Sundoulos - Summer 2006

Ancient-Future Community

by Joe Hellerman

A Lesson from the Early Church

Sometime around 250 AD, a young man converted to Christ in the town of Thena, just outside the great Roman city of Carthage. Marcus’s conversion created quite a stir in his small rural church, and his story paints a delightful picture of the early Christian church functioning at its family best. Marcus was an actor in the Greco-Roman theater, and this became an issue when Marcus chose to follow Jesus. To see why, we need to know something about the theater in the ancient world.

Theatrical performances in antiquity were typically dedicated to a pagan god or goddess, and the plays often ran as part of larger public religious festivals. Dramatic scenes portraying blatant immorality were commonplace. As a result, many Christians stayed away from the theater. But not all. Some insisted on attending the performances anyway. After all, the Bible does not specifically forbid theater going. Church leaders, however, rejected such rationalization:

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. What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome in word (Tertullian, De Spectaculis, 17).

Now if leaders like Tertullian had this much of a problem with attending the theater, you can imagine what they thought about acting as a profession. When an actor converted to Christ, the first thing the early church demanded of him was to quit his profession and disassociate himself from the theater forever.

Our actor friend, Marcus, did just that. Marcus became a follower of Jesus. And he submitted to the moral standards of the Christian community and stopped acting in the local theater. Marcus now faced an economic dilemma, however, since he was no longer gainfully employed. So, instead of acting, Marcus decided to teach acting. Marcus opened an acting school. Well, this did not sit well with Marcus’s pastor, Eucratius, but he did not know quite what to do. Naturally, Eucratius sensed a contradiction here. How could it be acceptable for Marcus to teach a craft he himself was forbidden to practice? 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.”

For Cyprian, one of the most highly respected Christian leaders of the day, the idea of a Christian running an acting school was unthinkable. Here is Cyprian’s reply:

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 drama teaching. Marcus must either leave the church or quit his job— again! But the best is yet to come.

Cyprian is not unaware of the hardship Marcus will face if he closes his school. But Cyprian has just the solution. The intense emphasis upon personal holiness which characterized the early church had a beautiful complement: a genuine concern for those whose livelihoods might be adversely affected by submitting to God’s demanding moral standards. In short, Cyprian tells Pastor Eucratius that the church should provide for Marcus’s basic needs:

His needs can be alleviated along with those of others who are supported by the provisions of the Church— on condition, of course, that he can be satisfied with more frugal, and harmless, fare…. 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 informs Eucratius that Cyprian’s church will foot the bill if the rural church in Thena lacks the resources to meet Marcus’s 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).

We have an expression for this: “putting your money where your mouth is.” 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 the church would serve as the economic safety net for anyone whose finances were adversely affected by their willingness to follow Jesus.

We have much to learn from Marcus’s pilgrimage. I find here two important values that gave the ancient church much of its social and moral power, values that ought to characterize any community that seeks to identify itself as “Christian.” We can label the first value Robust Boundaries—boundaries that served to distinguish those who belonged to the local Christian community from those who did not. The particular boundary Marcus had to wrestle with related to church convictions about the Greco-Roman theater. And as we read through early Christian literature, we find Robust Boundaries reflected in other areas, both behavioral and theological. A follower of Jesus was someone who (a) behaved a certain way and (b) believed a certain way. And these boundaries were well enough established— and widely enough known—that both believers and non-believers knew where the pagan world ended and the Christian community began.

A second value we glean from Marcus’s experience is the early church’s commitment to Relational Solidarity. I have in mind here the way in which the early Christians took care of one another—like family. Christianity in the Roman world was a community endeavor organized around a surrogate family model in which (a) individual Christians placed the good of the community above their own personal goals, desires, and aspirations, and in which (b) church members could count on support from the community to meet the material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus. Marcus is a prime example on both counts. Marcus deferred to the church family’s moral demands, and his brothers and sisters, in turn, made sure that his basic needs were met.

So here are our two ancient church community values: Robust Boundaries and Relational Solidarity. They are wonderfully illustrated in the pilgrimage of Marcus and the North African church at Thena, and I suggest that a people that wishes to be identified as a Christian community today should seek to have both of these values realized in their local church family.

How are we doing along these lines? Let’s begin by comparing the early church’s Relational Solidarity with community in the evangelical church in America today. The picture is not particularly encouraging. American evangelicals have increasingly moved away from maintaining long-term commitments to their local churches. As a result fewer and fewer of us enjoy deep and meaningful relationships with others in the churches we attend. For many of us Christianity is no longer a community endeavor. We have chosen, instead, to focus upon experiencing God at the individual level. And the way we do church only encourages this “loneranger” spirituality.

The one event preeminently identified with the word “church” in most congregations—the one by which the success of a local church is typically measured (the Sunday service)—finds our people seated facing forward, with little or no interaction with persons on either side. A fellow sitting next to me in church Sunday might have lost his job—or his spouse— that very week. And I might never know it.

But I find myself hopeful where Relational Solidarity is concerned. There is a fresh wind blowing among a new generation of Christians who long to recapture the relational integrity of the early church. Leaders of the “emerging church” (as well as other streams of Christianity) are looking for more. They desire the following: (a) a church that is not an institution but, rather, the kind of supportive, encouraging surrogate family that people in our broken world intuitively long for, but that many have never experienced in their own natural families; (b) church leaders who are genuine brothers and gentle shepherds—not merely polished rhetoricians and efficient managers; (c) worship services that are not programmatic and impersonal in nature, but organic and relational instead; and finally (d) a new generation of Christians which increasingly insists upon a community that not only loves and cares for its own, but also extends its arms beyond the boundaries of the church to offer compassionate help to a broken world. I find all this encouraging. I sense here a longing for a Christian community like the church Marcus belonged to in Thena. So I am relatively optimistic about the future of the Western church where Relational Solidarity is concerned.

It does not appear to me, though, that the value of Robust Boundaries gets equal time in the current buzz about Christian community. And it is not hard to see why. The association of certain segments of contemporary Christianity with philosophical and theological perspectives that have exchanged a foundationalist approach to epistemology for some form of postmodern relativism inevitably renders it nearly impossible to make the kind of categorical pronouncements about community boundaries—be they moral or theological—that leaders in the early Christian movement could make. Philosophical and theological considerations aside, moreover, from a purely pragmatic perspective, those of us who are leaders in the local church minister to a culture that increasingly resists embracing categorical truth-claims of any kind. As a result, we find it easy to get on the bandwagon of Relational Solidarity—to preach love, authenticity, and mutual support and encouragement. But the idea that we might also need to have Robust Boundaries in place to define the contours of an authentic Christian community doesn’t particularly resonate with our culture. And I get the impression that this crucial ancient church social value doesn’t particularly resonate with some of our new generation of church leaders, as well.

So I find it necessary to remind us that categorical truth-claims—about both beliefs and behaviors—were simply part of the biblical worldview of early Christianity. And these convictions, in turn, generated the kind of Robust Boundaries (a) that we saw illustrated in the story of our actor friend Marcus, and (b) that defined Christian community throughout the pre-Constantinian era of church history. Issues that served to delineate the Robust Boundaries of the New Testament church, for example, included sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5), lack of repentance when sinning against a brother (Matthew 18), the propagation of false doctrine (1-2 Timothy), divisiveness (Titus 3), and even sloth (2 Thessalonians). Those who lived their lives according to community standards, in this regard, remained part of the family of God, those who did not were excluded.

This is hardly rocket science. The church family idea is, of course, patterned after the natural family. And as any family therapist will tell us, a healthy family needs both love (Relational Solidarity) and discipline (Robust Boundaries). Experience demonstrates, again and again, that to place a high priority on relationships, while ignoring the need for boundaries in the name of love or tolerance, inevitably results in a highly dysfunctional family.

As it goes with our natural families, so it goes with the family of God. Any church that calls itself Christian, emerging or otherwise—and that longs to blaze a trail back to community as it was experienced in early Christianity— will firmly establish along the path both of our two key trail-markers: Relational Solidarity and Robust Boundaries. Only then can we hope to recapture the social capital and prophetic power that characterized the ancient Christian church.

Emerging Resources

The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, ed. Leonard Sweet (Zondervan, 2003) might be the best place to begin for anyone needing an introduction to the emerging phenomenon. Talbot professors Gary McIntosh and Garry DeWeese have review essays of this book in Christian Education Journal 2:2 (2005) (http://journals.biola.edu/cej/free-articles/).

Books by Brian McLaren are must-reads for anyone interested in the emerging church. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to give a theological basis to the movement is his A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/ Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN (Zondervan, 2004).

Talbot philosophy professor R. Douglas Geivett has a short review of McLaren’s book at http://media1.biola.edu/talbot/downloads/downloads/philosophy/newsletters/spring06.pdf.

Talbot grad and Biola professor (Christian Apologetics) R. Scott Smith identifies some of the more troubling aspects of a postmodern view of truth advocated by McLaren and others: Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effect of Postmodernism in the Church (Crossway, 2005).

New Testament scholar D. A. Carson is critical of the theological weakness of the movement: Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Zondervan, 2005).

Of course the web is full of sites both promoting and critiquing the emerging movement, but—and this probably doesn’t need to be said— exercise healthy skepticism (critical judgment, if you prefer) when reading anything on the web!


Joe Hellerman (M.Div., Th.M. Talbot; Ph.D. UC LA) is Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature, and also serves as co-pastor of Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, California. Joe and his wife Joann have two daughters, Rebekah and Rachel.

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