More reasons NOT to look like the early church

On a cue from Philip Harland, I found this remarkable passage showing an example of the perception that some pagans entertained of mid-second century Christians. It’s not pretty:

[Cynics and Christians] divide and upset the household, and bring into collision those inside with each other, and tell them the worst ways to manage their household. They never say, find, or do anything socially productive. They do not participate in panegyrics (festal assemblies), nor worship the gods, nor help govern the cities, nor comfort the sorrowing, nor make reconciliation with those of opposing persuasions, nor arouse the young – or anyone else for that matter – to the affairs of the world.

–Aelius Aristides in The Defense of the Four, as cited by Frances Margaret Young in The theology of the pastoral letters, p. 17.

This was written by an orator who is associated mostly with Asia Minor but who was certainly well travelled. It’s difficult to say how widely his observations applied to Christian communities throughout the world at the time, or whether he was taking just a few bad apples and making gross overgeneralizations. I point it out because 1) much of what Aristides described then seems to correspond to various visible factions of Christianity today and because 2) to the consternation of a wide range of critics both ancient and modern, those commonalities are probably indicative of what a significant constituency of the early church thought was proper.

First of all, the upending of cultural norms for household management seems to be a part of very early Christian behavior. Galatians, a book whose Pauline authorship is virtually uncontested, famously dismissed fundamental social and cultural distinctions between male/female and slave/free. Granted, he might well have been referring specifically to those classes’ equality in standing before God rather than calling for a social revolution, but the tendency is certainly to extend theological outlooks beyond into broader ramifications, and whether or not Paul intended it it appears that this is exactly what happened. Early secular testimony like that of Celsus (as quoted in Origen) shows that Christians were sometimes characterized as giving undue deference to “stupid women”; Harland notes that there was apparently a tradition of attributing somewhat more egalitarian positions to Paul (e.g. The Acts of Paul and Thecla) than have been associated with him in recent years. It is sometimes argued that the emphasis upon maintaining social norms involving gender that we see in the (probably late, pseudo-)Pauline epistles of Ephesians and the Pastorals look for all the world like they were intended to “stop the bleeding” caused by the inevitable exploitation of Paul’s teachings on Christian liberty that would indeed cause much upheaval if not moderated. Christian feminism has left a very bad taste in my mouth, but the more I learn, the more I begin to realize that there is a very strong, very early tradition challenging the male hierarchical pattern that won out by the time of the ecumenical councils.

It also occurs to me that for the most part, those whom Aristides is criticizing seem to be following the advice of the NT in regard to involvement in society. The ubiquitous NT teaching to abstain from the world to remain pure for the returning Christ would naturally lead them, as it does many in the Left Behind crowd now, to avoid entanglement with “the affairs of the world”. If the end of the world had been around the corner, why should they have bothered “arousing their young” to do anything of lasting significance? It’s interesting to watch these eschatological expectations disappear in the following centuries as Christians came to terms with the fact that the apocalypse was not so imminent and as a resolve to make the best of this world grew until the medieval understanding of Christian mission modeled upon Augustine’s The City of God developed. Yet in the last couple centuries imminent apocalypticism has returned and, not coincidentally, its proponents are reading Scripture at face value like those whom Aristides is criticizing — with the grossly obvious oversight that part and parcel of superficial interpretations of Scripture are the manifold statements of imminency that are impossible to square with a gap of two millennia between the NT and us. This appropriation of first century expectations to our immediate future leads many to retreat from engaging society in a useful way for the reason that it’s pointless to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Most evangelicals have little patience for subtle, long-term forms of influence, preferring if anything to utilize the strong arm of the state to enforce their ideals and heavy-handed moralism in their forays into the arts, ostensibly in the effort to show the returning Christ that they’ve been busy and have remained out of defiling contact with the world.

To my mind the most damning way in which the modern church resembles the Christians from whom Aristides drew his generalizations is in his pronouncement that they did not “comfort the sorrowing, nor make reconciliation with those of opposing persuasions…” Here again, I suspect that most of this can be laid at the feet of an imminent eschatology. Jesus’ light rebuke, “The poor you will always have with you,” was surely not intended to imply, “You won’t have a chance to remedy poverty before I come back, so don’t bother trying,” but rather “There’ll be plenty of time to fulfill your righteous concern for social justice after I’m gone in a few weeks.” Despite Paul’s many admonishments that believers should strive to live peaceably with all people, there was enough backbiting and indifference toward keeping up good relationships that it apparently struck Aristides as characteristic of Christians in general. I can imagine that if you thought your mission was to hunker down until the bomb exploded and took out all the infidels, you’d expect that exercising the faith was more about maintaining purity of mind, and hence beliefs, than it was about counteracting the defective aspects of society.

Now, my guess is that Aristides’ various indictments listed above were of stereotypes that didn’t apply to any one group of Christians; for instance, I imagine that the more eschatologically minded were not the ones pushing the social structure envelope. But it is nonetheless intriguing to consider  how and why the church then might have looked like the church now.

As I have asked before, so I ask again: how much do evangelicals really want the modern church to look like the early church? Are we aware of how much we already do?

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  • Matt

    I’ve noticed in my conversations with some Christians precisely that attitude of disengagement from making the world better.

    But on the other hand I’ve also seen a significantly larger percentage that are highly engaged in improvement of things.

    I think this is largely a measure of the specific tradition you come from.

    • No doubt, which is why I made a concerted effort not to paint modern Christendom as a whole with that brush. In my experience, it is most especially the ones most obsessed about the end times that exhibit such disengagement.

  • Matt

    I’ve noticed in my conversations with some Christians precisely that attitude of disengagement from making the world better.

    But on the other hand I’ve also seen a significantly larger percentage that are highly engaged in improvement of things.

    I think this is largely a measure of the specific tradition you come from.

    • No doubt, which is why I made a concerted effort not to paint modern Christendom as a whole with that brush. In my experience, it is most especially the ones most obsessed about the end times that exhibit such disengagement.

  • Thank you, Steve, for another thought-provoking post. On the matter of Christianity’s early supplanting of paganism, and the 2000 year social revolution that ensued, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (here is my recent review). Hart does not white-wash the history of the church. Far from it. But he does demonstrate, quite admirably in my opinion, that on balance the social revolution of Christianity has been profoundly positive. Like you, I tend to be quite critical of the church, whose faults both in the past and the present are often glaring. But, lest we let that pendulum swing too far, I found Hart helpful in reminding me how far western civilization has come as a direct result of Jesus and his followers.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Human Suffering in Haiti ~ and my Faith =-.

    • Thanks a bunch, Cliff. My whole tradition has emphasized that Christianity has been a source of social good, and I still believe that it has. Seeking to be circumspect, I thought I’d call attention to a weak point so that we can strengthen it. I do remember reading your review of that book and as I recall, I actually entertained the idea of purchasing it. Thanks for reminding me of it — I’ll might just check it out.

  • Thank you, Steve, for another thought-provoking post. On the matter of Christianity’s early supplanting of paganism, and the 2000 year social revolution that ensued, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (here is my recent review). Hart does not white-wash the history of the church. Far from it. But he does demonstrate, quite admirably in my opinion, that on balance the social revolution of Christianity has been profoundly positive. Like you, I tend to be quite critical of the church, whose faults both in the past and the present are often glaring. But, lest we let that pendulum swing too far, I found Hart helpful in reminding me how far western civilization has come as a direct result of Jesus and his followers.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Human Suffering in Haiti ~ and my Faith =-.

    • Thanks a bunch, Cliff. My whole tradition has emphasized that Christianity has been a source of social good, and I still believe that it has. Seeking to be circumspect, I thought I’d call attention to a weak point so that we can strengthen it. I do remember reading your review of that book and as I recall, I actually entertained the idea of purchasing it. Thanks for reminding me of it — I’ll might just check it out.