Nicaea and the principle of church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.

The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’

Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.

On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?

Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.

The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.

This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.

Arguably, more so.

I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?

The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.

The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.

According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.

Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.

Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.

But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?

Canon Law will save the world

I have decided that canon law will save the world.

Or, at least, having some knowledge of it and protecting the right of churches to operate within the bounds of canon law.

As opposed to secular law, of course.

The idea first came to mind when I observed the large amount of hate (or mockery or disdain or loathing) being heaped upon the Sabellian heretic Kim Davis. Davis, if you have been happily unaware, is a county clerk in the USA who decided to stop issuing marriage licences on the grounds that said licences would have her name on them, and the US gov’t considers certain couples eligible that she, a member of the (oneness) Solid Rock Apostolic Church, does not consider eligible. She resisted a court order, went to jail, was subsequently released.

I think a proper concept of canon law would give someone like Kim Davis a way out. Or she should just quit her job, if secular law and canon law have diverged to such a degree that she feels that doing her job in secular law involves too many uncanonical activities. With an understanding of the concept of canon law — that the church has certain regulations that she follows for the ordering of the body of its members — the Christian can say, ‘I may not like what the secular legislation concerning marriage says, but my church is still free to regulate and order marriage as it sees fit.’

In fact, before any thought of same-sex marriage had passed through anyone’s minds, the Roman Catholic Church (and, formerly, most Protestant denominations) already considered certain persons ineligible for marriage under canon law who were eligible under secular law — divorced people whose divorced spouse was still living and who hadn’t successfully got their previous marriage annulled.

In a world that favours pluralism, Christians should probably stop trying to enforce our regulations on everyone but seek, instead, to uphold the right to live in our peculiar way, in peace with those around us — similar, in fact, to the way Orthodox Jews and other conservative religious minorites live.

Alternatively, if one believes that same-sex marriage will completely tear apart the fabric of society (I think no-fault divorce, thoughtless marriages, and adultery are probably far worse than same-sex marriage), one should petition politicians and seek out clear and articulate and non-angry ways to express why, exactly, same-sex marriage is bad for our countries. But this is not the same as unilaterally deciding not to issue marriage licences, which results in a victory for no one.

But Christians aren’t the only people canon law can save. As this post by Scott Eric Alt demonstrates, knowing canon law can help people interpret what on earth the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope are up to. The aforementioned post is about Pope Francis’ ‘Year of Mercy’, wherein those women who are under excommunication for abortions can have the excommunication lifted by normal, auricular confession to a parish priest, rather than going through the hierarchy to a bishop.

This offer of mercy has been gravely misunderstood, largely because people have no knowledge of Roman canon law, and because they have no concept of canon law to begin with. If we accept that such a thing as canon law exists for the regulation of the church, then we have to realise that when the pope legislates any aspect of church life, he is not getting involved in American politics, but trying to find a way to order the lives of Catholics that will be consonant with the tradition and with their spiritual wellbeing.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that abortion is a sin called infanticide. Regardless of what the secular law says, this fact will never change. What can change are the regulations concerning what to do when someone has committed this sin, and — as it turns out — only some people are excommunicated. The pope is trying to extend mercy and love to people who have been excluded by the church’s current regulations. He is not lobbying western governments to change secular law; he is extending mercy through the channels of canon law.

Through coming to understand the concept of canon law, those not bound by it can find ways that they can extend mercy to their bizarre neighbours who have this other set of regulations to live by. This would be much better than the shrill nature of current Internet discourse, where both Left and Right holler at each other and seek to drown each other out and silence each other and ridicule each other.

And for those Christians who fear that I am recommending that we ‘give up’ ‘the fight’, it depends what ‘fight’. If we want to see a decrease in abortions, or a return to ‘traditional’ marriage (which goes far beyond mere heterosexual monogamy), we should be seeking to bring people to the King of Love, to the foot of the Cross, where they can be washed clean by the blood of Jesus and submit themselves to His rule. The current state of affairs just paints us as hatemongers and misogynists.