In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.
In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.
“The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.“
Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.
So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.
But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.
This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.
He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.
Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.
Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities‘
Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.
But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.
As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.
The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.
So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?
The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships
We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.
These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.
Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.
We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
2 Timothy 4:2
Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.
Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.
*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.