The Peril and Promise of Church Politics: Preaching Gregory of Nazianzus

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Gregory of Nazianus might as well have been Gregory of Colorado Springs or Grand Rapids. He grew up in a nice Christian home, went off to a nice Christian school, made some nice Christian friends, and came home to live and work in a nice Christian monastery (do they have those in Michigan?), writing poetry and loving others.

Except that Gregory lived in 4th-century Asia Minor, a tumultuous place during a tumultuous time in church history when all of the doctrines we take now for granted were then up for grabs. Gregory of Nazianzus was best friends with two brothers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, all together known as the Cappadocian Fathers who defended Trinitarian doctrine and fought to formulate the faith-defining Nicene Creed. It was a fight Gregory of Nazianzus took up with deep reluctance. Happy to hole up as a monastic poet and write songs about Jesus, Gregory got yanked out of his happiness by his buddy Basil (now a bishop) who pressed him to become a minister and jump into church politics.

Then as now, church politics can be a terribly difficult and discouraging affair. All the idealism we ministers generate as seminarians withers once confronted with the reality that churches are comprised of sinners led by sinners (ourselves the chief among them). I remember once narrating some of the hardships of pastoral work to a group of young seminarians. I must have overdone it because one woman interrupted and said, "It doesn't sound like being a pastor is your calling." "Not my calling?" I replied, "Not my calling? How do you think I could put up with the crap if I wasn't convinced I was called?"

Gregory did not want to be a pastor, but he knew it was his calling, and he performed it so well that Basil decided to promote him to bishop. Gregory flatly refused that—no way he was going to take on more responsibility. But Basil pushed hard, this time to the point of straining their friendship. Gregory relented, saying, "I have been overcome and I confess my defeat." Yet he harbored such resentment against Basil that he refused to speak to him anymore. But, with their relationship on the outs, Basil died, leaving Gregory now plagued by guilt, so much so that he took over Basil's bigger job as head combatant against the raging heresy of that day known as Arianism (a 4th-century version of Jehovah's Witnesses, only with rock throwing rather than door knocking). Arians asserted that no man, not even Jesus, could ever be God. Arians held Jesus to be the highest created being, but he was still just a creature and not the Creator.

Gregory journeyed to Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, then a major center of Christianity that had become an Arian hotbed. Gregory set up a little house church as a beachhead for Trinitarian Christianity and every Sunday after services, a mob of Arians would pelt him with rocks and garbage. They eventually ransacked his little church in an attempt to run Gregory out of town. He stuck it out though, until rescue finally arrived in the person of Emperor Theodosius. An orthodox Christian himself, Theodosius sided with Gregory and got rid of the Arians (having a military helped). Afterward, Theodosius elevated Gregory to bishop of Constantinople, the biggest religious position at the time, and put him in charge of the ecclesiastical Council of Constantinople whose job it was to set Christian doctrine back on the right path.

Talk about hating your job. It was his calling, but Gregory couldn't stand the limelight or the responsibility. Christians who had united as one during the Arian crisis now divided over petty stuff like who got what parish where and how strong to make the Turkish coffee. Church politics, then as now, can be a terribly difficult and discouraging business. Hungry for power and control, the Council took on the character of "a swarm of hornets," Gregory wrote. But he fought on nevertheless; so much so that his own dedication became an impediment. In order to bring peace to the turbulence, Gregory agreed to have himself cast overboard in Jonah-like fashion, resigning his position and returning to Nazianzus to write theology and hymns. Predictably, in his absence, the Council went on to pass all of Gregory's positions, affirming the divinity of Christ and making sure to say the same about the Holy Spirit, just as we now recite in the Nicene Creed.

The divinity of Jesus, though taught by Scripture, has always been hard to wrap your brain around. It gave those who knew Jesus in the flesh fits. In John 8, Jesus declared himself "the light of the world," an audacious statement to be sure, and especially sacrilegious given that he said it during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Tabernacles got its name from the tents or "tabernacles" built to commemorate the ancient Israelite sojourn to the Promised Land. Tabernacles coincided with the grape and olive harvests and therefore included rituals geared toward promoting harvest success. Prayers for rainwater and sunlight, both literal and metaphorical, were offered in grand liturgical fashion.