Lessons Learned from Early Church History

Over the past fewOrigen_of_Alexandria_2 months my Sunday School class has been studying early church history from Acts all the way to the Dark Ages. Talking about our history in an informal environment like this brought to light some good points to consider when we look at our past as Christians:

1. Nothing was always set in stone. There are so many doctrines or beliefs that are just givens in our churches today. Sure we might discuss them and question some of them from time to time, but on the whole we just accept these things like Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, etc. But as hard as it is to imagine there was a time when these ideas were not universally or popularly accepted by all Christians. Many of these ideas were hotly contested at point. Christianity could have very easily been a very different religion. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe these doctrines. It just means we shouldn’t take for granted how we acquired them.

2. The saints weren’t always saintly. Irenaeus may have deliberately embellished the beliefs of the Gnostics. A lot of the church fathers were anti-Semitic. And Cyril of Alexandria formed street gangs of monks to enforce his rule on the city. Also St. Nick got into a fight during the Council of Nicaea. These men were human and some were pretty colorful characters, but that shouldn’t take away from their role in history. Celebrate their accomplishments, but don’t hide their faults or make too lite of them. We need to study and remember them for who they were, wrinkles and all.

3. Whatever their faults, the early Christians were very brave. In a country where someone is ready to yell, “persecution” when a Nativity Scene or the Ten Commandments aren’t allowed in front of courthouse, it’s hard for us to imagine the terror and fear the first Christians had to endure. The sheer courage many of them showed facing down death is beyond anything I can imagine. You’ve got Perpetua and Felicity who were given numerous chances to save their lives by renouncing their faith, but didn’t even at their families’ urging. There’s Athanasius who’s exiled six times because he wouldn’t renounce his beliefs. Then you have St. Ambrose who’s willing to stand up to the most powerful man in the world, the Roman Emperor and demand he do penance after he slaughters an entire city. These were brave people.

4. A lot of the debates and arguments we hear in the church today go way back. We’re still having the same debate as Augustine and Pelagius over faith and deeds. We’re still having the same debates over who Jesus is or what it means to be a Christian. It’s nice to know we’re not the first and probably not the last to wrestle with these issues.

5. This stuff’s important even if you’re not a Christian. Ok, granted you might not need to know the difference between homoousian and homoiousian if you not Christian, but some of this other stuff might be important. Like knowing that St. Augustine is credited with developing Just War Theory or that Tertullian was one of the first people to propose a God-given freedom of conscience over 1,000 years before Voltaire or John Locke. Or that you might have Irish monks to thank for modern illustrated books. These folks did more than just write theology and debate in councils.

6. Any religious belief looks weird from a distance. Some of the beliefs common among early Christian sects sound pretty bizarre to us today. Whether we’re talking about the Gnostics Docetist Jesus, Origen’s reincarnation theory, or the Gospel of Barnabas’ weird interpretation of kosher laws, there was some pretty crazy stuff out there. But remember any belief is weird to the outsider. Communion confused the hell out of the Romans who thought the Christians might be cannibals. Absurdity is in the eye of the beholder.

7. Church and State has always been a hot-button. We think of the idea of religion being separated from the state as a modern one, but even when Constantine comes in promising to end persecution and fully support Christianity, the church leaders are somewhat skeptical and know they’ll be price to pay. Some like Donatists weren’t willing to pay it even then.

8. No one’s a heretic until someone tells them. Marcion, Arius, Pelagius. They thought they were teaching the right doctrines, but the majority in the church thought otherwise. It was a doggy dog church out there and everyone was wearing milk-bone robes. You always had to be careful with what you preached or someone might come after you. In some cases, like Origen it might be centuries after your death.

9. Councils created as many problems as they solved. It took five decades “after” the Council of Nicaea before the creed that came out of it was universally accepted. No sooner was the mutual divinity/humanity of Christ recognized then leaders found the devil in the details and couldn’t agree over which parts of him were human or divine. Pretty much every time churches have called for meetings to resolve disagreements they always find new things to disagree on as a result.

10. Compromise is a good thing. Congress should take pointers from the early church. The ideas that usually won out and endured, did so because the brought together a broad coalition of folks rather than the dictates of a single group or party. It’s why we have Four Gospels, not to mention both Romans and James in our Bible. 

To all the folks in the Foundations Class of Belle Meade UMC. Thanks for being so awesome!

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