When the enemy is our friend

Marcus Aurelius became the new emperor of the vast Roman Empire in AD 161. He was known as the Emperor Philosopher.  The emperor valued the educated but treated the uneducated with absolute contempt.  The emperor particularly hated the Christian church. It was changing his empire in ways he found unacceptable. The military might of Rome had been unable to stop the church, but then the new emperor deployed a different sort of weapon: his philosopher friend Celsus.

The Bad News

Celsus wrote a book called, The True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians. It was the most brilliant attack the church had ever faced. It was devastating in its critique. The church had been too busy to think with clarity on some critical issues. It was busy leading people to Christ across the face of the Empire. It was preoccupied with trying to survive incessant waves of persecution. But when the attack came from Celsus it was of a very different sort than any previously encountered.  Celsus simply made the case that Christians were stupid, ignorant, superstitious, and unlearned. And to some degree it was true.

The people that flocked to the church, St. Paul says, were not wise, not powerful, and not of noble birth.  Instead, they were often morally confused and intellectually challenged when they found their way into the church. The poor, the slaves, the damaged and the outcasts were all embraced gladly by the Christian community. Anyone was welcome. The entrance requirements were really low. All you had to say was “help me!” and the church would ask, “Will you trust Jesus to help you?”  If the answer was “yes” they were baptized into the new community.

Theologian Robert Brow says baptism is the initiation rite that enrolls a person into the School of Christ.  Disciples by definition are “learners.”  In this school called the church, the teachings of the scriptures were shared with the students. Instruction was given on how to live the new life. A person might enter the church pretty stupid, but before long they were learning, and then before long were leading others in their learning.

But Celsus ignored the progress being made, and instead used his sharp pen as a dagger to attack the church. He made fun of the fact that we believed in one God but worshipped three persons. He ridiculed the fact that the church worshipped a man who had been executed by Rome in recent history. He scoffed at the incarnation, asking how the unchangeable God can change into a baby and how can the immortal God die on a cross? His conclusion was: Christians are irrational.

The Good News

But though Celsus was a terrible foe, he proved to be a gift to the Christian Church. He gave a visibility to the Christian church among the intelligencia of the empire that the church had never had before. Other scholars presumed that if Celsus had written about the church, it must be an important movement. When the Christians responded to his diatribes, the educated got hooked into the debate.

They had never visited the churches to hear Christian teachings. They had only heard horrid rumors, that Christians were cannibals who ate the body and drank the blood of Jesus, that Christians were morally perverse holding immoral “love feasts”, that they were a secret society meeting in graveyards and in the catacombs, and that they would not bear allegiance to the emperors of Rome, but followed another king. But when the famous Celsus wrote his best seller, he did not repeat those popular myths. He was an honest scholar. He researched the church and its theology. That mixture of truth and error made his book all the more damaging, because it made the church look ridiculous.

But there was good news. The Christian church did have brilliant people among them: people of deep faith, who were well educated in philosophy and the learning of the day. They now stepped out of the shadows and into the debate. They wrote books in response. The intellectuals began to grasp the insight of these Christian writers. They heard reasoned arguments that made sense to mind as well as the heart.  Celsus had given the church a microphone to enable them to speak into the lives of the educated and the leaders of the empire.

The ridicule of Celsus stung the church’s leaders. Was Celsus right? Were we illogical and irrational? Did we only appeal to down-and-outers but not to anybody with half a brain? Did the church operate on blind faith, or on historic fact? The result was that the church had to revisit its theology. What is the truth about the relationship between God and Jesus? Were we monotheists believing in only one God, or did we really believe in two or three gods?  How could a man be divine and still be human?   Was Jesus just a good man who was martyred or was he something more? In the great debates over the next century the church was able to hammer out on the anvils of debate those themes left to us in the great creeds of Christendom.

Great athletes are created in part by great opponents. A worthy adversary is a gift to a runner.  To be beaten by someone over and over again is a wonderful motivation to work harder and to become faster and stronger and more disciplined. Celsus was the great adversary who drove the church to think more clearly about its faith. Let us give thanks to God for every false idea that moves us to think more clearly about things that matter most.

Think it Through…

Is it possible that our worst enemy can be our very best friend?

If “the wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6) what value can the wounds of an enemy bring into our lives? Is God the great recycler? Can he make very good stuff out of garbage?

Take Action…

Is there someone in your life or in your church who makes you think of the word “enemy”? In what ways are these “thorns in your flesh,” these “messengers of Satan,” God’s main means of grace for you? If you cannot see it yet, try digging a bit deeper.

For The Small Group Leader…

In our culture, ridicule makes cowards of us all. In what ways does being afraid of being scorned affect our own behavior? Why is this weapon so sharp edged? In what ways is “laughing at ourselves” a partial antidote?

Published in Light and Life,  July-August, 2002.

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