Telephone Game & the First Christians

Remember playing the “telephone game” when you were little?   You know, someone comes up with a statement and whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, who then repeats what they heard to the next person down the line, and so on and so on.

Girlfriends+Border_Girls+whispering4And if you remember playing this game, then you remember how funny it was when the last person to get the message finally tells everyone else what strange sentence they heard at the end of the line.  Most of the time, the statement began as something like, “The baker made an apple pie” and ended up as “Your face makes me wanna cry.”   They rhyme, but they aren’t really the same thing.

And even as a 7-year-old, I learned something simple.  It’s best to get information right from the source, because over time and even through good intentions (except for that one kid in my class who was always trying to purposely screw up the telephone message), the information evolves into something possibly different than what was intended.

We are involved right now in a discussion about violence and whether or not Christians should ever engage in it, even to protect their own life.   And I know that many Christians today have some strong opinions on this 2ymvo2hmatter, but I would like to caution us to rethink our stance in light of the telephone game.

You see, I come from a church tradition that while honoring and learning from the history of church through the centuries, looks to the early church and The SOURCE (Jesus) as its primary ideal and guide.

As we approach this topic, however, we may have done a rather poor job of maintaining this approach.

I would like to suggest that many of the currently popular rationalizations of a “just war” or engagement in any sort of violence is due in large part to a long running game of church telephone, in which we’ve diverted a bit from the original SOURCE.  So far are we from the source, in fact, that we consider The SOURCE to be too radical and our modern, westernized ways to be more progressive and advanced.  Surely we must use violence sometimes?  Our cause is just!  How can we achieve the greatest peace for the most people if not by using violence to defeat the foes?

The message still sounds understandable and we can rationalize it, but maybe it isn’t at all what The SOURCE intended or what those who heard the message first understood.

Somewhere along the way, Jesus’ message of a different type of kingdom that did not rely on the power methods of this world has evolved all the way into our current and prevalent situation of syncretism between church and state (or national pride).

So, as we journey back to “the origins” we have already seen how The SOURCE (Jesus) consistently and regularly commanded us to forsake violence and how His life was the greatest testimony to a power absent of coercion and violence. (see previous post here)

Today, we will look at how the first 300 years of people in the telephone line behind him understood His message.  And although 300 years sounds like a long time, it is but a brief beginning in a movement that has stretch into its 3rd millennium.

Here is how violence was understood for the first followers of this Christ.

The Witness of the FIRST CHRISTIANS:

The Early Church position ruled out violence as an option, even in self-defense.  The evidence for this is overwhelming and includes the story of Stephen found in Acts 7:59-60.  In the story Stephen is stoned to death for his faith, but even at the moment before death, he forgives his assailants for their crime.

228A similar story is found later in the book of Acts when Paul is also violently attacked for his beliefs, and yet does not seek revenge:

The crowd stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
(Acts 14:19-22 NIV)

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, he writes of the importance of non-retaliation, even in the face of death:

It seems to me that God has put us on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. Yet when we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.
(1 Corinthians 4:9-13 NIV
)

Beyond what we find in the New Testament, there is great consensus among the people that immediately followed in the next several hundred years.  As demonstrated by the following quotes, no Early Church father interpreted Jesus’ teachings as advocating anything but strict nonviolence:

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The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.
—Tertullian’s On Idolatry

origen

Origen

“Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.”
—Origen Contra Celsius Book VII

“Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence.”
—Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV

“As simple and quiet sisters, peace and love require no arms. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 12 of Book 1

“In their wars, therefore, the Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedaemonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 4 of Book 2

“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.”
—Clement of Alexandria

hippolytus

Hippolytus of Rome

“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”
—Tatian’s Address to the Greeks 11

“We who formerly used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.”
—The First Apology of Justin Martyr 39

“Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.”
—The Apology of Aristides 15

“A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”
—Hippolytus of Rome

“There is nothing better than peace, in which all warfare of things in heaven and things on earth is abolished.”
—Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians 13

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_Father

Irenaeus

“The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” These people formed their swords and war lances into plowshares,” that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting, so when they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.”
—Irenaeus

“We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ. For by his means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception…would lend an ear for a while to his salutary and peaceful rules,…the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony.”
—Arnobius

“Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!”
—Cyprian of Carthage

“Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.”
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

“We have rejected such spectacles as the Coliseum. How then, when we do not even look on killing lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”
—Athenagoras of Athens’ A Plea for the Christians 35

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Strong statements, huh?  Apparently the first Christians were pretty clear on what they heard from the life and words of Jesus regarding this topic.

Consider that for three entire centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, almost completely universally, Christians believed that even self-defense violence was inappropriate for followers of Christ.

So what changed?

Most notably, the Roman Emporer, Constantine.

constantinevision

Constantine's Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD

Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Εν Τουτω Νικα” (“by this, conquer!”), Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro), and thereafter they were victorious.

From this moment on, Christianity becomes the dominant religion of the Roman empire.   And whatever his motives (genuine spiritual conversion or political genius), Constantine changes the landscape of Christianity.  It is no longer a persecuted minority, but a powerful, state-supported, military-leading civic religion.

You can nearly draw a line in history with this event as the place the telephone message changed.

Violence was absent from the lives of the earliest followers of Christ and only by the military subversion of Christianity by the emperor, Constantine, did violence (for national purposes or any other) enter into Christianity.  The church following this event was culturally conditioned to accept the merger of empire and “Christianity” and found ways to rationalize this “new power” that soon became the “norm” at the expense of its previously radical stance on violence.  And it became a marked departure from what Christ and the original followers had taught and modeled.

Now, certainly God is mightier than a game of telephone and His message has been preserved in His church.  But, I suggest that rather significant components of this message are now held in minority in Western Christianity.

Anyway, lots more to think about.  I know for some of you this is a difficult thing to wrestle with.  It calls into a question a lot of your life and assumptions.  My heart goes out to those of you who have served or are currently serving in the military.  My goal is not to make you feel less “Christian”.   You are loved by God and by me regardless of where you come out on this issue.

However, the church must always be thinking and examining our message.  Where there have been compromises to our culture, we must return to THE SOURCE and reform.

So, though it is uncomfortable, keep thinking.   And I’ll be praying for you…

(for the complete series on “Jesus & Non-violence” see the right sidebar of this blog)

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“Letter from SEATTLE” – (response #1)

[Response #1 from SEATTLE – Part 3 of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hey, MISSISSIPPI:

Thanks for your note!  It is just great to hear from you guys.  Tania showed me some pictures of your kids and I can’t believe how big they have gotten.  Crazy!

Sorry it has taken me so long to respond.  My life is a little hectic right now.  Ministry is going completely awesome, but between all the work there and learning to be a dad it feels like I don’t have time to just sit down and “be” sometimes.

Anyway, your response was a little involved and in order to take it seriously, I needed a little bit of time to answer.  This is really the first time I have sat down since I first read it, and had time to respond.   So, all that to say, sorry it took so long. ☺

In regards to your concerns, I suppose I have a few thoughts.   First, I think I understand where you are coming from in being confused with apparently opposing points-of-view.   In fact, that is why I think these discussions are so important and that our views should be held with a degree of humility.  These are very complicated issues, involving real people and not abstract theology.

I have read a great deal on the issue of homosexuality (from a biblical perspective and otherwise) from many different authors from many different backgrounds.  And in that reading and research of my own, I have probably found myself more confused, not less.   There are genuinely good reasons that people argue over this stuff.  I used to think that the matter was rather cut and dry (homosexuality in all forms is sin), and like you, I assumed that those who argued against it were more motivated by political agenda than honest struggle with God’s truth.   However, I now think it is more difficult than that.

This argument exists in large part because there are legitimate reasons (at least in my mind) for disagreement.  For instance, there are word choices that the Apostle Paul could have chosen that would have made it much more clear (i.e. in Romans 1 and 1 Cor. 6:9-10, etc.), but unfortunately he didn’t.  And the Greek words he did use carry more ambiguity than I am comfortable with.   I encourage you to look into it yourself, of course, but I’ll be the first to admit that I end up more “confused” for the research, to use your terminology.

All that said and despite what I consider legitimate dissension, here is where I come out personally on this issue…  I still believe that as best as I can tell, homosexuality in all its forms is normatively sinful.  Hahahahaha!   And you thought I was going all crazy on you!

Anyways, there are lots of reasons for me ending up here, but this response will be long enough as is.  LOL.

However, even though this is my conviction (and what I will stand up for and teach), I have learned to hold that conviction with as much humility as I can.  Philosophers speak of a term, “epistemological humility.”  It means being humble about what you think you know and believe, because history it seems is full of well-meaning people who were passionately convinced on many issues (slavery or women’s rights to name just two), but on the wrong side of justice as we look back at them now.

And so, I live in this weird world where I hold to my convictions and teach them unapologetically, but try not to hold them so tightly that they define me more by what I’m against than what I am for.

Interestingly enough, most of my non-Christian friends already knew the troubling spots about homosexuality in the Bible before I did.  And, in my experience, they have become much more open to my understanding of homosexuality since I became humble in my dialogue with them about it.   It‘s as if they trust what I have to say more now that they perceive that I’m not just proverbially “drinking the Kool-Aid” of Christianity, but willing to think critically and openly.

And in that sense, I have learned to be a little less scared of the “slippery slope” theology that I think you expressed in your response.   It’s that feeling that Christians today buy into little things that might seem harmless; things the culture tells them is ok, but in the end is a slow start to a fast decline in the righteous path of God.

Now, I do feel scared about that at times.  But more often than not it is about things that are much more subtle, and in my mind, much more dangerous.  Things like consumerism, misplaced patriotism that becomes synonymous with faith in God, or spiritual pride.  That could be a whole response in itself!  LOL.

And to some degree I think issues like homosexuality are like that as well.  It concerns me greatly that a person would simply accept homosexuality as a normative behavior without wrestling with God’s word.  But it also concerns me that someone would condemn it without doing the same diligent work.   We tend to be lazy.   Lazy in our study of God’s Word and lazy in our dialogue with God and each other about what that Word might mean.  And in that sense, I think there are a lot of people out there that are sliding into either total relativism or total elitism, and I believe both slopes are equally slippery.

In terms of [The Mega-Pastor], I suppose I was a bit hard on him.   I looked into the graphic that you mentioned.   I actually didn’t put that in the blog myself;  I had an assistant who did that for me (I’m not all that tech savvy).  FYI — That photo isn’t from the [mega-pastor] protest, but is apparently a famous parody of those types of protests.  And in that way, I agree it may be misleading.  [Note to reader:  I have left it posted as it was for the purpose of this conversation].

In any event, I talked with people close to [the mega-pastor] and I think I understand his point-of-view in holding the protest.  I understand that he is protesting not the event but it’s placement in the educational system.

My problem with the protest was not with his concerns but with his methods.  There is definitely some pro-gay agenda to that event.  No doubt.  But several things are important here, 1) it is an event put on by students, not adults coming in to “indoctrinate” them.   Had it been a planned school event, hosted by the district or its employees, I think [mega-pastor] would have a better argument.   And 2) the effective end to his method was all my non-Christian friends (and everyone in Seattle) seeing Christians standing up for what they are AGAINST again.  All they saw was Christians protesting gay people.   And in that way, [mega-pastor] could have been right—and even won the battle—but because of his methods, lost the war for those people’s hearts.

Now, maybe that isn’t what [mega-pastor] wanted to communicate, but I don’t think that really matters.  That IS WHAT WAS COMMUNICATED.

So, how would I respond better?  I’m not sure.  I’m thinking it through for this year.  But, what I think would be more powerful is for Christians to EARN the right to speak into these students lives by showing up and RALLYING around the parts of it that they can support—such as the protection of the weak and vulnerable.   And even if they know there is an underlying gay agenda, to show up and demonstrate that they are FOR things like love, compassion, and grace too.

It’s an issue of language.  [Mega-pastor] didn’t speak a language that reached those students or that community.  He held a protest that made him and his followers FEEL GOOD about themselves and their convictions, but in the end, it didn’t reach a single person (that I know of) with a life-changing opportunity of faith in God.   He stood up for his rights, when he should have laid them down.  He asserted his beliefs by force, when he could have sacrificed his time and pride with unconditional love.

And in that way, I do believe that an act can be “violent” without actually being “violent.”  Well, maybe that’s not the real problem.  Maybe it was simply that it didn’t demonstrate “ultimate Jesus-like love.”

Listen, I know this is counter-intuitive.  It seems like exactly the opposite of what we should do when culture presses in on us.  It seems like we should fight back.  It seems like we should protest and pass legislation and speak loudly.   It seems ridiculous to be right but not ask for your rights.

But, I’m absolutely convinced that even though it makes no sense, it is the way of Jesus.   I think what Jesus came to teach us is that the “power-over” model of persuasion belongs to the world and not us.  In some strange way, it is the “power-under” model of love and sacrifice that wins the day.  That love wins.  Not protest.  I mean, that was Jesus’ own life model, wasn’t it?   He didn’t protest prostitutes, he loved them and forgave them.  He didn’t pass laws on greedy tax collectors, he went and ate dinner with them.   He didn’t even fight back when he was accused on trumped up charges, He choose instead to die for those who brought the charges.

Somehow, I think we have bought into the model of the world and tried to fit Jesus into it, rather than just follow the example of Christ.   And when we do that, we may very well win the battle for being “right”, but lose the hearts and souls of many people as collateral damage.

Anyway, that is a long answer to your questions, I know.  But you did ask, and I would feel bad blowing you off with some trite answers rather than the thoughts of my heart.  I only hope that I have clearly answered what you were really asking.

At any rate, it is discussions like this that I think Christians would be best served having right now.  Especially in light of new California laws and retaliations.   It may be that we have much to still learn in how to live with this righteousness “not our own.”

Give my best to your family.  I pray that you all are still enjoying Mississippi and of course that you will decide it isn’t for you and move back to Seattle!  Have a great Thanksgiving!

Grace and peace,

SEATTLE.