The Great Parenthesis

“Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race.”         (Tacitus writing about Christians, ca. 116 AD)

martyrdomWithin the ministry world, many pastors and religious leaders in the United States are thinking today about a recent court decision in the Midwest that may have an impact upon their financial situation.  For almost a century, a provision called the “housing allowance” has allowed ministers to have some income tax advantages unique to their vocation (together with the military, which are allowed a similar benefit).  It is a bit of a complicated arrangement, but in the end can help religious groups and their leaders save some money each year as they ostensibly serve their communities and society.

With a lower court decision claiming such an arrangement is unconstitutional, some feel that this may be the beginning of the end for this vestige of the old days.  Though I suspect it may be some time before the tax benefit is removed on a national level, I would agree that this seems to be the direction in which things are moving.

For some, developments like these are understood to be “signs of the times” in which the Church has lost its rightful influence and place in society. They see it as an attack upon traditional norms and values as well as an active sign of persecution against the faithful.

While I understand where my coreligionists are coming from, I do have some questions about the tone of the such conversations.  To imply that things like this tax War-on-xmas-1discussion are signs of persecution is a bit much.  Considering the situation of many Christians around the globe and throughout history, our troubles are relatively light.

In the case of more stringent challenges–like a pharmacist being sued for refusing to provide abortifacients to customers in violation of their religious convictions–one does see elements of what could be termed lower-level persecution, however.  Still, these things are markedly different from the torture and death faced by others persecuted for faith.

For some Christians, the answer to such problems is to somehow transform our society and return to a golden age of the Church’s influence in the world.  At least this might be what you think listening to some of our rhetoric.  I was reflecting on this while sitting in a lecture discussion last week at my school.  While there, a colleague and I mentioned how from a certain point of view, getting our culture to “get on board” with Christianity seems a bit of a fool’s errand.

After all, the testimony of Jesus himself is that the world will hate His followers (John 15:18ff).  The experience of the early Church was, after all, that of being outsiders.  Until around the year 300, persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans was the name of the game. This was the age of the martyrs and apologists.  Then came Constantine and the beginning of official government tolerance, sanction, and support for Christianity.  In the West this lasted for somewhere around 1Byzantine_-_The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Timothy_-_Walters_W521203V_-_Obverse_Detail600 years, and only in the past few decades has it really begun to break up.  Arguments over clergy taxes are only one sign of this.

The traditionalist hand-wringing over such changes looks to sixteen centuries of Church ascendance as the norm, I think.  But consider this: what if that era was the exception and not the rule?  What if it was not meant to be the Christian baseline, the first 250 years of the faith was?  What if the real place of Christianity is to be outsiders–as many believers around the globe have always experienced–in a culture that will never love them?

Looking at things this way and seeing the era of Christian establishment in the West as simply a “Great Parenthesis” and exception to the normal place of the Church in the world might make us stop in our tracks a bit.  Sure, facing antagonism, criticism, financial setback, and even persecution for our beliefs is not pleasant.  But it might just be all the Church should expect.

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