During the second and third centuries the Christian church demonstrated an ability to both survive and thrive in the face of popular suspicion and hostility by the government. Indeed, since the church eventually prevailed in the Roman Empire by the early fourth century, it proved that it had been increasingly exerting its power to influence the culture and society around it.
The culture-forming power of the primitive church is ironic since the church was never attempting to function as the religion of the culture, but it was merely being itself and living according to its own identity as the distinctive people of God among all the peoples of the nations in order to witness to others so that they may also know and obey the one, true, living God. The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus written during the second century expressed the self-understanding of the church when it described who Christians are: “They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”
One of the gifts of the primitive church to the church today is that it shows us the role of the church as the distinctive people of God in every place. If the society around the church ignores, mocks, or persecutes it rather than praises it as the religion of the culture, then the church is not surprised nor dismayed. Rather, the church carries on its life of worship and service calmly and confidently in the knowledge that it is God’s own people in the world (2 Peter 2:9-10).
There is much that the church of today can learn from the primitive church about how to live in the world according to God’s revelation of the church’s identity and mission, such as the necessity to recover God-centered worship and to practice serious catechesis. In addition to studying the practices of the primitive church, we may also learn much from its attitudes. One of the attitudes of the church that is conveyed in the writings of the church fathers is Christians’ sense of the dignity of God’s church. Nowhere is this attitude more manifest than in the writings of Cyprian, the bishop of the Catholic Church in Carthage in North Africa during the first imperial persecution by Emperor Decius beginning in 250. This was the first of several persecutions which occurred throughout the empire by order of the emperor. Prior to this, the persecutions of the church could be very severe, but they were more or less confined to a region.
In Epistle LIV to Cornelius, the bishop of Rome, Cyprian was informing Cornelius of his alarm about the activities of schismatics in the church, a major problem with which Cyprian had to deal even in the midst of the imperial persecution of the church. Cyprian clearly perceived how this schism would weaken the Catholic Church so that it might even have to “yield to the Capitol [Rome].” Cyprian urged his brother bishop to join him in upholding the “dignity of the Catholic Church,” the “majesty of the people placed within it,” and the “priestly authority and power also.” What Cyprian conveys is how the Christians of this era had the highest estimate of the dignity of the church as the people of God, a dignity which must not be weakened by self-seekers within and which is greater than that of any nation, even Rome. Indeed, what was the dignity of Rome compared to the dignity of the Catholic Church because the church is God’s own people? Cyprian taught that the Roman Empire, like all governments, was an accident of history rather than a divinely instituted body and thus only existed under the grace and judgment of the one, true God.
Recent Christian behavior regarding abortion shows how much we Christians today need to learn about the inherent dignity of the church.
Following the decision of the Supreme Court to end the judicial authority of Roe v. Wade and to return to the states the authority to legislate regarding abortion, the President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, Thomas J. Bickerton, issued a statement. His theme was that the court’s ruling “has denied the sacred worth of women who face ‘the tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion’.”
No mention at all was made of the living Christian tradition that is affirmed by The United Methodist Church, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.” In the Social Principles, The United Methodist Church makes clear that its concern encompasses “the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child” [emphasis added]. The decision of the Supreme Court to return authority to the states tolegislate regarding abortion is important not only because it upholds the Constitution of the United States, but also because it gives room to the states to exercise the responsibility of government to protect all life and to take into account not only the “the sacred worth of women,” but also “the sanctity of unborn life.” This statement by the President of the council gave the appearance of pandering to the fears and agenda of the progressive faction of the Democratic Party rather being motivated by the dignity of the church as God’s own people who have abhorred and taught against abortion from the beginning.
The Catholic Church has been a stalwart witness for the sanctity of the life of the unborn. Yet recently there was the spectacle of the Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), receiving the Eucharist during a service of worship at the Vatican even though her own bishop had formally forbidden her to receive the Eucharist from any priest in his diocese. Several other bishops reinforced the pastoral discipline of the Archbishop of San Francisco, including the bishop of Oakland nearby. This discipline was enacted because of Pelosi’s powerful advocacy for abortion in the United States, which her bishop declared to be inconsistent with the Catholic faith and practice which she professes. How then, following her ban from receiving the Eucharist in San Francisco, can her participation in the Eucharist in Rome be explained? Articles in Catholic news services explain how the Vatican has not always reinforced discipline enacted in particular dioceses and that Pope Francis, who had met with Pelosi, was not presiding at the Eucharist, and the priest who served her may not have known who she was. I am a Methodist, not a Catholic, and therefore I am probably rather simple-minded regarding the complexities of Catholic polity. However, in my view it seems that the pope and his aides weakened the dignity of the Catholic Church by being so nonchalant about not being consistent with the discipline exercised by the Archbishop of San Francisco for the sake of the public witness of the Catholic Church.
There is a scene in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which was written by churches in Asia Minor soon after the execution of the bishop of Smyrna in the middle of the second century. When the old bishop was captured and brought to the city stadium by the orders of the proconsul, Polycarp informed him that he was willing to meet with him on an appointed day in order to explain the teaching of Christianity. The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people,” meaning the crowd that had assembled in the stadium. Polycarp refused the proconsul’s invitation, stating that while he considered the proconsul “worthy of discourse,” “not this mob” that was gathered before him. In refusing to address the crowd that despised Christianity and was clamoring for his death by fire, Polycarp upheld the dignity of the church. Pandering to a party or the public or showing weakness are not the kinds of behavior that advance the cause of God’s own people in the world today.
Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.