Have you noticed some trusted Christians on social media suddenly sniping at other trusted Christians over non-gospel issues? How would the body of Christ have behaved if contemporary technology existed hundreds of years ago? Church history is replete with “social media food-fight” parallels. As you read below, consider what the internet would/should have looked like back then.
Early Church Fathers
Tertullian was passionate, articulate, and persistent in attacking Gnostics. He is credited with coining the word “Trinity”, and has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology.” However, late in life, Tertullian joined the unorthodox Montanists. So, what do we do with his legacy?
Tertullian’s contemporary, Irenaeus, was a bishop, apologist, and arguably the leading Christian theologian of the 2nd Century. Irenaeus rightly taught that God created the world, has been overseeing it ever since, and that the high point in history is the advent of Jesus. He additionally recognized that Christ is the new Adam, that the penalty for sin is death and corruption, and that salvation occurs through Christ. However, some suggest he also held that Greek philosophy offered the possibility of embracing salvation by ethical behavior. There is reason to call him a hero, but also reason to think him a heel.
Leaping forward a couple of hundred years, Athanasius arrives on the scene. He is an absolute giant in church history, and is given names like “Athanasius the Great”, “Athanasius the Confessor”, “Athanasius the Apostolic”, “Pope of Alexandria”, and “Pillar of the Church”. He served in church leadership for nearly five decades, was exiled five times, and famously fought against Arianism. Yet, it is alleged that Athanasius defiled an altar and sold grain meant for feeding the poor – keeping the money for himself. He even stands accused of using violence to suppress dissent. Perhaps these allegations are untrue, but if some bear resemblance to reality, what then?
Remaining in the same geography, there is Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was a scholarly archbishop and a prolific writer who lived during the 4th and 5th Centuries. He championed orthodoxy, battling against Nestorianism. So, he is a white-hat-wearing sort of guy. Or is he? Cyril has been identified as an anti-Semite and has been linked to both the seizure of sacred treasuries and slayings under questionable circumstances. Every detail of these blights upon his character might not be accurate, yet his reputation as a practitioner of Christian love is questionable. Hero or heel?
What about Ambrose of Milan, one of four original “doctors of the Church”? He introduced the concept of congregational singing, was an excellent preacher, and stood strong against immorality. But, Ambrose did not want to be a bishop. So, seemingly as a coward, he went into hiding. When his community needed him, pleading for him to be ordained as their bishop, he ran from the responsibility. Should he receive commendation or condemnation?
What of Augustine, the greatly celebrated Christian thinker? He championed salvation by grace, teaching the biblical doctrines of mankind’s depravity and God’s sovereignty. However, he also believed sexual intercourse, even within marriage, always involved sinful desire. He additionally said that using birth control means spouses are “committing adultery within marriage” and “turning the bed-chamber into a brothel.” Plus, he did not accept a “literal reading” of the creation narrative, feeling that six days was too long and that God accomplished the creation in a mere moment of time. Is Augustine a heretical heel?
Living at the same time as Augustine was Jerome, the translator who gave the world the Latin Vulgate Bible. It is reported that he was a nasty guy, filled with sarcastic invective. Also, Jerome supposedly pushed one woman so far into adopting ascetic practices that she died four months after beginning to follow his instructions. Adding outrage to the situation, Jerome insisted that she not be mourned because the grief over her passing was excessive. Was he right, or heartless? Additionally, Jerome was forced to leave his position in Rome due to allegations that he had an improper relationship with a widow. Hero or Heel?
What about Martin Luther? His “95 Theses” are credited with igniting the Reformation and returning God’s people to serious study of God’s Word. He was bold, had a towering intellect, and was exceptionally talented. Yet, his legacy has faced criticism for anti-Semitism, and for allegedly counseling King Philip I to obfuscate the king’s bigamy. Is Luther still a hero?
One can hardly mention Luther without mentioning John Calvin. This French Reformer had an extraordinary mind; the original version of “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was written when he was only twenty-seven years old. However, his critics like to point to Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus. And some scholars today accuse Calvin of allowing for errors in the original autographs of the Holy Scripture. These scholars are straining out gnats, and have not proven their case. However, what if they advance their arguments leaving intellectually honest people with no reason for rejecting their thesis?
In recent years it has been fashionable to castigate Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Richard Fuller, Reverend R. Furman, and others for their support of and/or participation in chattel slavery. Edwards is arguably the highest IQ theologian in American history, and Whitefield is arguably the most impactful outdoor preaching evangelist to ever set foot in North America. Are they to be jettisoned because people today recognize they made mistakes? Keep in mind, if they will be in eternal glory, then this means they are beloved by God. Jesus gave His life for them. (Does the church today appreciate the gravity of this truth?) Each member of His church is precious to Him. When one disrespects the Lord’s body, they disrespect the Lord.
Bible People and People Today
Noah, the only man saved – along with his family – from the Flood in Genesis, got drunk off his feet, exposing himself for his sons to see. Abraham followed God, so he was promised a very special land, yet he lied about being married to his wife – twice! Moses was the great lawgiver of the Old Testament, but also a murderer and sometimes a coward. Samson was the strongest man ever recorded, and a judge for God’s people, but nearly to his last breath he was narcissistic, always quick with a joke and mean-spirited. King David was a man after God’s own heart, but he had a man murdered after stealing the man’s wife. Solomon is the wisest man in history, but he had a thousand wives and concubines. Elijah squared off with the false religious teachers of his day but then fled from the queen’s threats like a wimp, and whined to God that he was all alone. Jonah ran from God, and eventually turned around to prophetically pronounce God’s warning to Nineveh, only to become an ungrateful complainer. Peter was a leader among Christ’s disciples, yet denied Jesus three times. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, got into an unfortunate snit with Mark. These men are not to be treated as heels, are they? Aren’t they our heroes?
What about you? Are you a hero or a heel? In truth, left to our own merits, all of us are heels. All were made to be heroes, but all fail daily. This is why everyone needs God’s mercy and grace, and why we need the Christian brethren for mutual edification, encouragement, companionship, example, support, accountability, and love.
It might seem as though nearly all of the Christians mentioned above should be counted as heroes. This is likely true. But always remember that their greatness was accomplished by using gifts God gave them, within situations God had placed them, for purposes God had foreordained for them. These men did what they did as ambassadors for the Son of God, as soldiers in Christ’s army, indwelt by His Spirit and advancing His kingdom, in union with the Messiah – and in union with one another. Their great accomplishments belong to the entire church because they are Christ’s great accomplishments – and His bride is in union with Him. Additionally, all these believers’ failures belong to the entire body, too.
All saints are co-heirs with Jesus, and therefore share in one another’s victories – and also carry the load of one another’s burdens. When this is not understood, Christ is not understood. Nor is His church, nor His mission. The gospel is what must motivate the movements of the heart, and animate everything for which the Lord’s people hope/strive/yearn. Jesus is the pearl of great price, and His people are the apple of His eye. The saints must behave in ways that illustrate this truth by loving one another. Love what God loves; hate what God hates. God hates the wolves. Expose them, even mock and ridicule them, so as to protect the flock. But remember also that God loves the sheep. Don’t treat the sheep like wolves!