The Marginal Church

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.

Conclusion

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.

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To Love as Humans Do

Sometimes we think we love too deeply. Billions of hearts are broken and reformed and rebroken every year. The silver screen and mp3 pour out the tears and the tears refill them. There is such much riding on the girl next door, the spouse in your bed, or the friend across the table. We are so desperate for closeness and so tired of loneliness (beggars, all of us) that we make each other the whole world in paraphrase.

“You’re the moon.”

“You are my everything.”

“You have my heart.”

“One soul inhabiting two bodies.”

Deep, thick, resilient love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be the most fragile thing in the world. In my job, I’ve learned that if the roof is too vast, it cannot support itself. It needs to be sustained by structure, by unyielding steel. Otherwise everything will collapse around our ears. And until the end credits roll, what is more unyielding than death?

The bored graves gnaw down every one of our friends. All our loves eventually will blend into the dirt and the dark. And our hearts, worn once on our sleeves and perpetually held by all those irreplaceable people, will fray like flags in a thunderstorm. Who can withstand that weight? What soul can stand up under the immeasurable banner of another human creature’s love? O Lord, what can we do?

An African Wolf of Wall Street was once ambushed by the living-again Lord of his mother’s homespun and simple faith. But before the wolf could live again himself, he lost his beloved friend (Confessions, iv/7-x/14). Augustine had to leave the city to escape his friend’s memories that were attached to the streets. He was afraid of death because to die would be to snuff out all that was left of the departed.

Flipping through the pages, years later, Augustine recognized that he failed to love his deceased friend humanly. He had loved his friend as if he were immortal, as if his shoulders were immovable and the burden of life-giving love as weightless as sunlight. In Rowan Williams’ excellent study on the church father, he discusses that we need to learn how to grow in our capacity to bear loss and absence. That’s what it means to love as humans. We are leaves in autumn and we love each other’s beauty because we know that winter is coming.

“Our great temptation,” Williams says, “Is ‘inhuman’ love, loving the finite for what it cannot be, loving people or things for magical symbiotic relation they have to my sense of myself, my security and self-identity.” Tom Cruise, telling Renée through tears, “You can complete me,” is beautiful, but ultimately an inhuman love. It’s a hope for an eternal autumn without bare branches. Augustine, latching onto his friend and splitting asunder when his friend died, loved outside the bounds of his own creatureliness, his own humanity.

Sometimes we think we love deeply. But perhaps we only love too wildly, like fire spilling out of the fireplace. But when we remember that we are like grass, that we flourish like day lilies, love finds its parameters. And love finds its depth.

The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.