The Church, Pt. 3: Lessons & Hopes

After the Diocletian persecutions, the prominent North African bishop Felix consecrated a man named Caecilian to be bishop of Carthage in the year A.D. 313; however, both Felix and Caecilian were suspected of lapsing during the persecution, and this move set off another schism in the church. (31) Most of the North African bishops rejected Caecilian, and chose their own bishop from amongst themselves: first Majorinus, who died shortly after, and then Donatus. Sure that the Bishop of Rome and Emperor Constantine would side with them, they appealed to have Donatus recognized as the rightful bishop. Instead, both ruled against the “Donatists”, as they came to be called, and in the following year, at the Synod of Arles, they also condemned Cyprian’s use of re-baptism, a practice that the Donatists followed. Still, the Donatist church thrived on account of its’ ties to Cyprian’s teachings and populist sentiments against the increasing state-church alliances in Rome. By the end of the 4th century they outnumbered members of the Latin church in North Africa. (32) It was in the subsequent moves of the Latin church that we see the saddest results of these divisions.

In 411, after a decade of division, an arbitration in Carthage between the Latin church and the Donatists was called for by Roman Emperor Honorius, with his secretary of state Marcellinus rendering the judgment (33). Bishop Augustine of Hippo had already written persuasively against the Donatists, with a three-pronged argument. Augustine argued that the hierarchy of authority for a Christian is first the Bible, then church councils, then individual church fathers; thus the Donatists should submit to the ruling of the Synod of Arles against Cyprian’s belief in re-baptistm. Secondly, schism is a worst mistake than one of re-baptism or other questions of purity, even according to Cyprian, whose teaching the Donatists claimed to follow. Thirdly, baptism is only profitable for salvation if one is in communion with the church, and since there is only “one true episcopate”, no one baptized outside of the Latin church is truly saved (34). Marcellinus judged against the Donatists and, unlike the aftermath of the Synod of Arles, severe punishments were carried out by the now-“Christian” Roman government in an effort to end the schism.

A  3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)
A 3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)

In an extraordinarily twisted move of exegesis, Augustine cited Luke 14:23 as justification in using force to “compel” the Donatists to rejoin the Latin church (35).  Not so coincidently, Aquinas would cite this very same scripture in a later century to justify the Inquisition (36). Donatist clergy were banished, a punishment which in the ancient world served as an alternative to the death penalty (37). Laypeople were fined, church buildings were forcibly confiscated, and in A.D. 415 services were forbidden. None of the persecutions of the Donatists ultimately succeeded, and Donatist communities continued until the Arab invasion of the 7th century virtually wiped out Christianity in all of North Africa (38).  In my assessment, there are three lessons which we can take from this controversy, applicable in varying degrees to the debates in the Mennonite Church, as well as in the broader evangelical church.

Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the "one true church" (click image for source)
Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the “one true church”
(click image for source)

First, the use of force as a systematic-method of Church governance is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. There had been sporadic violence inspired by the Donatists against the Latin church in North Africa, and this is often cited as part of Augustine’s rationale for endorsing the use of force against them, but it is an entirely different thing for the Church to give theological justification for using worldly power (39). This very rationale gives us a glimpse at the cyclical nature of violence. The downward spiral should serve as a warning to the Church’s relations-to and use-of secular governance, in practice or in theory. In the United States, there is open hostility and often vindictive language judging the conscience and motives of people who disagree on the morality of same-sex relationships. The “debate” is seldom one of actual engagement with different perspectives, but rather one of suspicion and fear that the other is going to impose their will by force. This fear is well-justified because it actually is the aim of both groups to have the sword of this country enforce, or defend, their practice. In the Church however, both sides of this issue must, for the sake of Christ, reject any use of government coercion. The distinctive witness of the Mennonite church as a community of peace is at stake with this boundary, and it must not give in to these temptations.

Second, while the church is a singular reality, its’ unity is not a corollary of how centralized and uniform its’ governance appears. This reality should calm us. Menno Simons walked away from the largest body of Christianity in the world. To him, Augustine and Cyprian would have both unrestrainedly said “You are not part of the body of Christ”. But Christ is our head, and He should be directing our movements. In a body, the nervous system is connected intricately with each part, and, while they are interdependent, the head does not need the hand to move the foot. The head can do that well enough on its’ own. While the temptation to use government coercion is far from the historic practices of the Mennonite church, the temptation to use institutional coercion is more easily succumbed to. The Mennonite church’s historically “congregational form of church governance” is an act of trusting the Holy Spirit and renouncing the world’s temptations to “rule it over” each-other (40). We must remember that, historically, those most loudly concerned with preserving a unity of governance in the church, like Augustine and the Roman Catholic church, have been most susceptible to using force in achieving it. It is integrally important for the Mennonite church to continue the conversation over what level of inclusion, or exclusion, the Church should practice with regards to homosexual individuals and couples; embodying the redemption of our sexuality is part of our mission in the Kingdom of God. But, neither those who separate-from, or those who remain in communion-with, a long standing ecclesial structure are suddenly exempt from the law of love. It was by our love for each other that Christ said the world would know we are his disciples, not by our centralized form of governance. May we not be like our ancestors, spitting judgments against each other!

To end this discussion, I would like to quote some words of Cyprian. Cyprian was a pre-Constantinian bishop, and thus, whatever his flaws, the use of the sword was never an option for his efforts to maintain unity. He also lived before the Latin church’s governance moved towards a centralization in Rome, and was not granted an “authoritative” council to govern the unity of his fellow North African bishops. At the Seventh Council of 
Carthage in A.D. 256, when all the Bishops of North Africa lent him their support in the practice of re-baptism, Cyprian wrote:

It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience…But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there (41).

Paul stated that the unity of the Church in Christ was a great mystery, and it remains so to me. There is a tension running in current ecumenical dialogues, especially for Mennonites, one between displaying a more unified Kingdom to the world, and discerning what demands the King has made on us, demands required of us as His ambassadors. This is not a new tension; Cyprian, Novation, Donatus, Augustine, Menno Simmons, was there any unity behind their conflicting ideas of how this Kingdom was to be ruled? Or, were some of them correct in condemning each other as not being united to Christ? As I stated earlier, I start with the belief that we have one Lord, and that there truly is only one body. After recounting some troubling events of our past, re-affirming that statement brings me close to tears when I think of the immense love of God, “since he wants all people to be saved” (42). If this is true, then I am hopeful, and can rest despite the unknown. Christ will bring what He has started in us to its’ completion, His Kingdom will fill the whole earth. My prayer is that this part of the body, and myself within it, would be a faithful representatives of this Kingdom, working with our King to bring peace on earth.
Footnotes
31 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism. Felix allegedly cooperated with the actual confiscation of the scriptures to save himself. Caecilian allegedly prevented Christians from visiting their relatives who were in jail for refusing to hand over, or reveal the location of, the scriptures. 

32 ibid.
33 ibid.
34 ibid.
35 Wilken, 189

36 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism
37 Abbott, Geoffrey. Exile and Banishment. Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/198072/exile-and- banishment. Last updated Aug 08, 2007. Accessed January 26, 2015
38 ibid.
39 Wilken, 188
40 Roth, John D. Beliefs, pg. 152. Harrisonburg: Herald Press. 2005.
41 Interestingly, this text shows that at the time, Cyril did not consider there to be a “bishop of bishops”, refuting the Roman Catholic claim that there had always been a supremacy in authority with the Roman Bishop. Cyril of Carthage, The Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, pp. 565. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company. 1888. 
42 1 Ti. 2:4

The Church, Pt. 2: Early Christians, Early Controversies

This is the second portion of an essay I recently wrote on “The Church” for graduate school application. I slightly edited it but have kept the footnotes as italicized numbers. This part of the essay explores some of the earliest Church practices, as well as a major persecution that, I believe, we can learn from:

So, if the Church is this society-forming reality, and the shape of this society is given by the New Testament teachings on the Kingdom of God, then what do these teachings say? I believe that Kingdom of God must be conceived of as a political reality in the broadest sense: “relating to government” (14) While this is an increasingly emphasized truth in evangelical Christianity, particularly those concerned with “social justice”, what is not yet thoroughly discussed is that God’s government is unlike and fundamentally opposed to every worldly government today. It is unlike worldly governments in that its’ rule is exercised through service and love (15), whereas their rule is necessarily maintained through the constant threat of coercion (16). It is opposed to worldly governments both because their violent power is wielded by the enemies of God (17), and because the Kingdom of God’s culmination will be their end (18). The earliest writings of the Church demonstrate an understanding of these same principles.

In the “Apostolic Tradition” and “Didache”, two of the the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the canon, we see a new, society-forming ethic being spelled out for the nascent Church, drawing on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (19). Christians were to cease gaining their income from immoral entertainments like gladiator fights, converted soldiers were not to kill or swear public oaths, military commanders and civic magistrates in the Roman empire were to give up their vocation, and burial for the poor was to be provided by the bishop (20). Rhythms of regularly shared meals were outlined, and economic inter-dependence is assumed by the guidelines which prevented outside guests from taking advantage of the community (21). With regards to being a “visible church”, the earliest Christian communities are exemplary. At the same time, we see in the earliest controversies of the Church, and ensuing history, how challenging it is to visibly reflect our identity as the singular body of Christ. I would like describe two interrelated controversies in depth, but not as a rote exercise! After evaluating them, there will be lessons applicable to the contemporary Church’s pressing challenges of maintaining unity in the face of political, theological, and moral disagreements.

Emperor Decius on a Roman Silver Coin. Click image for source

From the years A.D. 249 until 313 the church under the Roman Empire was torn apart as a result of two sets of intense persecutions, particularly under emperor Decius from 249-25122 and under Diocletian from 303-313 (until 324 in the east) (23). Decius required all citizens to offer a sacrifice to the gods of Rome and partake of the sacrifice. At the threat of an exceedingly cruel death, most Christians complied (24). According to historian Robert Wilken:

Some even brought their own wine or other offerings. In one city a bishop showed up with a lamb under his arms for sacrifice! …This is not surprising. As the number of Christians increased, the boundaries between the Christian community and the larger society were becoming porous (25).

After the Decian persecutions ended, the church was faced with the question of how, or even if, to re-admit people who wanted to return to the Church though they had denied their faith. The Church’s differing responses to this crisis is extremely relevant, especially because these responses set a trajectory leading to the ugliest features of both Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation; features which the Mennonite tradition has historically stood in prophetic witness against.

There were three sets of responses to Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions. The Bishops of Rome advocated re-admission to the Church simply if someone expressed the desire to do so. Novation, a Christian leader in Rome, and his followers believed that there should be no re-admission whatsoever, eventually breaking off from the majority church and setting up Novation as an alternate bishop in Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, arbitrated a mediating position in which significant penance, overseen by a bishop in communion with the majority church, was required to be re-admitted. For some, this penance was severe and would last their entire lives. Cyprian was similar to Novation in upholding “the Church’s holiness as a unique community set apart from the society at large” (27). Yet, Cyprian argued intensely against Novation’s separation from the main church, saying

he can be no Christian who is not inside the Church of Christ…there is but one Church founded by Christ…likewise, there is but one episcopate, but it is spread amongst the harmonious host of all the numerous bishops (28).

Cyprian thus denounced groups like the Novations as not truly being in the body of Christ because they were not united to the Roman church’s network of bishops. He even required re-baptism by anyone who wanted to come into the Roman church but had been baptized in an outside group (29). Of course, this was because of the authority of the “one episcopate” and not because of any Anabaptist-like considerations. While this practice drew serious ire from the Bishop of Rome, who called Cyprian a “false Christ and false apostle”, Cyprian’s position was adopted across all of North Africa and he was a revered teacher in North African Christianity long after his death (30). Cyprian’s positions were important in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecutions, seventy years later.

14 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/political. Accessed January 17th 2014
15 Matt. 20:25-28, 1 Pet. 5:3
16 In my estimation, a result of this fact is that enforcing this rule is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ’s teachings of peace. The most difficult teachings to reconcile with the enforcement of worldly government by Christ-followers being primarily found in Matthew 5:33-48
17 Luke 4:5-7, I have never found alternative explanations of this passage to be convincing
18 1 Cor. 15:24
19I list these not as models to be replicated, but as examples, though there are certainly timeless principles being reflected here that should be embodied by the Church at all times The Apostolic Tradition was written by Hippolytus, who separated himself from the established church in Rome as it became, in his opinion, too lax towards its’ members. Thus, the practices he cites are probably closer to the earliest church’s methods; schism is a topic I will address below.
20 Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 17-20. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York. 2004
21 Didache in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 20
22 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Novation Schism in Rome [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/portal/
23 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Donatist Schism in North Africa [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/ portal/
24 Wilken, Robert Louis, The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity. pp 67. New Haven: Yale University Press. Early church father Origen was killed on the rack during the Decian persecutions, as well as Bishops Fabian, Alexander, and Dionysius. The persecution was short, but it was devastating.
25 ibid. 68
26 ibid. 77
27 Wilken, 71
28 Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 55, in Reading in World Christian History, Vol. I. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. 2004. New York: Orbis Books.
29 Fairbairn, The Novation Schism
30 Wilken, 74