Gospel-centred?

I am just back from Belgrade, where I had invited Steve Timmis to reflect on the theme of what Gospel Centred means for life, church, community, preaching and church-planting in 21st century Europe. The 330 people from 30 European countries asked stimulating and pertinent questions. I was inspired and hopeful as I watched the interaction with these mostly young church-planters – there is real hope for our continent if we all carry the gospel into our contexts and apply it in life-giving ways! The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and also for transformation, of the individual, the church and through the church the world!

Barely 10 days later, the wedding of the Harry and Meghan came along, and with it that sermon from Michael Curry. I must confess that I didn’t listen to it live, but I was so intrigued by the positive reaction that it got from across the board – atheists, liberal Christians, evangelicals, some of them friends and colleagues – that I acquainted myself with it online. Based on a careful reading of the full transcript (here) this is a synopsis of the 15 minute, 1545 word sermon:

After a Trinitarian prayer Michael Curry quotes SoS 8:6-7 on love being as strong as death and segues straight into a telling quote from MLK on the redemptive power of love and its eschatological promise.This premise is the theme of the rest of the sermon.

He first illustrates his point by recalling the newly weds romantic feelings for each other, extrapolating from that sense of rightness (albeit a self-centred rightness at this point) to the rightness of love in its more prosaic forms. He argues that the feeling of the rightness of love is actually a signpost to the fact that God made us and since God is love, when we act in love, we act out of our createdness. Since our Creator is love, his creatures should act in love, and will feel right when they do.  Medieval poems and 1 John 4 7-8 are quoted in support of this thesis which assumes universal and omnipotent proportions in a sequence of rhetorical flourishes.

Bringing our attention again to the living, breathing example of the young couple in love and getting married, Curry invites us to see that not only is love powerful and right because of its source, but also because it is the centre of Jesus’ teaching (referencing Matthew 22). To quote : A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world – and a movement mandating people to live that love, and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.

Bishop Curry then demonstrated that this power could effectively change the world by showing how this idea sustained and liberated African American slaves; even if the power of this passage seems to owe more to rhetoric and poetry than to logic and rigour. Quoting an old Spiritual, the words roll over us – ‘healing a sin-sick soul, Jesus dies to save us all, He gave up his life for the wellbeing of the world…’

Commenting on this, Curry shows that the mystery and power of the death of Jesus is in its exemplary nature : “Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”

A dazzling anaphora follows, inviting the listeners to “imagine a world” where human beings live out that kind of love, and what kind of world we would have if “love was the way.”

The soaring conclusion borrows from the language of the New Testament to describe that actuality – it would be a new heaven, a new earth – for those within the Christian tradition, strong words indeed!

Coming back to his introduction, Curry conflates the erotic love of the lovers in SoS 8:6-7 with the agape love of the NT passages he has quoted (Matthew 22, 1 John 4) and riffs amusingly and compellingly on the idea of fire. His conclusion is an exhortation and a promise : “Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world-wide Anglican communion, exclaimed after the sermon in an interview and later on Twitter : “Well it really was, to be honest, the good news of Jesus Christ’ In other words the gospel. And that was the general impression in the wake of the sermon. That the gospel had been preached and that it was amazing.

So I am asking the question – not nastily, not grumpily, not religiously, or pharasaically, or pedantically or whatever other adverb you might be tempted to insert here – but genuinely, and for the sake of the gospel – was the gospel preached in this sermon?

And before we get into the answer, let me just say from the off that I never expected it to be. The Royal Wedding is much more about tradition and pageantry than Christianity. And Bishop Michael Curry is from the Episcopal Church in America, widely known to be liberal in its approach to ethics. So in what follows, I am emphatically not excoriating Michael Curry for preaching as he did, because he did what I would have expected him to do, and he did it very well. But I am questioning gospel-people who heard the gospel in this sermon, because that seems to me to be a much more serious concern. If we cannot discern the gospel, then we are likely unable to communicate the gospel. And if we are so desperate to have the gospel be popular and for preaching to get some kudos that we join the throng in congratulating what will transpire to be something that is not the gospel and even against the gospel, then we are set for another Babylonian captivity of the church that will be even more tragic because it is so easily avoidable.

I would like to highlight 7 concerns in which this sermon should have raised red flags for gospel listeners.

Expositional

As gospel-people, we believe that the bible is God’s word given in God’s way for the good of God’s people and for the conversion of rebellious humanity. The bible is revelation and the gospel is at the centre of this revelation. That means that when we preach we preach from the bible, and we expose what the bible says according to the intention that the authors had. In the absence of this discipline, the bible becomes simply another text I can press into service of whatever cause or circumstance I like. This is conspicuously what Bishop Curry did. What Solomon wrote about passionate erotic love (SoS 8:6-7) being uncontrollably strong is in the context of not awakening love prematurely and in making sure that this love is lived out in the context of whole life commitment between man and wife (aa a seal on your arm, the seat of action, and on your heart, the seat of affections and will). This is a great text for a marriage. But it is not a launching pad for a revolution of love sermon.

In the same way, 1 John 4:7-8 is taken out of its context. The kind of love in question, according to 1 John 4:10, is the propitiating sacrificial love of Jesus at the cross. The important omission in the sermon was not the sacrificial element – that preaches well, and is noble and heroic – but the propitiating element, which speaks inescapably of the setting aside of God’s righteous wrath in the face of sin.

Gospel people have too high a view of the apostolic witness for them to be ok with a sermon using the bible in this way. We are at the service of the Word of God, not vice versa. How can we rejoice when a sermon so manifestly misuses Scripture?

Theological

Bishop Curry was operating in the realm of systematic theology in this sermon. That is what we do when we string together reflections and conclusions on bible passages. From his trinitarian prayer all the way through to the conclusion we were benefitting from the theological convictions and entering into the theological world-view that he was proposing.

So what was the theology that was the back-drop for the sermon – or more accurately the motor for the sermon? The way in which the Trinity was short-handed as ‘loving, liberating and life-giving’ was indicative. We don’t need to know the ethical positions of the Episcopal Church to know that these are loaded terms in today’s world. To be loving, liberating and life-giving is to be inclusive in the liberal sense of that word, and to deny the loving, liberating and life-giving creational wisdom of God.

The other clear theological strand that emerges is that of a this-worldly hope. If we could all love each other in the way that Bishop Curry imagines then that would be nothing less than a fully realised eschatology: a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). This is a far cry from the new heaven and new earth being ushered in by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead.

Philosophical

This theological version of a worldly utopia is closely related to the wishful thinking of the enlightenment. Man is born good – society corrupts him. Reason is elevated to the supreme place in the pantheon and the reasonable man is lord of all he surveys, even – perhaps especially – of obscurantist religion.

To the extent that religion agrees with enlightened man, then it may have a place and a role to play. This has been the route of modernism in theology since the 19th century. Rationalism and secularism mean that religion is never allowed to step out of line with the Zeitgeist for fear of merciless marginalisation.

Philosophically, gospel-people do not accept the premises, never mind the conclusions of the enlightenment and they are alert enough to know when these ideas have recuperated bible language for their own purposes. This alertness seems to have deserted us, as we sway to the charms of Bishop Curry’s rhetoric.

Rhetorical

People have praised Bishop Curry’s rhetoric. It was a fiery sermon by all accounts. It blew the place apart according to Justin Welby. Now people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and I am afraid that the celebrity culture has so seeped into our circles that we are too impressed by rhetoric and oratorical style. So what I am saying here is as much a criticism of much of what we praise and look for in our own circles as it is a comment on Bishop Curry’s sermon. And it is mainly a criticism of how easily we are impressed with style rather than substance.

Paul was clear on this. His message did not come with plausible words of wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4). The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk (1 Corinthians 4:20). Paul was not a great orator according to many, even according to himself (2 Corinthians 11:6) Our words have power, and the Holy Spirit takes them and uses them with power if and only if they focus on the Son, whom the Spirit loves to magnify, particularly in his cross-work. Rhetoric in the service of bad theology is dangerous and wolfish.

Evangelical

Evangelicalism has always eschewed universalism. It has understood that platitudinous appeals to the universal, unconditional love of God are not loving and not faithful. Sometimes clumsily, sometimes anxiously but absolutely correctly evangelicalism has stressed that there is a separation, that there are sheep and goats and that there is an urgency to the dual commands to repent and believe.

This goes to the heart of why I am confused as to why gospel-people rejoiced at the sermon. Nobody had to respond to the message other than to agree that it would be nice if everyone loved everyone else more and better. It might have made some people try to do that, either in their marriage or in a search for social justice. But that is neither here nor there in terms of eternity.

Experiential

This was a feel-good sermon. It rocked. But here’s the best-kept secret in preaching. The gospel, simply explained and well applied, with the weight of the inspired text behind it giving it depth, and texture, and saltiness is far more satisfying, and long-lasting in its nourishment than verve. The gospel feels better. Maybe not to all, maybe not at first, but we had better believe that when Christ comes to us clothed in the promises of the gospel, there is no better thing on earth. There is no greater experience that earth has to offer. It fills us with joy unspeakable and makes us full of thankfulness.

And so bewilderment is the only way I can describe my reaction to the many who, admitting that maybe the sermon was not crystal clear on the gospel, still lamented the drab offerings people in gospel churches were served up Sunday by Sunday. Bewilderment and anger, too, that so many faithful gospel pastors had been so blithely dismissed and belittled.

Practical

Here’s the rub. Bishop Curry’s sermon founders on the rock of reality. People are inherently selfish and curved in on themselves. It is no service to them to appeal to them to be better. To try harder. That has been the explicit narrative of the 20th and 21st century and it has clearly failed. The way people behave on social media and on Wall Street is not a blip or an insignificant minority; It is human nature. We have in fact loved ourselves more than God and others. The flippancy with which Bishop Curry paraphrased Jesus in Matthew 22 was telling. ‘While you’re at it love yourself’ is a self-help mantra, not a gospel truth. It is inimical to what Jesus was driving at in this text. It is the easiest thing in the world for us all to do, even, as Pascal asserts, those of us who are driven to despair and suicide.

Loving ourselves first makes it impossible for us consistently to love others and to love God. It makes Bishop Curry’s sermon an exercise in futile naivety at best. Not only that, but loving ourselves first makes us guilty of failing to love others and failing to love God and thus puts us under condemnation and judgment. If this sermon was the gospel, then it is not good news. It s not good news, because i can’t live up to it. And it is not good news because it does nothing about my predicament.

At this point someone will want to talk about the balm in Gilead section. Far from being the best bit in the sermon, this might have been the most misleading. For some of the key words that might have made a difference were there, but they were camouflaged and explained away. Remember, after all, that you can sing the creed, but you can’t say it. And remember also that the explicit meaning given to those words was the exemplary nature of sacrificial love. It sounded just enough like the gospel to mislead nearly everyone.

So to come back to the text that Steve Timmis expounded in Belgrade, the ground on which he appealed for gospel centrality in all of life and ministry – Colossians 2:6-15. As you read this text, you will see how Paul contrasts his message with the empty philosophies of human tradition. As I have mused on this debate, I have come back to these words and asked myself would Paul have approved of Bishop Curry’s sermon? Would he have heard the gospel?

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.  Colossians 2:6-15 

I think Paul would have asked: ‘O foolish people, who has bewitched you?’


Philip Moore
European Director, Acts 29

The Reformation’s Far-Reaching Implications

The most important reason to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is its recovery of the doctrine that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Yet the Reformers recognized that bedrock doctrine had implications cutting across every facet of life. Their application of Scripture to life and culture continues to serve as a model for followers of Jesus. Amid your Reformation Day celebration, consider the following:

The Reformers modeled public courage. Luther famously refused to recant his writings before the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating at the risk of his life, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Though Luther managed to avoid martyrdom, others bravely defended Protestant doctrine to their death. The martyrs included men and women, pastors and laypeople, old and young who believed standing for Christ was more important than life.

The Reformers modeled love for the local church. They weren’t standing for theology in the abstract. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and company loved, served, and fought for people who filled the pews in specific local churches—warts and all. As such, the Reformers are a powerful example for Christians tempted to hop from one church to another in search of the perfect spiritual experience. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:2, the person who seeks a church with “perfect purity” must “necessarily in the end withdraw from all others, and look upon himself as the only saint in the world, or set up a peculiar sect in company with a few hypocrites.”

The Reformers modeled love for the family. Focused on biblical teaching, they rejected the Catholic Church’s requirement of clerical celibacy and re-elevated marriage and child rearing as noble tasks of the believer. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora and Calvin’s to Idelette de Bure both stand among church history’s most tender unions. That’s why Calvin wrote upon Idelette’s death, “Mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life.”

The Reformers engaged the culture. Their Gospel had implications for the public square, and they were not afraid to state those implications. Calvin and Martin Bucer both explicitly condemned elective abortion while Luther extolled the dignity of unborn children and childbearing. Reformers additionally wrote on the role of government, public virtue, and education among other public square topics. Calvin dedicated much of his adult life to establishing a culture in Geneva that honored God’s standards.(Admittedly he and Zwingli did not embrace contemporary understandings of religious liberty; witness the execution of the non-Trinitarian Michael Sevetus in Geneva and the Anabaptist Felix Manz in Zurich.)

The Reformers recovered expository preaching. In 1519, Zwingli broke from the standard practice of preaching according to the church calendar and launched a six-year series of expository sermons through the entire New Testament. Calvin likewise preached through books of the Bible, covering most them over the course of his ministry. So committed to sequential exposition was Calvin that following a three-year exile from Geneva, he resumed preaching in 1541 from the exact point in the Psalms at which he left off.

The list could continue of ways the Reformers applied their doctrine to everyday life. The underlying point is that Reformation doctrine cannot be partitioned off as affecting only a narrow slice of existence. Luther and company recognized biblical truth has far-reaching implications—a vision the church desperately needs to embrace five centuries later.

Suffragists Play the Race Card

By Henry Blackwell’s calculation, there were three masses of illiterate voters in America in 1895—immigrants in the North, poor whites in the South, and the southern Negro. He compared them to monkeys casting ballots. The solution was clear to his hearers gathered for the Atlanta meeting of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association: Give women the vote. As he put it, “[I]n every State, save one, there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign.”[i]

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted voting rights to black males in 1870, but some states fought to reverse this through poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements.[ii] “In Louisiana, for instance, there were 130,334 registered Negro voters in 1896; in 1904, only 1,342.”[iii] But the long-term solution would be the constitutional guarantee of a new voting bloc essentially doubling the white vote. In the words of Southern suffragist Belle Kearney, it would “insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.”[iv] She assured her northern sisters that they would one day be grateful as they faced their own invasion of racial and cultural undesirables.[v]

Surely suffragists in the North would run from this theme, but many found it acceptable. For one thing, they resented the fact that their husbands and sons had fought a Civil War to give the vote to black males while ignoring the disenfranchisement of their wives and mothers. Second, they were convinced that their vote would be an important corrective to cultural dilution of the voting pool, even benefiting blacks. Third, they were pragmatic.

In the late 1880s, the WCTU’s[vi] Francis Willard toured the South, offering “her ‘pity’ to white Southerners, saddled with the ‘immeasurable’ problem of ‘the colored race . . . multiply[ing] like the locusts of Egypt.’”[vii] Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to endorse the 15th Amendment and readily joined forces with racist newspaper publisher George Train, whose motto was “Women first, and negro last.”[viii]

At one gathering, Anthony called Train’s support for her newspaper, The Revolution, “almost sent from God.” In the discussion that followed, abolitionist Frederick Douglass insisted that Stanton stop “characterizing blacks as ‘Sambo’ and ‘bootblacks.’” Anthony stood her ground, saying that “if the ‘entire people’ could not have suffrage . . . then it must go ‘to the most intelligent first.’” And when fellow suffragist Lucy Stone pled for relief from their campaign against the 15th Amendment, Stanton announced that she “did not believe in allowing ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey.”[ix]

In 1920, the suffragist movement succeeded; the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. Of course, this was a wonderful achievement, thoroughly consonant with the biblical teaching on the dignity and wisdom of women. Not so wonderful was the way in which many American suffragists played upon the racial prejudice of the populace. While Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony have been honored rightly on U.S. stamps and Anthony on U.S. coinage, their legacy is stained somewhat, because their crusade for the 19th Amendment stooped to unsavory measures. They should have known that ends do not justify immoral means.

 

Endnotes:

[i] Henry B. Blackwell, “Address to NAWSA Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, January 31-February 5, 1895,” in The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper, eds. Mari Jo and Paul Buhle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 337.

[ii] Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 254-255.

[iii] Ibid., 254-255.

[iv] Ibid., 255.

[v] Belle Kearney of Mississippi, speaking at the NAWSA convention in New Orleans, March, 1903. Quoted in Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 202.

[vi] Women’s Christian Temperance Union

[vii] Douglas, 255.

[viii] Ibid., 256-258.

[ix] One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995), 69-70.

For Such a Time as This

12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther 4:12-14 (NIV)

A great many Bible events involve persons who act at a propitious moment—not as a matter of sheer chance, but under the sovereignty of God, the Lord of history. A range of biblical examples comes readily to mind: the young shepherd David, who began the day bringing food to his soldier brothers, but found himself facing Goliath in battle (1 Samuel 17); the boy whose lunch fed 5,000 through a miracle of Christ (John 6:1-14); the Pharisee Gamaliel whose intervention saved the apostles from a Sanhedrin death sentence (Acts 5:33-40). Of course, the prime example is Jesus, of whom John the Baptist declared, “The time has come . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

The Greek word for “time” in John’s declaration is kairos, denoting a season or moment pregnant with promise, laden with significance, prophetically charged—a day to be seized lest the choice opportunity is lost. It stands distinct from the other Greek word for time, chronos, the “tick-tock” time of your watch or of chronology. Of course, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but thanks to a team of scholars who began their work in the third century BC, a Greek version, the Septuagint, emerged over the next hundred years.

And it employed the word kairos to capture the role of Esther in delivering her people from destruction.

Living among exiles under Babylonia captivity, Esther was chosen as queen to King Xerxes, who did not know she was Jewish. But that would change. A wicked official named Haman so despised her uncle Mordecai that he managed to elicit a royal decree that all the Jews would be slaughtered on a particular late-winter day. Distraught, Mordecai urged Esther to approach the king on behalf of her people, thereby risking her life by entering his throne room uninvited and by revealing her ethnicity. He reasoned that she may have gained her own high position so that she would be in place to act effectually “for such a time [kairos] as this.” She assented, and the Lord blessed her efforts.

The case of Esther is instructive for Christians of every era: 1) She was available when called, sufficiently attuned to the heart and work of God to say yes when the path opened up before her; 2) She was willing to move outside her safety zone, telling Mordecai, once she’d made her choice, “If I perish, I perish” (Indeed, some, like the disciple Stephen in Acts 7, lost their lives at their kairos moment); 3) She undergirded her action with fresh consecration, in her case through a three-day fast (v. 16).

Meanwhile, God was acting providentially to maximize the impact of Esther’s deed. He softened Xerxes’ heart so that he might not lash out at Esther’s “impertinence.” (As it says in Proverbs 21:1, “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.”) And He gave the king a sleepless night, one in which he turned to old official records, where he discovered that Mordecai had once saved him from an assassination plot.

Of course, most Christians are not recognized for historic interventions, but the normal Christian life involves acts of eternal significance through, for instance, evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, a kairos moment may seem as negligible as a “chance” conversation or as momentous as a deciding vote in Congress. Both may prove crucial. For in God’s economy, great things may come from any and all who stand ready to serve Him sacrificially “for such a time as He may please.”

Marriage: Evangelistic Sustainer of Love

31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:31-32 (ESV)

“Your love is your own private possession,” wrote Christian martyr Dietriech Bonhoeffer to a young couple from his prison cell in 1943. “But marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. . . . It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”[i] What a stark contrast to the contemporary, sentimentalized view of marriage!

One of God’s purposes for marriage is to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the Church. Just as in the old covenant, Israel was Yahweh’s bride (e.g., Jer. 2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-2), so in the new covenant, the Church is Christ’s bride (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-9). This divine marriage encompasses all of time, from eternity past to eternity future. It is not as if Paul is casting around for an illustration of what it means to live a godly married life and thinks of Christ and the Church. Quite the reverse: marriage is the illustration. Christ and the Church are the ultimate reality.

Furthermore, while marriage is a creation ordinance (Eph. 5:31, quoting Gen. 2:24), the relationship of Christ and the Church is prior to creation. We were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); and this is the mystery now revealed in the gospel. While human marriage is merely lifelong (Mark 12:25), the marriage of Christ and the Church will last for all eternity.

Just as marriage is public (“a man shall leave his father and mother”), intimate (“the two shall become one flesh”), exclusive, and lifelong (“[he shall] hold fast to his wife”), Christ’s relationship with the Church is public, intimate, exclusive, and lasting. The Lord Jesus is a faithful husband. His commitment to His bride is seen in that He laid down His life for her in order that she might belong to Him (Eph. 5:25-27). He did this even while she was an idolatrous sinner. His promise is that He will lose none of those the Father gives Him (John 6:39). His commitment to His bride sustains His love for her, even when she sometimes strays.

By taking a bold stand for lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, pastors and their churches inoculate Christians against an overly sentimentalized view of marriage that pervades the culture. And by committing themselves to marriage as a covenantal institution, Christians reflect the commitment of Christ to His Church and, thereby, proclaim the gospel in their very unions—making marriage a blessed tool of evangelism.

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Endnote

[i] Dietriech Bonhoeffer, quoted in Richard John Neuhuas, “The Public Square,” First Things 113 (May 2001): 67-88, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0105/public.html (accessed March 8, 2006).

How Christianity Conquered Rome

Famine and war had recently afflicted Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside.[i] However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. Bishop of the city and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”[ii]

Cities in the ancient world were even more overcrowded than the densest population centers today. With few sewers existing, cities were filthy beyond imagining and became a breeding ground for disease. Major catastrophes were not uncommon, including fires, plagues, conquests by armies, and frequent earthquakes.[iii] Even though the cities were unpleasant places to live, they were the population and intellectual centers of the empire, and they provided Christians with opportunities for numerical growth and cultural influence. Indeed, Christianity eventually dominated the empire by taking root in almost all the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Alexandria in North Africa to Cordova in Spain.[iv]

However, the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire came not by the sword, but by the preaching of the gospel joined with acts of compassion. Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”[v] A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest, he said, “[W]hen it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”[vi] To another, he wrote, “[They] support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[vii] In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.

Julian’s program failed because the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Christianity presented to the ancient world two theological truths that were not to be found in the pagan religions. The first is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God worth dying for, since He had first demonstrated His love for humanity by sending His Son. The second truth was a “new conception of humanity,” that is, the idea that all human beings have special dignity and should therefore be shown compassion.[viii] These two ideas slowly but surely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Today, as the West appears to be returning to paganism, the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrines of God and of man will once more stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture by Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in acts of compassion.

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Endnotes

[i] Caesarea had a population of about 45,000. There were only thirty-one cities in the empire whose populations were greater than 30,000. See Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 35-36, 60.

[ii] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15. Eusebius records that the famine was so severe that a single measure of wheat was sold for 2,500 drachmas, one drachma being the daily wage of a skilled worker (292). Eusebius interprets the tragic events as divine punishment upon the city for its zeal in carrying out the government-sponsored persecution of the Christians initiated by Caesar Maximin. Shortly after these events Maximin died, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was legalized throughout the empire.

[iii] Stark, Cities of God, 26-29.

[iv] See Stark, Cities of God, 35-59, for a brief overview of the Christian presence in each of the thirty-one largest cities of the empire.

[v] Eusebius, 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15.

[vi] Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 2, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 337. Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (“To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923], 69). He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (“To Arsacius,” 69-71; cf. “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” 335-337).

[vii] Julian, “To Arsacius,” 71.

[viii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 214.