Violence for Jesus (or: How the Church Went Rogue), Part 1

Once upon a time, Christianity was very exclusive. How exclusive?

Well, enough that a third-century document, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus (though no one actually knows for sure who wrote it), listed out who could not be baptized.

The text consists of various guidelines for how Christians are to conduct themselves in church – how to do baptisms, ordain bishops, perform liturgies, etc. – and, as you can tell from the title, it claims that these rules date all the way back to the practice of the apostles (though, of course, they don’t). Chapter 16 is a fascinating paragraph that opens referring to the church leadership: “They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are brought forward for instruction.”

What follows is a series of sentences in the structure, “If someone is a … he shall cease or be rejected.” Some of the professions that fill in the ellipsis are as follows:

  • Pimp
  • Sculptor or painter
  • Actor
  • Charioteer, participant or attendee of “the games”
  • Gladiator or otherwise affiliated with gladiator or wild-beast shows
  • Priest or attendant of idols
  • Enchanter, astrologer, diviner, interpreter of dreams, charlatan or maker of amulets

Others are also listed with other qualifications. “It is good” for a teacher to stop teaching, but if it’s his only source of income, that’s OK. Prostitutes, “the wanton man” and those who have castrated themselves are to be rejected, full stop, because they are impure. “A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration.” In the complicated world of sexual ethics, a concubine can be let in if she has been faithful to the man who kept her and raised his children, but a man who keeps a concubine must marry her or be rejected. And then there’s this, in A.T. 16.9-11:

A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.

Some of these are obvious – someone who is heavily involved in the pagan religions of the Roman power structure needs to give them up to be a true member of the Christian church. Some of these seem odd until the cultural conditions become clearer – actors usually performed in shows glorifying the pagan gods, for example, and painters and sculptors generally earned their keep making idols. Likewise, charioteers and gladiators were involved in the very contests that were used to kill Christians during whatever persecutions happened to crop up from time to time in various parts of the empire.

This also explains much of the prohibition against soldiers, officers and military governors. Soldiers might be asked to arrest Christians, and governors were simply too enmeshed in the pagan-based, anti-Christian Roman system. But the injunction regarding officers gives another reason, as well: People in the military might be asked to kill others.

Obviously, much has changed in the centuries since. Pacifism may be more popular now than it has been in decades, yet it remains a fringe position. Most Christians today have few or no qualms about joining the military, supporting war or rooting for their side to win a conflict.

So how did we get from labeling someone “who wants to become a soldier” as one who “has despised God” to the Crusades, in which God was shown with the point of a sword? Time won’t allow me to distill all of that in one morning, so I’ll try to break this up over the course of the week. With the presidential election behind us and as we enter a period of relative calm in the political universe (fiscal cliff notwithstanding), perhaps a little reflection about how we as Christians have engaged with the power structures around us can help us better determine what is appropriate for us in the 21st century – 1,800 years after the Apostolic Tradition drew such a firm line in the sand.

2 thoughts on “Violence for Jesus (or: How the Church Went Rogue), Part 1”

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