Reading Romans Wrightly

Posted September 21, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

We’re beginning a year-long series in Romans at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I’m finding it challenging, to say the least. Romans has been quite the lightening rod of late for debates between scholars in Reformed circles (represented by John Piper), on the one hand, and New Perspective folks (preeminently N. T. Wright), on the other, over justification, Romans, and Paul in general. What follows are some ramblings from what is a work in progress (my thinking about the issues!), as I try to sort all of this out to my satisfaction.

Where Romans is concerned, the debate seems to center around whether we should read the text (a) as a somewhat abstract, a-historical treatise addressed to the human condition or (b) as an occasional letter in which Paul underscores the centrality of the Christ event in God’s unfolding drama of salvation-history, in order to address perceived needs (primarily a lack of harmony between Jews & Gentiles) in the church at Rome.

I think both perspectives have much to offer. The historian in me, however, views ‘b,’ above, as the self-evident place to begin. I think Wright’s reading of Romans, for example, makes a whole lot of historical sense, particularly his understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s covenant faithfulness.

My impression, moreover, is that Wright makes more room for traditional insights in his reading of Paul than he is often credited with—certainly more room than numbers of Reformed theologians make in their reconstructions for recent findings related to ancient Judaism. For example, you will not find a more robust (read ‘orthodox’) expression of atonement theology than Wright’s treatment of Romans 3:25. He argues persuasively for both expiation (removal of sin) and propitiation (satisfaction of God’s wrath) in his commentary on the passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

Now I don’t buy what Wright does with imputation (I find his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 fascinating but forced), but given his understanding of union with Christ (‘in Christ’), I don’t find Wright doing anything remotely close to propagating ‘another gospel’ with his take on imputation. Frankly, some of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate could be toned down a bit.

With regard to ‘a,’ above (reading Romans as addressed in general terms to the human condition), I am quite convinced that Paul does, indeed, get there in his argument in Romans. This (in part) is what makes Romans such a spiritually powerful and timelessly relevant exposition of the Gospel. And this is where our Reformed brothers have much of value to contribute to the ongoing conversation. But if we begin here and stay here in our reading of Romans, we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that surface in Piper’s recent critique of Wright’s understanding of Paul:

Problem #1 — Piper offers a rather idiosyncratic understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ as God’s ‘unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory.’ God certainly does exhibit an unwavering commitment to act for his own glory, but is that actually what Paul means with the phrase ‘righteousness of God’? I think not. Nor do others, since one has to look far and wide for any NT scholar who interprets the phrase this way. Reading ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises situates the phrase, in contrast, squarely in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people, and it makes much better sense (IMO!) of the argument of Romans. In the former case we have theology sans history. In the latter we have salvation history generating a robust picture of God (theology!) acting in history to redeem a people for his own possession.

Problem #2 — Piper collapses ethnic pride under the all-encompassing rubric of human sinfulness and rebellion. Fine, in the abstract, at any rate. Ethnic pride certainly is one very ugly expression of human sin. But to make this move at the gate is potentially to miss completely Paul’s passion to see Jewish and Gentile Christians rise above their ethnic differences and genuinely exhibit in their local church communities their oneness in Christ. Toss into the mix Western individualism (and our emphasis upon Jesus as ‘personal savior’), and many of us will (mis)read Romans as a treatise primarily about ‘me and God,’ rather than as a missiological challenge to pursue peace between ‘us and them.’

Problem #3 — Piper virtually dismisses Second Temple Jewish background as the proper context in which to situate Paul’s writings, suggesting, instead, that the context of Romans itself should be given priority. I find this utterly counterintuitive, and I suspect that few will follow Piper here. Of course the context of Romans should be given priority. But to assume we can read Romans 3:1-8, for example, in the context of the letter, without imposing upon the text our own broader, unarticulated matrices of understanding (e.g., controlling narratives from our theological training, church background, or whatever) is methodologically naive, to say the least. Like it or not, we will inevitably read Romans 3:1-8 in the context of Romans in the context of something else—whether that something else be 21st century neo-Calvinism or 1st century Judaism. I’ll opt for the latter, while remaining appreciative of the often timeless insights and truths of the former.

Last Sunday was our first Sunday in Romans. I challenged our people to read the text primarily asking, What does this passage say about God’s plan for his people? How do I fit into that big picture? and only secondarily asking, What does this passage say about me and my personal relationship with God?

Both kinds of questions are legitimate and, of course, hardly unrelated. And both are absolutely indispensable. But we need to begin our pilgrimage in Romans by asking the questions of the text that Paul is most immediately answering. Then, I think, we’ll begin to find ourselves on the Wright track. 🙂


The Allure of Toxic Leaders

Posted April 3, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

I am presently at work on a book about the use of power and authority in Christian leadership. The provisional title is When Pastors Were Servants: Recapturing Paul’s Cruciform Vision for Authentic Christian Leadership. The primary biblical materials in play are Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the apostle’s ministry in Philippi, as related by Luke in Acts 16.

The motivation to take on the project came from numbers of students at Talbot, and colleagues in pastoral ministry, who have found themselves on the receiving end of abusive, hurtful leaders. The book will contain, among other things, a series of narratives (well disguised, of course) detailing the various experiences that these men and women have had at the hands of narcissistic, dysfunctional leaders in their churches.

Here is perhaps the most counterintuitive reality I have encountered in the whole process of researching the topic: every single one of the half-dozen or so abusive local church leaders described in the book is still in his church, fully in control of the church’s vision, ministry, and staffing. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s insightful book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2005), helps explain why.

We are apparently attracted to toxic leaders. Psychological dynamics that lead us to rally around such leaders include a subconscious longing for a parental figure later in adult life, the need for security and certainty in an unpredictable world, and a desire to feel chosen or special, as we join together in community with others to support the noble vision of a bigger-than-life leader. We tend to look the other way, where integrity is concerned, if we can find an inspiring, confident leader to satisfy these pressing psychological needs.

At a deeper level, people respond to powerful, charismatic leadership out of a profound longing for a god-like figure in their lives. In religious contexts this person can be a gifted, celebrity pastor who simultaneously serves as both God’s representative and spiritual father to a willing, compliant congregation. Jesus was apparently well aware of this dynamic: ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven’ (Matt 23:9).

The public reaction, in this regard, even to a person who is good leader, tells us a lot about our longing for a savior figure, especially in the face of crisis. Consider the following excerpts from an op-ed article about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the New York Times. The piece appeared on September 20, 2001, a little more than a week after the tragedy of 9/11:

[Giuliani] moves about the stricken city like a god. People want to be in his presence. They want to touch him. They want to praise him….On Central Park West, a woman searching for just the right superlative for the man who is guiding New York through the greatest disaster ever to hit an American city finally said, ‘He’s not like a god; he is God.’ (New York Times, September 20, 2001, A31).

Wow! Fortunately, Giuliani proved to be a relatively selfless, compassionate leader throughout the 9/11 crisis.

This has not been the case in numbers of such incidents. Some of our gods turn out to be devils in disguise. This is true of public officials, and it is true of certain pastors in our churches. Yet we continue to tolerate and even encourage strong leaders who clearly misuse their power and authority.

Human leaders have clay feet. That’s why we need more than one of them at a time leading a local church. It is no accident that virtually every church in the New Testament was led by a plurality of elders-pastors. Maybe that’s how Jesus’ earliest followers interpreted his command ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father.’

Short of isolating ourselves completely from the family of God, there is no 100% safeguard that will protect us from abusive church leadership. But the right kind of church government can take us a long way in that direction. What we need, in each of our churches, is a team of pastors who share their lives with one another, and whose oversight of God’s people arises organically from the relational soil they cultivate together as a leadership community of peer brothers in Christ.

By some remarkable expression of the goodness and grace of God, I have had the privilege, for some thirteen years now, of ministering in just such a relational, team-oriented setting. I am better for it. My family is better for it. And my church is better for it. I can only pray the same for you.

Jesus The Shame-Bearer

Posted March 25, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

As we approach the Passion Week, it might help to think about Jesus’ crucifixion in a threefold way:

1. Cross-Bearing: The physical pain of Jesus’ death

2. Sin-Bearing: The spiritual anguish of Jesus’ death

3. Shame-Bearing: The public humiliation of Jesus’ death

We do a pretty good job in our churches of emphasizing (1) the physical suffering of crucifixion and (2) the spiritual anguish Jesus experienced bearing God’s wrath for our sins at Calvary. And so we should. Because most of us do not live in the honor culture like the New Testament world, however, we tend to miss (3) the shame-bearing that public crucifixion entailed. Perhaps a story will help.

My vocational pilgrimage has been delightfully schizophrenic. I still can’t decide whether I want to be a seminary professor or a pastor when I grow up. I have oscillated between the two jobs now from nearly two decades.

After some fifteen years of church ministry and a bit of adjunct teaching, I made the transition to academia in an official capacity in the Fall of 1994. I took a part-time but permanent position with the New Testament faculty at Talbot School of Theology. The plan was to bring me up to full-time when I finished my doctoral program a couple years later.

The two years came and went, and I was itching to get back into full-time church ministry. I told my dean at Talbot to give the job to someone else, and I jumped on board as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in February, 1996. I will never forget the reaction of one particular group of students at the seminary.

For a variety of reasons, related to the expansion of Christianity in the Pacific Rim and to our own history as a school of theology, Talbot has had the privilege over the years of training large numbers of pastors for the church in Korea.

These young men and their families make tremendous sacrifices to come to the States, learn a new language and culture, and get a top-rate theological education to take back to their homeland. They are some of our hardest working students. They have to be.

One day in early 1996 I announced to my classes that this was my last semester as a professor at Talbot. I was going back into full-time church ministry [Little did I know that I’d be back in the classroom full-time in 2001, but that’s a story for another time.]

The reaction of my Korean students took me completely by surprise. They suddenly began to act quite uncomfortable around me. As I probed a bit, it became clear that these international students felt deeply sorry for me. They were somehow ashamed for me, as well.

Traditional Asian culture, you see, is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as people in Jesus’ world were. Instead of military victory and public office holding, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere.

Additionally, and also characteristic of an honor culture, my Korean students view Christian education and ministry in markedly hierarchical terms. At the top of the pecking order is the seminary professor, with his august educational degrees and pedagogical authority. A local church pastor, although still a big fish in a small pond, doesn’t even come close.

The Korean brothers who heard my announcement in class that day couldn’t imagine that a seminary professor would willingly trade a position at the top of the spiritual pecking order for the lesser job of a pastor. They could only assume that someone else made that decision for me, against my will.

So these dear Korean students, sympathetically sharing in the shame they assumed I was experiencing, did not know quite how to respond to their now former, demoted professor.

The point of the above story should be quite obvious: in an honor culture, whether Korean or Roman, to willingly step down the ladder of public esteem is simply unthinkable. A Roman senator named Pliny put it like this, ‘It is more uglifying to lose, than never to get, praise’ (Ep. 8.24.9).

Willingly stepping down the ladder of public esteem, however, is precisely what Jesus did for you and for me in his incarnation and subsequent death on the cross: ‘He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). The early Christians were highly sensitive to the utter shame that crucifixion entailed in their social world—thus Paul’s emphatic phrase ‘even death on a cross.’

One of our earliest recorded Easter sermons describes the great paradox of a humiliated God like this:

He who hung the earth [in its place] is fixed there, he who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an Israelitish hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, his body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering, that [his nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide him who was stripped upon the cross. (Melito or Sardis, Homily on the Passion, 96)

Another ancient Christian preacher similarly reflected,

Where can anything be found more paradoxical than this? This death was the most shameful of all, the most accursed. . . .This was no ordinary death (John Chrysostom, Homily on Philippians, 8.2.5–11).

No comments in either of these sermon excerpts about Jesus’ physical suffering. No comments about the atonement. For these early Christian preachers, it was the horror of God the Son’s public humiliation that they wanted to impress upon their congregations.

Jesus, we are told by the author of Hebrews, ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb 12:2).

Much to think about here as we approach Good Friday and Easter.

Going Cross-Cultural On Ya

Posted March 3, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

I know what your reaction’s gonna be to this post: EITHER Finally, something relevant on Hellerman’s blog! OR  If I wanted a recipe, I’d be looking at a food blog! At any rate, I’m home today, fighting a cold, after a 16-hour day at the university yesterday, so this is what you get:

Dr. Joe’s Recipe for Killer Salsa


  • 8-10 ripe tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • 1 sweet yellow onion
  • 2-3 green onions
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 1 habanero pepper
  • 3-4 serrano peppers
  • 3-4 jalapeno peppers
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 – 12 oz can Embassa Whole Jalapeños in Escabeche

  • 1 jar Trader Joe’s Salsa Autentica. The one in the middle of the pic  (or any mild jar salsa that is not chunky).

[NOTE: When you buy the fresh jalapenos, try to find the ones without any white lines/cracks on the skin. These younger/fresher ones won’t be very hot, but we’re not getting the heat from the jalapenos. We’ll get plenty of punch from the serranos and the habanero.]


Braze the fresh jalapenos whole in a dry skillet (no oil) over a med-high flame. Roll ‘em around while your cooking them. When they’re ‘bout half covered with dark crust, they’re done. Use an old skillet.

In a blender, blend together well (1) Trader Joe’s Salsa, (2) 2-3 of the Embassa peppers, (3) ¼ cup of juice from Embassa can, (4) the jalapenos you just cooked, and (5) 2 cloves of garlic. Place in a large bowl.

Quickly eat the rest of the stuff in the Embassa can. NOT! [Just seeing if you’re still paying attention. :)]

Dice the (1) tomatoes, (2) yellow and green onions, and (3) cilantro into small, pico-de-gallo sized pieces (1/8 inch square or maybe a little bigger). Add to your bowl and mix up well with the stuff you blended.

Chop the remaining garlic into tiny pieces and mix it in.

Chop the habanero and the serrano peppers in tiny pieces. Add and mix in gradually, according to taste. I start with the habanero because I like smokin’ hot salsa, and because I think the habanero adds a certain flavor that the other peppers don’t have. Then, if I still want more heat, I add some serranos.

Squeeze a little lemon juice in to taste.

Salt and/or pepper optional.

Feed mouthful to your three-year old to test. [Just seeing if you’re still with me!]

The finest salsa you’ve ever tasted is now ready to eat, but it gets even better with a few hours of refrigeration—if it lasts that long!

I’d better get some comments on this one!

More On Will-y

Posted February 23, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Consider the following observations from two Christian thinkers representing two different theological traditions (Anglican and Eastern Orthodox):

Fleming Rutledge comments on the recent catastrophe in Haiti:

A frequent response heard from Christians is, “God has some purpose in this.” “Something good will come out of this.” “Haiti will become stronger as a result of this.” In one sense, all these things are true; however, these are deeply wrong responses, both theologically and pastorally….Glib, monochromatic responses to catastrophe should have no place in our faith.

David Hart expresses similar sentiments even more forcefully in a Wall Street Journal article he wrote in the wake of the tsunami disaster back in 2004:

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering—when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s—no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms—knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.

A part of me strongly resonates with these quotations. For the longer I am engaged in the serious study of the Bible, the more and more certain I am about fewer and fewer things. Now this does not mean that I will someday be absolutely certain about nothing! What it means is that the more I study the Bible, (a) the more convinced I am about the central doctrines of the Christian faith, and (b) the less convinced I am about the Bible’s teaching on peripheral issues, such those that used to divide Christians of different denominations back in the 1970s.

I suspect that it is my increasing agnosticism about a variety of biblical and theological issues (for example, the ultimate purposes of God in His sovereign rule over all creation) that causes me to resonate quite warmly with the sentiments expressed in the above quotations—until, that is, I stand back and reflect a bit more on what these writers are saying.

Then I have some real problems with what Rutledge and Hart are asserting about God and human suffering.

Are comments that we Christians make about “God’s inscrutable counsels” really “odious banalities”? Is it truly “blasphemous” to suggest that what happens on planet earth—the good and the bad—“mysteriously serves God’s good ends”?

Well, then apparently Paul of Tarsus was a blasphemer spewing odious banalities, since Christians who utter such despicable ideas traditionally draw their convictions, at least in part, from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28; 11:33-36).

And is it really the case, when all is said and done, that “only charity that can sustain us against ‘fate’”? We hardly needed David Hart to tell us that—the Beatles beat him to the punch(line) four decades ago: “All You Need Is Love.”

Both Rutledge and Hart are, of course, on target in their observations about the sin-soaked world in which we live. We do inhabit a natural environment that is currently in bondage to corruption (Paul had something to say about that, too, as I seem to recall.). And we are a people deeply marred by our rebellion against the Creator.

I particularly appreciate Rutledge’s reservations about the pastoral wisdom of offering simplistic explanations of God’s involvement with natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. There are times boldly to verbalize the truths of Scripture. There are also times that we pastor more effectively when we keep our mouths shut and simply listen to those who are hurting. And, of course, there are many times that we just don’t know, and we ought to acknowledge as much.

But in the final analysis, I see little Christian hope or optimism left for those of us who, like David Hart, above, would (1) situate the precious promises of Scripture under the rubric of “odious banalities” or “blasphemous suggestions” and (2) confess absolute agnosticism where the intersection of God and suffering is concerned. Such sentiments might set well with the readers of the Wall Street Journal. They would not be very helpful to my brothers and sisters at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

We gather together on Sundays at OCF desperately longing for a word from the Lord—for “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” as the hymn writer puts it. Contemporary theologians who dismiss the teachings of Scripture in favor of stridently polemical appeals to a sort of postmodern theological agnosticism leave us with neither strength for today nor hope for tomorrow. Only a word from the Lord—based on God’s promises as revealed in Scripture, and spoken in the context of the gathered believing community—can give us the resources we need to navigate the challenges of our daily lives.

None of us will ever harmonize the God of the Bible with the realities of human suffering in a way that fully satisfies either our intellectual capacities or our emotional needs. But if I cannot find in the promises of Scriptures some confidence that God is in control of this mess—if I cannot see in the crucifixion of Jesus a God who turns garbage into glory, and who will some day do the same with the rest of the horrors of human history, then take me back to my pre-Christian days as a rock-&-roll musician, and let me sing “All We Need Is Love” with John Lennon until the Lord comes back.

Until the Lord comes back? Hey, that was missing from those quotations, too! Perhaps we ought to add “Imagine” to our repertoire, as well.

When the Church Was a Family: Part FOUR

Posted February 20, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Ancient-Future Community?

Can we recapture in our churches today Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community, as reflected in the strong-group, surrogate family model that characterized the early church? I believe we can, with a healthy dose of careful reflection and culturally sensitive contextualization.

First of all, what I am advocating here is a markedly relational approach to Christian community, not the institutional model that most of us associate with the word “church.” I suspect, in fact, that our natural aversion as Westerners toward the idea of a strong-group church finds its origins in the institutional nature of our own church experiences. For the early Christians, belonging to a local church was a commitment to a group of people—not a commitment to a highly programmed institution driven by Western ideologies of corporate management and success measured solely by numerical growth. First and foremost, then, we must return to the concept and practice of “church” as a relational entity.

As inspiring as it is, moreover, the North African scenario related in the previous installment will likely prove exceptional in one important sense. Most of what you and I will experience by remaining in community with our brothers and sisters in a strong-group, family setting will not involve decisions handed down through the channels of formal church leadership, as was the case for Cyprian, Eucratius, and Marcus. Rather, the benefits will accrue informally, in the course of daily life, as we work through conflict, share victories, and endure heartaches together in those relationships that inevitably develop and bear fruit among Christians who determine to stick it out in community together. And this elicits a second observation.

Commitment to such a group must remain a decision that is made by each individual member, not one imposed from above. And it will be a decision that will need to be renewed in our minds on an almost daily basis. Our friend Marcus had little choice in the matter. He would either assent to the church’s demands to shut down his acting school or lose his place in the community. We have other options. We can simply leave one church to attend another congregation across town.

We must choose, instead, to stay. For people who stay grow. And people who stay help others to grow, as well. But we had better prepare ourselves at the outset to make the choice to stay, again and again, in the face of cultural pressures—pressures often reinforced by the raging whirlpool of our own emotions—that are screaming for us to do otherwise.

Finally, all ultimately depends upon the willingness of church leaders to teach and, especially, to model a strong-group, surrogate family approach to Christian community. It is hardly accidental that every local congregation in the New Testament (the Jerusalem church is a debatable exception) is led by a plurality of pastors-elders-overseers (the words are interchangeable), not a single or senior pastor figure.

This is an important observation for readers who fear that a strong-group church might turn into an abusive cult. God has woven safeguards against such abuse deeply into the fabric of biblical community—safeguards related to the number of church leaders and the nature of church leadership, respectively. For from what we can tell, each New Testament congregation was governed by a plurality of elders who were to exercise their authority as servants of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The result? No single individual would exercise cult-like authority over the church as a whole, and surrogate family values would be modeled for the rest of the congregation among a community of pastor-elders at the top level of church leadership. Such modeling will prove indispensable to the realization of family values and behaviors in our churches today, as I have discovered in my own congregation, where the surrogate family orientation of a team of pastors has profoundly influenced the relational ethos of our church as a whole.

Conversely, the American evangelical model of the CEO pastor who functions as a spiritual father to his congregation and as a business executive with his staff— but who relates to no one in the church as a peer brother in Christ—will only serve to undermine any attempts to recapture Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community. For a leader who has no true “brothers” in the congregation will be unable authentically and credibly to challenge others to live together in community as surrogate siblings.

A return to the church as God intended will begin therefore, as is often the case, with a transformation of values and behaviors among those who lead God’s people.

The End

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

Posted February 18, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

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]