Losing The Faith (10/22)
Be Not Conformed to this World
Justin Martyr writes: “We who hated and destroyed one another, now, since the coming of Christ, pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope” (First Apology, ch. xiv). Tatian (AD 150) confirms, “I do not want to rule, I do not wish to be rich, I reject military command, I have hated fornication” (Address to the Greeks, ch. xi). And Origen (AD 230) testifies that “Christians decline public offices not in order to escape these duties but in order to keep themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God for the salvation of men” and “We do not fight under him [Caesar], although he require it; but we fight on his behalf … by offering our prayers to God” (Against Celsus, Book VIII, chs. lxxiii, lxxiv).
Despise Foolish Spectacles
There are many witnesses to the fact that believers, as a people apart, avoided “the racecourse and the theatre” and the spectacles of the coliseum, refusing to take part, even as spectators, with the evil practices of their day. “And ease of mind is not to be purchased by zealous pursuit of frivolities, for no one who has his senses will ever prefer what is pleasant to what is good” (Clement of Alexandria: The Instructor, Book III). “We ought to detest these heathen meetings and assemblies, if on no other account than that there God’s name is blasphemed” (Tertullian: De Spectaculis). Athenagoras, late in the second century, comments that “we have renounced such spectacles” (A Plea for Christians, ch. xxxv).
Several of the early Christian writers provide advice to believers as to which occupations and circumstances in life were acceptable and which were forbidden to Christians. The lists are similar to restrictions Christadelphians impose upon themselves today. There was no participation in politics, and political positions were avoided. The charioteer and the gladiator were to be rejected from baptism unless they ceased from their occupation. The disciple could not be a teacher if the curriculum included the tenets of paganism. And a believer could not, in the early centuries, serve as a magistrate or in military service. A primary consideration was whether in a given occupation, a believer would be required to compromise his discipleship, which included separation from worldliness and non-violence. Some professions – soldiers, lawyers, magistrates, and even charioteers – required an oath of loyalty to the emperor and to the Roman gods. For that reason, if for no other, these occupations were to be avoided.
Christians and Military Service
Until late in the third century believers avoided military service. This was consistent with the early Christian attitude toward the state.
Tertullian (145-220): “Shall it be lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who makes use of the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it is not proper for him even to go to law? (On the Crown, ch. xi).
“But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer is able to turn himself to military service, and whether the soldier may be admitted unto the faith, even the ordinary soldier or the lower ranks, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments? There is no agreement between the divine and the human oath, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be under obligation to two, God and Caesar … But how will a Christian war, indeed how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” (On Idolatry, ch. xix).
Hippolytus (170-236): “A soldier of the government must be told not to execute men … He must be told not to take the military oath … A military governor or a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, either let him desist [resign] or let him be rejected. If a catechumen [candidate for baptism] or a baptized Christian wishes to become a soldier, let him be cast out, for he has despised God” (Apostolic Tradition).
A Change of Position
As numbers of Gentiles were converted to the faith, the problem of military service became more pertinent. A distinction was made between believers who might wish to join the army and converts who were already soldiers. Toward the end of the third century, the churches were making exceptions, and there were Christians in the Roman military service. The early soldier-converts evidently recognized the difficulty of their position, and some of them were executed for refusing to use force or to take part in pagan ceremonies. By the end of the third century, the number of soldiers who were nominally Christian had grown. When Constantine recognized the church in the fourth century, military service became an honorable profession for those who called themselves Christians. Finally the emperor Thedosius II in 416 decreed that only Christians could be in the army. Christianity was now the official religion of the State, but it was steadily going astray from apostolic teaching.
The Final Compromise
It is not difficult to follow the deterioration in the attitude of the church with regard to its relationship to the state. A fairly consistent stand was taken for more than two hundred years, and then compromise became the pattern. When at last the church was granted recognition by the Roman Emperor, persecution ceased, and a union with the secular estate was achieved.
In the year 313, Contantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving to Christianity equality with the other religions of the Empire. Many would now take on the name of Christ for political and material advantage. “Constantine’s edict, which signalized a great victory for the Church, at the same time opened the floodgates through which a mighty flow of corruption poured into the Church” (B. K. Kuiper: The Church in History).
It was inevitable that the loss of gospel truth would be followed by a deterioration of Christian discipleship. Christianity would become a worldly institution in all respects, and its adherents would no longer be seen as different from the people among whom they lived. There were dissidents: believers who stood apart from these developments; but they would, from now on, be a persecuted minority.