One of the marks of the early Church was the joy its members gained from the knowledge of salvation offered by the sacrifice Jesus made for us. There was, it is true, the early attempt by the ‘men from James’ to import the Pharisaic attitude into the Church, using the excuse of the dietary laws, but that one got sent packing. Our Lord Himself commented often enough on the tendency in Second Temple Judaism to know the letter of every law and forget the spirit of it.
One reason I find myself out of sympathy with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is that I think they have been infected with too large an element of this legalism. I was having a discussion with an Orthodox friend the other day, and he was, to my amazement, sincerely arguing that his fellow Orthodox who had accepted the Gregorian calendar were heretics. I pointed out that the Julian calendar, which he uses, was not the one Christ had, but that didn’t matter, it was older than the Gregorian, and the latter had, he assured me, been introduced by a ‘Pseudo-Pope’. I gave up and got on with eating lunch. I was a bit amazed that he was having lunch with such a blatant heretic; there must, I thought, be some rule against it.
Talking with my fellow elders later, we got into a not dissimilar situation, where some American evangelist of whom I had scarcely heard, was being taken to task because he had been recommending ‘centering prayer’ which was, one elder averred, ‘close to Papism’. Rome, he assured us all, had never changed its ways and was still bent on subverting the ‘real’ Gospel. I did put this website to him and invited him to make the acquaintance of at least one of the bloggers here whose complaint was the exact opposite.
Talking with such people gives me the impression that they see Christianity as a set of rules which, if followed, will save them; this misses the point by such a wide margin that it doesn’t seem possible; yet it happens so often. I am not sure what is going on with such defensiveness. Yes, Christianity has a dogmatic content, but once one has accepted Nicaea – and done so because it tells us who this Jesus is with whom we have a relationship – I simply don’t see why sets of man-made rules, designed to preserve the power of some elite or other, should supervene between the individual and God.
I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe that unless you had a hand put on your head by someone who claims to have had a hand put on his head going all the way back to an Apostle, you can’t be a Christian teacher, or indeed, a Christian. If you do believe that, Google ‘episcopi vagantes’ and prepare to enter the strange world of people who do, and find in that a justification for all sorts of odd, unorthodox stuff.
If the basic Nicene orthodoxy is there, then you are a Christian; that’s the dogma taken care of. What then? Is there joy in your heart? Does that spill over into the rest of your life? Given a choice between spending time with a Christian full of the love that joy brings, and one telling me that a Canon of 1015 means that someone is going to hell, then I am with the former – and wish the latter would pipe down and stop putting other folk off.