Heretics in the Pews

by Bill Cooley

(Published in Disciples World, March 2004 p.27)


Doctrine minimalists founded the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the current membership of the denomination remains true to this principle.Our congregations accept new members based only on an affirmative answer to the question: �Do you believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and accept him as your personal Savior?�

However, contemporary biblical scholarship and secular reasoning have a growing number of Disciples taking a closer look at the meaning behind these words.Specifically, can we as a denomination accommodate followers of Christ�s teachings who make this confession of faith, but don�t believe in Jesus� divinity?Thus, a carefully considered and well informed discussion of the question of Jesus� divinity and understanding what is meant in the confession of faith is important for the future of our denomination, and I hope this article will engage church leaders with some initial thoughts on the subject.

To question Jesus� divinity is to revisit early church decisions, particularly those of the Council of Nicea.Called by Emperor Constantine, the Council consisted of roughly 300 bishops who debated the question of Jesus� divinity, among other subjects, for seven weeks in the summer of 325 C.E. The political stakes were high, as Christianity had become a powerful force and Constantine risked civil unrest.Demonstrating considerable wisdom and political savvy, Constantine and the Council adjudicated that Jesus is both wholly human and wholly divine.They debated the definition of words and decided that Jesus is consubstantial with God, meaning of one substance (in Greek the word is �homoousious�).This understanding, along with the notion of a trinity, was endorsed at Nicea as well as later councils, and dominates modern Christian thought, including the traditional Disciples understanding of the confession of faith.

In modern times, academics like Marcus Borg and radical thinkers like Episcopal Bishop John Spong are calling the broader church to abandon its emphasis on blood sacrifice and salvation.Bestsellers are also contributing to Disciples� reconsideration of the fundamental tenants of their beliefs about organized religion, including Dan Brown�s The Da Vinci Code, which includes disturbing details of church history.

While Disciples leaders like Doug Skinner give a compelling and familiar call to faith, the call rings hollow to the heretical churchgoers and the unchurched alike as they struggle to reconcile history and logic with faith.Can a denomination that espouses �no creed but Christ� and asks members to affirm that �Jesus is the Son of God� accommodate a very liberal � some might argue heretical � interpretation of what that means?Can Disciples ministers accommodate these disparate views in the pews?Are the language and emphasis of our worship services broad enough to house the potential spectrum of belief?Will those who conclude Jesus was intrinsically no different from you and me be required to perform etymological gymnastics to reconcile their modest faith if they wish to participate in the church?

Although Jesus� divinity is a matter of faith and not mathematical proof, the use of faith building blocks as part of this discussion may be helpful.Among these are the virgin birth (discussed in the December 03 issue of Disciples World); the recorded miracles; the arguably celibate lifestyle of Jesus; and, most significantly, the resurrection.

Those accepting this invitation to discussion should recognize that the ground rules are different than those that governed in Nicea.No modern Constantine will adjudicate, and there will not be an ultimate conclusion to the discussion.Rather, each individual must understand for him- or herself.The exploration of these questions with clarity, insight, and acceptance will help the heretics and the faithful alike reach that understanding.