Friday, April 28, 2017

We're not ready

I was recently reading the little treatise On the Lapsed by Cyprian of Carthage, and was struck by how relevant it is for the church in the West at the moment.  For those unfamiliar, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage for about ten years before his martyrdom in 258.  He was bishop through the Decian persecution, which kicked off with the Emperor Decius requiring every inhabitant of the Roman Empire to offer a sacrifice for the safety of the Empire in front of a magistrate; those who sacrificed received a certificate to that effect, whilst anyone refusing was harshly punished.  Whether the edict was particularly directed at Christians or not, it obviously had a great effect on the church.  By all accounts, the persecution was particularly harsh in Carthage (which had a larger than average Christian population), and many Christians made the required sacrifices.

Two things in particular struck me about Cyprian's treatment of those who have 'lapsed' - who have sacrificed to the pagan gods in order to save their skins and their social standing.

Firstly, he argues that the persecution was not the cause, but merely the occasion, for apostasy.  He looks back to the church before the persecution, and argues that it had become undisciplined.
Among the priests there was no devotedness of religion; among the ministers there was no sound faith: in their works there was no mercy; in their manners there was no discipline.  In men, their beards were defaced; in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God's hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren. They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles. They would swear not only rashly, but even more, would swear falsely; would despise those set over them with haughty swelling, would speak evil of one another with envenomed tongue, would quarrel with one another with obstinate hatred.
The church which was not disciplined and committed to purity of life before the persecution could hardly be expected to stand up when tested.

Secondly, because that is how he sees the problem, Cyprian is not willing to lightly readmit those who have lapsed to fellowship.  The logic is obvious.  The roots of their apostasy did not lie in the persecution but in the failure to take the gospel and its call to purity seriously; the persecution merely revealed the problem which was already there.  So how could the problem be remedy through a relaxation of discipline?  A failure to be serious about the gospel cannot be addressed by not being serious about the gospel.

One reason I've been thinking about this stuff has been the Tim Farron debacle.  I wouldn't want to draw too many parallels between the hounding of the leader of the LibDems and the Decian persecution, but there are a few.  For example, all that is required to escape is to make a token gesture towards the prevalent ideology of the day; nobody requires that you take it too seriously.  Just say it isn't a sin, pay lip-service, and we can all move on.  But the main thought is: if this is a sign of things to come - and it is entirely conceivable to me that at some point it will become difficult for anyone who won't subscribe the new paganism, even if they're not the leader of the LibDems - well, are we ready?  Do we know what we believe and why we believe it?  Are our church communities disciplined?  Do we take the gospel seriously?

I confess, I worry a bit.

1 comment:

  1. All too true.

    An unpleasant but perhaps necessary thought experiment: could I myself withstand being thrown to the lions/being tortured for Christ? Or, perhaps more likely at some point in our own time - dismissal from work, public denunciation, fines, prison, children taken away 'for their safety and well-being'...?

    I almost feel like a well-trained reflex nurtured by the Spirit would have to kick in automatically. But as you say, are we disciplined by the Word in such a way that that would happen?