Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation available in Paperback
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About the Author
William C. Placher was the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, and the author or editor of eleven books. He passed away in November of 2008.
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CallingsTWENTY CENTURIES OF CHRISTIAN WISDOM ON VOCATION
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCallings to a Christian Life: Vocations in the Early Church, 100-500
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It was not easy to be a Christian during the first several centuries of the church's existence. Christianity began as an obscure cult out on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and most of those living in the empire heard of it first in wild rumors: Christians engaged in orgies; they wanted the world to end; when they met together, they ate flesh and drank blood. Most Roman social occasions - almost any time ordinary Romans got together to eat meat or drink wine, for instance - involved participating in a sacrifice to one god or another, so Christians usually felt they could not take part, and naturally got a reputation as unfriendly to their neighbors. Since they would not sacrifice to the divine emperor, they must be traitors. After all, this Jesus they worshipped had been executed by a Roman governor.
Becoming a Christian thus often meant isolation from family and friends. Christians didn't fit in; if they fell victim to persecution they could break their parents' hearts and put their children at risk. Persecution was only occasional, but it carried the risk of torture and death. Yet more and more people kept joining the church. It was as if the blood of the martyrs watered its growth.
Eventually, Christianity became the official religion of the empire, and at that point some Christians promptly started to feel that simply living as a Christian had become too easy, too safe, too socially respectable. They went off to literal or metaphorical deserts to pursue monastic lives of radical self-denial, convinced that only in this way were they truly following Christ.
As noted in the general introduction, in the early church "call" (klesis in Greek) usually meant the call to become a Christian. Writing to the Christians at Rome, Paul addressed them as those "who are called to belong to Jesus Christ" (Rom. 1:6); "God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7). Most people in the ancient world had little choice of job or profession anyway; they did what their parents had done before them. What Christians had to decide was not what job to take, but whether "to be conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2), or to commit themselves to this new community of "aliens and exiles" (1 Pet. 2:11) that followed Christ.
This chapter includes:
Two stories of Christian martyrs (Ignatius, Perpetua)
Two accounts of conversion to Christianity (Justin, Augustine) A defense of Christianity in the face of accusations made against it (Tertullian)
Two discussions of what it meant for prosperous and important people to live as Christians (Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa)
Three texts about the beginnings of monasticism (Athanasius, Palladius, Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
Together, these excerpts give a varied picture of what it meant for early Christians to respond to the call to follow Christ.
Reading these texts, many readers today will be struck by their sheer strangeness. To be sure, there are many parts of the world where it is still dangerous to be a Christian - more people died for their Christian faith in the twentieth century than in any other century, and the risks are not going away in the twenty-first century. Those of us who live today in predominantly or traditionally Christian countries, however, have little fear of martyrdom. Most of us who are Christians were born into Christian families - we have never undergone a conversion from some other set of beliefs. The radical asceticism of the early monks and nuns may well seem just bizarre to us. Do the lives of early Christians connect at all with our questions about how God might call us?
I think they do. In some respects, the situation of Christians today is more like that of the early church than that of most Christians in between. From roughly the year 500 to just a few generations ago, the vast majority of Christians lived surrounded by other Christians, in societies where Christianity was generally taken for granted. Our situation is more like those first few centuries: many of our neighbors follow another faith or none at all. Many of the values and beliefs common in our culture challenge our faith. Our beliefs may seem quite peculiar to many of our neighbors. Those who enter ministry often do so over the objections of their families, who were hoping that their bright daughter or son would choose a more lucrative and prestigious career.
Why do I believe? How do I answer challenges to my faith? What am I willing to risk, at least in "not fitting in," for my faith? Is my faith just a matter of going along with my family, or is it something I'm willing to let change my life in some radical way? - Such questions, asked long ago, confront Christians once again.
Aliens and Exiles in the Midst of Empire
In its first several centuries Christianity expanded primarily within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and in most ways the empire was good luck for the church. Roman roads ran everywhere from Spain to Egypt; Roman patrols kept the sea relatively free of pirates; a common Roman currency encouraged trade. It was the best of times for travel all around the Mediterranean basin, and Christianity benefited immensely from the pax Romana, the "Roman peace."
The Roman government was usually tolerant of the empire's many religions. As emperors were declared to be gods (first after their deaths and then during their lifetimes), subjects were expected to sacrifice to the deified emperor. Failure to do so was like refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag today - only much worse, grounds for charges of treason and execution. For most of the empire's subjects, this constituted no problem. They performed sacrifices to all sorts of gods; one more made little difference. Jews would have no part in such rituals, but Roman piety always respected faithfulness to the traditions of one's ancestors, so Jewish customs were generally honored. Christians, however, were converting people of every nation to a new religion, and that looked suspicious.
The first recorded Roman persecution of Christians occurred under Nero, in 64. On one account, the emperor was suspected of starting a fire during one of his wild parties that eventually burned down much of the city of Rome. To shift the blame away from himself, he accused the Christians, and a number of them (according to tradition including both Peter and Paul) were tortured and killed. Like most Roman persecutions of Christians, this one was brief and local, confined in this case to the city of Rome. For a couple of centuries thereafter, if a local Christian church made enough enemies, the Christians could be accused of refusing to make the proper sacrifices, and at least a few might well be killed. The Emperor Decius in the early third century and Emperors Diocletian and Maximinus Daia at the beginning of the fourth century engaged in systematic but brief persecution of Christians across the empire, but even then only a small percentage of Christians were actually arrested and killed.
From the safe distance of many centuries, we could say that Christianity received just the right amount of persecution to foster its growth. Brave Christians had the chance to win wide admiration by showing their willingness to die for their faith, but persecution never grew extensive enough really to threaten the church's expansion. For Christians at the time, however, persecution must have seemed a terror. It might start up again at any point, stirred up by anyone from local neighbors to a new emperor, and the forms of torture Christians faced were horrible indeed. They could easily enough become "martyrs" - until the second century, the Greek word had just meant a "witness," as in a legal trial, but then Christians began to use it of those who had died for their faith. The martyrs' willingness to suffer and die for their faith, the Christians said, was a "witness" to that faith's power. A call to follow Christ only rarely ended in martyrdom, but the possibility was something any Christian had at least to consider.
Why Then Become a Christian?
Yet the church kept growing. More and more people felt called to be Christians. Perhaps a traveling merchant came around with amazing stories about this man named Jesus. Perhaps a friend issued an invitation to visit the small group of Christians that met in someone's house. Perhaps seeing martyrs die for their beliefs raised questions about how these people could be so sure of their faith.
Whatever the initial impulse, anyone from slaves to officials at the imperial court came to believe. They believed that there is only one God, who created everything that is, and who, in spite of the fact that all of us are sinners, loves us so much that he sent his only Son to save us. Surely we want to avoid eternal punishment; surely we want to show our gratitude to the God who offers us salvation. Both fear and love should thus lead us to "turn around" (our word "convert") and "lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory" (1 Thess. 2:12).
The Christian message had its own persuasive force, but it also succeeded in part because of flaws in the alternatives available to most subjects of the empire in a time of cultural decline. By and large, the worshippers of Greek and Roman gods did not expect love from them. Deities were powerful; it was important to win their favor or appease their anger. No one even hoped for compassion. Moreover, the behavior of these divine beings, as reported in the stories told about them, often seemed scandalous. In the second century, the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria quoted at length from the Greek poets about Zeus's many rapes of women and boys alike and concluded, "Show him only a woman's girdle, and Zeus is exposed, and ... dishonored. To what a pitch of licentiousness did that Zeus of yours proceed, who spent so many nights in sexual affairs?" This greatest of the gods was not an avenger of wrongs, but rather "the unjust, the violator of right and of law, the impious, the inhuman, the violent, the seducer, the adulterer, the amatory."
Many intellectually sophisticated Greeks and Romans stopped believing in these myths and turned instead to the more abstract consolations of the philosophical schools of the time. Stoicism and Platonism, the most prominent, called for real changes in people's lives, indifference to worldly pleasures, and purification of the soul. Problem was, they often did not work very well. Many of those who followed philosophy led admirable lives, but even at their best, philosophies mostly aimed at the cultural elite, who could follow their arguments and had the luxury of reflecting on the value of turning aside from excessive pleasure. Celsus, the great second-century critic of Christianity, ridiculed the Christians for believing that they could change the moral lives of "the most stupid and uneducated yokels." Exactly right, his Christian opponent Origen replied: such is the power of the gospel that it can transform anyone. Even for the educated, Augustine concluded from his own experience, the best of the philosophers were like people who "from a mountaintop in the forests" see "the land of peace in the distance" but cannot figure out how to get there. They lacked the power to change lives.
Christianity was different, so Christians claimed. Writing around 200, the Christian Aelius Aristides declared that Christians
do not commit adultery, they do not engage in illicit sex, they do not give false testimony, they do not covet other people's goods, they honor father and mother and love their neighbors, they give just decisions. Whatever they do not want to happen to them, they do not do to another. They appeal to those who treat them unjustly and try to make them their friends.... They do not overlook widows, and they save orphans; a Christian with possessions shares generously.
We might expect a Christian to paint too positive a picture, but even their opponents conceded the changes Christians' faith meant to their lives. Their courage in the face of martyrdom was widely acknowledged. Galen, a Roman physician generally rather contemptuous of Christians, admitted that in their sexual morals, in their "self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice," these often lower-class and ill-educated Christians "have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers." The satirist Lucian, holding Christians up to ridicule, noted that these foolish folk think "that they are all brothers of one another.... So if any charlatan and trickster ... comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk." The ridicule itself acknowledges their well-known generosity. Even the forcefully anti-Christian emperor Julian, who tried to restore paganism in the fourth century, had to admit that "the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well."
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