Lessons from Eusebius
I recently finished reading The History of the Church by Eusebius. Eusebius was an early bishop in the church who lived from 260-339 A.D. This work is important to those interested in church history because Eusebius provides an early history of the Christian church from the time of the Apostles until the time of Constantine. Eusebius ended his history in 324 following Constantine’s defeat of the wicked and Godless Licinius.
I found The History of the Church to be enlightening, sometimes shocking, and often dry but never dull. Reading an unedited history of the church, written by one of her own, and penned so close in time to the vital first three centuries, has challenged my ecclesial understanding and more than a few historical assumptions. I have been forced to wonder why it is possible to attend Bible college as a pastoral major, to take all required church history classes, and to never read an early church history book written during the time of the early church. One might conclude that this omission is related to the probability that students exposed to an accurate early church history might question the ecclesial validity of what I have come to term the protestant experiment.
Regardless of how it is possible for so many modern Christians to be unaware of ecclesial history, a study of this matter has challenged some of my core assumptions. The more that I study church history, and by this I mean studying original sources rather than modern revisions/interpretations of church history, the more I am forced to question certain core assumptions that I have held. This quest is threatening in some ways; however, I value intellectual honesty and integrity too highly to ignore uncomfortable questions. I first began my study of early church writings several years ago as part of my quest to rediscover the pristine, pure, early church. At the time I was shocked to find that early church thinking and theology did not match what I had assumed the early church believed and practiced. This discovery was so profound and unsettling that it put me off for some months before I was willing to re-enter this quest for the early church.
As I read Eusebius’ The History of the Church I could not help but make several observations. I have compiled my observations, in no particular order, for this essay. I do not expect every reader to appreciate these observations, nor do I intend for this to be a comprehensive review of early church history (a functional understanding of church history is assumed). My intention with this essay is to share what I have learned, how I have been challenged, and to suggest some areas where we may be missing the mark in the modern, protestant church. My hope is that some readers will be challenged in their ecclesiastic assumptions and will, in turn, explore church history more on their own. Furthermore, my own faith has been strengthened and encouraged by this study. I would, in my opinion, be remiss if I did not share the story with anyone who cares to read.
The Church was one
One glaring reality that any serious study of church history will reveal is that the Church was one. I realize, of course, that this will be laughably obvious to my Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. To a cradle protestant, however, this observation can be a ground shaking realization.
Protestants, in my experience, prefer to think of early church structure as being a collection of independent or quasi-independent local churches with little or no central organizational control. This was certainly the model that I was exposed to while a pastoral student at a Baptist Bible college. This is also the model that I have seen advanced in protestant church history books. I am not suggesting that this is the exclusive model of early church government being taught today – only that it is the model which I have encountered as a protestant. This idea essentially assumes that the Apostles started churches but did not retain any actual authority over the churches once leadership was assumed by local leaders. Certainly by the time the Apostles had died there remained no central church government with each local church instead being autonomous and independent. This idea of early church structure, or one substantially similar to it, is essential for justification of the protestant experiment.
One cannot read far into The History of the Church, or any of the works of the church fathers for that matter, before being confronted with the reality that the early church was one. Unity was not some mystical idea reserved for abstract theological discussions. Unity was real because the church was indeed one. The concept of independent, autonomous churches, or that of thousands of various denominations as we see today, is not supported by any early church writings. The idea is also not found in any of the ecumenical councils in the centuries to follow. The concept is not even found in the 11th century when the Great Schism occurred with the split of east and west. The reality is that one must look to very recent church history to even encounter the concept of independent, autonomous churches.
The reality that the early church was one struck me while reading The History of the Church. This was probably the first significant lesson that I encountered in this historical work.
Closely related to the first lesson from Eusebius, that the church was one, is the issue of church government. Church government structure in many protestant churches, particularly in evangelical churches, much more closely resembles an American, democratic ideal than anything to be found in early church history. Nowhere in early church history do we find congregational-ruled, autonomous, local churches. In other words, the way protestant churches are governed is a modern invention. I have encountered this in multiple early Christian writings. Reading The History of the Church one cannot help but be confronted with this reality.
Christians respected and prayed for those in government
Another surprise waiting in The History of the Church was the attitude of Christians toward those in authority. The contrast between the manner in which early Christians viewed government leaders and the manner in which modern, American Christians view government leaders could not be more stark. As an aside, early Christians were often under the governmental authority of Godless, demon-worshiping despots.
Eusebius describes repeatedly how Christians prayed for the rulers who were placed over them. This includes rulers who were actively persecuting, and in many cases were martyring, their fellow Christians. Eusebius further describes several occasions, including an occasion with Lisinius around 324 A.D., where Godless rulers were persecuting Christians and the ruler’s situation worsened immediately upon their expulsion of Christians from their household and cities. Eusebius credits the calamity that befell these rulers as being a result of the fact that the Christians, despite bitter persecution, had been faithfully praying for the despot. God, in Eusebius’s view, was withholding calamity from befalling the evil ruler because Christians were interceding to God on the ruler’s behalf.
I don’t need to describe the attitude that many Christians today hold toward government leaders in the U.S.A. The contrast cannot be overstated. Too many Christians sound just like their favorite talk show host. There are several distinctions that, if anything, make our situation much easier and less desperate than that of our Christian brothers and sisters who lived during the first few centuries of church history.
We, as Americans, live in a democratic republic. This means, among other things, that we elect our leaders. The men and women who hold elected office in the U.S.A. hold their office because the American people elected them to that office. In other words, we cannot escape the fact that Barack Obama is our president because the American people chose Mr. Obama to be our president. We can agree or disagree on issues, but when we mock and slander Mr. Obama we also disgrace the office of president, our constitution, our political process, our way of life, our fellow Americans, and God Himself who has allowed Mr. Obama to be set above us as our national leader. Mr. Obama will answer to God alone for how well he carries out his duties as a servant of God – whether he understands this principle or not. People often have the leaders that they deserve. People always have the leaders that God has seen fit to set over them. We, as Americans, have the leaders who we have chosen to rule over us; therefore, we have exactly what we wanted and what we deserve. I would suggest that the church could effect far more political change in the U.S.A. if we put half the energy into loving the lost and bringing them into the Kingdom that we put into lobbying and complaining about our elected leaders. If a democratic republic has Godless or wicked leaders it is because the leader’s character is representative of a majority of the nation’s citizens.
We, as Americans, live in a society that enjoys religious freedom. Unlike the early Christians who often faced persecution and even martyrdom for their faith, and unlike many places in the world today where Christians still face persecution and even martyrdom for their faith, it costs us little or nothing to claim Christianity in the U.S.A. I would argue that if the early Christians, facing tortures that are nauseating to even read about and subsequent martyrdom, could conduct themselves with respect toward their Godless and wicked leaders, then American Christians can also conduct themselves with Godly respect and decency toward our democratically chosen leaders.
Regardless of the political situation that a person lives in, the calling is the same. We are called to respect and honor those who are placed in authority over us – because God has placed them in authority over us. We dishonor God when we dishonor our government leaders. This is not to say, in a free society such as the U.S.A., that we cannot disagree or debate issues – but we dare not be disrespectful or mocking in our discussion about issues. We mock God when we mock those whom he has set in authority over us.
Early Christians were able to address tyrannical, evil rulers who were brutally torturing them and their fellow believers with respect and dignity. A leader’s Godlessness or wickedness does not justify an evil or ill-spoken response from a Christian. The lack of respect is epidemic in American culture, but respect need not be lacking among the people of God. The witness of early Christians, as recorded by Eusebius, awed and challenged me.
Christian churches and associations owned property and buildings
Many modern Christians will wonder why I raise this issue. Indeed, most churches do own property and buildings, and Christian associations abound in our world. However, there is a minority movement within protestant Christianity that rejects or minimizes church organization and leadership (discussed above), and also rejects the idea of the church owning buildings and other property. These ideas, particularly if one uses only the New Testament for proof texts, have some interesting arguments in their support. I find it interesting then that Eusebius talks of many occasions in the first 300 years of the church when churches and Christian associations owned property and buildings for worship. There is nothing odd about this situation really, and Eusebius talks about it without any attempt to defend the practice.
The limited structure/limited organization/no property or buildings argument can probably be justified using the New Testament. Considering the witness of the early church, the entire argument falls apart. The matter of fact discussion about church property in The History of the Church was another lesson that caught my attention.
Christians care for the sick, prisoners, the hungry, and the poor
Eusebius relates multiple accounts over three centuries where Christians cared for the sick, attended to prisoners, buried the dead, fed the hungry, and clothed the poor. In fact, this is portrayed throughout as being just a normal part of what Christians did for those who were in need in their communities. It should be considered normal for those who have been loved much, who have been forgiven much, and who have received much to be generous in their love and care for others.
I was not so much surprised that these things happened, but that they happened consistently as a normal part of Christian life. The government was not terribly concerned with the plight of the homeless, hungry, poor, sick, naked, and imprisoned – but the people of God were.
In fact, Christians were the ones who could be counted on in times of plague to risk their own health and life to tend to the sick and bury the dead. As an aside, there is a theology that is a key part of what has come to be called the “Left Behind theology” that states God will always deliver His people from the mess when he pours out His wrath. Aside from the obvious Biblical problems with that theology, in The History of the Church we see Christians caring for their Godless neighbors during plagues that the Church understood as being divine judgment on a Godless people. These Christians experienced famine and disease right alongside their wicked neighbors; sometimes the Christians survived the ordeal, but sometimes they did not. Despite the fact that they had no assurance of deliverance, these Christians were the only ones providing care to the afflicted – at great risk to themselves.
The charity and social concern of Christians was so well known that Lisinius, wishing to persecute Christians but fearing reprisal from Constantine, implemented a law that made it illegal for any person to feed the hungry, furnish food or medical assistance to prisoners, or engage in other social concerns. Lisinius knew that the Christians were the only ones who were carrying out these missions of mercy, and he was quite certain that they would continue to do so despite his wicked decree. The fact that Lisinius could single out Christians for persecution based on their social work speaks volumes about the character of these fourth century Christians.
(N.B. There are more than a few communities in the U.S.A which have, in recent years, made similar attempts to ban the feeding or care of the homeless and indigent, though these modern examples appear to be prompted by political motives rather than religious motives.)
The accounts of Christian social action in The History of the Church are striking. Christians were willing to expose themselves to great harm in order to minister to the sick, hungry, and imprisoned. This has application for American Christians today, I believe. I frequently hear Christians complain about government social programs aimed to help the poor, feed the hungry, provide medical care for the sick, or assure that prisoners are not mistreated or abused. Interestingly, the number of Christians who are actively feeding the poor, clothing those without clothing, healing the sick, or assisting the prisoner are far fewer than those who complain about how the government does these things. There are, of course, Christians and Christian association that are passionate about exactly these things. Thank God for these. My point, though, is that the government eventually attempts to fill these needs, however imperfectly, because the need was not being met otherwise. Until we are filling the need ourselves, how dare we complain about how our government does things that God commanded us to be doing?
Separation of church and state was unknown
The History of the Church chronicles the advancement of the Church alongside and intertwined with the advancement of the Roman Empire for three centuries. Being a modern, American protestant indoctrinated in separation of church and state, I was occasionally uneasy with the interconnection between Empire and Church. Eusebius, on the other hand, simply viewed the Emperor as God’s servant in civil matters. It would seem to me, and I admit that I have not fully researched this yet, that the early church did not have the same hangups about church and state separation that Americans have over the issue.
That observation being made, I am in no way advocating for a theocracy. There are some theocracies in the world today – and they are not known for their tolerance or human rights records. Israel had a theocracy (as designed by God) and they traded it for a monarchy. I am willing to wait for King Jesus to sit on David’s throne to have another theocracy.
There are, however, nations that have an official state religion in our world. Some of those nations have officially adopted Christianity, others have officially adopted another religion. I do not wish to debate the merits of state religions versus a situation such as we have here in the U.S.A. I am well aware of the dangers of state religions. For this essay I wish to simply make the observation that the early church did not seem to recognize a conflict or problem with a government sponsored religion – so long as it was Christianity. Actually, the early church seemed quite supportive of Christianity being the official religion of the Empire.
Persecution and opposition were frequent and expected
Perhaps the last significant lesson that I took away from The History of the Church was that persecutions came on the people of God regularly. Persecution and opposition were a regular part of the early church’s experience. Persecution seemed to be accepted as a normal part of living for God in a Godless world.
It should be noted that, throughout The History of the Church, Christians were excellent citizens. Christians obeyed the laws, paid their taxes, and ministered to those who were in need in the community. It would seem to make little sense for the government to persecute their most loyal and honest citizens. However, a lesson we could all use to be reminded of is found in the reason for their persecution. The early Christians recognized very well that they were citizens of a heavenly kingdom first and foremost. It was this loyalty to another King who was not Caesar that inflamed jealous and paranoid political leaders. I find it telling that many American Christians are quite offended when they encounter someone who will not pledge their allegiance to the U.S.A., or who will not hold the benefit and advancement of the kingdom of the U.S.A. ahead of the benefit and advancement of the Kingdom of God and His Son. In my experience, our loyalties as Americans are often confused with our loyalties as Christians. I wonder if we would not see more persecution, moderate though it may be, if American Christians started living as Christians first and Americans second.
Lots of little surprises
The History of the Church provided several significant lessons which I have shared here in this essay. However, these are certainly not the only things I learned while reading this excellent history. This book is full of surprises and fascinating bits of information that filled in quite a few gaps in my knowledge – gaps that sometimes I was not even aware existed.
I rarely recommend books without reservation, but The History of the Church is a book that every Christian should read and be conversant about. We, as Christians, are far too often uninformed or misinformed about our religious history. You owe it to yourself to read and understand The History of the Church.