One truth I have learned in almost twenty years of serving churches is that the church has a hard time saying “no.” Congregations have a well-deserved reputation for being slow to change and reluctant to accept new ideas or ways of doing things. These tendencies, in my experience, can surface in confrontational ways as well as in passive-aggressive forms, but they rarely come out as a pure, simple “no.” “That’s not how we do things,” i.e., “it’s fine for someone else but not for us,” is not the same thing as “no.” Even statements like “I don’t think this is the direction we ought to be going as a church, pastor,” are couched in terms of personal opinions rather than in the absolute clarity of a straight “no.” What is true at the congregational level recurs in debates and passionate disagreements in the wider church.
This has not always been the case for the church. For a long time, Christians spoke of the three “ecumenical creeds”: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian (named after, but not composed by, Athanasius of Alexandria) Creeds. Two features distinguish the Athanasian Creed, which John Wesley called “the best that I ever saw.” First, the Athanasian Creed is wordy. Second, in addition to affirmations the Athanasian Creed includes rejections, strong “no’s,” such as in its opening, which reads, “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.”
While many Christians still use the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, far fewer are likely to be familiar with the Athanasian Creed, which has fallen out of favor. Doubtless, the wordiness of this creed has contributed to its disuse, but a consensus has also developed that repeating such a strongly worded “no” does not belong in public worship, at least most of the time. There is a legitimate worry that being so direct in our “no” will demonize others or give permission for heated rhetoric to become heated action.
The specific appropriateness of the Athanasian Creed is one thing, but in the context of a general reticence on the part of the church to say “no,” it is worth asking whether the church is forgetting that the divine “no” is every bit as much a word of grace as the divine “yes.”
Jesus’s controversy with the Sadducees over the resurrection is instructive here. In Luke 20, Jesus simply answers the Sadducees’ absurd question about marriage after the resurrection, but in both Matthew 22 and Mark 12 Jesus prefaces his response by flatly rejecting the Sadducees’ disbelief: “You are wrong,” he says. There’s an urgency in his answer, a need to say “no” before elaborating further. Although the wording in Greek is different, Jesus’s explicit rejection in this episode is echoed in the visceral mē genoito (“No way,” in the most emphatic sense possible, often bowdlerized in English translations) the Apostle Paul scatters throughout his epistles.
One of the deeply rooted beliefs of the ancient Hellenistic world was that the divine nature, or essence, and material existence could not interact. The divine essence would never despoil itself by condescending in that way. The “no” of ecumenical councils to this belief was inextricable from the church’s positive proclamation of God as Creator and God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In a sense, the church simply adapted Jesus’s own strategy with the Sadducees.
What would it take for the church to reclaim the grace of the divine “no”? I think the place to start is the Christian practice of regular confession of sins. Perhaps no Christian practice conveys the simultaneous grace of “no” and “yes” better than the regular confession of sins. Confession instills in us a profound humility (the “no” of grace) and an assured confidence (the “yes” of grace) that we need in order to remember that it is God’s “no,” as part of the whole gospel, that we proclaim.
When we confess our sins regularly, therefore, we position ourselves to be addressed by the whole of God’s grace with, rather than against, those who most need to hear the divine “no,” even with those who are not part of the church. Knowing that we are forgiven should enhance our understanding of our own need for grace and, for that reason, give us a sense of solidarity with those who “are wrong.” (Might it be that Paul could utter mē genoito with such force because he had heard it for himself on the road to Damascus?)
Confessing our sins, then, can free the church to proclaim the fullness of life God offers in Jesus Christ, the “yes” of grace, graciously and energetically, without shying away from the divine “no.” The whole gospel is for everyone: ourselves, our siblings in Christ, and even our enemies. We all need to hear God’s “no,” just as we all long, and need, to hear God’s “yes” in Jesus Christ.