In some ways, the North American church is like the church in the second-century after the apostles died and the New Testament was freshly written. The state and authorities knew very little about this new sect. It seemed odd, suspect, and simply unknown.
Carl Trueman recently wrote:
“In the second century, the church was a marginal sect within a dominant pluralist society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters.
This is where we are today.” (2020: 406–7)
In order to remove such suspicion and ensure Christians could live and worship free from slander, believers developed a genre of writing called the apology (a defense or explanation). Many of these apologies went to the Emperor or other authority.
The apologists affirmed: Christians are model citizens, respectful to Roman authorities, do good, and are not a threat to the empire. Within living memory of the apostles, these Christians learned well the deposit of apostolic teaching: we are, for example, “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2) and to “Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17).
In our current landscape, we have partially lost this apostolic teaching that these early believers had so deeply imbibed. Too often, members of the Western church revile authority (Jude 8), mock our rulers (Acts 23:5), and speak brashly without being “gentle” (Titus 3:2).
We have, to cite a recent argument by Michael Haykin, embraced 18th century Darwinism, a survival of the fittest, in which masculinity is muscular and macho, not meek and lowly (Matt 11:29); we are not following the pattern of Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23).
This particular weakness in Christian ethics has many causes, and my purpose is not to define all those here. Instead, I want to illustrate how Christians in the second-century explained and defended the faith to the Romans by emphasizing their respect for authority, their model citizenry, and the goodness of Christianity.
The early Christian apologists by their gentle, respectful, and good defense of the Christian faith expose our worldliness by revealing our pugnacious, ungentle, and disrespectful approach to defending the faith. They imitate Peter’s call to defend Christian hope “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15) so that they might have a good conscience (1 Pet 3:16). We have sometimes (but not always) failed to obey the Bible here.
Letter to Diognetus (c. AD 150s)
One of the most beautiful early Christian works, The Letter to Diognetus (c. mid 100s), clarifies how Christians worship and what they are like. The author explains of Christians:
“They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.
They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.
They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.
When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (Ch 5).
A bit later, the author notes that “Christians likewise love those that hate them” (Ch 6).
The author defends the faith with gentleness and respect just as Peter commands us to do so: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15–16).
In contrast, the modern Western church faces growing temptation to defend the faith by reviling our leaders and opponents without gentleness or respect. Such approaches to defending Christianity gainsay our confession because we can “deny [God] by their works” (Titus 1:16).
Athenagoras of Athens (c. AD 133–c. AD 190)
Writing to two emperors, Athenagoras affirms that Christians should be “of all men most piously and righteously disposed towards the Deity and towards your government” and complains that nevertheless, “you allow us to be harassed, plundered, and persecuted, the multitude making war upon us for our name alone” (Ch 1).
Despite such treatment, he explains how Christians act: “for we have learned, not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak” (Ch 1). That sounds a lot like Jesus (Luke 6:29).
Despite the persecution and mistreatment of Christians, Athenagoras still shows reverence and respect for the authorities calling them, “illustrious and benevolent and most learned sovereigns” (Ch 2). Why? That’s just what Christians do (1 Pet 2:17).
While I will not cite it here, Athenagoras ends his apology by elevating the good morals of Christians. That is part of our defense: our actual goodness. I will include the last sentences here to make the point.
Athenagoras asks, “For who are more deserving to obtain the things they ask, than those who, like us, pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, all men becoming subject to your sway?
And this is also for our advantage, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, and may ourselves readily perform all that is commanded us.” (Ch 32).
Aristides (c. AD 125)
Rather than reviling, Aristides writes to Emperor Hadrian directly around AD 124 or 125. With due respect, he carefully articulates the Christian hope. He continually treats the Emperor with deference despite the fact that Christians are being mistreated under his administration. Near the end, Aristides affirms the goodness of Christian citizens within the empire:
“But the Christians are just and good, and the truth is set before their eyes, and their spirit is long-suffering; and, therefore, though they know the error of these (the Greeks), and are persecuted by them, they bear and endure it; and for the most part they have compassion on them, as men who are destitute of knowledge.
And on their side, they offer prayer that these may repent of their error; and when it happens that one of them has repented, he is ashamed before the Christians of the works which were done by him; and he makes confession to God, saying, I did these things in ignorance.
And he purifies his heart, and his sins are forgiven him, because he committed them in ignorance in the former time, when he used to blaspheme and speak evil of the true knowledge of the Christians.” (§17)
Christians suffer, endure, and have compassion on others. We pray and do good. That is what a Christian is and does. By the simple fact that Aristides wrote this letter, he could not mean that Christians endure suffering without ever appealing to Caesar; this is also what Paul did (Acts 25:11). Rather, he must mean that they act like Christ (1 Pet 2:23).
Justin Martyr (AD 100–165)
Writing to the Emperor, Justin pulls no punches in pleading for justice. His demand largely revolves around Christians having a fair case, that their accusation be investigated so that justice may be done (Ch 3). Although he gives the Emperor his due honours, he also reminds him that God will judge all of us, emperor included (Ch 68). Since Roman Emperors were supposed to be pious (i.e., by being just and honouring the gods), Justin pushes the Emperor to do what he ought.
In fact, Justin says that the Emperor’s father (Adrian) had given favour to the Christians and pleads for the same favour on the basis of this legal precedent. Here, we begin to see Christians using earlier legal precedent to pressure the Emperor to do what he knows he ought: do justice, do piety, and fear God.
He nevertheless treats the Emperor with honour. In his introduction, he writes: “To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Cæsar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Cæsar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the sacred Senate.”
The point here is similar. He like other apologists shows respect for authority, speaks the truth, and highlights the innocence of Christians. He also, in this case, uses legal precedent for the sake of protecting Christians as well as general notions of divine punishment (something almost everyone would have affirmed).
In one sense, Justin shows us what would later become a theology of two reigns or kingdoms. But that is a story for another day.
Quadratus of Athens (c. AD 125)
Quadratus of Athens sometime around 125 wrote to Emperor Aelius Hadrian to defend Christianity against certain attacks. We only have one extract of his defence intact, but it interestingly follows a similar pattern that we have seen above, in that he defends Christianity on the basis of truth and goodness:
“But the works of our Saviour were always at hand, for they were true, those who were cured, those who rose from the dead, who were seen not only when being cured and when rising, but also, being always at hand, not only when the Saviour was on earth, but even after he had departed, survived for a considerable time, so that some of them have even come down to our own time.” (Eusebius HE 4.3)
The Saviour did good works, and he could see the results in his own day. Presumably, those who Jesus healed and lived still in Quadratus’s time testified to the goodness of Jesus and the faith in general. If Quadratus wrote in 125, he could have spoken of such people who lived during his lifetime but earlier such as in the 90s. That would approximate the date of the last living disciples or apostles of Jesus, whom we otherwise know of.
The Bible tells us exactly how to defend our hope: “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). No ambiguity exists here since we should “show perfect courtesy to all people” (Titus 3:2). Yes, Jesus turned over tables in the temple because as the divine Son he renovated the temple which would become his body. We are now that body, so the only tables we need to turn over are in our hearts.
Yes, Jesus uses strong language, speaking as one who knows the hearts of men (John 2:25), since he was divine (1 Sam 16:7). On the other hand, we can barely know our own hearts (Jer 17:9). And our anger, unlike Christ’s, “does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). We are fallen; Christ was not. We imitate him as fallen creatures awaiting that future day of resurrection. Until then, the mind battles the flesh (Rom 7). And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23).
So let’s focus on the main thing as the main thing, and stop using exceptions to excuse our passions in our flesh. The Bible calls these passions sin (Gal 5:24). We often call lack of self-control and brash words boldness (“he says it like it is,” “he says what he thinks,” etc.). Actually, self-control is better. Strength is measured. Truth-speaking is bold, but we do it like Christians “with gentleness and respect.” The world lacks self-control and expresses every feeling of anger at all times; we don’t. We live by the Spirit and so value “kindness” equally to truth (Gal 5:22).
Yes, Paul told the Galatians that he wished those who advocate for circumcision would cut themselves instead. Exceptional language is useful to make a point, but it remains exceptional.
In any case, he wrote that to the Galatians and did not insult his opponents to their face but rather used strong language to make a rhetorical point among his own people. In the Book of Acts, Paul repents after insulting the high priest Ananias, who belonged to the same religious body that led to Jesus’s death (Act 23:5)! He also submits to the Roman authorities even though the risen Lord commanded him to preach. He went to jail for two years, even then, the Gospel was not bound (Acts 28:30–31). Acts then provides direct examples of how Paul interacted directly with authorities.
Some early Christians lost their property, were imprisoned, tortured, killed, and prevented from regular worship. This happened sporadically, but it did happen. Christians did not suddenly become anti-statist, fiercely independent, and disobedient to authorities. They knew that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:2). Accepting what they must, they nevertheless resisted by appealing to the Emperor, the magistrates above them.
In a more democratic society, we have many avenues to appeal to our leaders. We should use every resource possible. The one thing we should not do, however, is to defend our faith without “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). If we do so, we will sound like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1)—rightly odorous because of bad behaviour and badly damaged due to a marred conscience. Love is “not arrogant or rude” (1 Cor 13:4–5), which means we must not commend any Christian behavior that rudely or arrogantly attacks authority. It simply is sinful, not good.
The apologists illustrate how to follow holy Scripture. They teach us that boldness means speaking the truth in love with gentleness and respect. The muscular Christianity of today in which men speak roughly and unkindly may actually mask deep-seated sin, in which one is lacking self-control and unable to control the passions and desires of the flesh. Kill that sin. Defend the faith boldly “with gentleness and respect.”