11. Their patience under Injuries
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVIII. Domestic and Social Character of the Primitive Christians
11. Their patience under Injuries
Let the reader place himself, by an effort of imagination, in the state of society in which the Christians lived; let him figure to his mind an humble, unobtrusive, and peaceable, but somewhat peculiar class of people, surrounded on all sides by multitudes knowing little or nothing of them or their principles, and from the little they knew, feeling a sovereign contempt for both, which the heathen were allowed with impunity to take every opportunity of expressing, by jostling them on the streets – pointing to them with the finger of ridicule – addressing them by cant terms of reproach, and persecuting them by a thousand petty annoyances in every-day life, and he will form some idea of the severe ordeal to which the patience of the primitive Christians was daily subjected. But inured as they were to calumny and reproach, and taught to expect these as the inheritance in this life of all who will live godly in Christ Jesus, they bore them with meekness, and sought deliverance from the malice of their enemies by no other weapons than that of exemplifying the excellence of their principles by the dignified and holy propriety of their lives. Their property, their liberty, and even their lives, they freely surrendered, rather than lose that peace of mind which they found in the performance of christian duty, or suffer those principles to be violated, which they valued more highly than their dearest possessions. Some of them, indeed, from a mistaken interpretation of several passages of Scripture, carried their views of christian obedience so far, as when smote upon the one cheek, to turn the other, and when robbed of their coat, to give the cloak also. But the great majority of them more wisely considering these as proverbial forms of speech designed to inculcate a general spirit of patience and forbearance, scrupled not to defend themselves from violence and rapine whensoever assailed; to avail themselves of the protection and redress of their wrongs, which the laws of their country afforded, and to assert, as Paul did before them, when occasion required, the rights of citizenship against the arbitrary procedure of the magistrates themselves. In matters of dispute, however, between one another, the Christians seldom or never resorted to the tribunals of the heathen deputies, but were in the habit of submitting their subjects of contention to the arbitration of some of their christian brethren. From the earliest times, this office of arbiter was, by common consent, devolved on the pastors of the church; and hence, as the degree of respect and veneration in which the sacred order was held increased rather than diminished in the succeeding centuries, and as such unbounded confidence was placed in their christian wisdom and impartiality, that all parties were disposed cheerfully to acquiesce in the awards of the spiritual judges, – one constant source of employment to the bishops of the primitive church was the determination of secular causes referred to them by the members of their flock. Ambrose and Augustine have both left it upon record, that they devoted the early part of every day to hearing and considering the disputed points on which they were requested to sit in judgment. Such being the popular influence of the christian ministers; and the good effects of the prudence, mildness, and integrity, that characterized their arbitrations being so manifest, the power was legally conferred on them, after the establishment of Christianity, of deciding all secular and other causes, with the exception of criminal cases alone, which, as more immediately affecting the peace and tranquility of the state, the emperors reserved to themselves and their deputies.
We close this rapid sketch of the social manners of the primitive Christians, with the high tribute paid to their public and civic virtues by two of their contemporaries, whose exalted rank and strong predilections for heathenism give a weight to their testimony which none of the christian apologists, however faithful and honest, possess. The emperor Julian, in a letter to Arsacius, high priest of Galatia, among other things relating to the Christians, lakes occasion to dwell upon it as a well known fact, that the Christians were preeminent in their attentions to the sick, the infirm, and the aged, – in their hospitality to strangers, in their peaceable deportment to others, and their pious care of the dead; and presses home on his illustrious correspondent, that there was no hope of paganism regaining the ascendency, except by its adherents, especially the priests, imitating the virtues of the Christians, in abstaining from the theatre, the tavern, and all scandalous pursuits and pleasures, – in a diligent attention to business, charity to the indigent, and a hospitable entertainment of the friendless and the stranger. The emperor Severus passed, perhaps, a higher eulogy than even this of Julian, on the social manners of the Christians. Observing the excellence of their conduct, as citizens, soldiers, and servants, and their fidelity in every department of public and private life, he inquired into their principles; and having been informed that one grand rule of theirs was, "Not to do to others what they would not have done to themselves," he was so charmed with it, that at all public executions he ordered it to be proclaimed aloud by a herald, and caused it to be inscribed, in legible characters, on the walls of his palace, and on all public buildings, that in every street, and on every occasion, his subjects might not be without so excellent a monitor to regulate their social manners.