A Random Musing on an Inapplicable Moment in History
To the relief of readers and editors, today’s article is not about the election bid of businessman Donald J. Trump. There’s no longer any reason to discuss that, given that its current state of acrid evanescence is more analogous to a cloud of rapidly dispersing canine flatulence than a real presidential campaign. I would instead like to revisit an episode of early church history: the 3rd century persecution under the Roman emperor Decius and the ensuing ecclesial crisis. This is for no reason at all, and is definitely not a veiled musing about what post-election American Protestantism might look like.
Decius took the throne in 249 AD, a time when barbarian incursions, economic crises, and the fading practice of ancient Roman traditions marked an eclipse of the empire’s glory.1 Decius believed that Rome’s fallen state was the direct result of Roman citizens abandoning the ancient gods. To restore the empire to its former glory, then, the old cults must be restored as well. Due to the inexorable connection between state power and state religion, failure to worship the state gods was “practically treason.”2 To appease both the state and the heavens, Roman citizens were required to offer a sacrifice to the gods and burn incense in front of a statue of Decius. Doing so earned the participant a certificate. Those without certificates were in violation of imperial edict, subject to imprisonment and torture.
This was, as the reader can imagine, something of a sticking point for Christians, and many indeed refused to obey the edict. Some were killed. Many, however, were simply imprisoned and tortured. The Romans had slowly learned that martyrdom inspired followers rather than disheartened them, and this campaign was designed not to annihilate Christians so much as convert them back to the religion of their forefathers. Those who endured torture but remained firm in their faith became known as confessors. Those who burned their incense and gained a certificate, on the other hand, became known as the lapsed.
Like all humans, tyrants have a tendency to expire. Decius died a scant two years into his reign, and his successor, Gallus, abandoned these policies. Now that the dust had settled, the church was faced with a serious problem: what to do with the lapsed? This was a complicated matter, not in the least because of the varying degrees of the lapsed; for example, some ran for the imperial altars as soon as the decree was announced, while others held out but purchased counterfeit certificates to evade persecution. There was also the problem of authority. Confessors were seen by some to have spiritual authority to restore the lapsed. Many bishops, on the other hand, objected to this violation of hierarchy and claimed only those in official positions could grant leniency. Still others thought both confessors and bishops were far too quick to give the lapsed reprieve. This controversy divided the church across the Mediterranean.3
Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, took the lead in determining the fate of the lapsed. He called a gathering of bishops, where stipulations for the readmittance of the lapsed to communion were decided. Authority to readmit the lapsed was clarified to be in the hands of the bishops and not the confessors. Cyprian’s desire to put this authority with the bishops was due to his belief in the unity of the church, which is the body of Christ. Granting confessors the power to readmit the lapsed threatened this unity and destabilized the church.4
This episode, of course, is a terrible parallel for anything happening in America today. No one faces imprisonment and torture. Some legal fines, perhaps, for refusing to provide sacrifices at the state’s marriage altar, but nothing fatal. Further, if there is a rush to appease a pagan emperor-like figure, it’s because he promises security rather than threatens to take it away. However, if such a pagan emperor-like figure really is out there today, brandishing a toupee and gobbling up the endorsements of previously respected evangelical thinkers like Eric Metaxas and Wayne Grudem, then it would behoove of us to ponder what we do with such thinkers and their fans once this cloud of canine flatulence wafts away after November 8.
As a Protestant, affirming the authority of the bishops as Cyprian did is a nonstarter. Further, when you have someone who is kind of like a bishop casting their lot in with the emperor, it’s hard to muster respect for such authorities anyway. I have a silly dream that in a month’s time we will awake from a collective nightmare, shrug sheepishly at one another, and then forgive and forget. We can then go back to supporting candidates who espouse our sincerest convictions and not our tribal fears. I worry, however, that the attitudes that led to Christians supporting a modern pagan emperor are far too ingrained. The fears that drive us to strongmen won’t go away.
American Protestantism does not have the structures in place to weather secular storms as a unified body. We have no Cyprian, no synods. We have every political incentive to cling to whoever promises us safety, and with our increasing isolation in social media bubbles, we have little to fear from dissenters. Our best hope lies in another great spiritual awakening, a mass movement of the Spirit that gives us courage in the face of discomfort (I will not say persecution) and a heart set not on earthly things but on the things above, where Christ is (Col 3:1).
Not that I’m referring to the election, of course. You know, because of the dog fart thing.
1. Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity, vol I. (HarperCollins. New York, 1984) 85-86.
2. Ibid. 86.
3. Ibid. 88.
4. Ibid. 89.
Photo by Portable Antiquities Scheme at Flickr Creative Commons.