Misinformation in the 2nd Century

Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Image result for athenagoras 2nd century

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

-Athenagoras (ca 177) “A Plea for the Christians” chapter 3

Athenagoras refers to three charges against Christians: Atheism, Thyestean feasts, Œdipodean intercourse—- that is Atheism, Cannibalism, and Incest. As ridiculous as these charges sound, each one had a very understandable, even reasonable source (at least reasonable in a context of limited communication).

  • Atheism. Christians rejected idol worship, the Greek and Roman gods, and pretty much all of the trappings of theism in the 2nd century. The God they worshipped was identifiable primarily in Negativa. It is quite understandable that they would, in their rejection of all the gods of the time, be seen as Atheists.
  • Cannibalism. The Eucharist uses metaphoric language– the blood and bady of Christ– in its description of the wine and bread. Thankfully, in the 2nd century the reification of the metaphoric language had not yet developed, so Athenagorus did not have to address that awkwardness. Despite the language, Christians were not cannibals.
  • Incest. Christians commonly used, as many still use today, close familial language for fellow believers in Christ. If Christians describe each other as brothers and sisters while also being married and producing children, the confusion is understandable.

That is the value of people like Athenagoras, who was willing to bridge the gap between US and THEM. He was able to clarify and dispel confusion.

I know many today who like to go on about “FAKE NEWS.” Ignoring the laziness of the terminology, this sort of misinformation has been with us for centuries. I have friends who are unhappy with sources I use to get information, because they say they are sources of “fake news.” Sadly, those people actually perpetuate such problems by discouraging communicatuon, or even awareness, between groups. In the 2nd century, Non-Christians knew little about Christians— just enough to be very confused about them. Part of these was due to Christians trying shield themselves from legal and moral dangrs. This action of separating oneself off from others’ views, boycotting people who you find (for some reason) distasteful, not only makes the problem worse, it essentially creates the problem.

Misunderstandings and stereotyping come from a failure of dialogue. Additionally, misunderstandings and stereotyping are likely to increase as lack of dialogue causes each group to become more extremist in their thinking.

Here Athenagoras says that if there are such charges against Christians, it is the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate, bring forward evidence and judge rightly. I can hardly disagree with that. However, we don’t have really have the ability to require others to do what they should do, we only have the ability to do what we should do. That is why Athenagoras does not leave the situation dumped on the the non-Christians to investigate. He spends many more chapters presenting a case to correct misunderstandings.

What Athenagoras was doing was breaking down barriers to conversion. While ostensibly about reduce persecution of Christians, he was also seeking to show Christians as commendable, virtuous based on the writings of great Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, and orators. Clearly a person at that time would be more interested in beliefs of a virtuous sect, than a sect of godless incestuous cannibals.

If non-Christians in the 2nd century thought that Christians were godlessuch s incestuous cannibals, the failure is at least as much on the Christians, as it was the “news media” of the Roman Empire. Christians are supposed to reveal Christ in word and deed. It is their responsibility— NOT the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate and “get it right.”

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Fade or Flourish in 1st Millenium Urban Churches

One of the mysteries in Christianity is why some churches thrive and others fade. Some see the fate of churches as a direct result of their faith. A church of bad or inadequate faith will fade away, while a church of solid faith will endure and prosper. In other words:

Faith Determines Fate

(But is that really true?)

This belief can become a tautology. A church that prospers is then seen as having a robust faith while a church that dies is seen as having inadequate faith. In truth, this is heavily presumptive.  A fading church is seen as having inadequate faith, and this inadequate faith is demonstrated by the fact that the church fades away.

Consider two cases— the Roman church of North Africa (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria) and the Nestorian church of the Central Asian traderoutes— both of these in the 1st millenium AD.

Both essentially died out (or at least became tiny enclave minorities). Why? Some would say that it is due to the Muslim Invasion (especially for the North African churches) or Muslim and Mongol rule in Central Asia. Yet, the church of Egypt survived and even thrived in almost 1400 years of Muslim rule (despite occasional pogroms). The same can be said of the church in Syria. In some places, like Greece and Spain, Muslim rulership had almost no long-term impact. In church of China in the 20th century (as well as the early church under Roman rule) grew tremendously under sporadic and sometimes systematic persecution. It is hard to see a general pattern.

Still, at least in some cases, one can make a good guess. Consider the churches of the Silk Road(s) in Central Asia. They thrived for centuries and then began to fade out. Why? There are several possible reasons. However, one major reason was probably the fact that Nestorian Christianity was primarily a religion of the traderoute cities in Central Asia. In other words, it had not worked its way into the countryside for the most part.

To understand the importance of this, one must note the fact that until the growth of sanitation methodologies in the 1800s, cities had a negative biological growth rate. That is, for a city to maintain its population, people had to keep moving into it from surrounding areas.

cITY

A traderoute city had a transient population of traders, and a local population of residents that must be regularly restocked with people in the surrounding lands to maintain itself. For several centuries a large percentage of the traders (transient population) were Christians. Many residents in the city were Christian as well. However, since the surrounding countryside was not generally reached, the resident population was regularly dealing with an inflow of non-Christians. For the Christian church to survive in such a setting, the church needed to do more than simply raise up Christian children. Because of the negative biological growth of cities (more dying than born), the church had to constantly convert those moving into the city. This was helped by a large transient population of Christian traders. However, as the new Millenium was starting, the number of traders who were Christian began to drop. This may have been due to some new laws in Muslim-held territories. It may have also been due to Christianity being declared illegal in China starting in the 9th century.

With the transient population becoming increasingly non-Christian, the inflow of new residents being predominantly non-Christian, and the negative biological population rate of Christians in these trade cities, the decline was hardly shocking.

North African had a similar situation, but even more extreme. The church in this region was quite vibrant in the major cities, but also had little impact in the rural areas. Additionally, Christianity had a Roman flair to it that was out of touch with the majority of (“Hamitic”) residents of North Africa. With the Muslim invasion, and the corresponding reduction of interaction with Roman/Western lands, the city population was maintained by the inflow of people from the surrounding areas who were not only not Christian, but had little in common culturally with the Christians living in the cities. In places like Egypt, Christianity had well overflowed the cities into the countryside so the church endured and prospered. In the rest of North Africa, the decline was swift.

This is a hypothesis and I am not sure how solid it would be in terms of predicting results. But it is also true that things are a bit different today.

How are things different now.

  1.  Cities do not necessarily have negative population growth rate.  Sanitation and health practices have changed over the recent decades.
  2.  People are still moving to cities for opportunity, but this migration is causing many cities to not simply maintain but grow. This has led to mega-cities or GUCs (Great Urban Centers).

Because of this, it may no longer be true that urban Christianity has to reach out intentionally beyond the urban areas to survive. There is now a growing outflow that occurs naturally that  may in some places more than match the inflow of peoples. That being said, history has not smiled on Christian efforts that limit themselves by ignoring the cities (at one extreme) or ignoring the countryside (on the other).

I believe we live in the fourth wave of Protestant Missions. The first three waves were : Coastlands, Interiors, and UPGs (Unreached People Groups). I think we are really in a fourth now. That is the GUCs (Great Urban Centers). Human migration, combined with the changing social and demographic dynamics of cities has moved away from UPGs to pluralistic urban communities. This does not mean that rural areas can be ignored. But it does mean that the dynamics of the 1st Millenium do not fully apply today.  Ministry in the GUCs can impact the surrounding areas due to outflow. (Note that it was the unregulated outflow of residents of Jerusalem due to persecution that initially started the great expansion of the church in the first century.)

I do think it is safe to say that persecution is NOT a cause of church extinction. Neither is disempowerment. There are far too many examples of the church thriving in these situations. However, the church has not done so well when it ignores the ethnic diversity of its surroundings, or bases its outreach on the presumption that the status quo will remain unchanged into the future.

To fail to prepare for change is to prepare to fade.

Some Seeds Take Longer to Grow

I spoke as the graduation speaker at Aurora College of Intercultural Studies. I spoke on Acts 1:8 (a pretty typical verse for a missionary training school). I suggested that the focus on Power is unnecessary. Rather,

If one embraces God’s Purpose, one has God’s Presence and God’s Power

I used two stories from the Bible. One was Samson who had great power, but generally rejected  God’s purpose. His life was ultimately forgettable except as a cautionary story for children.BA65580-56a6d3745f9b58b7d0e5001c

I also used the story of Moses who was given a purpose by God in Acts 3 and 4. When Moses waffled, God assured him of His presence. Then after further trepidation on the part of Moses, God gave him empowerment (spokesman, God’s word, snake stick and water to blood).  Moses, embracing God’s purpose, saw some success during his time, and eventually became a worldchanger.

However, as a third story, I used the story of Justinian Van Welz. I have commented on him before HERE.

His story is actually an odd illustration of the above statement. Van Welz (1621-1668) became a deeply devote follower of Christ. Prior to that, he was apparently pretty nominal in his allegiance to Christ.

But everything he did was a failure. His family thought him a fool. His church thought him a heretic. His friends thought him a dreamer. He left as a missionary for Surinam and died within two years died.

How could this be an example of God’s Presence and Power?

That’s because Justinian was a seed planter. He tried to convince those around him to be involved in missions. Few expressed interest. He developed something he called a Jesus Loving Society. When one looks at the concept, it was essentially the same as the Missionary Society proposed by William Carey 150 years later. In fact, supposedly Carey was familiar with the work of Van Welz. He was also able to inspire some later generations in missions (including today).

Van Welz was a pioneer. He planted seeds that would take scores of years to bear fruit.

This is not unusual. William Carey and Adoniram Judson were pioneers. They both spent many years serving without success. Both were blessed to live long enough to see some measure of success.

It is true, however, that many will not live long enough to see the seeds they planted bear fruit.

 

A Necessary Tragedy

This year (2017), and this month (October) marks the 500th anniversary, ‘officially’ of the Protestant Reformation. I was at a theological forum that commemorated this event, and looked at the original break event 1517 and subsequent years from a traditional Protestant viewpoint, a post-Vatican II Catholic viewpoint, and a Separatist viewpoint. A term that came up a few times was that the Reformation was a “Necessary Tragedy.” It was further noted, that Catholics have tended to look at it as a tragedy but not all that necessary, while Protestants tended to see it as necessary, but not all that tragic.

For me, I see it as necessary because the church lutherof the West sought not only spiritual unity, but ecclesiastical unity, and they did not simply seek unity, but sought uniformity. Such an undesirable state needed to change. To ignore regional cultures and language, and have a governance that is not empowered locally certainly needed to go away. In the East, that happened much earlier (with 1054 AD being thought of as the pivotal year, although they could mark back time as far as they want). In Northern Europe, it started in 1517 with the “magisterial reformers” with separatist reformers both before and after. For the Philippines, one has to go to the American Occupation, as well as the Aglipayan movement. With the rest of the Catholic Church, Vatican II seems to be the pivotal time frame. Yes it was necessary, sooner or later. And it still is.

As far as tragic, I don’t see tragedy in Ecclesiastical disunity. Centralization of power— perhaps even more so Ecclesiastical Power— creates deep problems. So one religious governance seems to me to be something of which to be horrified. And it wasn’t tragedy for lack of uniformity. It seems like diversity was identified as a good thing in the first century church… but its goodness became more deeply questioned over time. There is no tragedy in diversity.

Where there is tragedy was that people on all sides of the unity/disunity, uniformity/diversity divides saw that it was appropriate to fight and kill each other over it. It is hard to appreciate diversity. At an ecumenical gathering recently to which I was invited, it began to be clear to me that even those who theoretically should embrace unity with diversity, struggle with appreciating some forms of diversity. Some forms of diversity are embraced, while others are squelched or castigated. The tragedy is that we identify people within our own ecclesiastical neighborhood as US, and those from other ecclesiastical neighborhoods as THEM… and we tend to see diversity as a problem to overcome, rather than something to embrace.

Centuries of fighting with words, laws and guns was needless. While it is easy to blame the Catholic church for this, as one from a Separatist tradition, I know that the Protestants also had blood on their hands.  And, in fact, the Separatists have had their moments of shame as well. But it was not necessary. I am reminded of Paul and Barnabas having different visions for ministry. They could have supported each other and gone their separate ways in peace… but instead had to fight with each other, wound each other, and be an embarrassment to the church. And still they ended up going their separate ways anyway. I have come across people almost 2000 years later still arguing about who was right.  They truly miss the point. BOTH WERE RIGHT— AND NEITHER.

So I guess the answer is that it may be correct that the Protestant Reformation was a Necessary Tragedy. It was indeed necessary, but it was not necessary that it was a tragedy.

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The Lutheran Church invited the Pope to join in the celebration of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant reformation on October 31st, 2016. The Catholic church asked if the term could be changed from “celebration” to “commemoration.” The Lutheran Church actually agreed to it, and they joined together to mark this important year. Perhaps commemoration is the better term. Let us all remember this together. It is a necessary date. It is a date that did not have to be tragic… and yet in some ways did become tragic. It is an important day of embracing  Unity with Disunity and Diversity, and without Uniformity. Prayerfully, we will figure out how to actually do that.

Missions in Samaria Article

I wrote an article based on a series of four sermons I did back in 2012 that became four posts on this blog. If that was not enough, I am considering utilizing the article to develop a chapter of a book that looks at Acts 1:8, particularly structured on the four locations mentioned (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Ends of the Earth). If I do that, the goal would be practical for churches to think about missions from a local church perspective. Anyway, feel free to read the article, and tell me what you think. (If you are looking for a very deep article, this is not it, as might be determined by the complete lack of footnoting.)

https://www.academia.edu/s/632d893018/doing-missions-in-samaria-lessons-from-the-past-for-today?source=link

Imperfect Instrument: Bob Pierce (CT Article)

This article is from 2005 on the life of Bob Pierce,aboutus_history_img_01 founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. To some, he is a great example of one who is on fire for Christ. To me he is a cautionary tale of one who sacrificed his family and his “fire” caused him to burn out.

Which is correct? Maybe both. You can read this article and decide for yourself.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/19.56.html?share=