The Christian Nationalists are proposing an American Revolution. Some of them want, in place of free churches, voluntarily attended by free Americans, to institute a federal church, directly contrary to the First Amendment of the Constitution—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Other Christian Nationalists propose a return to the time ante 1833, when there were still state-churches in the USA. One way or another, they have a plan to “take back” or take over the USA. Like the Roman Catholic integralists, they too have given up on the tradition known as classical liberalism in which this nation was founded. In this way, and in others, the Christian Nationalist Statement, with which I have been interacting article-by-article, is, I have been arguing, in important ways, sub-Christian. It is also utterly alien to the ethos and eschatology of the early post-apostolic theologians.
This week I was impressed by how different Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians is from the ethos and eschatology, and of the TheoRecons and the Christian Nationalists. When they think of the history of the church, the Apostolic epoch and the pre-Constantinian and pre-Theodosian (i.e., pre-AD 380), are absent from their picture of the world. Theodosius, however, even more than Constantine, is very much before them. One of their writers speaks of a charismatic Caesar-like figure to rally the “the people,” and of the “National spirit.”
I have introduced Polycarp before—some reflection on Polycarp is becoming an annual tradition—so I will not repeat all that here. The interested reader should see the resources attached to this essay. He was an important figure in the early post-Apostolic church. He was the senior pastor (ἐπίσκοπος) in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), who had heard the Apostle John, who wrote the Epistle to the Philippians about AD 125, and who might also have written the Treatise (not epistle) to Diognetus about 25 years later,1 shortly before his martyrdom in the early to mid-AD 150s.
Philippi was a foundational apostolic church. Formed by Paul from a small group of ladies who were praying by the river (Acts 16). It was a town with strong connections to the Roman empire, where there were a number of retired imperial servants and soldiers. For this reason, both in the canonical letter to the Philippian congregation (e.g. Phil 3:20) and in Polycarp’s letter some 80 years later, there is a made a very clear distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire. Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” He was not denying that we have an earthly citizenship. He himself invoked his Roman citizenship when it advanced the gospel (after he allowed Roman officials to beat him, contrary to Roman law).
In the 14 chapters—some of them quite brief, only a sentence or two—Polycarp (“fruitful”) points the Philippian congregation to Christ, thanks them for their encouragement of Ignatius, the senior pastor of Antioch, as he was on his way with Sozimos and Rufus to Rome to be martyred. From Polycarp, we learn that, in fact, they were martyred and are with the Lord right now—not because they died, but rather “in faith” and “in righteousness” (ἀλλʼ ἐν πίστει καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ; 9:2). Polycarp knew nothing of a purgatory. He also unambiguously taught the Philippians that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone (2:1), that, despite the suffering of Christians in this life, Christ is reigning right now at the right hand of the Father (2:1). Polycarp was no Christian Nationalist but neither was he a Dispensationalist.
I say that, in part, because of the way Polycarp reads and applies both the Beatitudes of our Lord and 1 Peter to the church in Philippi. He closes chapter 2 with a quotation from Luke 6:20 or Matthew 5:10, “blessed (μακάριος) are the poor and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” When Polycarp wrote persecution was a reality. Christians had been put to death for Christ and many others would be. He agreed with Jesus that it is blessed to suffer for Christ. The Christian Nationalists, TheoRecons, and other triumphalists simply cannot account for this way of thinking. Like Marcionites and some of the radical Dispensationalists (or like a kick returner weaving his way downfield), they pick and choose which of our Lord’s words or which parts of the New Testament they regard as “for today.” In Christian Nationalism, it is not blessed to be persecuted. It is a pity and a situation that requires a plan to fight back politically and perhaps militarily.
Chapter 8 is particularly relevant here. He does not call the Philippians to strategize for a culture war in the Empire but to
hold steadfastly and unceasingly to our hope and the guarantee of our righteousness, who is Christ Jesus, ‘who bore our sins in his own body upon the tree, who committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ (1 Pet 2:24, 22). Let us, therefore, become imitators of his patient endurance, and if we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For this is the example he set for us in his own person (1 Pet 2:21), and this is what we have believed (Ep to Phil 8:1,2).2
Polycarp’s ethos was that suffering is a blessing. It is an opportunity for mortification. It is an opportunity to glorify Christ. He praised Ignatius, Sozimus, and Rufus as “blessed” (μακάριος; 9.1) because they served the churches all the way to Rome. They served their Lord all the way to death, because he first served them by going to his death. Ignatius pleaded with the congregation at Rome that they should not make use of whatever connections of influence to prevent him from being martyred. It is not that he had a death wish, but rather that since he had been arrested, had he not been martyred (i.e., given witness to the end), and it might have caused Christians to question whether he had lapsed and denied Christ at the end. Remember, the Romans would have demanded that he renounce Christ, swear to Caesar as a god, and to pour out an offering (a pagan sacrament) sealing his oath.
Ignatius, Sozimus, and Rufus were blessed because they were privileged: “they suffered with the Lord” (9:2; παρὰ τῷ κυρίῳ, ᾧ καὶ συνέπαθον). In chapter 10 (which we have only in Latin), he urges the Philippians to “stand fast” and “follow the example of the Lord” by showing love, by behaving well before the pagans so that the name of the Lord might not be blasphemed. Part of following the example of the Lord is to suffer for him and with him, which is exactly what the Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:20; 3:14, 17; 4:12–14, 15, 19. It is a major theme in Peter, in the gospels, and not a minor theme in Paul.
It is certainly a major theme in Polycarp. In 12:3 we are to pray for all, for kings—remember that Claudius had been literal mortal enemies to Christians—”and for powers and principalities,” and even “for those who persecute you and who hate you and for those who are enemies (inimicis) of the cross in order that your fruit might be manifest before all, in order that you might be sanctified.”
Polycarp was not a theologian of glory (earthly conquest in this life). His expectation was that just as Jesus suffered for us, so too should we expect to suffer. Those Christians who mock suffering only show their ignorance of Holy Scripture and of the Christian experience before Christendom. It also shows how little they understand of where we are now. We ought to be paying close attention to Polycarp. He, Ignatius, and the other pre-Constantinian fathers have given us the pattern for life after Christendom.
Polycarp’s hope was not to capture the levers of power in the Roman government, nor to put to the service of Christ the hardened and bloodied armies of the empire. He was not a Muslim. The prophet led by the sword but Jesus led by the cross. The Roman authorities finally arrested and martyred Polycarp not because he was another Bar-Kokhba (who led a violent revolution against Rome in the early AD 130s). They arrested him solely because he was a Christian minister, who preached that Christ, who died and was raised, is king over all, that he has a spiritual kingdom, and that he is coming again. He died not as a criminal but as Christ did.
1. See Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of ad Diognetum. vol. 186, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) and my review in The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009): 283–86.
2. Quotations are from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translation (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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