This semester I have been teaching a seminar in the history of the early Christian church, from A.D. 100-547. One of the figures we’ve covered in that seminar is Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire at that time and home of one of the oldest Christian communities. He was born sometime in the middle of the first century A.D., and he died a martyr’s death in Rome around the year 113.
One of my students made the comment in our class the week we read Ignatius that he thought the modern-day message of the “prosperity gospel” is particularly ill-fitting with what you find in the Christian writings of the first and second centuries. He was right, of course. In fact he’s so right that I wonder if our predecessors like St. Ignatius would recognize much of the Christianity of our culture as even the same religion.
The Christians who lived during the time of Ignatius were often in a precarious position. The wider Roman world regarded their religion as a newfangled “superstition” and its relatively recent origins meant that it wasn’t afforded the legal protections of the much-older Judaism out of which it sprang. (Although truth be told, the Jews’ revolutionary tendencies in the late first and early second centuries meant that Christians were pretty keen on distancing themselves from Judaism at any rate.)
Christians were monotheists and believed that acknowledging other gods was idolatrous and absolutely forbidden to do. But such behavior was deeply offensive to Roman sensibilities, which wanted to placate the gods of all locales and required subjects of the Roman empire to do obeisance to the figure of the emperor himself. Because Christians denied the existence of other gods (or considered them to be demons masquerading as gods) they were considered – perhaps ironically to our eyes – to be “atheists.”
So what do you do when the requirements of the faith you take to be true is so perilously at odds with the values of the surrounding culture? For Christians like Ignatius, the answer was that you remain faithful to the God known in Jesus Christ even if it means terrifying persecution by the governing authorities. Ignatius himself was arrested and sent to Rome to die in the arena there as sport before the mob — an example of martyrdom appropriate during this Lenten season. We know nothing about the specific circumstances of his arrest or trial, but we know quite a bit about his theology and ecclesiastical views due to a series of letters he sent to churches along the route from Antioch to Rome. A part of Ignatius’ theology was a conviction that suffering for Christ’s sake was to be seen as a normal and even necessary part of true discipleship. And he believed the witness that came through such suffering was essential for the faith of the wider church.
Too often in our own culture we assume that Christian discipleship and life as a citizen (or “consumer”) in society are perfectly compatible. We don’t see people getting thrown to the lions, so we figure that there’s no discord between society’s values and the life of Christian faith.
Is that actually true? I don’t think so. Neither did my student this semester, and I think his observation about the prosperity gospel can be applied to a lot of churches and a lot of preaching that we wouldn’t normally stick with that label. We live in an “easy” time, buffeted by wealth and (in the case of the United States) a political stability that make us sleepy disciples. Reading a figure like Ignatius isn’t a cure-all, but it does provide a helpful perspective that can alert us to some of our own cultural blinders.
[This post is adapted from one originally appearing on 12/23/11 on my old website. — ACT]