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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 96. Secular Callings and Civil Duties.


As to the various callings of life, Christianity gives the instruction: "Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called."615615    1 Cor. 7:20.15 It forbids no respectable pursuit, and only requires that it be followed in a new spirit to the glory of God and the benefit of men. This is one proof of its universal application—its power to enter into all the relations of human life and into all branches of society, under all forms of government. This is beautifully presented by the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus. Tertullian protests to the heathens:616616    Apol. c. 42.16 "We are no Brahmins nor Indian gymnosophists, no hermits, no exiles from life.617617    Exules vitae.17 We are mindful of the thanks we owe to God, our Lord and Creator; we despise not the enjoyment of his works; we only temper it, that we may avoid excess and abuse. We dwell, therefore, with you in this world, not without markets and fairs, not without baths, inns, shops, and every kind of intercourse. We carry on commerce and war,618618    "Militamus," which proves that many Christians served in the army.18 agriculture and trade with you. We take part in your pursuits, and give our labor for your use."

But there were at that time some callings which either ministered solely to sinful gratification, like that, of the stage-player, or were intimately connected with the prevailing idolatry, like the manufacture, decoration, and sale of mythological images and symbols, the divination of astrologers, and all species of magic. These callings were strictly forbidden in the church, and must be renounced by the candidate for baptism. Other occupations, which were necessary indeed, but commonly perverted by the heathens to fraudulent purposes—inn-keeping, for example—were elevated by the Christian spirit. Theodotus at Ancyra made his house a refuge for the Christians and a place of prayer in the Diocletian persecution, in which he himself suffered martyrdom.

In regard to military and civil offices under the heathen government, opinion was divided. Some, on the authority of such passages as Matt. 5:39 and 26:52, condemned all war as unchristian and immoral; anticipating the views of the Mennonites and Friends. Others appealed to the good centurion of Capernaum and Cornelius of Caesarea, and held the military life consistent with a Christian profession. The tradition of the legio fulminatrix indicates that there were Christian soldiers in the Roman armies under Marcus Aurelius, and at the time of Diocletian the number of Christians at the court and in civil office was very considerable.

But in general the Christians of those days, with their lively sense of foreignness to this world, and their longing for the heavenly home, or the millennial reign of Christ, were averse to high office in a heathen state. Tertullian expressly says, that nothing was more alien to them than politics.619619    Apol. c. 38: "Nec ulla res aliena magis quam publica."19 Their conscience required them to abstain scrupulously from all idolatrous usages, sacrifices, libations, and flatteries connected with public offices; and this requisition must have come into frequent collision with their duties to the state, so long as the state remained heathen. They honored the emperor as appointed to earthly government by God, and as standing nearest of all men to him in power; and they paid their taxes, as Justin Martyr expressly states, with exemplary faithfulness. But their obedience ceased whenever the emperor, as he frequently did, demanded of them idolatrous acts. Tertullian thought that the empire would last till the end of the world,—then supposed to be near at hand—and would be irreconcilable with the Christian profession. Against the idolatrous worship of the emperor he protests with Christian boldness: "Augustus, the founder of the empire, would never be called Lord; for this is a surname of God. Yet I will freely call the emperor so, only not in the place of God. Otherwise I am free from him; for I have only one Lord, the almighty and eternal God, who also is the emperor’s Lord .... Far be it from me to call the emperor God, which is not only the most shameful, but the most pernicious flattery."

The comparative indifference and partial aversion of the Christians to the affairs of the state, to civil legislation and administration exposed them to the frequent reproach and contempt of the heathens. Their want of patriotism was partly the result of their superior devotion to the church as their country, partly of their situation in a hostile world. It must not be attributed to an "indolent or criminal disregard for the public welfare" (as Gibbon intimates), but chiefly to their just abhorrence of the innumerable idolatrous rites connected with the public and private life of the heathens. While they refused to incur the guilt of idolatry, they fervently and regularly prayed for the emperor and the state, their enemies and persecutors.620620    See the prayer for rulers in the newly discovered portions of the Epistle of Clement of Rome, quoted in § 66, above.20 They were the most peaceful subjects, and during this long period of almost constant provocation, abuse, and persecutions, they never took part in those frequent insurrections and rebellions which weakened and undermined the empire. They renovated society from within, by revealing in their lives as well as in their doctrine a higher order of private and public virtue, and thus proved themselves patriots in the best sense of the word.

The patriotism of ancient Greece and republican Rome, while it commands our admiration by the heroic devotion and sacrifice to the country, was after all an extended selfishness, and based upon the absolutism of the State and the disregard of the rights of the individual citizen and the foreigner. It was undermined by causes independent of Christianity. The amalgamation of different nationalities in the empire extinguished sectionalism and exclusivism, and opened the wide view of a universal humanity. Stoicism gave this cosmopolitan sentiment a philosophical and ethical expression in the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Terence embodied it in his famous line: "Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto." But Christianity first taught the fatherhood of God, the redemption by Christ, the common brotherhood of believers, the duty of charity for all men made in the image of God. It is true that monasticism, which began to develop itself already in the third century, nursed indifference to the state and even to the family, and substituted the total abandonment of the world for its reformation and transformation. It withdrew a vast amount of moral energy and enthusiasm from the city to the desert, and left Roman society to starvation and consumption. But it preserved and nursed in solitude the heroism of self-denial and consecration, which, in the collapse of the Roman empire, became a converting power of the barbarian conquerors, and laid the foundation for a new and better civilization. The decline and fall of the Roman empire was inevitable; Christianity prolonged its life in the East, and diminished the catastrophe of its collapse in the West, by converting and humanizing the barbarian conquerors.621621    Gibbon, ch. 36, admits this in part. "If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, the victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors." Milman says of the Church: "If treacherous(?) to the interests of the Roman empire, it was true to those of mankind" (III. 48). Lecky (II. 153) says: "It is impossible to deny that the Christian priesthood contributed materially both by their charity and by their arbitration, to mitigate the calamities that accompanied the dissolution of the empire; and it is equally impossible to doubt that their political attitude greatly increased their power for good. Standing between the conflicting form, almost indifferent to the issue, and notoriously exempt from the passions of the combat, they obtained with the conqueror, and used for the benefit of the conquered, a degree of influence they would never have possessed had they been regarded as Roman patriots."21 St. Augustin pointed to the remarkable fact that amid the horrors of the sack of Rome by the Goths, "the churches of the apostles and the crypts of the martyrs were sanctuaries for all who fled to them, whether Christian or pagan," and "saved the lives of multitudes who impute to Christ the ills that have befallen their city."622622    De Civ. Dei. l.c. 1.22



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