24 August 2010

Nothing new under the sun- part 1

In the centuries right around the time of Christ's birth, what was the status of marriage in the Roman Empire? Rome, like all civilizations had some concept of marriage and family. We argue these stem from natural law and yet like all interpretations of General Revelation, its application by fallen man was flawed and imperfect.


Roman society had some different notions than we do today about what was private and what was public. Marriage is an interesting example. We often focus on the habits of the patrician class since they were the movers and shakers in the annals of the day. But what of free men, the common citizens? They had nothing equivalent to what we would call a marriage license, no ceremony before a justice of the peace, in fact nothing that civilly recognized the actual creation of a household, the joining of husband and wife. The state in no way sanctioned or regulated the marriage relationship. It was considered a private matter.


Instead, a man and woman following whatever national, local, or religious custom, or none at all, simply began to cohabitate. If a legal dispute arose, stemming from dowry, divorce, property, or whatever, the courts at that point would recognize the marriage or not recognize it. How was this done?

Witnesses were called who would attest that the husband referred to the woman as his wife in public. Who could verify this? Perhaps the baker, neighbours, shop-owners etc…

It could be proved they had lived together for a certain duration. Perhaps there were children resulting from the relationship. Of course their society though complex, was less so than ours. And in our modern setting when one considers hospital visitation, health benefits, etc… we recognize on some level the state has to be involved. Whether it's called marriage or union is not that important in a civil sense. Within the Church of course, we have a theology of marriage that drives us to understand the issue differently. Marriage on the one hand is a creational ordinance and thus non-holy, common to all cultures, and something that will cease at the Eschaton (the end) when Christ returns. On the other hand, for Christians, marriage takes on a different meaning, typifying the relationship between Christ and the Church as per Ephesians 5. We can try and make fallen society obey our rules, but in the end do their messages typify the Christ-Church relationship? I don't think so.

Divorce was also easy and common. How was it done? One party simply left…the marriage was over. If the man took up with a new woman, she could now be his wife. If he didn't live with her and simply met with her for other reasons…then she wasn't considered his actual spouse.

Contemporary writers attest to the fact that many families were what we today would call mixed or blended families. It was in some places unusual for all the children of the household to have the same father and mother. Though new to us, many of the present day issues are in fact as old as the hills.

Now don't misunderstand, people had ceremonies, vows, rituals, and so forth. Marriage was a big event, but it was considered private, that is to say, unregulated by the state.

I often think of this when I hear Evangelicals today cry out that we need to try and preserve 'traditional marriage,' and how homosexuals are destroying society. Don't misunderstand me. Homosexuality is sin, in fact an abomination. And its proliferation will adversely affect society, but I blame the proliferation on Sacralism. Society right now is experiencing a large scale pendulum swing. Like a teenager who is suddenly free from a repressive home and lets loose, so is American culture right now.

But I think of Roman society in the time of the early Church and I find it interesting the Church had a doctrine of marriage and pursued it. They didn't recognize the pagan model as a threat to their own, nor did they seem overly concerned with altering the societal norm.

What was their concern toward their unbelieving neighbours? Bringing them the gospel, proclaiming the Person and Work of Christ, this was their concern.

We're fooling ourselves if we think their society was either more moral than ours, or less moral. It was just as wicked, but slightly different. In some ways we're worse today, and in other ways they were worse. And this is just the centuries around the time of Christ. As you enter the middle ages it's the same thing, some things better than today, and some things worse. I've written of romanticism regarding the past. I think many who look to the Middle Ages with longing would be shocked if they scratched beneath the surface.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Pompeii, make sure you do so. It's like stepping back in time, time that stopped on 24 August in the year 79. You can walk down a Roman street, cut through alleys and feel what it was like to walk out into a coliseum or stand on the stage of an amphitheater. At one oddly angled intersection sits the famous brothel, with its restored frescoes, something like the pornography of the day. It's right out on one of the main streets. There were certainly Christians in Pompeii and it was no different than any other Roman city. I think of Christian mothers walking down the street holding their children's hands and having to walk by. I think of Christian men going out of their way, to avoid seeing what they didn't want to see.

Roman cities had slave markets where naked men and women would be paraded about. The Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century was a flamboyant homosexual who placed busts and monuments to his paramour, Antinous, all over the cities of the empire. Imagine a president using tax dollars to do something like that! At least one of the Roman emperors married his homosexual partner. I also think of the Evangelical argument concerning the importance of integrity in our leadership. Are Christian's in France concerned that Sarkozy is a whoremonger? Does that affect the Church? But in America, Christians were undone over Bill Clinton's exploits. A wicked adulterer to be sure, but were they upset over what he did, or because he was president of the hallowed United States?

Many of the pagan temples practiced ritual prostitution, promiscuity in general was rampant, pederasty and pedophilia tolerated or at least winked at.


Is all of this starting to sound kind of familiar? I'm speaking primarily to the American audience. What do you think Christians thought as they walked down Roman streets and looked up to see the ubiquitous sculpture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, the symbol of Rome's origins? Do you think they were stirred by feelings of patriotism as the average Roman was?

Considering the bulk of the first century Church was comprised of slaves, women, and the poor in general it doesn't seem likely. Was Rome something to them?

And yet how do we as Americans respond when we see the flag or our great goddess-idol standing in New York harbor? Do we think differently? Why?

5 comments:

David said...

Yes! It was exactly this comparison of early Christian attitudes toward Rome and contemporary U.S. Christian attitudes towards their government/society that started me thinking about this whole concept. If Paul could tell the Christians of his day to submit to a government (Rom 13; cf. 1 Pet 2) that was frequently openly hostile to Christians where does that leave us today? Are we to openly war against the culture so that it might look "Christian" as some do today, or should we (like the early church) be obedient to the commands of Christ to not resist evil, turn the other cheek, give more than asked when sued, love one's enemies, pray for them, etc.? I think the church will continue to languish in the west until people cease to assess things through the lens of pragmatism, utilitarian rationality, and efficacy, and return instead to obedience to the commands of Christ in a spirit of faith. Whenever actually following these commands of Christ is discussed, I only hear about how unrealistic it is! Where is our faith? We will fail to be a light until we recapture this radical following of Christ and obedience to all he commanded, relying upon God alone for our well-being in the midst of those who would take advantage of this self-willed state of humility and weakness. "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt 6:33).

David said...

Correction: perhaps the phrase "self-willed" is incorrect. It seems a little too independent of God. It might be better to say that as we, by God's grace, submit ourselves more and more fully to His rule this will naturally result in a state of humility, dependence, and even weakness (from a worldly standpoint). Yet in the midst of this weakness God's strength will shine forth.

Protoprotestant said...

I know I wrote it somewhere, but it always amazes me how the actual words of Christ seem to be the greatest stumbling block for culture-minded/Sacral Christians.

They make distinctions like...the Magistrate shouldn't turn the other cheek because he wields the sword.

Okay, for the sake of argument I'll grant that.

But then they seem to refuse to apply it when it comes to individual Christian conduct. Look at their websites. They're all nuts about guns. I know this one lady who has been worked up into such a frenzy, she's gone into stockpiling mode: food, generator, wants to get some livestock going and of course ammunition. She professes to be a Christian...of course FOX news ultra-conservative variety.

I don't get it. So you've got all your stuff, protected from the evil outsiders and when they come and beg food (I'm assuming the crisis she envisions)...you're going to shoot them?

These 'ministries' are so wicked. They've get everybody focused on everything under the sun except knowing God through Jesus Christ revealed to us in the Scriptures.

Have you ever heard some of the Theonomic interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount? Probably along the lines of what you're referring to, just a little more outrageous. It all gets turned on its head.

Anonymous said...

David, you are right that the church needs to return to obedience to Christ's teaching in order to be a witness to the world and to present the gospel with power. Where do those of us who have these convictions find one another anymore? Please pray that we know how to get started acting again on our revelation in a fellowship with others.
Is it even possible? I am often discouraged because of the many broken relationships among professing believers, and because of my own backsliding. I want to follow the Lord radically again, but feel terribly mired in worldliness. We need others. It is hard to stand against the tides of churchianity and worldliness, in isolation, and I know that is not the Lord's will. Please pray. Thanks

David said...

Amen. You are absolutely right: it is difficult to stand in isolation. And yet, as you say, it is also difficult to find a community of the faithful who shares these convictions.

I must admit, for a long time I was part of the problem. I was raised here in this country, went to American churches, and was exposed to the vacuous theology that emanates from the majority of local congregations. Whether I like it or not, this has been the environment of my spiritual formation and it has not been without consequence. This has shaped my understanding and action (or lack thereof). Fortunately, the symptomatic malaise that generally results from exposure to such a shallow Christianity has been partly overcome by my personal study of the scriptures and has filled me with love for God and an earnest longing to serve Him. However, even now, it seems it is an impossible task to find an outlet for these passions. I recently returned to my home town. When I arrived I was determined to find a church that unapologetically taught scriptural truth with clarity and conviction, encouraged vibrant fellowship among believers, and radical obedience to the leadership of Christ. Sadly, I never found a church community that engaged in any of these things. Prayer is needed indeed. May God guide us to one another so that as a community we may burn brightly and be a witness not only to unbelievers but to our fellow Christians as well.