A Common Tradition
The year was 287 A.D. The place was the Swiss Alps. Roman troops were fighting insurgents and the Emperor Maximian called in the Theban legion under the command of Maurice of Thebes. The legion comprised completely of Christians was ready to fight for the empire, but refused when ordered to attack a local Christian village.
The emperor first ordered the punishment of decimation in which every tenth soldier in the legion was killed. Still they refused and a second decimation was ordered. Orders were again given and again they refused. General Maurice responded to the emperor, “We cannot obey you without denying God, the Creator of all things, our Master as well as yours, whether you acknowledge it or not.” In response, the emperor ordered the execution of the entire legion.
Nearly thirty years earlier, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage refused to sacrifice to pagan deities and denounce Christ. He was first banished, then imprisoned. When a sentence of death was pronounced he replied simply, “Thanks be to God.” The next day he was led to an open place in the city where he removed his vestments, knelt in prayer, blindfolded himself and was beheaded by sword.
Perpetua and Felicitas were martyred in 202 A.D. Perpetua was a 22 year old mother of a nursing child. Felicity was a young expectant mother imprisoned with her. These two Christian women were led with several other Christians to the amphitheater. There, at the insistence of the crowd, they were scourged by a line of gladiators, set upon by wild animals, then put to the sword.
All of these third century Christian martyrs have something in common. They were all from Africa. They were a part of the great African tradition of the early church. And not just martyrs. Pastors, authors, theologians, and teachers such as Augustine, Cyril, Athanasius, Tertullian and many others were all examples of African leaders whose influence is still felt in the church today, even if their names are not known. (May I add, I believe it is a disgrace that many of those who have done so much for the cause of Christ are largely forgotten by the church that benefits from them.)
A Historical Reality
They are all a part of the great African tradition that finds its roots in the significant diversity in the early church in the book of Acts. It is notable in the multi-national crowd on the day of Pentecost. Men “out of every nation under heaven.” Hebrews and Grecians, the Ethiopian eunuch, Simon of Cyrene and his sons (Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13). The Gospel would spread rapidly in Africa and the region in the early centuries of the church.
The church at Antioch was established by the preaching of men from Cyrene (Acts 11:19-21), perhaps Lucius and Simon were among them. Of the five leaders named in Acts 13:1, two were African. Paul and Barnabas would travel first to Cyprus but at some point the Gospel was also carried to Cyrene – Christian burials found there dating from late first century.
A Divine Design
This level of church diversity is not only modeled by the reality of the early church, it is reflective of God’s design for the church. It’s name indicates this – “church.” Ekklesia – “called out assembly.” If the church is called out from a society, it should reflect the community from which it is called.
The nature of the church is to be one in which there is no distinction, neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free. The church’s purpose is not to artificially create diversity, it is to live it out! God has broken down the wall between Jew and Gentile and made the two one. If God went to such lengths to make us all one in Christ, why do we go to such lengths to preserve man-made, ethnic divisions?
A diverse church is not simply a historical reality, it is a theological necessity. The message of the Gospel is for all people everywhere. When we create artificial barriers on external elements we are denying the very DNA of grace that stamps the body of Christ. The church is the earthly reflection of the body of Christ which is made up of people of every ethnicity, language, nationality. It is not divided into the shape of our eyes, prominence of our cheekbones or shade of our skin. It is one body, united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all who is above all and in you all.
God’s purpose for His church will be ultimately fulfilled in heaven when the redeemed “out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” will be united in worship to God as creator and redeemer. All our earthly differences will be superseded by one heavenly reality of grace.
You see, the world is not divided into sinners and saints. It’s divided into repentant sinners and un-repentant sinners. That is all. You hear a lot about churches needing to “be welcoming to sinners” but that’s not really the problem.
All churches welcome sinners, because WE are sinners. The question is which sinners are we willing to welcome. We welcome sinners who are like ourselves, but are we willing to welcome sinners who are “other” than us? Different in ethnicity, culture, economic standing, background? Does the idea of a church filled with “other” than you make you uncomfortable?
Would a sense of otherness keep you from sharing the gospel or inviting someone to church? Showing hospitality and welcoming into your home? Treating someone as a brother or sister in Christ? Ultimately our struggle is not merely about race or economic standing or politics. These are all just varied manifestations of our real struggle is with otherness. That which is different from ourselves, which makes us uncomfortable. And deep down the struggle with otherness is a struggle with the idolatry of self.
Nothing Less Than Jesus
We may all have diverse sinful pedigrees, but we are all natural-born sinners that need the same redemptive experience in Christ. All sinners, all need salvation from the same Savior. That is the Gospel.
What unites us is not external but internal. It is not our earthly birth or its identifying marks, it is our heavenly birth. Outward differences will divide us, but it is an inward work of grace that unites us.
When you think about it, the church is a motley crew of diverse characters who often have nothing more in common than Jesus. But we are united because we never have anything less in common than Jesus.
Do you struggle with grace toward those “other” than you?
– Recognize your own sinfulness and need for grace
– Repent of focusing on their “otherness”
– See others as recipients of that same grace
– Pray for grace to show to other grace-less sinners the same grace you have received as a grace-less sinner.