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.
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. 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. 1

This is an essay I wrote for a scholarship application recently on the subject of “The Church”. It specifically comes at things with the Mennonite tradition in-mind, but nothing in it is something I would not say to Christians from other traditions. I explore what the Church is, what  makes “the Church” different from other social institutions; and not just “a church”, but “the Church”. I talk about how the Church should conduct itself, in the world. I also delve into a controversy in church history that we can remember and learn lessons to apply in the American church specifically. I’ll split the essay into three chunks, and this first one mainly focuses on the question “What is the Church?” and “the unity of the Church”.

This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church” 

Writing about the Church simultaneously awakens a heavy heart and a burning love within me. I am, after all, writing about a whole of which I am a part. My current mission and later destiny are wrapped-up with what Ephesians says is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”. This essay comes on the heels of major shifts in my understanding of the Church, shifts which are still in progress. In this essay I will not be writing about those shifts, but will use biblical exegesis, theology, and case studies in church history to sketch my current understanding of “The Church”, and apply that understanding to pressing issues for the church today, including issues unique to the Mennonite church in the present. The reason why I will start with an in-depth theological and historical discussion is that my own experience, or even the experiences of the entire modern church, are not sufficient guides. It is a frequent and serious illness amidst my generation, one which I have struggled with, to have a narrow perspective on history, never really taking a look at things that have happened with the mantra “Be Present”, yet simultaneously we have grandiose and often narcissistic aspirations of our individual impact on it. At bottom though, our ability to leave a redemptive impact on history depends on how seriously we take a man who lived over 2000 years ago.

Christ's body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source
Christ’s body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source

A timeless topic for the Church is its’ identity. By “identity” I do not mean what does the church do which sets it apart from other institutions, already assuming that the church fits into a category of social science. The New Testament term for “church” is a religious takeover of the original Greek word defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly”, but this is not what I am searching for either. By “identity” I mean the common characteristic which binds the widely varying expressions and features of what we have called “the Church” across millennia and continents. What is the church?

The aforementioned passage in Ephesians likens the church to Christ’s body, and later in the same chapter Paul uses the analogy of a building; in 1 Peter 2 the analogy of a house is also used, along with these terms: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own”.  Within these two texts, two themes emerge: 1) the church is a singular, unified reality, and 2) the church is a society-forming reality. Behind both texts is language signifying what gives this reality its’ existence. In 1 Peter 2:4-5, we are told that it is only “as you come to him”, to Jesus, that we are made part of this new building, and it is “through him” that we carry out our function as a “spiritual house”. In Ephesians 1:1-14, the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him”, occurs 7 times to describe a location, and it is this refrain that leads to verse 23, describing the church as his body. These are only two texts, but I believe that the New Testament is consistent in stating that the Church is the human portion of God’s new creation in Christ, whose very existence depends on being in Christ; united to Him. This unity with the Godhead is maintained by the Holy Spirit, which sets apart and marks we who have accepted God’s invitation to come into His family, become freed, forgiven children, and give our lives to Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah.  This brief search for a definition will become crucial as I continue discussing the two themes I mentioned above: the church as a singular, unified reality, and the church as a society-forming reality.

The unity of the church is a corollary of the identity of the church. In the New Testament the Church is never, ever, analogized to a plurality of physical bodies, or buildings, or priesthoods. While there are a plurality of churches-qua-gatherings, the fundamental unity can be seen in Paul’s rhetorical rebuke to the church in Corinth: …end your divisions…Is Christ divided? Now, growing up in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church of my parents, where even listening to preachers outside of the denomination was spoken of as potential backsliding, I am keenly aware of the sinful desire to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of who is a part of this body, and who is not. Over the course of my first three years as a disciple of Jesus, I successively judged non-Charismatics, then non-Calvinists, then all institutional churches in general, and then myself. It was only after a major theological shift towards positions which I had previously thought were “heretical” that I saw my pharisaical, doctrinarian attitude as the insecurity it truly was. My journey has taught me that the fundamental unity of the church in Christ does not necessitate that I have that unity in the control of my mental concepts or ecclesial structures. As Dr. Miroslav Volf recently stated with reference to his early work on “free-church ecclesiology”:

I was thinking of all these small churches [in Europe]…they have given their lives, sometimes literally, to the work of the Gospel and they somehow aren’t churches but… whatever other institution there, is a church by the sheer fact of the succession and communion with Rome; and I, for the life of me, could not see how this is the case and how this in any way would correspond to what one finds in the New Testament”. 

If we are Christ’s body through His spirit within us, and if Christ cannot be divided, then we must start with this as an axiom in ecclesiology. We must conform our theology and practice to this most obvious biblical truth, not distort this truth to our theology and practice. In addition, while this conviction does lead us to believe that the unity of the church in Christ has an unseen, spiritual dimension, this conviction does not require us to ascribe to misconstrued understandings of the church as “invisible”. This is where the church as a society-forming reality comes into view.

A society-forming reality is not the society itself, but rather the source of ruling principles which form the society’s basic structure. This is true of the Church in Ephesians 1:20-23 where spiritual and earthly powers, including those which rule and order human societies, are “under Christ’s feet”, and the Church is Christ’s body. This is also evident in 1 Peter by the emphasis on being “born anew” and growing up as “newborn infants”. We are not describing a transition from one social group to another. To over-simplify: society is the outworking of human life; the Church is a society-forming reality because it is a unity of new humans birthed by the Holy Spirit. We must re-learn how to live, guided by obedience to the truth and sincere love; ruling principles which conflict with the “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors…”. The New Testament’s use of the phrase “Kingdom of God” further illuminates what kind of society this new humanity will produce.