Sometimes you need to start an argument with the idols of our age

Early Christians rarely grew in number because they won arguments. – Alan Kreider

 

My friend and colleague Karina Kreminski wrote a very helpful blog for Missio Alliance earlier in the year, entitled Five Real (and Risky) Ways to Start Peacemaking in Your Neighborhood. It’s really good. Her five ways are super practical and I can attest to the fact that she’s trying to live them out in her own neighborhood.

But it was the last line in the article that seemed to strike a chord. I saw a bunch of people tweeting and sharing her restatement (taken from Alan Kreider) that the early Christians didn’t grow by winning arguments. And it got me thinking. Is that true?

I’m definitely all across Karina’s argument that peacemaking and reconciliation were central practices for the early Christians. And I loved Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. I’ve previously blogged about it here.

But is it true that the early church didn’t grow in some measure due to their participation in arguments?

We know that Paul’s ministry of preaching against the gods of Greece and Rome stirred up a riot in the city of Ephesus when the local idol-makers union became incensed. Paul eventually had to be smuggled out of town.

Then, on another occasion Paul attacked the Lystrans’ worship of Zeus and Hermes, insisting: “You should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them”. (Acts 14:15)

Likewise, in Athens, in a sermon often touted for its cultural sensitivity, Paul pulls no punches when he says:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything… We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent… (Acts 17:24, 29-30)

The response wasn’t exactly warm.

Then in The Clementine Homilies we find the story of a second-century evangelist in Alexandria rebuking those “philosophers” who had attended his meeting to heckle him and mock his “artless” preaching. He ends up giving as good as he gets and another riot ensues, necessitating the evangelist to hide out at a local Christian’s home until the heat died down.

In fact, there are so many accounts of the early Christians stirring up trouble with their attacks on polytheism that it’s hard to justify the statement that they weren’t trying to win arguments.

 

Here is an early fourth-century statement from Lactantius on the process through which one might ascend from the darkness of polytheism to the light of Christ:

Now the first step is to understand religions which are false and to cast aside the impious worship of gods made with hands.

Them’s fighting words, right there. But he continues:

The second step is to perceive with the mind fact that God is one, most high, whose power and providence made the world from the beginning, and direct it towards a future. The third step is to know His Servant and Messenger, whom He sent on embassy to earth.

It’s simple really: reject your false gods; accept the one true God; and learn to know his son Jesus Christ.

And the argument against other gods made by men like Lactantius and Justin (and their forebears, Quadratus and Pantaenus) wasn’t particularly subtle. Idols were deemed useless, merely inanimate objects made from wood or metal. There’s an unmistakable tone of mockery in much of the early Christians’ attacks on idols.

The great apologist, Justin wasn’t satisfied merely to mock the idols themselves, but the very character of the men who made them:

We need not tell you – you know – what the craftsmen contrive of their material, carving and cutting and casting and hammering. That we count not just nonsense, but blasphemy. The craftsmen who do it are themselves a bad lot, I need not enumerate – you know well enough, they have got every vice. The very girls who help them in the shop they seduce. What madness, that dissolute men should be said to fashion gods for your worship.

And if any idol worshipper should suggest that praying to their god made their field fertile or their wife pregnant, Justin had an explanation: anything efficacious that might have resulted from praying to idols was merely the manifestation of evil spirits sent to deceive you.

“We obey him in declaring (the gods of polytheism) are demons, not only crooked, but evil and profane,” says Justin.

I’m in full agreement with Karina Kreminski (and by extension, Alan Kreider) that we should be peacemakers, fostering reconciliation and grace in our host communities. But to say the early Christians didn’t grow by winning arguments (while eminently tweetable) isn’t strictly true.

Certainly, they did practice radical hospitality and performed astonishing acts of philanthropy in an otherwise brutish and uncaring empire. But they also attacked polytheism, mocked idols, demanded repentance, performed exorcisms and insisted their audiences embrace allegiance to Christ as their only king and savior.

In saying this, I’m not suggesting we make it our business to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake. But there comes a time when it’s right and proper to start an argument with the idols of our age.

 

It’s right to declare the folly of serving materialism and greed; to repudiate the false gods of patriotism, militarism, racism, sexism, and imperialism; to condemn the practice of capital punishment, abortion on demand, and the mandatory detention of refugees; to say to our age, as Paul did to his, that they must turn to God from idols “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1Thes 1:9-10)

 

[Featured image of Mordecai refusing to bow to Haman from Keith Green, No Compromise album cover artwork]

 

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9 thoughts on “Sometimes you need to start an argument with the idols of our age

  1. Thank you. I was right now settling down to write the exact points you make but you have saved me the trouble and, more importantly, put it much better than I would have.
    I also think the idea Ghats Jesus didn’t do politics is not quite right if you consider that the priests were also the ‘local government’ so to speak. Anyways – Good stuff Michael. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Mike – once again a great post. I’m really enjoying Kreider’s book also – and I noticed that Karina referenced in her paper at “Not in Kansas Anymore”.

    I think the key is in your second last paragraph: “I’m not suggesting we make it our business to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake”. Kreider, I think successfully, makes the point that the Christian’s understanding of patience as a key spiritual discipline was of utmost importance, therefore, “winning arguments” was of little consequence in the grand scheme of God’s work in the world.

    I completely agree with the premise of your post but I think the context of Patient Ferment would be something that we would do well to remember in conversing with wider society. There are so many issues / idols that Christians could/should be challenging, but are trumped by one or two that in my opinion qualify as matters of “personal affairs”.

    I’ve heard much lately about how Christians may “suffer” for standing up for what they believe (read mostly in the context of the SSM debate) but the words of 1 Peter 4:15 stuck out to me recently” “If you suffer, it should not be… for prying into other people’s affairs.”

    We absolutely should be prepared to put our necks on the line to challenge the idols of our day – but we should also be willing to ask ourselves the questions: “Am I displaying / practicing Christian patience?” and “Is this just me wanting a say into the personal affairs of other that I don’t approve of?”

    Cheers,
    Dave

  3. I have to disagree Mike. I recently assisted my pastor in preaching on Paul’s visit to Ephesus in Acts 19. We came to the conclusion that Paul did not preach “against the gods of Greece and Rome” in Ephesus so therefore this was not the cause of the riot. Our conclusion was that Paul was very careful not to say anything against Artemis for to do so would be blasphemy. It would be disrespectful towards his host city to do so and I’m pretty certain a chargeable offense. Paul and his associates were careful not to blaspheme the goddess a fact seen in the appeal made by the town clerk to the crowd. It was because the town clerk could direct the crowd’s attention to their good behaviour that he was able to dismiss the crowd (Acts 19: 37). I would suggest that perhaps you have misread the other historical evidence, especially from the earlier material. I don’t think its necessary to see a complete clash between pagan culture and Jewish/Christian appeals to monotheism. There was a definite strand of thought in the Gentile world that admired the monotheism of Judaism. I don’t think we can ignore Josephus’ appeal to this in ‘Against Apion’ because we have evidence that quite a number of Gentiles attached themselves to synagogues as god-fearers. We should also note the harmony between Christian virtues and those virtues aspired to in the Gentile world. The Pastoral Epistles, in particular, urge the Christians in Ephesus to attain to those virtues that were most admired by their Gentile neighbours. I do not think that the early Christians sought to actively criticize their society but instead engaged in an active strategy seeking to recognise good and noble ideas and actions in their society and then lived those values out. The difference between pagans and Christians was not the admiration of certain values nor the aspiration to certain ethics but the belief that Christians were empowered by God to attain to those values and ethics. Moreover, they believed that all believers could be empowered not just the rich and educated. Hence the appeal of Christianity to women, slaves and the disenfranchised. Early Christians did not stand against paganism. In relation to the gods they did not blaspheme them but offered people something more than their gods could offer, which was grace, mercy, and love. I don’t think our question should be “should we start an argument with the idols of our age?”, but what does our God offer that the idols of our age lack? Furthermore, are we demonstrating that our God empowers us to live out the admired and exalted good and honourable virtues of our society? In fact, do we even know what these are? People in Ephesus in Acts 19 became followers of Jesus because his message offered something that the gods around them didn’t and not because his messengers picked an argument with them.

    1. Hi Lyn, you might be confusing my phrase “start an argument” with “be rude and disrespectful”. As I say in my article, the early Christians supported their preaching with extraordinary acts of kindness and love, but their rebuke of polytheism, while no doubt respectful, was still strident. Demetrius stirs up the silversmiths in Ephesus by charging Paul with saying that “gods made by human hands are no gods at all”. The language of later apologists like Justin and Lactantius was even more strident. That being said, I agree strongly with what you’re saying about the winsomeness of the early Christians and the very great good sense that their community made to members of the empire in the early centuries of the Christian movement.

      1. Hi Mike, thank you for responding. I appreciate that you reiterate your point. I’m pretty sure that I’m grasping what your saying, but I’m disagreeing with your analysis of Acts 19. It was the standard Jewish polemic that “gods made with hands are no gods at all.” One that Demetrius was able to employ against Paul’s associates to stir up the crowd. If we can take Josephus as a credible witness then there had been a Jewish community in this part of Asia Minor since the Persians. In Acts the people of Ephesus appear to be pretty familiar with the basic Jewish message; notice how they react when they realise that Alexander is a Jew when he goes out to speak to them. What is crucial is to understand the town clerk’s speech. Notice that he says “For you have brought these men here [ie into the theatre] who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess”. The phrase “robbers of temples” is rhetorical shorthand for sacrilege. Paul uses this phrase in Romans 2:22 “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” What Paul and the town clerk are doing is trapping into a familiar rhetorical discourse about impiety. Both Jews and Gentiles held piety to be an important virtue. We can see from the town clerk’s speech that Paul and his associates were not impious because they did not speak directly against the goddess. If they had done so they most likely would have found themselves before the courts or the proconsul. But I think it is more than Paul avoiding legal trouble. I’m saying that Paul deliberately did not blaspheme the goddess because to do so would bring his own reputation and the reputation of the gospel into disrupt. As he implies in Romans that although he may abhor idols he was careful not to blaspheme anyone’s god or commit sacrilege. For to do so would mean he was impious and a disreputable character. So what I’m saying is that Paul was very careful in his mission strategy not to directly attack other gods but to present a positive argument for the gospel. While this did entail saying that there was only one God he appears to have been careful not attack the gods or goddesses directly. This must be so in order for the town clerk of Ephesus to defend Paul and his associates because it was his job to see that the city fulfilled it’s duties as guardian of the temple of Artemis. It is true that Paul and Barnabas do use the Jewish polemic against idol worshippers in Lystra but this was not a normal presentation of the gospel. It is the circumstances that dictate the presentation and under normal circumstances such as regularly preaching the gospel in Ephesus for 2 years Paul is careful not to blaspheme the goddess or any other gods (other gods were worshipped in Ephesus not just Artemis). I believe that this means that Paul did not start arguments with the idols of his age and I think that means we should be careful about starting arguments with the idols of ours.

  4. Thanks. But surely leading Ephesians to embrace a monotheistic faith is going to have the same effect (picking an argument with polytheism), even if it doesn’t involve direct blasphemy against Artemis. But even if I concede that Paul was playing nice, the “early church,” that Kreider suggests never tried to win arguments, wasn’t as circumspect. There are myriad examples of such in the first few centuries of the church’s history.

    1. Hi Mike, I’m sorry I have to disagree with the approach you are suggesting. I think you have to be cautious when looking for the continuities and discontinuities between the New Testament writers and church fathers who came after this period. Paul isn’t just ‘playing nice’. He is living out an important cultural value -piety. Piety was about respect and honour and at this point we reach rock bottom of the Greek value system. It was a value shared by both Jews and Greeks. Paul was very careful in his exegesis of his culture and knew where to push through so that the gospel could be understood and accepted. Paul was critical of the Graeco-Roman culture, but his main point of critique was not directed at idols or their cult. It seems to me his main point of critique was directed at a culture with an obsession with rhetoric and status. Although Paul used rhetoric, he was at pains to point out where the culture generated by an ethos of rhetoric departed from a culture imbued with the gospel. Rhetoric produces a very combative style of engagement with one’s opponents. This was one of the reasons why Paul strenuously stressed conciliation, forgiveness, gentleness etc. Now this is important because the churchmen that you alluded to were all highly trained in rhetoric. Lactantius was a teacher of rhetoric. He and the other churchmen didn’t necessarily take too much notice of Paul’s critique of rhetoric. But maybe in their cultural circumstances they needed to take a more aggressive approach. Paul lived in the ascendancy of the Roman empire, which reached it peak in the mid 2nd century. Lactantius was born in the mid 3rd century (?) in the midst of economic and military turmoil. He lived through one of the worse persecutions of Christians ever. I think we need to know our cultural periods. Is an aggressive rhetorical style helpful in our present circumstances? Perhaps we should carefully listen to Paul’s critique of the culture of rhetoric and think carefully before injecting in to our culture the very thing that Paul was critical of by way of the church fathers.

  5. Thanks Mike,
    As usual, a perceptive analysis. It really is time that we outed the gods of our age, but no matter how gently we do it we’re unlikely to be thanked. We are more likely to experience ridicule and contempt, just as Paul and the second century Christians did, while the church grew.

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