In 431 AD, the leaders of the Western Church gathered to discuss the validity of a single Greek word: theotikos, “mother of God.” The phrase was in use by many church leaders to refer to Mary. It was meant as an affirmation of Jesus’ deity. A bishop named Nestorius, however, resisted the phrase. Nestorius’ concern was that calling Mary the “mother of God” was categorically confusing (how can a human give birth to deity?) and underplayed the humanity of Jesus. He was more comfortable calling Mary the “mother of Jesus,” which he felt upheld the dual natures of Christ as both human and divine.
Before you click away—and trust me, I get it if you want to—give me a couple more paragraphs. The boredom of this debate is where the jackassery sneaks in.
Enter Cyril and a whole lot of drama. He and other bishops were furious over Nestorius’ dissent on this issue, so they convened the Council of Ephesus to give an official Church ruling.
Let’s put this in perspective. Here are our spiritual ancestors meeting to discuss something important: Jesus. But they’re not trying to worship Jesus, nor are they working to draw closer to him, imitate him, or introduce others to him. No, they are gathering the heavy hitters so they can decide whether or not Nestorius should be allowed to call Mary “the mother of Jesus” instead of “the mother of God.”
It’s the perfect recipe for jackassery.
Before Nestorius’ supporters could arrive at the Council of Ephesus, his opponent Cyril rushed a vote on the theotikos question and had Nestorius excommunicated from the Church and exiled from the empire.
You know, because he wanted to make sure we saw Jesus as both human and divine.
Never mind that a statement uncannily similar to Nestorius’ view was agreed upon at the next Church Council (Chalcedon). There were Church politics to attend to and “truth” to be upheld.“The Church once split over the Greek word theotikos and later over the Latin filioque. What are our modern debates where we’re splitting hairs and also splitting the Church?”
(Don’t worry too much about old Nestorius. In his exile, he left the Western Empire and started churches and mission training centers in India and China. The movement Nestorius founded bore incredible fruit, and Nestorianism continues to have an impact in Asia.)
If this chapter of Church history sounds petty, consider that it’s not all that unique. The Western Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church split from each other (via mutual excommunication) in 1054 AD when they could not agree on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only (the Eastern Church’s view) or from the Father and the Son (the Western Church’s addition to the established creed). Once again the debate was over a single Latin word: filioque (“and from the Son”).
To be clear, the Church has had many faithful reformers who have stood up for key doctrinal matters (one thinks of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples). We in no way want to imply that doctrine is trivial or that there is never a time to stand firm on the plain teaching of Scripture. But we are saying that when it comes to extra-biblical terms like theotikos and filioque, there may be room for gracious disagreement.
And to take it one step further: even when we disagree over what the Bible actually says, we have to always choose to posture ourselves like Jesus. If our theological disagreements make us less like Jesus, then we’re flat out wrong, regardless of how “right” our doctrinal assertions may be.“If our theological disagreements make us less like Jesus, then we’re flat out wrong, regardless of how right our doctrinal assertions may be.”
What are our modern theotikos and filioque debates? The ones that basically come down to hair splitting but that we’re still willing to divide over? I’ve seen the Bible Project condemned (“I can no longer recommend these videos”) by a credible source because these short animated videos didn’t feature the right atonement model. I’ve seen Francis Chan farewelled (the Protestant version of excommunication) because he wasn’t willing to condemn specific people (“I now feel an obligation to warn people about Francis’ teaching”).
What else? Do you believe in miraculous healing or not? Do you preach out of one passage per week or jump around? Do you baptize babies or only adults (and do you put those adults through a ten-week class/exam or dunk them on the spot)? Is the book of Revelation history written in advance or is it using symbolic language? How normative is the book of Acts?
We could continue on. I don’t want to devalue truth, nor am I saying we shouldn’t have convictions. But I’m suggesting some of the things we spend our time fighting for might seem trivial when we look back years from now.