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Abnormally perfect or perfectly normal?

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1.8

The Book of Steps is an anonymous collection of discourses on religious life in the late 4th century, emanating from northeast Iraq and written in Syriac. Translated by Canadian scholar-pastor Robert A Kitchen, its major preoccupation is with virtue and it conceives of the church as incorporating two categories of believers: the Upright and the Perfect. The latter do not sully themselves with the ways of the world, which are corrupted and corrupting. The former do their best to live with integrity as members of society: owning property, raising families, doing business. Ironically church leaders cannot aspire to Perfection because their vocation obliges them to be in the world, even if not of the world.

Perhaps the most striking example - of the Upright church leader - to arise out of the eastern church was Timothy 1 of Baghdad, who ruled as Patriarch from 780 to 823 (43 years!). Under his leadership the church flourished, despite the rise of Islam and the encroaching power of the Abbasid dynasty. Maybe that is why Timothy is so revered? He charted a course for Christians finding themselves becoming marginalised within their own communities on account of the political changes happening around them.

Timothy exercised his authority through a skilful balance of firm discipline, pastoral oversight and theological engagement. Of particular significance is his account of a two-day conversation with the Caliph al-Mahdi. These are two leaders at the top of their game, so Timothy's deft answers to the Caliph's penetrating questions provided a blue-print for Christians engagement with their new Islamic overlords. Kitchen himself observes: "Except for the references to the specific role of Mohammed, the questions asked by the caliph could still be tendered by contemporary despisers of religion."



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