Council was called. After hearing reports, and consultation, the Council reached a decision and issued a Communiqué: (1) Gentiles allowed; (2) circumcision not required; (3) a list of required moratoria on a number of practices, including eating meat offered to idols, enacted.

One might have thought that would settle it; but no. The Scripture attests that the circumcision party continued to demand more than the Council required. Saint Paul stood in strong opposition to the conservatives in this regard, in particular in his correspondence with the Galatians. But on the Council’s decision on food offered to idols, Paul took what might best be called a revisionist view when he wrote to the Corinthians. It really ought not be forbidden, he said, but in the interest of harmony why not oblige? Don’t let such unimportant things as food (you and I know they are unimportant) disrupt the Church.

This kind of accommodation was seen by others as both disrespectful of the Council, and really quite contrary to what that Council intended: that eating meat offered to idols was a serious matter, and no trifle. John the Divine may have had Paul or someone like him in mind when he excoriated the people in Pergamum for tolerating those among them who held “to the teaching of Balaam” and “ate food sacrificed to idols.”

And so the conflict went, until the issue of food offered to idols finally disappeared in a generally Pauline direction — although it seemed important at the time, in the long run it really wasn’t a core doctrine after all.

Does any of this sound familiar — I don’t mean from your knowledge of Scripture but from the current goings-on in the Anglican Communion? It seems that Councils (or Conferences) never have settled the dissension they are designed to address, at least not completely. There will still be hardliners at one extreme and progressives at the other.

But the good news is that the Church muddles through. The hot issues of each age do eventually burn themselves out, and the ashes are blown away by the wind of the Spirit.

Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

"It seems that Councils (or Conferences) never have settled the dissension they are designed to address, at least not completely.

Seems to me that they have typically succeeded. Not that everyone always agrees. There's often a disaffected minority that goes its own way, and the old matters come up again. Just because Arius wasn't entirely convinced by the decision of Nicea, or that, say, Jehovah's Witnesses have revived old Arian Christologies, doesn't mean that the Council of Nicea failed to resolve the question. Yes, it wasn't "completely" solved in the sense to gaining universal and forever assent from everyone. But that's a big order. For the Church the matter was resolved, and that's what's important. No more fruitless agonizing over "there was a time when He wasn't."

On these matters, there seem to be two approaches--either there is an agreed method of resolving disputes (i.e., someone, or some body, with authority to make the judgment), or there is schism.

--rick allen

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think, Rick, what you demonstrate is that there are both: there are bodies with the authority to make a decision, but there will be those who disagree, and separate from that body. Again, please note, I did not say the Council didn't "settle the question" at least as to what the official position was. What I said was that the Council did not "settle the dissension," that is, the disagreement continues, perhaps chastened, perhaps not. It will sometimes lead to a low rumbling state of tension in the background, or, as you say, schism. My point, with which I think you agree, is that Councils do not end dissension or disagreement.

June Butler said...

I've used the example of the disputes in the early church often, when folks moan about the present disagreements. For whatever reasons, the comparison doesn't seem to resonate. Some folks just won't take off their rose-colored glasses when viewing the early history of the church.

Erika Baker said...

Grandmére Mimi says that for some reason the comparison doesn't seem to resonate.

Isn't it rather that it resonates very much but in the wrong way?
People see that disagreements in the early church were settled, the big church caravan moved on, the dissenters either had to knuckle under or leave. Exactly what they hope will happen today.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

I don't think the issue of food offered to idols went away in a Pauline direction. I think the practice in society at large ended, and the church no longer needed to fret about it.

But then you enter a different context, and the issue appears in all its nuance. From my understanding, many Christians in India do not accept prasada.

Part of the nuance of Paul's position is that the issue (for the cognoscenti) becomes not so much "what you know happened" but rather "how is this read in its social context". He did not approve of going to the pagan temple, standing with the rest of the worshipers, and eating the food in the temple precincts, but he was fine with buying meat in the public market even if you knew it was probably sacrificed that morning to a pagan god - unless the "weaker brothers" see you and think you are joining in pagan worship, and then why not abstain for their sake?

So how is it read? In India my understanding is that most Christian communities are not united in opposition to taking prasada. There may be some "weaker brothers" around, but it's not so much. On the other hand, the distribution of prasada is not like a public sale of meat in the market; it's always done as a gesture of sharing in a religious service. Though it might be significantly after, taking the prasada around the neighborhood and offering it to all and sundry.

How is the action read? As human conviviality? Or as sharing in worship? What if the sharing in worship *is* the human conviviality? This is not a simple question, but I think those are the questions to consider.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Interesting relating this to a different context. Of course, it is a different context, and I'm not sure prasada is quite the same as the sacrificial offerings in whatever cults Paul is referencing.

I agree that the shift was likely as much mere desuetude as anything else; but that's really what I mean by a "Pauline direction." My impression is that even for the pagans the food offerings were not so central to worship; and as is clear from the Athenian incidents, at least some of the more refined pagans ranged from virtual atheists to obliging syncretists who were always ready to hear of new religious notions. The real test case for Christians, when it came to it, didn't involve food, but burning incense to the Emperor or other gods.

Still, the social context is important. Paul sees the eucharist in that "confecting" way -- it is constitutive of the body of the church; indeed this is the analogy he uses for his rejection of the "table of demons." "Don't get 'joined' with that sort of thing." So yes there is more here than mere conviviality; my only wondering is the extent to which most of the pagans took this seriously -- though there were apparently 'weaker' folks (perhaps on both sides) who were exercised over this.

But then again, my point is about the eventual demise of the macguffin -- whatever it is -- that in a later era is seen as unimportant. Adiaphora never seem unimportant to those who find them important.

Perhaps the most amusing thing to note is the very existence of such a thing as "the adiaphora controversy!"

Thanks for the comment on this now almost decade old post!