“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)
“Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” St Anthony the Great
Imagine being a part of a community where daily you meet with other Christians to depend on each others’ talents and resources, forming a particular type of sub-community within a very hostile, secular community. Imagine living within this community where you are able and willing to practice your God-given talents even to the point of death to protect and grow this community. This is the way the pre-Nicene, early Church, lived. Within the ancient writings of St Paul and other saints such as Clement, we know that the Church lived a communal life in every way that they possibly could, building a new kind of spiritual and philanthropic community that would eventually evolve into a Christian empire.
When love abounds like it did in the early Church it directly effects all surrounding matter. Love is everything that not only St Paul says it is, regarding patience, kindness, long-suffering, and joyfulness, but it is also everything that St James says, such as caring for the orphans, widows, etc! Because matter matters in the Christian life, Christians have always given everything they have, including their lives, for the sake of their mission. In the first few centuries the Christians became a major threat to the secular Roman Empire and the emperors would often torture or execute them if they did not publicly bow to their god or them as a god.
It seems that many of us today read these ancient accounts of martyrdom with a bit of perplexity, wondering why it was so important not to bow to the other gods, wondering if this entire ordeal (martyrdom through execution) was actually in regards to belief and the retention of the martyrs soul vis-à-vis their decision whether or not to honor the other gods. In one sense the soul does rely on not committing idolatry and giving ones heart over to another god, but is briefly giving a verbal allegiance to a foreign god mean our heart has been given away? Why has it been so important over the course of Christian history to never even verbally attest to another god, even if we remain loyal in our heart to the one true God?
The theology of the early Church was very much centered on the communal aspect of the Church. The gospel forms a community and to depart from this community was to depart from the faith and the Church. Early Christians were not willing to die in order to retain their belief but to retain the Christian community at large: God’s Church. There was no faith apart from the Church! These Christians had to stand for their faith in front of the pagan emperors for what they were doing, not so much as to what they were thinking or even praying. The pagan emperors would allow them to believe whatever they wanted, but they had to be sure the Christians were not a direct threat to their pagan culture, so they demanded that they profess in public that other gods were worthy to be honored in their life.
In the early Roman Empire community and all organized life revolved around what certain gods could do for the people to give them what they believed they needed to survive. When a new group comes along and says that there is another God, one that is bigger and better, the Romans immediately begin to feel threatened. The last things they wanted was their community being taken from them by a foreign God. The message of the early Christians was that of exclusivity! The Christian God was the one to sustain all life and culture, even into eternity, and there was no room for other gods/beliefs to operate within this economy.
A few decades after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Roman emperor, Nero, offered the Church to place Jesus as one of the many gods’ within the public sphere, giving them freedom from much of the persecution of that time. The Church completely rejected this offer. The reason the Church rejected this offer from the emperor is that the Church did not believe in sharing their culture with other gods. They chose to remain within the catacombs, within their own culture that was completely exclusive to other gods. In the early Church community, there was only one God!
Day by day the early Church became empowered to take on the pagan (secular) society. They rescued the orphans by actually adopting them in to their homes. They feed the poor. They cared for the widows. They even healed the sick! All of this labor created a literal community that required living amongst each other to care for each other.
Looking at the Second Chapter of Acts we can see that the Christians were not just a worshiping community, they were a literal community. They shared their personal property and everything they had with one another. The nuclear family was different then amongst Christians. Each family was a ministry, so to speak, under the larger family of the Church, which formed an entire community…a community that was destined to completely overpower and outmode the secular community.
The early (pre-Nicene) Church was empowered by bishops who celebrated for each particular geographical community. The Church was not so much of a parish (or network of parishes) as it was a occupation of community. The very structure of the parish evolved out of the missional community. This was by no means a move backwards or some type of tragedy, but it does set the precedence for the tragedy we encounter as a Church much later in history, the missional community becomes quite exclusive to temple-building (see Eucharist, Bishop, Church, Part III for an in depth study of the emergence of parish life). The philanthropic model of “sharing all thing” as we read in Acts, and the caring of the orphans, poor, and widows, as Christ preached as a central part of our calling and even judgment in to eternity, took a turn for major growth in the third century. Many scholars insist that the Edict of Milan, where Emperor Constantine legalized the Church, was the beginning of this parish evolution of sort. Many Protestant scholars point to this era of history as an “institutionalization” that sent the Church into apathy and heresy, but these scholars fail to realize that the Church evolved its mission much earlier when it transpired in to the parish movement. The more organized the Church became the more blessings as well as heresies it produced, but this is the nature of the Church up to the time we know of as “The Last Days.”
The parish life seemed to be a very convenient transfer in to what later became the Christianized (known today as Byzantine) empire. The newly legalized Christian faith that finally blossomed and organized so very well into parishes could now run, if not at least heavily influence, the entire empire. Bishops now became heavily involved in the community itself, organizing hospitals, care homes, etc. They also became judges within courts in many areas. The parish life that sprang from the early missional community went mainstream with her calling.
“community property more than private possession is the valid form of living, and is also in accordance to nature; this state (community of property) therefore is rather our inheritance, and more agreeable to nature” (Homily on 1 Timothy).
Of course, when St John was referring to “community” he was by no means referring to the unbelieving secular community, but the Christian community. In this case it was the Byzantine Empire, which, by the way, was no “communist” endeavor. Communal property and other types of philanthropy were not forced upon the public, rather the public built the empire with the teachings of the fathers in mind. We will take a closer look at this through later chapters, covering the canons and philanthropic mission of the Church.
The communal aspect of the early Church was so incredibly important to Christians that when the parish movement of the Church gained momentum in the late third century, St Anthony the Great retreated to the desert creating what is called the cenobetic lifestyle of the early Church. This movement of St Anthony is now known as ‘monasticism.’ The two movements of monasticism and the parish life were in no way polarized movements, rather a compliment to each other in the fierce beast of modernity. Perhaps St Anthony’s ministry was not only necessary for his time, when the people needed constant reminder not to fall head over heels in to the modern world, but also prophetic for the end of the age, where he said,
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us’.”
Perhaps Monasticism in our day will be a stronghold and a guide to the Church as to what she is to return to…not in the sense of strict adherence to asceticism, although there will certainly be an aspect of this, but in the sense of the cenobetic community that St Anthony was able to capture and preserve.
An imperative question remains! What happens when you take a full-swinging Christian empire like early Byzantium or modern Holy Russia and birth an illegitimate child or two? You get blended families of sort and eventually the empire begins changing. Early Byzantium was extremely resilient to many internal battles, finally losing to her western child stirring up the hornets nest of Islam. The next of kin, Russia, eventually saw the same type of problem, resulting in a revolution, demolishing the Church down to a mere remnant of sort.
What has survived the Byzantine and Russian era? The local parish aspect of the Church! The parish life was a movement…a very good movement that fit very nicely in a radical growth spurt of the missional community. It sustained the philanthropic calling and even helped expand it in to a complete empire, giving us the Bible itself and all of her Ecumenical Councils and Canons throughout the centuries. But what does the true remnant of the Church look like in these days of the Church ‘fleeing into the wilderness,’ as prophecy explains? Should we be multiplying parishes within countries like America or is there something we might be missing?
In the 1800s Russia began to expand her community to Alaska, which remained as Russian territory at that time. The Church did not evangelize Alaska by popping up parishes to ‘change the native’s doctrine’, but they expanded their entire economy of trade and overall culture. It was a very philanthropic endeavor and Alaska began to become a part of Holy Russia in a very historical way: through blood, sweat and tears! Of course the natives literally heard the gospel taught but as a followup to the greater task of the saints laying down their lives for them. Alaska was eventually bought by America and so there was no possible way that Orthodoxy could completely finish the task of establishing Alaska as a Christian nation, or part of a Christian nation.
In the mid 1900s Orthodox ‘parishes’ began to emerge within America, settling within the American culture and becoming an alternative to the Protestant and Catholic parishes. We now have a full blown parish-only model of Orthodoxy within America who in some areas attempts to compete with the Catholic and Protestant philanthropy but never becoming the philanthropic community she was for many centuries. American culture and belief simply does not tolerate any type of Church directing the philanthropic nature of the culture.
What we might need to be asking ourselves within America is how this parish model can somehow transform in to an actual community. Is there an alternative to the empire and catacomb model? We will talk about this more in the coming chapters. Some questions that will be pondered are: What is the Church an alternative to, if anything? Are we simply an alternative to the modern, western, parishes or are we an actual alternative to the unbelieving community as a whole? Also, in a future chapter we will discover how this parish-only model of Orthodoxy has become even more dissociated from the ancient philanthropic movement due to her adaptation of western philosophy, culture and politics.
Lives of the Saints, The Great Collection – Eight Volume Set, Compiled by Saint Demetrius of Rostov
The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ten Volume Set, by A. Cleveland Coxe (Compiler), Alexander Roberts (Editor), James Donaldson (Editor), Philip Schaff (Editor), Henry Wace (Editor)
Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, by Susan Holman
Eucharistic, Bishop, Church, by Metropolitan John Zizioulas