Grace, With Honest Critique {For When You Must Face a Sketchy History}

I’ve finished another quarter of seminary…and I haven’t lost my faith. {It happens more frequently than you might imagine.} I’ll confess, I’ve had my moments where I have wanted to run for the hills.

I’ll be frank: There is some really sketchy stuff in our church history. Sketchy!

If Early Church History will impress anything upon you it will be the necessity to keep your eyes fixed firmly on Christ. You start looking at the development of the Church organization and the men {yes, males specifically} who threw ideas out like they were swatting at flies and you’ll feel your heart beat just a little out of sync. Take for example:

Up until the 2nd century, the biblical texts speaking of church leadership extended to your everyday lay person who had a rich devotion to Christ. Words such as episcopos and presbuteros were used interchangeably by the apostles  to describe leadership. No surprise, the Church was growing rapidly and so was heresy (particularly Gnostic heresies); greater control was needed to maintain unity and  purity. So in the 3rd century, Cyprian of Carthage builds on Tertullian’s work to argue for the specialized role of the bishop (episcopos) who oversees priests (presbuteros). After this time, you see the offices of evangelist, prophet, and teacher absorbed by the bishop and taken away from gifted individuals in the local church. {Although the office of exorcist remains…interestingly.} Thus begins the practice of elevating the clergy from laity…and we start reading the text of scripture thru the lens of history and find ourselves today in need of laity that is more faithfully equipped and empowered for ministry.

This was also a really bad time in Church history for women. In the apostolic age, women were involved in all kinds of ministry. Just open your Bible and read–women were teaching, serving as deacons {no such thing as a deaconess}, and prophesying. But really bad doctrine leads to really bad practice. So you have Tertullian saying things like, “And do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age; the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert-that is, death-even the Son of God had to die.” {Makes Mark Driscoll sound more progressive, doesn’t he?}

Out of this comes the belief that women are creatures of lust and will be a gateway for sin. I’m not even going into some of the vile things said about women by Origen or John Chrysostom, but misogynistic teachings {often more platonic or stoic in nature, than biblical} were characteristic.  Much of the monastic movement of the 4th century centers upon men isolating themselves from the attraction of women. By the 5th century you have Simon the Stylite living on a six-foot pillar in the center of Antioch. Why? So as to be free from the allure of women. In Jerome’s writings we find favorable comments made about the intelligence of two women, Marcella and Paula. However, to what does he contribute their intellectual excellence? Their virginity. What verse is that again?

Good thing we don’t teach that stuff anymore, right? Well, unfortunately it seems to me that  in muted shades we still do. Plato taught that strong souls were placed in men and weak souls in women; women needed to transcend their femininity…and men needed to escape women. Something of which the Church Fathers seem to teach in variations. Even today I still hear a lot of “strong men” talk that subordinates women, echoes from a very unbiblical past.

Before you load your pistols to fire off a vent. Recall the challenges of the early Church. They didn’t have Bibles gathering dust on shelves; few of the Church Fathers actually had the whole canon of which we take so for granted today. They faced incredible persecution. They were immersed in highly pagan cultures and drawing distinctions were not always easy, especially considering that the 2nd and 3rd centuries saw a rise in conversions of Greek Philosophers; many of these converts became the Church’s first apologists. I know how hard it is for me to see through influences that are shaping my thoughts. For this there must be grace, with honest critique.

Maybe that’s the most important thing we can glean from this: We must always be going back to the scripture for honest critique. Not just for these issues, but for all issues. Why? Because we all have bad doctrine; none of us have it perfectly right. Maybe we do in bits and pieces, but humility in the face of an unfathomable God convinces me we must keep seeking in his word and be willing to let it correct us. Some of may think we have good doctrine that is actually just pragmatics made easy. For this, we still need grace with honest critique.

And why in light of all this sketchy history do I still continue to love the Church? Jesus. No matter what I read this quarter or heard in class that turned my stomach, my heart kept remembering that Christ’s love and truth is bigger…and better…and beautiful. I’ve recalled the way He equipped and empowered average people He found reeking of fish by the Sea of Galilee and I know He’s not afraid of a stinky past. He’ll use whoever He wants in whatever way He determines. Even in chess the bishop ain’t got nothing on the King.

And all that crazy stuff about women?  All I see in scripture is a story of a God who made women, called them ‘good,’ entrusted them with gifts and told them to go use them. I choose to listen to what Jesus says–I’ve never heard him speak one sketchy word. Every.single.word is beautiful, good, and true.

4 thoughts on “Grace, With Honest Critique {For When You Must Face a Sketchy History}

  1. And we wonder why women have such poor self-esteem, it seem even the early church has been forcing it upon us. sad.

    • Certainly misguided teaching has not helped. Makes me all the more thankful for the stories we have in scripture that tell of Jesus treating women with such worth, value, and dignity. Church history is just another reminder for us not to look for good self-esteems anywhere but in Christ.

  2. “I choose to listen to what Jesus says–I’ve never heard him speak one sketchy word.” So, so true. Applies here, and in so many other areas where sketchism is the word of the day. Let God be true and all men (ahem… or women) be liars!

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