Growing-up a Personal Reflection

This summer, while driving through the ancient city of Split Croatia which in 305 CE became the site of the Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian (245 – 312), I thought “all these old buildings and ancient people.” Then it struck me. I too am old. I have been happily married for fifty-three years, have been teaching about religion and theology for more than fifty years, and I am eighty years old. But I have never forgotten what Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) allegedly wrote: “People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born.” – Albert Einstein in a letter to Otto Julius Birger, September 29, 1942.

I remember growing up as a pious Catholic kid in southern Michigan who was very much afraid of God: the God of threat and punishment, the God who watches me and judges, the God who takes sides and causes victories and defeats, and the God who responds to appeasement and sacrificial offerings. I believed and feared that I would suffer eternal punishment in hell for missing Mass on a single Sunday or eating meat on a day of abstinence, or my great fear: committing an adolescent sexual sin. I was taught to “go to confession” every week, because God was the Supreme Judge who demands that everything in our lives be in good order. There were so many things I had to avoid “under pain of mortal sin.”

Gradually I began to grow up. Fortunately I had healthy guidance from some very good high school teachers and college professors at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. (I was never ordained but became what they called back then “a lay theolgian.”) I began to realize that God does not exist in some far-off place, watching, and judging me. God is in the here and now. I began to understand God as the empowering energy of everything and as philosopher Paul Tillich (1888 – 1965) said the “ground of being.” I began to understand that God is love and when we love we are actively living in God. There we find salvation.

As one grows up, he or she realizes that perspective is important. Scientists have determined that the universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago. We humans are a very recent development; and it was only a moment ago that Jesus lived on Earth. But Jesus still lives and shows us how to be human. My  perspective on Jesus changed greatly thanks especially to Professor Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000) at the Catholic University of Leuven and Professor Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Both men also encouraged me and strongly supported my wish to become an historical theologian.

More growth: I remember when Richard McBrien (1936 – 2015), longtime professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, wrote that it seems more and more difficult to say something original about Jesus’ resurrection. Edward Schillebeeckx in his book Jesus: An experiment in Christology (Dutch ed. 1974), had argued that we should not imagine that the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen was caused by an empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. He proposed instead that a belief in the resurrection was grounded in “the new orientation of living which this Jesus has brought about in their lives and was not rendered meaningless by his death – quite the opposite.”

Frankly, considering what one reads in the New Testament, it is often difficult to distinguish between what should be taken word for word and what is to be understood as metaphor in the post-resurrection accounts. As Christians we accept Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the very word of God, realizing that we are called not only to believe, but to imitate.  John’s Gospel, chapter 12, we read “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” Indeed but for many belief is easier than imitation.

As a Catholic historical theologian, one of my concerns over the years has been an accurate portrayal of  the Mother of Jesus. It is not that easy. When a  person or an event seems larger than life, people turn to poetry, creative imagination, symbolism, and figurative speech. That has certainly been the case with Mary. And so we have the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s (354 -430) concept of Original Sin, the notion that all human beings are born in a sinful condition inherited from Adam and Eve and passed on through sexual intercourse. But Mary, because she was the Mother of Jesus, the church taught, had to be exempted from Original Sin. Mary therefore had a no-original-sin Immaculate Conception. 

Today of course we realize that there was no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden, no tempting snake, and no angry and punishing God. And no Augustinian Original Sin. So what do we do with Mary’s Immaculate Conception? One could also ask the same question about Mary’s Assumption up above the clouds into heaven. And of course her perpetual virginity. The brothers of Jesus are named in the New Testament as James, Joses, Simon, and Jude. The Greek word translated as “brothers” is adelphoí, which literally means “from the same womb.” Jesus’ unnamed sisters are mentioned as well in Mark and Matthew. The church doctrine about Mary’s perpetual virginity, however, was first officially proclaimed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE which proclaimed her “ever virgin.” Then at the Lateran Synod of 649 CE Pope Martin I (c. 590 – 655) emphasized the threefold character of her perpetual virginity: before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

Anchored in our Christian tradition we can and we should continue to grow in our knowledge and understandings about past people and events. Mary was probably about thirteen years old when she and her husband, traditionally called “Joseph,” gave birth to Jesus. She deserves great respect and veneration for being a loving, wise, and supportive mother throughout Jesus’ life from birth to his crucifixion and death on the cross. Her son James was leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. About her other children we know nothing. Over the centuries, Christians have certainly found the Mother of Jesus a supportive Lady of Sorrows, Consolation, and Perpetual Help. Her faith in the loving and powerful presence of God was her strength, her wisdom, and her lifeline. It is our faith as well.

And so we go on, people of faith, knowing that life brings sun and cool breezes as well as occasional storms but confident that the creative and life-giving Spirit is with us every step of the way.


PS For an excellent exploration of contemporary Catholic belief I recommend Richard G. Rento’s book It’s Not Necessarily So: A Senior Priest Separates Faith from Fiction and Makes Sense of Belief.

When Bridges Collapse, Violence and Hatred Explode

When the bridges between groups of people collapse, civility breaks down and polarization breads hatred and violence. Political and religious polarization in the United States will become even more heated as people move toward another presidential campaign and election year. “Project 2025,”for example, led by the Heritage Foundation, is a coalition of more than 65 right-wing organizations putting in place personnel and policies to recommend to any Republican who may win in 2024. Supporters of “Project 2025” have embraced the antidemocratic ideology of authoritarian leaders like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. 

In a highly polarized society, people revert to a kind of primitive tribalism with a strong dogmatic intolerance: the tendency to reject, and consider as inferior, wrong, or evil any ideological belief that differs from one’s own. Right now I can think of some highly publicized politicians as well as some contemporary Catholic and Protestant “leaders” caught up in strong dogmatic intolerance. In today’s Catholic Church, for example, it is easy to recognize strong polarization. Archbishop Timothy Broglio (b.1951), is the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as Archbishop for the Military Services, USA. Broglio is a culture warrior who blames the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis on gay and “effeminate” priests. As Archbishop for Military Services, Broglio voiced opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and he showed strong support for the Donald Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the United States military. 

At the end of June 2023, Archbishop Alexander Sample (b.1960) of Portland Oregon, closed the Department of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Portland, because school officials revolted against his guidelines on “gender ideology.” Two Catholic school principals have resigned and teachers have had their contracts terminated after refusing to sign an archdiocesan statement promising to uphold the Archbishop’s directive. The Portland Archbishop attributes the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ to Satan. Blaming Satan, of course,  is a convenient way to avoid any serious discussion about an issue.

It was also in June that the US Supreme Court, on June 30, 2023, decided in favor of a Christian web designer in Colorado who refused to create websites to celebrate same-sex weddings out of personal religious convictions. This Supreme Court decision opens the door for supporting — as First Amendment rights — other discriminatory acts launched by white supremacists, antisemites, Islamaphobes and other hate-filled individuals and groups.

People with dogmatic rigidity in their mindsets have difficulty processing opposing ideas and information, and a tendency to denigrate those who oppose their position. People have strong “feelings” about other people and issues, based on ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. Facts are distorted or ignored. And what is missing, of course, in so much of today’s polarized rhetoric and behavior is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. 

So what do we do? Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization:

We need to promote good continuing education for people at all levels in the Christian community. Yes there is a lot of ignorance. 

We need to be good listeners. We have to first of all humbly listen to the other if we want the other to listen to us. 

We must stop using denigrating language. This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?

We must decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. 

We should use social media wisely. These days, social media may have done more to promote polarized taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. 

We must be alert to phony facts and dishonest information. Finding the truth these days can be difficult. Truth twisters – like FOX NEWS — can be very popular and appealing. 

Last but not least, we need to be humble truth seekers. It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No particular church. No particular religion. No particular country or nation. 

And I conclude with my favorite quotation from Walter Brueggemann (b.1933) United Church of Christ ordained minister and greatly respected Hebrew Scriptures scholar: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”


Institutional Religion and Civil Government 

My academic focus for many years has been religion and values in US society. Still very much a US American, my Fourth of July reflections last week drifted from the July 4th  1776 Declaration of Independence to the December 15th  1791 First Amendment to the US Constitution. 

The First Amendment prevents the government from making laws that regulate an establishment of religion, or that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom.of assembly. 

Today of course – contrary to the First Amendment — one hears increased rumblings about US Christian Nationalism which is an anti-democratic notion that the United States is a nation by and for Christians alone. 

In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate  America Invented Christian America,Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, argues: “Demographically speaking, America certainly resembled a ‘nation of Christians’ at the time of its founding and has ever since. But it’s a rather different proposition to claim that the founders established the new American government as a ‘Christian nation.’ Clearly, they did not.”

My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quaker Christians from Cheshire, England. But, when thinking about US American history, too many people forget about the original indigenous Americans with their own religious practices, and the fact that, along with Christians, many of the initial immigrants to the North American colonies actually had Jewish and Muslim backgrounds. There have been Jewish communities in the United States since colonial times. They were primarily immigrants from Brazil, England, and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). About Muslim “immigrants,” scholars estimate that as many as 30% of the African slaves brought to the US from West and Central African countries like Gambia and Cameroon, were Muslim.

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, was most comfortable not with Christianity but with philosophical Deism, based on rational thought without any reliance on revealed religions or religious authority. He also coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. In her book Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, Amanda Porterfield, emerita  professor of religion at Florida State University, makes this observation about religion and Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson explained his support for religious freedom in practical terms: ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'”

If the founders had not made their stance on this “Christian nation” issue clear enough in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, they certainly did so in Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Begun by George Washington, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution, this treaty announced firmly and flatly to the world that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Nevertheless, last week Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley displayed his Christian nationalism (and historical ignorance) when he tweeted a quote falsely attributed to a “Founding Father” claiming the United States was founded “on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In September last year, during a speech titled “Biblical Revolution” at the National Conservatism conference in Miami, Hawley said “We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible…. Without the Bible, there is no America.”

During the 1950s, US President Dwight David Eisenhower (1880  – 1969), who was president from 1953 to 1961, revolutionized the role of religion in US political culture, by inventing new traditions from presidential inaugural prayers to the National Prayer Breakfast. During his administration Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and in 1956 made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Eisenhower by the way was the only president ever to have been baptized while in office. On February 1, 1953, just 10 days after his inauguration, Eisenhower was baptized and welcomed into the National Presbyterian Church.

At its core, the notion of Christian nationalism threatens the principle of the separation of church and state and really undermines religion as well as the state. I would strongly argue that separation of church and state really protects the “church.” Christian nationalism is a virus that also threatens a number of countries around the world, especially as more countries shift to the far right. I can think immediately of Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and, most alarmingly, Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, thanks to Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, born in 1946) has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). The patriarch endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Patriarch Kirill stresses that Putin today is fighting the Antichrist and working to preserve “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Part of that secular decadence, according to Kirill, is support for globalization, same-sex marriage, and “feminism” because it proclaims “the pseudo-freedom of women outside of marriage and outside of the family.” 

As reported in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Russia’s “special peacekeeping operation” days after the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We have entered into a struggle,” he said “that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.” Kirill reassured Russian soldiers, fighting in Ukraine, that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” His exhortation reminded me of Pope Urban II (c.1035 – 1099) when he preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. There Pope Urban told the crusaders “Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven” 

For many on the “religious right” in the United States, Putin is very much admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization? The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963), a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of the Russian president’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity by doing things like wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and well publicized frequent participation in Russian Orthodox services. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. He and Patriarch Kirill see Russian Orthodoxy as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. I suggest Vladimir Putin is simply using Russian Orthodoxy the same way the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) used Christianity: to promote his political goals. I doubt that Constantine really cared that much about genuine Christian belief. I doubt that Vladimir does either. 

Thinking about next year’s US presidential campaign, I am sure Christian nationalists will be very active. I am a committed Christian and still very much a US American but I find US Christian nationalism too much associated with racism, white supremacy, and political violence. Once seen as a fringe viewpoint, Christian nationalism now has a foothold in American politics, particularly in the contemporary Republican Party, according to a 2023 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution. More than half of today’s Republicans believe the country should be a strictly Christian nation, either adhering to the ideals of Christian nationalism (21%) or sympathizing with those views (33%).

As the United States has become less white and less Christian, supporters of White Christian nationalism want to hold on to their cultural and political power. Under 18 non-Hispanic White Americans in the US, according to the Pew Research Center, were already a minority as of 2020 and it is projected that non-Hispanic Whites  overall will become a minority within the US by 2045. About 64% of US Americans call themselves Christian today. Fifty years ago that number was 90%.  The number of US Christians continues to decline

According to the PRRI survey, 50% of Christian nationalism adherents, and nearly 4 in 10 sympathizers, said they support the idea of an authoritarian leader in order to keep “Christian values” in society. As Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the nonpartisan PRRI, stressed when the survey results were published in February 2023 “… a sizeable minority is not only willing to declare themselves opposed to pluralism and democracy — but are also willing to say, ‘I am willing to fight and either kill or harm my fellow Americans to keep it that way.'”

According to Nilay Saiya, assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and author of  The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation, “Christian nationalist rhetoric is deeply cloaked in threat narratives, prompting efforts to retain Christianity’s hegemonic status, sometimes through violence.” And, according to the to PRRI/Brookings Institution data, 40% of Christian nationalism supporters believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Christian nationalism is a Christian challenge at home and abroad, because it is not Christian.  As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship but by faith. Far too often, linking religious authority with political authority leads to the oppression of marginalized groups and the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism because it is a deceptive and dangerous distortion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

– Jack

Words, Meanings, and Lost in Translation

Words can be helpfully descriptive but also very unhelpfully misleading or confusing. I often chuckle about my own experiences with British words and the same words in North American English, which have very different meanings. Years ago I walked into a men’s clothing store in London, looking for a pair of trousers. I told the young fellow who came to help me that I needed “a pair of pants.” He said “we have a good supply” and took me to the store’s display of men’s underwear. In British English “pants” are underwear. And yes I remember my dismay when a British friend in Brussels came to me after one of my lectures at the international parish and said with a big smile: “my wife and I would like to invite you and your wife for dinner next week because your wife is so very homely.” I was flabbergasted and didn’t know how to react. In North American English “homely” means “unattractive and ugly.”  Hardly a good description of my wife! I told him I would have to check my calendar and would get back to him. That evening, while talking with another expat friend, I learned that “homely” in British English has a positive meaning. A homely person means someone who makes you feel very comfortable and “at home.”

Word difficulties occur in biblical translations as well. Such translations can create problems, especially when they shape religious beliefs and behavior. By way of example, the historical Jesus, “Yeshua” as he was known, belonged to the Hebrew religious tradition. He was a Galilean from Nazareth. His home territory, Galilee, was part of the province of Judaea. There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. The word “Jew” came into existence centuries after Jesus. And the inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as “INRI,” stood for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judaeans). NOT “King of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate, responsible for the jeering inscription, was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea

Our biblical translations and religious language need a corrective and thorough updating. This is particularly important when we realize how New Testament mistranslations have supported antisemitism.

The Gospel of Matthew has been interpreted, in many Christian traditions, in an antisemitic way because the Greek and Latin words ioudaios and iudaeus have been translated not as “Judaean” but “Jew.” The Gospel of Matthew has often been regarded as a great contributor to the development of antisemitism, particularly because of the charge of Matthew 27:25. This so-called “blood guilt” text has been interpreted to mean that the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time and afterwards the “Jewish” people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. I clearly remember the RCC Good Friday prayer, as it existed before 1959: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews, that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” [A note regarding the spelling of Iesus and Iudaeorum, the letter “J” did not exist until the sixteenth century.]

As we go through life, we question, discover, and learn. Change is a part of life and our understandings do change. From the early through the late Middle Ages, for example, Europeans moved from an almost mystical way of thinking about the universe to an acceptance of a well-ordered, geocentric universe. In this universe, the earth was at the center and other heavenly bodies rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres. They thought therefore that the sun revolved around the earth. Today we know that our earth revolves in orbit around the sun in 365 days, 6 hours, and 9 minutes. We know as well that our earth is just one of millions and millions of planets in the universe. The exact number is around 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. All of these planets orbit around different stars and make up their own solar systems and galaxies. Where then is heaven? Early and later Christians thought it was up there above the earth.

Getting back to translations, I still have three more observations:

(1) In Matthew 1:23 we read “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Each year in the Christmas season, of course, we hear and read the text repeatedly as a prophecy about the birth of Jesus. The text in Matthew comes originally from Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).

The Hebrew Scriptures were written originally in Hebrew  during the period from 1200 to 100 BCE. Later a Greek translation called the Septuagint was written from the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE. The Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word  parthenos  which meant “virgin.” The original Hebrew language text of Isaiah 7:14, however, did not use a word meaning “virgin” but the word almāh meaning  “a young woman of childbearing age.” The original text of Isaiah 7:14 referred to the birth of a son for King  Ahaz of Judah whose reign was 732–716 BCE.

Actually, contemporary biblical scholars point out that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures differs from the original Hebrew language texts in many ways and the Greek translations often demonstrate a real ignorance of Hebrew idiomatic usage. For these reasons, most people in the Hebrew tradition abandoned the Septuagint around the second century CE. The earliest Gentile Christians, however, used the Septuagint out of necessity. It was the only Greek version of the Scriptures available to them and most of these early Gentile Christians could not read Hebrew. 

Well this textual clarification can lead to a discussion about Jesus’ “virgin birth” — something I have touched on before and can return to if necessary. Most contemporary biblical scholars would say that Jesus’ “virgin birth,” mentioned only in Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38, is more theologically symbolic than historical. The author of the Gospel of Mark, composed around 70 CE, thus much earlier than Matthew and Luke, was not aware of any special circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. 

(2) My second translation observation is about the Greek word ekklesia  (ecclesia in Latin) which New Testament translations translate as “church.” Ekklesia is a Greek word meaning “an assembly or congregation.” The Greek ekklesia is the basis for our English words ecclesiastical and ecclesiology. The word in the New Testament, however, was also used to refer to any assembly of people and especially a community of Christians.

It is unfortunate that ekklesia has been translated as “church” in New Testament translations. For example, Acts 11:26 says “Barnabas and Saul met with the church [ekklesia]” in Antioch. And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says  he had persecuted the “church [ekklesia] of God.” In most New Testament contexts, the word ekklesia is used to refer to the people who comprised the New Testament communities of faith. This is an important and key issue. Barnabas and Saul met with the Christian community in Antioch. The early Christians were organized into communities of faith. Not hierarchical institutional churches. When reading these New Testament texts, we should say “community” not “church.”

And the correct understandings ekklesia encourages us to ask about our own contemporary understanding of the institutional church. 

(3) My third translation observation is connected with my  observations about ekklesia but is about another Greek word epískopos. In Latin it is episcopus. We get our English word “episcopal” from that. The Greek and Latin words meant “an overseer,” one who exercised general oversight in a Christian community. Men as well as women exercised this ministerial role in the early Christian communities. The New Testament translators translate the Greek and Latin words as “bishop.” 

One of my friends said “ok…so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is about the historical meaning of a bishop’s ministerial role, which should be an important reminder about the shape and form of a bishop’s ministry today.

A bishop should not be a power-broker and an authoritarian big boss in the church but a traveling companion in the community of faith — one who journeys with and in the community as a member of the community, helping to insure that community life resonates with the way of Jesus. Early Christian community overseers (episcopi in plural) had no sense of sacramental power that elevated them above the community, and they had not been “ordained” by the historical Jesus, because ordination did not exist in his lifetime. The historical Jesus, contrary to what a US cardnal acquaintance still says, did not ordain the first bishops at the Last Supper. 

Unfortunately the role of many bishops today is far removed from the example of the early bishop overseerers. They resonate more with the post-Constantinian and later medieval bishops who were rich and powerful men at the top, in a well-organized ecclesiastical hierarchical pyramid. Many US bishops today, sorry to say, see themselves in a similar pyramid and are really out of touch with the people in their diocesan communities, when it comes to ongoing clerical sexual abuse, women’s ordination, and a broad range of LGBTQ issues.

Historically the growth of episcopal power owed a lot to the Roman Emperor Constantine (c.272 – 337) whose “conversion” to Christianity was very politically motivated. Constantine used Christianity as the dominant religion in his Roman Empire. In fact, he was baptized only on his deathbed. In what we call “the Constantinian shift,” the efficient organization of the Roman Empire became the template for the organization of the institutional Christian church in the 4th century particularly after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). Then, as Roman authority began to fail in the western portion of the empire, the bishops took over much of the civil administration, becoming regional judges. The role of western bishops as civil authorities, often called prince bishops, continued throughout much of the Middle Ages, far removed from the pattern of the episcopus spiritual guide and overseer in the early Christian communities.

Well, words are important because they not only shape understandings but behavior. A clarification of biblical words can also be an invitation for reformation and renewal.

  • Jack