You want to hear about my homework? You got it!

I read a book on early church history a year or two ago, so in a generally sense much of what I’ve been reading has been familiar. A couple things stand out for me so far, but I’ll mention two:

1. It seems that the early church was pacifistic.  Even if they didn’t have a worked-out theology about, in practice the early Christians did not become involved with the ruling Roman military.  I’m not sure if soldiers were required to make some kind of sacrifice to the emperor or something else which may have precluded Christians from participating, or if it was simply a matter of “Do not kill”.

In fact—and this one has had me thinking since the first book I read—the Christians of the time didn’t seem to participate in much of anything (such as gladiator events [too violent perhaps] and other Roman games).  Makes me think again about how fully participatory most Christians tend to be in our culture.  There’s probably more to the early church’s abstaining than is explained in the course work—especially considering that for the Romans religion and culture and the state where tightly enmeshed (Caesar was considered divine).  But in some respects, religion and culture and state are enmeshed in our day, too (consumerism, materialism, etc.)

2. At points during the 200 years or so persecution the church faced under the Romans, Roman soldiers had the right to accost Christians as they were leaving their places of worship, place a sword against a Christian’s neck and ask “Is Christ Lord?”.  The “right” answer (for the soldier) would be, “Caeasar is lord.”  Answer incorrectly, and the soldier was within his rights to thrust the sword and kill that person.

Scary.  I’m honestly not sure how I’d answer in a similar situation.  I’d like to think I’d answer the soldier “incorrectly” (but correctly as a confessing Christian), but modern Western Christians like myself don’t have the foggiest idea what persecution is like.  The early Church was illegal in the Roman world pretty much from the get-go and anyone who became a follower of the Christ at the time was doing so during a time of persecution.  So for many of them, being confronted by a sword-weilding soldier was expected (though still a difficult situation).  But we in the modern west have lived our lives of faith in comfort and general acceptance.  What would happen to the church if the situation changed?

7 thoughts on “You want to hear about my homework? You got it!

  1. rilla

    Having no expertise on the matter, but lots of opinions, here’s my thoughts on the “lordship” issue.

    I think the whole “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” would enable early Christians to keep their heads. Since it is cited in the three early gospels, I would think its presence is there to encourage cooperation with the law/Roman culture as long as you continue to give your spiritual life to God.

    I know that Caesar was supposed to be a deity to the culture of that day, and it would present a lot of problems to decide whether or not you were *really* still “giving to God” if you said, “Caesar is lord,” but the early Christians were no strangers to semantics.

    It’s complicated though, since the implications are fairly strong that it’s better to be a martyr and give the “correct” answer than to be a thrall to the Emperor.

  2. Marc

    You raise an interesting point, Rilla. One which I have wondered about myself in a different context.

    I wonder what it would mean to a Roman soldier, though, to say “Caesar is Lord” even if you didn’t believe that in the greater sense. Would a person by playing the semantics game be, in effect, denying the power of the thing they believe ? Would it be sort of like crossing your fingers when you make a promise?

    It is my understanding that the use of the phrase “Jesus is Lord” by the early Christians was not just a claim about Christ, but actually quite a political statement as well: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

    My sense from the reading I’ve done so far is that for the early church, the designation “apostate” was in some respects quite easy to come by. Even handing over religious books and items to Roman authorities was sometimes enough to be in trouble with the church body.

    So I suspect (but I could be wrong) that semantics wasn’t necessarily an option for anyone wishing to remain a part of the church.

    You raise a good question though, especially given that ethics & morality tends to become more complicated when your own life or the life of your loved ones are at stake.

  3. Toni

    From our trip to real last month, one of the things we picked up was that the Christians were persecuted some of the time, but also got a bit of ‘blind eye’ treatment according to who was in power and whether any crises need a scapegoat. It probably wasn’t 200 years of end-to-end persecution, although it WAS severe and cruel frequently.

    The other thing, as you mention in your comment, is that the early church (after Paul had departed) became quite rigid and authoritarian, with severe disciplines for things that we would forgive and then forget. In ‘Jesus and divorce’ (Wenham and Heth) in Caesarea adultery required 15 years of punishment before the sinner would be accepted back into the congregation. 4 years of weeping at the door of the church meeting, X years of prostrating oneself in the hallway during the meeting etc. It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone was ever restored.

    It’s quite hard to imagine what the Christian culture of the time was really like.

  4. Phil L

    Re #1 – The 6th Commandment is often translated from the Hebrew as “Do not kill” but it’s my understanding that a more correct translation is “Do not murder”. Some may consider that hair-splitting, but I think there is an important difference, especially WRT military service.

  5. Marc

    Phil: You might be right. In fact, you’re probably right.

    In any case, the early Christians do appear to have abstained from military service. The reasons for that, though, are not entirely clear.

    Toni: You’re right, re: the persecution. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a consistent thing. It was sporadic, with moment of peace—it even varied depending on where in the Roman kingdom they lived.

    Re: The church after Paul. You’ve clearly read more about this than I have, but I’m reluctant to toss the church “after Paul” into the crapper. The Pauline epistles show a church that was already very human even in his own time. It also shows levels of authority within the church (with the Apostles at the top of the heap, after Christ).

    I wonder if any rigidity and authoritarianism at the time was necessary for the purity of the fledgling church. At a time when doctrine was still being worked out and Christianity was still illegal, it would probably necessary to maintain a very high moral and doctrinal/theological standard, lest the church simply disappear into whatever doctrines and practices came along.

    (That was a terrible explanation of what I was thinking, but it’ll have to do. Hope it makes sense.)

  6. Toni

    Marc – I would by no means toss the early church post Paul out, but just as it was all too ‘human’ in his era, that humanity didn’t become any less. You could be right, that draconian requirements for righteousness were something used (and culturally fitting) to try to maintain purity. I do find the first 350 years of church history fascinating, in a repugnant sort of way.

    I know you’re buried under homework now, but if you ever get a chance, do have a look at that book I recommended a while back. It will repel the post-modern side of your mind but should appeal to your imagination about what could be.

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