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The Beard-Battle that Almost Split Christendom
In this biweekly feature, we seek to encourage the local church by remembering the times when things were much, much worse.
At first glance, a beard may seem like an unremarkable thing—just a bit of protein, really, sort of like a fluffy toenail for your face. Many grown men, myself included, can’t even grow them.
And yet, for many men throughout religious history, they’ve been a big deal. The law of Moses commanded men not to trim the corners of their beards—a custom that Orthodox Jews still practice to this day. Many of the Reformers grew long beards, possibly to signify their break with the traditionally clean-shaven Catholic clergy. Even Baptist minister Charles Spurgeon, in an apparent attempt to win a “most overstated case for anything ever” competition, famously advised his students that growing a beard was “a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.”
So yeah, beards can be unreasonably important sometimes. One time, they even contributed to one of the deepest, oldest, and ugliest rifts in all of Christendom: the Great Schism.
Of course, anyone with a cursory knowledge of church history knows that until approximately A.D. 1054 , there was basically one united church for the geographic area that used to be the Roman Empire. The western, Latin-speaking half of the empire fell in 476, but its church hung around well past that. Meanwhile, the Eastern, Greek-speaking half, which became known as the Byzantine Empire, was still a thing into the 15th century. Ostensibly, one of the forces that united these two very different halves of the church was the Nicene Creed: a couple hundred words that articulated their shared beliefs.
But then the Western Church had to go and screw that up.
Trouble started when the Western church officially added a single word to the Creed in 1014: filioque, which roughly translates to “and the Son.” If you come from a somewhat liturgical church, you know what I’m talking about: “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
It’s not necessarily a biblically indefensible position to take—but it was a strange change to make unilaterally, considering that the Creed was supposed to be an ecumenical confession. For reasons that are, for our purposes, dry as dirt, the Eastern Church was understandably upset when they found out about the change.
As everyone knows, the horse wouldn’t be invented for another 258 years, so news traveled slowly. The Christology really hit the fan in 1053, when Pope Leo IX finally sent an emissary to the eastern empire to hammer out, once and for all, those who were being a big bunch of heretics about this whole thing. The envoy was led by a cardinal named Humbert, which apparently is not just a name that Nabokov made up.
When Humbert got to Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor welcomed him, but Patriarch Michael I Cerularius (the leader of the Eastern Church) refused to give him an audience. Eventually, Humbert got sick of just hanging around the Byzantine court, making jokes about how “Byzantine” everything was, and (one assumes) hitting on the empress’s friends, so he decided to open up a can of whoop-tushy on the whole “heresy” situation.
Basically, he excommunicated half of all Christendom—for having beards.
Sort of. See, what happened was this: On July 16, 1054, Humbert interrupted the patriarch in the middle of conducting the divine liturgy to serve him a papal bull of excommunication. The bull in question cited numerous offenses committed by the Eastern Church, including allowing priests to marry (which they didn’t do), re-baptizing Latin Christians (which they also didn’t do), and omitting a clause from the Nicene Creed (which, you’ll recall, had actually been added unilaterally by the Western Church). Oh, and the kicker:
And because they grow the hair on their head and beards, they will not receive in communion those who tonsure their hair and shave their beards following the decreed practice of the Roman Church.
That’s right. Worst of all, those Byzantine Christians grew beards—and, according to the bull, they denied Communion to men who shaved, too. (The Roman Church had banned beards in 1031, only a couple decades before Humbert excommunicated the East for not following suit.)
The bull was pretty much bull. Not only were most of its accusations fabricated, but the pope whose name was on it, Pope Leo IX, had actually died several months before it was delivered, technically rendering it null and void. While Humbert would return and regale the West with his heroic condemnation of those bearded heretics, most of the Eastern church just shook their heads, said “That was weird, huh?” and carried on as if nothing had happened. (In other words, for the East, the whole thing was kind of the Avatar of 1054.)
The East did respond, however, by burning the (invalid) papal bull and excommunicating the West right back for good measure, but most historians will tell you that neither excommunication actually meant much. Humbert’s bull only named the Patriarch, and not his church, and the Patriarch’s anathema affected only Humbert and a couple of the other guys in his legate.
It would take another couple of centuries before the split between East and West was really total; in the end, the whole incident was probably less like a couple filing for divorce and more like a couple staying up late drinking, getting in a fight, demanding a divorce from each other, passing out, and then waking up in the morning with splitting headaches wondering, “Did we really say that? Did we really mean it?”
In other words, it was the sort of thing that might have been fixed with a sincere apology. But the apology never happened, and eventually the divorce did.
The psalmist wrote, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” What he didn’t mention was how hard that sort of thing is. Unity, it turns out, takes grace and humility—sometimes the grace to say, “Hey, let’s seriously discuss our theological differences” . . . and sometimes the humility to admit that the other guy’s beard is just genuinely awesome, even if you can’t grow one.