Say the name “evangelical Christian” to your co-worker, and you might get a cringe in response. For many, the name carries strong negative stereotypes: Right-wing extremist fundamentalist, homophobe, constrainer of women, doubter of reason.
The debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research provides a good example of a stereotype. Many wonder: Why don’t evangelicals care about people alive right now? What about the greater good of putting forsaken embryos to good use? How can evangelicals be so heartless?
This common perception about many evangelicals’ stance against embryonic stem cell research turns into a lurking stereotype that evangelicals are bound by outdated ideas blinding them to the promise of science. How do we respond to charges of being heartless, anti-science, even enemies of progress?
More than 1,800 years ago, a man faced different stereotypes about Christianity that deeply unsettled him, and the way he dealt with those stereotypes provides a model for how we deal with them today. That man’s name was Athenagoras.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the church existed under the Roman Empire, which granted its subjects freedom in some issues, but demanded conformity to its own ideals in others. Romans commonly thought Christians strayed from certain core morals of the state, summarized by three widespread stereotypes — that Christians practiced atheism, cannibalism and incest.
To our ears, these charges sound absurd! How could anyone suggest that Christians held to doctrines and practices that completely contradict their sacred Scriptures? Athenagoras found the charges confounding too and determined to do something about it.
Around AD 177, Athenagoras wrote his Plea for Christians, a small work addressed to the emperor that set out to shatter these false stereotypes about Christians. He wrote with urgency because he and his fellow Christians faced the threat of death. The apologist welcomed “severe and merciless” punishment against Christians if they had indeed done wrong, but asked for justice if their punishment emerged only from false stereotypes heralded by “lying informers.”Athenagoras, Legatio and De Resurrectione, trans. and ed. William R. Schoedel, Oxford Early Christian Texts, gen. ed. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 2.1, 2.3. Note: Legatio is the Latin name for his work, Plea for Christians.
How did these charges — atheism, cannibalism and incest — arise? They arose largely out of a misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, of Christian language. Christians referred to each other as “brothers” and “sisters,” and then intermarried with their so-called “brother” or “sister.” Outsiders didn’t understand the difference between spiritual and biological siblings, and thus developed the charge of incest.
As for cannibalism, Romans were appalled to hear that Christians ate the body and drank the blood of their Lord. The “rumors grew to absurd proportions,” historical theologian D. Jeffrey Bingham writes. “Christians were even accused of eating infants.”D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 32
Athenagoras responded to these two charges by explaining that they untruly represented Christian belief and practice and by outlining what Christian brotherhood and the Eucharist really meant. He argued that “the indiscriminate slander of a few [didn’t] cast any shadow upon the uprightness of our life. For we have our good reputation with God.”Athenagoras, Legatio, 31.2. Informants weren’t always trustworthy.
The final, and weightiest, charge was atheism. The Romans saw Christians’ belief in one God to the exclusion of all other gods a form of atheism. It made them a threat to the stability of the state because by not professing the pantheon of Roman gods, the Christians could offend them and bring divine punishment upon the whole empire. This argument provided a natural platform for persecuting Christians.
But Athenagoras explained the charge of atheism was untrue. Just because Christians believed in one supreme God, and thus were not polytheists, didn’t make them worthy of eradication. In fact, they devoted themselves steadfastly to their God, a religious value the Romans encouraged.
In contrast to many Romans, who lived by the motto, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” and who claimed that “death is a deep sleep and a forgetting,” Christians sought to live moral lives on earth in light of an eternal afterlife, making them an asset to the empire.Athenagoras, Legatio, 12.3. Athenagoras thus dispelled the myths and outlined true Christian beliefs and practices.
Did some people carrying the name Christian commit incest and cannibalism? It’s certainly possible, perhaps likely. Even today, the charge that Christians hate homosexuals arises not merely from misconceptions about our affirmation of the Bible’s teaching against homosexual behavior, but also from the overgeneralization of a few so-called Christians who actually do hate homosexuals, like the group associated with Westboro Baptist Church that picketed in my town with signs reading “God Hates Fags.” (And then there are the anti-abortionists who, unfittingly, murder to protest the murder of pre-born children — like Paul Hill, a Presbyterian minister who killed a physician and bodyguard outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida in July 1994.)
But these people do not represent true, or even mainstream, Christianity, just as the sexually aberrant, cannibalistic, and disloyal so-called Christians of the second century did not emerge from true Christianity.
Athenagoras responded to the false claims with humble explanations. He corrected people’s faulty perceptions of Christians by explaining what true Christianity looked like. His method offers some guidance to us as we interact with people in our own culture today.
Athenagoras as Example
Throughout his Plea, Athenagoras displays three characteristics of healthy Christian interaction with skeptical and misguided nonbelievers, characteristics that guide our discussion with people today.
A willingness to interact with the ideas of the day. Athenagoras interacts widely with the Greek philosophers and poets to make his points. For example, to defend Christian monotheism as non-atheistic, he points to Plato, a revered Greek philosopher, as a non-atheistic monotheist, since he believed the “Creator of all things to be the one uncreated God.”Athenagoras, Legatio, 6.2.
This strategy shows a recognition of God’s general revelation, His truth deposited in secular sources, and a willingness to use God’s truth anywhere to make an argument alongside the Scriptures for the Christian faith.
The ancient apologist never rests his argument, however, solely on rational thought. Human philosophy may support a point, but for Athenagoras, Bingham notes, “the monotheistic faith of Christians is confirmed not by rational argumentation but by the ancient testimonies of the Spirit-inspired prophets, whom he cited.”Bingham, Pocket History, 36.
Today we can interact with non-believers and may even use their arguments to make clear our own belief. At the same time, like Athenagoras, we never want to confuse Christian distinctions with human rationalism, so we appeal to the ultimate authority — the holy Scriptures which proceed from the supreme God.
A respect for those who hold to differing beliefs when we dialogue with them. Athenagoras honored the emperors with the title “greatest emperors” and appealed to them as good, knowledgeable rulers with a “love of learning and truth.”Athenagoras, Legatio, 2.6. He honored them and their intellect, confident that once they heard his humble explanation, they would readily see through the false stereotypes perpetuated about Christians.
This attitude means we stop labeling those who disagree with us, polarizing them as utterly reprobate, and attacking them with outrageous rhetoric. But aren’t they wrong? Of course they are. But after all, they, like us, are just sinners who desperately need the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Athenagoras provides a model for humbly respecting others in dialogue — which shows concern for them, rather than hatred based on stereotypes. Isn’t this what Christ has done for us? Shown us love when we deserve spurning? Why not show that kind of love to anti-Christians?
A commitment to Christ and Scripture despite the response. Athenagoras wasn’t interested in changing his beliefs, and he was prepared to accept persecution from the Roman Empire if they rejected his explanation of Christianity, because he valued what lay beyond this life with Christ. In fact, Athenagoras didn’t mind persecution if Christians were flogged for what they really believed; he merely rejected the injustice of being persecuted for a distortion of the Christian faith.
But if persecution came, Athenagoras feared nothing. He saw his life from an eternal perspective and would willingly give up his life before denying his faith. Although we don’t know what happened to Athenagoras, he likely shared the same fate as his contemporary, Justin Martyr, and died at the hand of persecutors.
That is the essence of true Christianity: A love for and dependence upon the Triune God no matter what befalls us in this life and a love for people that leads us to interact with them humbly so they might find the true hope of Christ. Sometimes to help people see what Christianity really is, we need to break false stereotypes as Athenagoras did.
Shattering 21st-Century Stereotypes
So how do we respond to charges of being heartless and enemies of progress, as some charge evangelicals with regard to stem cell research? Perhaps instead of dismissing their arguments as plainly non-Christian, we can interact by setting straight our view.
Christianity Today tried to break the “heartless” stereotype of evangelicals in its January 2007 article, “Go Gently into That Good Night,” a piece that humbly explains their stance against embryonic stem cell research. Their position arises from a protest not only against the “immoral destruction of … embryos,” but also against “an ethic of immortality that undergirds the push for embryonic stem-cell research.”Christianity Today, “Go Gently into That Good Night” (January 2007), 26
They argue that evangelicals oppose embryonic stem cell research because we want to both defend the helpless and reject a false hope of immortality. We oppose it because we’re heartful not heartless. We oppose it because we want people to find the true source of immortality, not a murdered embryo, but a murdered Christ, who rose from the dead to give life to all who believe in Him.
If we are to be mocked and persecuted, let it be for what we really believe and not for some mangled stereotype of evangelicals — for our faith in Jesus, not a disregard of suffering humans.
No one says shattering stereotypes is easy, but it is Christian. It’s our task as followers of Christ to break glasses frosted with misconceptions, clearing the fog about who we are so others can see who He is. Athenagoras might say that the shattering of glass never sounded so good.
Copyright 2007 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.