If American Christianity returns to the margins, it might help the American Church. Jesus was born in the margins, as was his Church. And the Church has usually flourished (or at least improved her health) in the margins of society. This is not a call to embrace victim status, but a reminder of the hope and resilience of Christ’s Bride.
Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, caused a stir last week by stating, without hesitation, that congregations and religious institutions that “oppose same-sex marriage” should lose their tax exempt status. Smarter folks than me have already piled on the think pieces and I have no intention of adding to the noise. If the polls are to be believed (and when have they ever been wrong?), O’Rourke won’t be sitting in the Oval Office in 2020. However, it got me thinking. Election years tend to make me ponder the apocalyptic. What if we were to lose tax-exempt status? Aside from how devastating that would be to our churches and colleges (not to mention to traditional mosques and synagogues and charities), I wonder if some good would come of it? Might it not return Christianity to the margins, where it has always done well?
When I say, “the margins”, I mean the segments of society that are powerless, voiceless, and despised. In first century Roman Palestine, the margins included:
- the poor
- the needy
- the widow
- the orphan (and children, generally speaking)
- the sojourner
- the refugee
- the outcast (lepers, disabled, demon-afflicted)
- those in prison
- the persecuted
If the American Church were suddenly pushed back into to the margins, would she be alright? Well, yes. She would. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But I think she would also do well (even as she suffered) because her Lord was born in the margins, she was born in the margins, and she has grown well in the margins.
The Holy Family in the Margins
Just as the Israelites “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.22:21), Jesus spent time as a refugee fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Jesus was a displaced person (Matthew 2:13-15). John Chrysostom observed that Jesus was homeless “even when he came in swaddling clothes. Thus you see even at his birth a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing, and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. Similarly, you yourself need not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is not inconsistent with the hidden ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of travail Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. All of them were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive” (Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 8.3).
While we shouldn’t seek or pray for persecution, when if comes, we are in good company. “When you flee in Egypt, you come to these steep ascents of faith and action. You face a tower, a sea and waves. The way of life is not pursued without the waves of temptation” (Origen, Homilies on Exodus 5.3). And it was because Jesus’ family fled as refugees from King Herod’s infanticide that Jesus could one day, voluntarily, seek out the cross and not flee death, but taste it for all of us.
If we are to be of the margins, we are not going anywhere Christ has not been. And neither, for that matter, would it be new ground for us.
Born in the Margins
Most Christians in the world live in or near the margins of the world. But a particular comfort for the American church is look back at the early church. According to the historian Rodney Stark, by the year 350 there were an estimated 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire. That’s 56.5% of the Empire that claimed Christ as Lord. By the end of the first century, Christians made up 0.01%. By the end of the second century, they made up 0.36%. Emperor Constantine skewed the numbers for us after this, but the Church was certainly a marginal people early on. Some historians even put the percentages lower than Stark does before Constantine.
Nevertheless, as Alan Kreider points out in his excellent research:
- “Christian numbers were growing impressively in the first three centuries.
- This growth varied tremendously from place to place. In certain areas (parts of Asia Minor and North Africa) there were considerable numbers of Christians. But in other areas there were few believers. And some cities, such as Harran in Mesopotamia, were known to be virtual ‘Christian-free’ zones.
- By the time of Constantine’s accessions, the churches not only had substantial numbers of members; they extended across huge geographical distances and demanded the attention of the imperial authorities.”
A cynic might suggest that Constantine hitched his chariot to a winning horse as he saw Christian populations exploding. At any rate, before it was made legal, Christianity was flourishing (though not everywhere) even though it was despised as atheistic, incestuous, and secretive (see Justin Martyr’s First and Second Apologies). But that’s alright. We’ve done well in such environments.
Thriving in the Margins
Like a flower growing up out of a sidewalk crack, Christianity seems to increase through confines. From the modern example of the Chinese church growing even as the government destroys their buildings to the distant past, she has grown with an almost reckless exuberance.
After the death of Stephen in Acts 7, a massive persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem. But what happens? What happens when you blow on a dandelion and the seeds scatter all over your yard. Acts 8 begins by telling us that as the persecution spread, so did the church.
In Tertullian’s Apologeticus, he says that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” “We not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Heb.12:4), but we have no had cause yet. If anything, we have cozied up to power in a manner reminiscent of those religious leaders who feared to lose their position and their place (John 11:48). But Christianity thrives in the margins, not in bed with the state.
Will the church in America lose her tax-exempt status? Will we lose our religious liberty as the country continues to bow to Venus in worship? Will our sense of conviction and character crumble as we seek to clutch at our fading influence? I don’t know. But if the track record of Christ’s Bride is any indication, she will be fine. And it’s not because she is inherently bulletproof. It is because her Lord conquered death. And though I do not welcome it, I think we will be alright in the margins. That’s where this all started, after all.