I've been reading Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Medieval World. It is volume two of her history of the world! Who undertakes to write a history of the world?! If you read her bio at her website of the same name, you'll see she is one busy woman. Mother, wife, teacher, speaker, author and owner of a working farm! And now author of volume two of a world history. Her book is good for an overview. It is a fast paced read. Not too many details but lots of names and places, and battles. Is that all ancient people did, fight? Looks like it. And since this volume begins with Constantine, it is mostly Christians doing the fighting. They did a lot of theologizing, too. There were important issues to be decided about the incarnation, the two natures of Christ and Christ's equality with God. And then they fought over these issues, as well. One thing you can say is that the early church took its theology seriously. Arianism was a big threat in the church then. That was the belief that Jesus was less than God, and created by God, since God was one. Nestorianism was a big threat, too. Biship Nestorious of Constantinople, taught that there were two separate natures co-exisiting in Christ something like "two different colors of marbles in a jar." The Monophysites believed that there were two natures mystically united in Christ and we cannot split apart those natures in our rational thinking. The Nestorians, somewhat more rationalistic, thought we could. The Monophysites won the battle and Nestorians were branded heretics. They were never wiped out however and reemerged years later as the Syrian Orthodox Church.
There were fights over the nature of the Church, too. In the strong North African church many clergy handed over their Scriptures as a means of recanting their faith under the stress of the Diocletian persecution. Thus, their lives were spared. Not all the clergy did this and some of them lived through the persecution. They were incensed to learn that one of the clergy who did recant his faith was going to be made Bishop of Carthage. They made the point that because of what he did, any official church acts like baptisms, communions,weddings, or ordinations, etc, would be contaminated. His would not be a pure church because he was not pure. Donatus Magnus believed that only holy men could convey the grace of God to the church. His fellow protesters were called Donatists. This set off an important theological debate: how is God's grace mediated to sinful people? Augustine, took the position, that it was impossible for men to purify God's church. "No man can make his neighbor free from sin because he is not God.", Augustine said. God makes his grace available to people because He wills to do so, not because of the character of the man who occupies the official position. The Donatists were the first of many Believers who tried to purge the church of the unrighteous and unworthy. Augustine wrote that the church would always be a "mixed body" of true believers and false and "it was not for man to separate the good from the bad. Only at the end of time, when Christ returned and all things were set right, would the frauds be winnowed out." Bauer points out this was not just arguing about some of the finer points of theology. From this conflict would come Inquisitions, heresy trials, English Puritans and - we might add - all manner of denominations trying to "out righteous" the rest ( from First Baptist to Second Baptist, to Conservative Baptist, to GARB Baptist, to First Fundamentalist Baptist of the King James Version 1612 - don't laugh - I actually pastored in a town with all of those Baptists trying to get purer and purer. Of course, I pastored the least pure!) . Bauer concludes: "the Donatists insisted on creating an identity they could control and a community that was thoroughly well defined - without ambiguity, without uncertainty."
And so it goes, often the debates turned ugly and violent. The emperors became involved. Church and state were a tight mix. Reading Bauer you get the impression Christendom was all a huge battleground. And it was to an extent greater than we realize. Yet, in Bauer, you get hints too of ordinary lay persons living in hard times and hanging onto their faith, and faithful clergy who were trying to hammer out the meaning of the gospel for their turbulent times as well as care for the flock. In 386, the emperor's mother, Justina, who had feuded for years with Bishop Ambrose (of Milan, Italy) over Arianism ordered Ambrose to hand over one of Milan's churches to be used exclusively by Arian Christians. Ambrose refused. On Palm Sunday weekend, she sent a goon squad to take over the church he was serving and make that one Arian. Ambrose was teaching a class of converts getting them ready for an Easter baptism when Justina's troops showed up and starting remaking the church all around him. He ignored them and finished his teaching. In fact, he never left. He began a marathon preaching mission telling the congregants that the emperor did not rule God's church. There were anti-Arian riots in the streets. Large numbers of Christians of all persuasions were arrested. Finally, before things got really ugly, the emperor withdrew the troops but he made it clear the war over Arianism was not over.
Still there was Ambrose in the midst of the turmoil brewing between the state and the church doing what he was called to do: discipling the faithful. And in those violent, turbulent times, there were many others living their lives, keeping their heads down, keeping their prayers going up, keeping the faith, serving the cause of Christ. Has there ever been an easy time to serve Christ faithfully? I doubt it. But good lessons here: God keeps His Church, in spite of it all. And knowing that, we can keep the Faith.