tertullian for today

Let’s review the last week and a half. The government in Indiana wanted to protect its citizens from being punished like certain citizens in Washington, Colorado, and New Mexico, so it passed a religious freedom bill. This caused a media, political, and business backlash, so the government backed down, passing a “fix” that left these citizens more vulnerable than before.

Evangelical Christians now realize they have lost not only the culture war, but also the terms of surrender. Many will be forced to violate their deeply held religious beliefs or close up shop. Honoring any and all marriages is now the price of doing business.

Even in the midst of this crushing defeat, many Christians worry about the message the vanquished are sending their homosexual friends. Maybe gay marriage isn’t right, but isn’t it loving to honor one anyhow? Christians should focus on the larger picture. How can we win our gay friends for Christ if they think we hate them? At the very least we should be measured in our response, and not come off as whiny martyrs. We didn’t say much about the human rights of homosexuals when we had power, so we shouldn’t expect pity now when it’s our turn.

Other Christians focus on the freedoms of association, speech, and religion, all of which seem to be lost. They say these freedoms matter, not just for Christian florists and photographers, but for all citizens. The pendulum is always swinging, and those on the winning side of America’s new religion may some day become the heretics. They will need the freedoms then that Christians are presently defending.

Big, controversial issues like this always benefit from historical perspective. I thought of Tertullian’s Apology, written in 197 to defend Christians from Roman persecution. Tertullian had never known a culturally dominant Christianity—so there are some important differences from today—but his situation is similar enough to learn something.

Tertullian said the Christians of his day were accused of secret and public crimes. Their secret crimes were cannibalism and incest, and their public crimes were sacrilege and treason. These public crimes are in the same neighborhood as today’s charge that Christians are un-American, hateful bigots who don’t understand true religion.

The Christians’ secretive “love feasts” left them open to charges of cannibalism and incest. Nothing spreads faster than gossip (except maybe the measles at Disneyland), and the Romans speculated about whose blood the Christians might be drinking when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper.

The Christians were considered guilty of sacrilege because they didn’t worship the Roman gods or sacrifice to them. Many Romans thought the Christians were atheists, because the Christian God was invisible. What is the difference between their invisible God and an imaginary God? Maybe they were just pretending to be religious.

Worse, the Romans were sure the Christians were traitors. They didn’t participate in Rome’s lurid festivals that honored Caesar but instead separated into secretive factions. Their separatist ways angered the gods who responded by afflicting Rome with natural disasters. These Christians deserved whatever trouble they had coming.

That’s how things stood around the year 200. Starting tomorrow I will examine Tertullian’s response, and see what we can learn for 2015.

Picture by romana klee. Used by permission. Sourced via Flickr.

2 Comments

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  1. Looking forward to reading how Tertullian’s response in his day helps us now. We surely need direction!

  2. Looking forward to this!

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