January 19th, 2018

The Church...

..."the Pillar and Ground of the Truth"

Western Civilization today is challenged in its very existence as the Home of the Christian Church. God has however, guaranteed that the Church will not be destroyed but will prevail over all enemies...through the power of the Lord.

"Upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16)
We live in an age in which we can expect God to raise up His Church from the prevailing apostasy.Apostasy is that state of the churches in which the Truth "once delivered to the saints" has been severely compromised.

Middle English "apostasie": From the Late Latin "apostasia"
From Greek, literally, "revolt". From "aphistasthai" to revolt, From the two Greek words: apo- (from) + histasthai (to stand). Application: To depart from a faithful stand for the Truth

Apostasy distorts the view of the world and Christians themselves and deceives people into
believing that "this is Christianity" (current state of apostate and compromised churches). People have difficulty in believing that Christianity is such a powerful "change-agent" for Truth and Virtuous Life when what people see is a compromised and unfaithful expression of worship, formality and lawlesness.

Consider the fact that the Christian faith arose from an original group of 12 Apostles whose preaching and teaching turned the Roman world of that first century upside down.

Gibbon’s Five Points: Why and How Christianity Prevailed Over the Pagan World

1) The zeal and ardor of the faith of the early Christians brought them into conflict with the cruel and perverse customs of the day.  The 86-year-old Polycarp brought more conviction and shame upon the crowd at Smyrna who knew his upright reputation, heard his tempered replies to the provocations of the arena, and watched his heroism and love in the flames that day in 154 A.D.  His martyrdom drew a humbled silence from a bloodthirsty crowd demanding the elderly gentleman’s torment into the convicted audience ashamed of its horrific misdeed. All because he preached uncompromisingly about the cruelties of Roman culture and lifestyle… and he did so with conviction and resolve for its change. His martyrdom was so powerful a force for truth, future generations of the churches used it as if it were a training model for their expected trials.

2) The belief in the immortality of the soul and the hope it offered to a world destitute of anything even remotely akin to it. Even the philosophical musings of the Greeks offered no comfort to the hopeless or the dying. A slave working in the cruelty of the Roman sulfur mines of Sardinia with a life expectancy there of about 5 years, gained no comfort from the classical speculations of a Plato or Aristotle. In short, the ancient world knew no everlasting hope for eternity, and desperately searched this life for any hint of some transcending value amidst the debris of a corrupt civilization. 

3) The supernatural miracles of the Christians are well enough attested to have been a major factor in the advance of the Gospel and truth. This may be the most controversial point ascribed to Gibbon’s work. The Roman world we know came to fear the interposition of the Lord on behalf of His people during persecution. It became a fear of more than one Roman persecutor that to harm the Church was to bring a swift and terrible end to one’s reign. So much so was this the case that the Christian Lactantius wrote a history detailing the terrible calamities which befell persecutors of the Christian faith in the first three centuries of the Christian era. God’s interposition was one of the factors known among the non-Christian populace during that era… and increasingly feared by them.

4) “The primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues…” is the way Gibbon puts this next factor that brought cultural victory to the Church of Christ.   With an understanding of the Picture, we can best explain what Gibbon takes several pages to explain. The obedience Christians render to the Lord is designed to actively portray principle and way of life higher and wiser than anything known to mankind naturally. Its morals outshone all other systems of “morality” put together.

As a result, each Christian’s life was a sign to the community around about concerning the Will of Christ in the earth. Of course, sin in all of us distorts the picture. But, God’s grace calls to repentance, convicts and judges the heart, and rebuilds a stronger picture. The very fact that a sinful Christian repents is itself a supernatural act, not readily known in the normal world of the natural society.

So when Afra of Augsburg, a former prostitute, repented of her sinful way of life and embraced Christ, she set up an orphanage for abandoned children of prisoners, smugglers, slaves, and thieves. Later, she became even more efficient in her love for these children by setting up a network for finding them and putting them out for adoption.   That network functioned through church “networks.”

The Roman state resented her work, especially since the “perception” was created by the propaganda of the state agencies persecuting her that she was aiding and abetting “enemies of society” by helping these children… and saving children who could best serve the state as productive slaves. In other words, she was resisting status quo of Roman conquest and rule.

So, the reality was that her activities put anything else to shame, including Roman “morality”. More to the point, she was caring for children who, in the eyes of slave masters and Roman rulers, could be put to work in places such as the Roman sulfur mines. That was money out of their pockets as far as they were concerned.

Afra was murdered by the Roman police state in the infamous persecution of Diocletian which began in the year 303 A.D.  Highlighting that persecution was the fact that Diocletian undertook it, in part, out of religious zeal and the desire to elevate the Old Rome of his fathers.

Christians are invariably moved by the Holy Spirit to build civil institutions so as to make their work more efficient and powerful. Several such institutions that are (today) second nature to the creative impulse of Christian people, are the formation of churches, the family, and various ministries (including missions, book stores, charities, schools, seminaries, and health care institutions ). For example, the great 4th Century theologian and minister, Basil of Byzantium, built leper’s colony for the humane treatment of lepers. His work drew the ire of many high-placed Roman aristocrats but such hospital and health care works undertaken by Christian people and churches glorified the Name of Christ.

Telemachus of Laddia undertook the celebrated reform that brought an eventual end to the cruelties of gladiatorial combat in the arena. He was martyred in the arena for his work.  Such an undertaking was a clear sign that the old Rome was dying and something new was arising in society. Why? It’s hard to imagine it but the cruelties inflicted in the arena were designed for entertainment but there real aim was political power mongering.

The arena was used by Caesar and was described by his enemy and contemporary, Cicero the orator and Senator. Polybius recounts for us the words of Cicero in describing the real power and agenda of the arena (as well as other means of “corrupting the masses” for support):

Setting out to seek power, and unable to gain their objectives by their own resources and through their own qualities, they dissipate their property, using every means to bribe and corrupt the masses. Then again, when they have rendered the many receptive and greedy for the largess through their insane appetite for prestige, the essential character of democracy is destroyed, and it evolves into a state of violence and government by force. The populace, once it is accustomed to feed off the property of others, and expects to live off the property of its neighbors, and when it finds a champion who is ambitious and daring, but is excluded by poverty from political rewards, brings the rule of force to completion, and gathering together, carries out murders, exiles and redistributions of lands – until, having come to live in the manner of beasts, it finds once again a master and monarch.
By undertaking the crusade to bring an end to the arena, Telemachus was taking on one of the most powerful means used by Roman politicians to achieve the use of the masses for political support. In short, they used the cruelty of the perverse entertainment to seduce and harden the masses who became accustomed to cruel force as an ethic for advancement. Politicians used the arena to gain support by passing out free bread, making political announcements, posturing before an adoring public the power of life and death… for EVERYONE to clearly understand… and fear.

The Emperors were NOT unaware of the corruptibility of the arena and the power that comes with corrupting the desires of the masses. In future centuries, Christian activist and humanitarian William Wilberforce realized that slavery was the creation of the State system of mercantilism and found it would take the whole of his life and energies to displace it.

The Apostle Paul warns us that invariably such issues are functions of “principalities and authorities in high places.” True Biblical Christianity has always been an opponent of “people control” and the primary opposition to tyranny of all kinds. Tyranny and Christianity cannot coexist peacefully since at some point the State is emboldened to bloody its sword with the lives of Christian martyrs due to Christianity’s testimony against such sinful practices, costing governments and cruel masters money, prestige and power.

Telemachus lost his life before he saw the final end of the gladiatorial combats. It is this kind of faith that endears the passions and emotions of masses of individuals to the heroism of the Christian faith.

One of the most powerful testimonies of the era is that of Barlaam of Antioch, a humble shoe maker, who had been rescued as a child by Christians from the horrid Roman practice of placing unwanted children at a place outside the city (but at its wall) designated by Roman law. There roving packs of dogs would find an easy meal. The historian puts it this way:

Barlaam of Antioch was a cobbler for the imperial forces who devoted all his free time to the care of orphans and widows in his church. Because he himself had been saved from the infanticide wall outside the city, he was especially concerned for exposed children. Even though he was not a pastor or church leader, his good deeds were so widely known that the enemies of the faith sought to have his witness silenced. During the calamitous persecution in 304, they succeeded in having him martyred. 

These virtuous lives – and many like them - won the culture. Tertullian, the great church father and defender of the faith, once boasted of his fellow Christians that very few had suffered from the hand of the executioner, except for their faith.

Such living is not only good, it is heroic. And principled heroism is attractive to those who suffer what the “hero” resists. That is how cultures are won.

It is contrarian in the sense that it represents a wise and upright view of life in a corrupt world, according to Gibbon. It distinguished the Jews of the earlier era who also lived unto the Lord and was a “follow through” ethic from the Old Testament era, in the Church.

5)  The government and organization of the church was a key to the ongoing success of the Christian faith. 

God, in His wisdom, has established the Church so as to carry Christian ideas and ideals and cultural victories into the next generation. The Church produces her own leadership within her confession of faith and is thereby enabled to raise up leadership on an ongoing basis. In other words, the sacrifices of her people provide cultural foundations that the church institutionalizes in the society she serves.

Barlaam’s sacrifices became legendary, granted. But, had it not been for the organization of the churches, his work could never have been carried forward.

The network for orphans set up by Afra inspired reform movements, carried forward by churches, which in time helped to enable society to end child slavery and provide adoption for homeless orphans.

Basil’s leper colonies became a system for permanent care giving for lepers and other contagious disease victims of society. His work spread throughout the churches and through the churches greater and greater impact was achieved for health care… and Christian care giving.  When society invariably casts off certain individuals as  “unwanted”, God stir hearts toward the “unwanted” and they find redemption and help.

One very powerful example of this fifth principle listed by Gibbon is found in the character of the great minister, Ambrose of Milan. This was the very same minister whose preaching led to the conversion of the famous theologian St. Augustine.

It occurred at the city of Thessalonica.  Rioters brought the city to its knees during the reign of the Christian Emperor, Theodosius the Great. When the Emperor heard of the riots and the fact that the rioters were not punished by the city, he gave orders that the city be gathered in the hippodrome, ostensibly for some public announcement. Upon a command, his soldiers surrounded the building and entered, slaughtering about 10,000 people indiscriminately. The people of the empire were outraged but were afraid to do anything about it.

However, Ambrose stood in front of his church when the Emperor came for worship soon thereafter and made it clear the Emperor was to repent of his evil act before he ever again entered the church in Milan. Though at first Theodosius was enraged, cooler minds prevailed and he repented publicly. The fact and prestige of the authority of the Christian church in the minds of the masses was powerful enough to humble the Emperor and later helped make real changes in the due process laws of Rome.

These examples are illustrative of the truth expressed by Gibbon in his famous “lead off “ statement to the controversial 15th Chapter of Decline and Fall:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol. 

Christianity was now becoming the major culture carrier in the western world. As historian Peter Bernstein in his now famous book, Against the Gods, writes:

As Christianity spread across the western world, the will of a single God emerged as the orienting guide to the future, replacing the miscellany of deities people had worshiped since the beginning of time. This brought a major shift in perception: the future of life… was now prescribed by a power whose intentions and standards were clear to all who took the time to learn them. As contemplation of the future became a matter of moral behavior and faith, the future no longer appeared quite as inscrutable as it had…Yet the search for a better life on earth persisted. By the year 1000, Christians were sailing great distances, meeting new peoples and encountering new ideas. 

Christianity emerged from the cultural conflict of ideas and ideals as the power to be reckoned with. In fact, as Bernstein points out, cultures were “getting the picture” of a God whose Will was becoming increasingly known and whose power had replaced the prestige and presence of many false religions and their ageless traditions.
But, after Christianity “conquers”  through the Gospel and ethic of her people in overturning false and corrupt cultural powers and ideas, she loses the culture in whole or in part, due to the way she rules. It is not so much willful oppression, as it is hermeneutical immaturity. That is, when the Church interprets amiss, people suffer. When she persists in her misinterpretations and the reputation of being an opponent of tyrant and oppressor gives way to a perception that she is creating a hardship of her own and inflicting it upon society…people vote with their feet.

Marriage and divorce play a critical role in that cultural decline and loss of influence. Let’s now take a look at the ugly side of the early church. After all …

If we destroy the things we once built we make ourselves sinners…