Why the Church Matters 3 – PENTECOST TO AD 299


St Andrew’s UC - Rockland ON
Pentecost to Now
14 Feb, 2011
Church and State - A Time of Christian Refusal


From Jesus and Community – Gerhard Lohfink

Father Lohfink was formerly, Professor of NT at U. of Tubingen in Germany.

The following persons featured in Fr Lohfink’s book lived during the first three centuries of the Christian era.

Minucius Felix Early Church defender of the faith (apologist) and author of Octavius

Caecilius A pagan opponent of the Early Church.

Celsus Another pagan opponent of the Early Church.

Origen Perhaps the most effective theologian up to Augustine. The work Contra Celsum is his challenge to the pagan philosopher Celsus.

Early Christian Refusals

It is very important to understand the “disconnect” between the Early Church up to Constantine and the pagan society they lived in. There doesn’t seem to have been much interface between the Church and the Empire. Bishops didn’t write letters to Roman magistrates urging them to rid the Empire of slavery or crucifixion.

A growing list of Christian thinkers – William Willimon, Dallas Willard, Ron Sider, and the Catholics Robert Brimlow and Gerhard Lohfink, among many others – are asking how the Church lives as a contrast society amidst a resurgent paganism.

The remainder of the material in this section is from “Jesus and Community” by Catholic NT Scholar Gerhard Lohfink

“It is impossible to write about the ancient church as a contrast society without treating the topic of its social refusal. Up to a certain point Christians were loyal to the state. They paid their taxes, recognized civil authority in principle, and prayed for the emperor. All that was undisputed by Christians; they even stressed it frequently to allay the mistrust of pagans. Nonetheless there was a clear distance between the Christian communities and the rest of society – especially in the first two centuries. This distance was concretized in constant refusals. In Minucius Felix’s Octavius (12.5-6), Caecilius expressed, no doubt quite accurately, the objections of many pagans:

“Have not the Romans, without your God, {attained} empire and rule - do they not enjoy the whole world, and lord it over you? Meanwhile in anxious doubt you deny yourselves wholesome pleasures:

· you do not attend the shows;

· you take no part in the processions;

· fight shy of public banquets;

· abhor the sacred games,

· meats from the victims,

· avoid drinks poured in libation on the altars.

· So frightened are you of the gods whom you deny!

· You twine no blossoms for the head, grace the body with no perfumes;

· you reserve your unguents for funerals;

· refuse garlands even to the graces, pale, trembling creatures, objects for pity - but the pity of our gods!

· Poor wretches, for whom there is no life hereafter, yet who live not for today.

“This long list of pagan charges reveals some of the Christian refusals with regard to society. Christians refrained from attending matches of gladiators and animal fights, from participating in processions and parades, and from eating at public meals and banquets, such as those on imperial holidays. The citation from the Octavius also shows clearly that the distance of Christians from pagan society extended to points of detail; they did not adorn themselves with flowers, and they wore no wreaths.




“The Platonist philosopher Celsus, against whom Origen is defending Christianity, had attacked the church for (among other things) its deliberate distance from society; for him this was concretized in the Christian refusal to swear by the - - (the genius) of the emperor (Contra Celsum 8.67). Celsus can see in this refusal nothing but profound irresponsibility with regard to the state:

“If everyone were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent him (the Emperor) from being abandoned, alone and deserted, while earthly things would come into the power of the most lawless and savage barbarians, and nothing more would be heard among men either of your worship or of the true wisdom.

“Origen cannot accept Celsus' objection, which he has to take very seriously, that Christians in abandoning the emperor thus evade their social responsibility. He states (Contra Celsum 8.68):

“For if, as Celsus has it, every one were to do the same as I, obviously the barbarians would also be converted to the word of God and would be most law-abiding and mild, and all other worship would be done away and only that of the Christians would prevail. One day it will be the only one to prevail, since the word is continually gaining possession of more souls.

“So Origen is convinced that there is no way to transform society for the better other than through the continual spreading of the church, God's counter-society, in the world. To live in the church according to God's word in no sense means to evade the social responsibility which every person has; on the contrary, it causes Christians to assume their social responsibility in the most radical way possible. For this reason, Origen (Contra Celsum 8.75) is also able to reply to Celsus' advice that Christians should accept public office in their own cities:

“But we know of the existence in each city of another sort of country, created by the Logos of God. And we call upon those who are competent to take office, who are sound in doctrine and life, to rule over the churches. We do not accept those who love power. But we put pressure on those who on account of their great humility are reluctant to hastily take upon themselves the common responsibility of the church of God . . . And if those who are chosen as rulers in the church rule well over God's country (I mean the church), or if they rule in accordance with the commands of God, they do not on this account defile any of the appointed civic laws.

“ln Origen's opinion, Christians fulfill their responsibility to the state by being active in the church, the society which corresponds to the will of God. Decisive in this is the exclusion of all desire for power. Domination of some over others is simply not permitted in God's new society. It is by far the best possible service to the state that a new society, one free of domination, should emerge in the midst of a pagan society marked by the demons of power; it can thus make clear what God really wants society to be. As Origen continues (Contra Celsum 8.75):

“If Christians do avoid these responsibilities, it is not with the motive of shirking the public services of life. But they keep themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God for the sake of the salvation of men.

“The problem of renouncing violence [was addressed by the Church] again and again. Simply the question whether, and under what circumstances, a Christian could perform military service disturbed the Christian churches into the fourth century.

“In the West and in the border provinces threatened by attack there was more willingness to compromise on this issue than in the pacified Greek-speaking provinces . . . Still, according to the church order of Hippolytus of Rome a baptised soldier had to promise not to perform executions or swear military oaths, and - - - a Christian who voluntarily enlisted in the military was excommunicated.

“Origen - - was able to express opposition in principle to any Christian military service. For him the holiness of the communities could not be reconciled with violence. ln response to Celsus' urgent admonition to ''be fellow-soldiers'' with the emperor, he answered as follows (Contra Celsum 8.73):

“It is also your opinion that the priests of certain images and wardens of the temples of the gods, as you think them to be, should keep their right hand undefiled for the sake of the sacrifices, that they may offer the customary sacrifices to those who you say are gods with hands unstained by blood and pure from murders. And in fact when war comes you do not enlist the priests. If, then, this is reasonable, how much more reasonable is it that, while others fight, Christians also should be fighting as priests and worshippers of God, keeping their right hands pure and by their prayers to God striving for those who fight in a righteous cause and for the emperor who reigns righteously.

“Two elements of this argumentation are particularly noteworthy. First, Origen does not say that we pray “for the victory of the emperor” but “for those who fight in a righteous cause.” The two things are not the same. Unfortunately, Christianity very quickly forgot this painstaking differentiation and all too frequently placed its prayer and its influence in the service of interests of power and domination. This was precisely what Origen sought to prevent. According to him, the task of the church consisted in creating an atmosphere in which the demons of war which corrupted men would have to yield. Only in this way would peace become possible. According to Origen (Contra Celsus 8.73):

“We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting.

Second, Origen's argumentation is noteworthy because he does not defend the church's refusal of military service by arguing that a Christian soldier could become ensnared in the imperial cult. His argument is rather that the church is a holy, priestly people and that its members must not be smeared with blood. lf we translate the cultic language which Origen used into our contemporary language this means nothing other than that the church is a divine contrast-society (it is holy), and that it therefore must not use violence (shed blood) like the rest of society. It can perform its specific service to the world - the Church’s priesthood - only in absolute nonviolence.

From A History of the Early Church – Norbert Brox

As long as it was small the Church did not initially arouse the interest of the Empire because there were dozens of different religions in a very pluralistic society. As they grew however, notice was taken that:

- Their celebrations occurred without divine images, sacrifices or elaborate ceremonies.

- They began to appear as something apart from the other religions who had a lot in common.

- The other religions were henotheistic - belief in their own god (e.g. Osiris) did not mean denial of the existence of other people’s gods (e.g. Mithras). But the Christians did not and were thus called atheists because not only did they proclaim the divinity of Jesus but denied the existence of any other gods. The Christians disrupted the “live and let live” ambience of the Roman World.

[Note– in doing this the Church carried on the ancient Hebrew tradition of contempt for all the Canaanite gods. The Christians were a major pain in the - - - and the pagans would say “Why can’t you just go along with the rest of us?” This may be a very pertinent question for us today.]

- There were religious elements in the popular festivals and circuses and attending them would be to deny that “Jesus is Lord.” And as N.T. Wright (former Anglican Bishop of Durham) has explained, the Christians, by their various refusals, effectively proclaimed that “Caesar was not.”

Christians were thus perceived as a threat to “peace, order and good government.”

Pagan Intellectuals’ Views from P37 Of BROX.

Educated pagans regarded Christianity as either:

a) Contemptuous

b) Undesirable

Or both.

  • “The Christians denied the charge that they were useless, uninvolved, unreliable, destructive and thus dangerous. They claimed that their prayer to the one and only true God would bring more blessing to humankind and the empire than the whole pagan cult.”
  • Brox (P 36) does comment that the pagans acknowledged the superiority of Christian social outreach and this contributed to missionary success.