Priorities: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It was always the same. Whenever I taught a course on Early Church History, I began the first lecture with the following paragraph:
“From the time of the apostles until the time of Constantine over two centuries later, the character of the Christian Church was formed and shaped by two major factors. The first of these was the relationship of the Church with regard to the Jewish community on the one hand, and the Imperial Roman State, on the other hand. The second factor was the development of Christian dogma and polity, both for the edification of the faithful and the confutation of heretical or heterodox opinions which, from the beginning, were making inroads into the early Christian communities.”
This paragraph set the tone for what would be taught in the ensuing weeks and months. With this as an introduction, I could lead students through the process by which the Church began to separate not only from the synagogue, but also from the expectation of the political reestablishment of a Jewish kingdom, independent of Rome, presided over by the Messiah. Following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, this separation of Church and synagogue, along with any such messianic expectations, became final and irreconcilable. This separation, which started taking place with the first generation of Christians, gradually removed the Church from being simply another sect of Judaism in the eyes of the Roman authorities and, therefore, placed the Church outside the protection of Roman law. As a result, persecution of varied geographic extent and intensity took place throughout the empire until the time of Constantine.
This was a time of martyrs. Christians would simply not involve themselves in numerous aspects of civic life. As they did not acknowledge the old gods, they were considered to be atheists. As they would not offer incense as a sacrifice to the genius of the emperor, they were considered disloyal to the state. As only the initiated could take part in their most sacred rites, they were considered adherents of a cultic mystery religion. As they called one another “brother” and “sister” and shared the kiss of peace, they were suspected of incest and immorality. The torture and killing of Christians was, by and large, considered wholly justified by the authorities.
Now, during this period, there were certain Christian writers, known as the Apologists, who wrote treatises to answer the accusations made against believers. Justin Martyr, Quadratus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria are amongst the best known of these writers. Yet, for the most part, the Christian writers of this period were much more involved with the exploration and shaping of Christian doctrine, along with pastoral directives to the numerous bodies of believers that now stretched from Persia to the British Isles, from North Africa to Germania. These authors wrote to refute errors (such as the teaching of the Docetists and the Gnostics) as well as to encourage and guide the faithful. They helped to establish guidelines for leadership within the churches as well as expectations of Christian conduct, guidelines for baptism, admission to the Eucharist and the restoration of those who had fallen into grave sin or those who had denied the faith. (It is interesting to note that the Donatists who believed the fallen or deniers could not be restored, were condemned. On the other hand, the Montanists, who entertained charismatic gifts, were merely considered schismatics and that owing to establishing separate congregations.)
The point here is this. The Early Church had priorities, and involvement with the state was not at the top of the list. Indeed, apart from the writings of the Apologists it is hard to find it on the list at all.
We are in a time when much of the theology we encounter is paper thin. So much so, that much of what we hear and read hardly qualifies as anything more than opinions and anecdotes. Even Biblical literacy is at an all time low… even among those who presume to preach. Many believers today know more about celebrity pastors than they know about pastoral care; for they have seen and heard the pastors, but have never experienced any care. Church leaders fall only for us to find out that they were never prepared or given guidelines for what leadership entails. We encounter nepotism in church leadership time and time again, only to be told, “Sometimes it works…”. Finally, we now find it so difficult to define Christian conduct that we hardly make the attempt and, more often than not, justify any conduct on the basis of the ends justifying the means. Meanwhile, we discuss politics and think we are persecuted.
Of course, there are exceptions to this… but the exceptions are getting harder to find.
The Early Church had priorities that, in my opinion, we need to rediscover.