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 Worldview of American Sniper

I got around to watching American Sniper yesterday. What struck me most were some words of the main character’s father, Wayne Kyle, speaking to his son Chris after a fight where he was protecting his younger brother in elementary school. Chris would grow up to be the most lethal sniper in US history, and the movie is about his four tours in Iraq. Putting aside the complexities of why any specific person joins the military, the worldview that Wayne Kyle presents his children undergirds the whole movie, it helps us to sympathize with Chris’ efforts, and the film does a good job at that. What I want to highlight is how un-Christianun-Christlike, and unbiblical that worldview really is. While this does address what I would say about Chris’ life and “purpose”, I would have loved to meet Chris, to talk about his experiences, maybe even talk about this worldview and how it goes against things said in the Bible which he carried around with him all four tours. Here are Wayne Kyle’s words:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.

The first sentence doesn’t communicate anything off-kilter. It reminds me a bit about this passage from Acts 20:28-29

Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseersto shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock

The next two sentences start to lead us away from a biblical worldview. Wayne states in the film that sheep”prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world”. But, who does Jesus say are the sheep?

I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolvesso be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” -Matthew 10:16

Another relevant passage referring to all Christians as sheep would be Romans 8:35-36

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or dangeror sword? As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

So, really, anyone who is a disciple of Christ is a sheep, and a disciple of Christ has no illusions about evil not existing. The wolves are certainly real. The last portion of Wayne Kyle’s statement is about the “sheepdog”, and how it is blessed with “the gift of aggression”. In the film, it is bluntly obvious that this is not just an attitude but specifically violent aggression that is the key characteristic of the sheepdog. Here again though, we should ask ourselves, how does scripture say Christians are to respond to evil?

Do not avenge yourselvesdear friendsbut give place to God’s wrathfor it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Ratherif your enemy is hungry, feed himif he is thirstygive him a drinkfor in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good – Romans 12:19-21

For this finds God’s favorif because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endurethis finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was malignedhe did not answer backwhen he sufferedhe threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:19-23

Christians are called to “follow in his steps”, meaning Jesus’ steps, who did not have the “gift of aggression”, and yet, is the ultimate conqueror over all evil and death. The last thing I will add to this is that in the New Testament there are very strong words about people who harm others within the community of Christians, especially when talking about psychological and social harm. In the first few centuries of Christianity, to be part of “the Church” meant that you most likely shared meals several times a week, shared some possessions, and formed intimate economic and social ties with those people. Thus, instructions such as these were given to leaders if they encountered someone who was wreaking havoc in the community:

Reject divisive person after one or two warnings. You know that such a person is twisted by sin and is conscious of it himself – Titus 3:10-11

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoralor greedyor an idolateror verbally abusive, or a drunkardor a swindlerDo not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outsideRemove the evil person from among you. – 1 Co. 5:11-13

While these instructions may not apply equally to a modern church in the US because of the more isolated and autonomous existence of its’ members, it just goes to show that the sheep are not ignorant of evil. The “removing” is not “exterminating”. All in all, the sheep have a better idea at how to stop evil once and for all! We follow the example of Jesus.