When the Church Was a Family: Part THREE [of FOUR]

Stories of the ancient church living out its family values appear throughout early Christian literature. The following story is especially illuminating. Sometime around 250 A.D., a marvelous thing happened in a small church, in the rural town of Thena, just outside the great Roman metropolis of Carthage in North Africa. An actor converted to Christ. We do not know the fellow’s name, so in what follows I will refer to our actor friend as Marcus. Marcus’s conversion created quite a stir in the church in Thena, and his story paints a delightful picture of the early church in North Africa functioning at its strong-group, family best.

Theater performances in antiquity were typically dedicated to a pagan god or goddess, and the plays often ran as part of larger public religious festivals. Scenes portraying blatant immorality were commonplace. All this proved rather troubling to the early church. Christian leaders were quite outspoken in their opposition to the idea of Christians going to the theater:

Why is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears—when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants of the spirit? If you are going to forbid immorality, you’d better forbid the theater (Tertullian, De Spectaculis 17).

Now if Christian leaders had this much of a problem with those who attended the shows, you can imagine how they felt about persons who made their living in the theater. When an actor converted to Christ in third-century Carthage, the first thing the church demanded of him was to quit his profession and disassociate himself from the theater forever.

Our actor friend, Marcus, did just that. Marcus bowed to the demands of the Christian community and stopped acting in the local theater. Our new convert now faced an economic dilemma, however, since he was no longer gainfully employed. So, instead of acting, Marcus decided to teach acting. He opened an acting school. This apparently created quite a stir among Marcus’s fellow Christians, because soon both the pastor of the small church in Thena and the bishop of the big-city congregation in Carthage found themselves embroiled in the ensuing damage control. The surviving letters exchanged by these two Christian leaders paint an inspiring portrait of the church truly living out its strong-group family values.

Marcus’s pastor, Eucratius, apparently had a dilemma on his hands which he had not encountered before, and he did not quite know what to do. Eucratius naturally sensed a certain contradiction as he considered his new convert’s behavior. How could it be acceptable for Marcus to teach others what he himself was forbidden to do? Yet Marcus had already made a tremendous sacrifice to follow Jesus, a sacrifice that had cost him his job. So Eucratius wrote to his spiritual mentor, Cyprian of Carthage, to ask “whether such a man (Marcus) ought to remain in communion with us.”

Cyprian’s reaction to Marcus working as a drama teacher was unequivocal:

It is not in keeping with the reverence due to the majesty of God and with the observance of the gospel teachings for the honour and respect of the Church to be polluted by contamination at once so degraded and so scan­dalous (Ep. 2.1.2).

No compromise. No breathing room. No drama teaching. Marcus must either leave the church or quit his job—again.

Marcus’s story has the “strong-group” aspect of “strong-group, surrogate family” written all over it. It is Cyprian’s conviction that “the honour and respect of the Church” must take priority over Marcus and his acting academy. Marcus, on is part, finds himself answering to the church for his whole vocational and financial future.

Cyprian’s apparently insensitive handling of Marcus’s dilemma grates harshly against modern social sensibilities, since we tend to prioritize the needs and goals of the individual over the viability of any group to which he or she belongs. After all, Cyprian has not even met Marcus, and here he is, quick to leverage his episcopal authority to excommunicate Marcus from the church. Let us suspend judgment for a moment, however, as we return to our story to see how the “family” aspect the strong-group, surrogate family model begins to play itself out in Marcus’s ensuing pilgrimage.

For all his hard-nosed, strong-group convictions, Cyprian is not unaware of the suffering Marcus will face if the former actor defers to the group and shuts down his academy. Cyprian goes on in his letter to suggest a way in which Eucratius’s congregation can assist Marcus in his Christian walk. As Cyprian’s comments clearly demonstrate, the intense emphasis upon personal holiness which characterized the North African Christian church had a beautiful complement: a genuine concern for those whose livelihoods might be adversely affected by assenting to the church’s demanding moral standards. In short, Cyprian tells Pastor Eucratius that the church should provide for Marcus’s material needs:

His needs can be al­leviated along with those of others who are supported by the provisions of the Church. . . .Accordingly, you should do your utmost to call him away from this depraved and shameful profession to the way of innocence and to the hope of his true life; let him be satisfied with the nourishment provided by the Church, more sparing to be sure but salutary (Ep. 2.2.2-3).

And if this is not enough, Cyprian concludes his letter by telling Eucratius that Cyprian’s church will foot the bill if the rural church in Thena lacks the resources to meet Marcus’s basic needs:

But if your church is unable to meet the cost of maintaining those in need, he can trans­fer himself to us and receive here what is necessary for him in the way of food and clothing (Ep. 2.2.3).

Cyprian demanded of those in God’s family an uncompromising standard of Christian morality. No theater. No acting. No teaching others to act. God’s people would be radically different than the pagans in the dominant culture. But Cyprian made sure that the church would serve as the economic safety net for any brother or sister whose finances were adversely affected by their willingness to follow Jesus. Why? Because the church was a family. And this is what family did in the ancient world. The conviction that church members should meet one another’s material needs is, of course, central to the New Testament understanding of church family life: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17).

There is no surviving letter of reply from Marcus’s pastor, Eucratius, to Cyprian, to let us know whether or not Marcus agreed to the church’s demands. We are on solid historical ground, however, to assume that he did. Why? Because history has shown us that pagans in Carthage were consistently attracted to—rather than turned off by—the intensely moral, highly supportive, strong-group surrogate family model that characterized the North African church. Fifty years before Marcus found the Lord, Tertullian could boast to the Roman world,

Day by day you groan over the every-increasing number of Christians. Your constant cry is, that your state is beset by us, that Christians are in your estates, your camps, your blocks of houses. You grieve over it as a calamity, that every age, in short every rank is passing over from you to us. We have left you only the temples (Ad Nat. 1.4; Apol. 37.4).

[To Be Continued]

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