In Defense of Saints
The practice of venerating Christian saints is one that is frequently misunderstood by certain Protestant and evangelical groups, especially those who, like me, were raised in the Southern “Bible Belt.” This misinterpretation, along with others, inhibits ecumenism and contributes to the disconnect between the so-called “high church” and “low church” traditions. As my understanding of theology and Church history has increased, so has my appreciation for saints. The problem for many Christians results from confusing “veneration” with “worship.”
Imagine living in the century immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when Christianity was still in its infancy, when being a follower of Jesus meant being accused of incest and cannibalism, and when many Christians were martyred in Roman spectacles. Imagine being among that very small group and hearing about a fellow Christian being crucified or fed to the lions in the Colosseum simply for refusing to renounce his or her faith. It only makes sense that the stories of these men and women would become legendary. The exemplary lives led by the early Christian saints helped to inspire countless men and women to dedicate their lives to the Church and played a major role in expanding the faith. Honoring these Christians by building tombs and churches in their memory was, in fact, instrumental to the development of Christianity.
The trope of family is crucial for understanding the role of saints in the Christian tradition. In the ancient world (and still in many places today), one’s status and worth was mostly determined by bloodline or family lineage. In the Hebraic (Jewish) tradition of the first century, honoring one’s family was seen as a religious duty.
However, the blood shed by Jesus on the cross instituted a new bloodline. God, through the work of Jesus Christ, called us all to become a new family in which everyone’s worth is exactly the same. This is precisely why Jesus said that His followers must come to Him and “hate” their families (Luke 14:25-27, Matthew 10:34-37). He does not mean that Christians must literally “hate” their families; rather, Jesus is simply undermining the clan loyalties of the day and calling followers to their new family. Jesus promises those who leave their familial duties to follow Him new “brothers and sisters, mothers and children” many times over, not only today, but in the “age to come” (Mark 10:29-30). This is what Paul means when he says “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). While it may seem second nature to us today, when the early Christians called each other “brother” and “sister,” this would have sounded very peculiar to the non-Christians of the Roman Empire.
When one of our loved ones passes away from this life, we honor them with flowers, a tombstone, pictures, and our thoughts and prayers. My grandmother passed away before seeing me graduate from college and before my second daughter was born, yet in those moments I hoped that she was smiling down from heaven upon my family. We do not think of this as worship directed towards members of our family, however, this is exactly how the early Christians treated their fellow brethren when they died. The saints are members of the Christian family who stand as testaments to living a Christian life and witnesses to the history of the Church.
For churches that choose to honor Christian saints, communion is a central theological tenant. Communion covers all aspects of Christian life. We are to join in communion with God through Jesus Christ. We are called to be in communion with our Christian brothers and sisters in this life and the next. When a Christian passes away from this world and enters heaven, they do not cease to be a part of the body of Christ – which is the Church.
As Symeon the New Theologian says, “The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith, works, and love. So in the One God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken.”
When Catholic or Orthodox Christians adopt the name of a saint and honor their name day, they are not worshiping that particular saint in the Western/American Protestant sense of the word. They are simply continuing that chain which holds the body of Christ together. They are reinforcing the communion of the Church.
“Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath and if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit will be immortalized.” – The Ultimate Warrior
These words were uttered by my favorite childhood wrestler only a few days before succumbing to a massive heart attack. Of course, the Ultimate Warrior was no saint and his words have nothing to do with Christianity. Still, this powerful quote offers a good analogy. The stories of Christian saints can inspire us in our lives and guide us closer to Christ.
2 Michael Burns, “Jesus’ new family,” Fox Valley Church of Christ (Appleton, WI),http://www.foxvalleychurch.net/Docs/Jesus’%20new%20family.pdf.
3 Timothy Ware,The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 255-256.
4 Kyle Newport, “The Ultimate Warrior’s Final Speech to Fans on ‘Monday Night Raw,” Bleacher Report, 9 April 2014,http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2022961-the-ultimate-warriors-final-speech-to-fans-on-monday-night-raw.