On Church Assemblies Not Meeting

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, more affectionally known as Pliny the Younger, lived from AD 61 to around 113. In his letter (10.96) to Emperor Trajan, Pliny sought guidance in handling the Christians to which Trajan offered his counsel (10.97).

When Pliny first encountered Christians in his role as proconsul (legatus Augusti) of the province of Bithynia, he was uncertain about how to deal with them. He asked the Emperor a variety of questions. Should Christians be punished just because they are Christians? Should they be punished if the recanted of being a Christian? Should Christians be punished only because they have been caught doing something illegal?

Pliny stated

… this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they have con­fessed, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished. There were others who displayed a like madness and whom I reserve to be sent to Rome, since they were Romans citizens.

From those who renounced their allegiance to Jesus, Pliny learned their guilt or error was basically this

that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally (Lat. carmen … dicere secum invicem) to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath (Lat. sacramentum), not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the con­clusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food

But, Pliny continued, they had ceased the practice of meeting after he had issued an edict forbidding the meeting of “secret societies.” Wanting to know more, Pliny tortured two female ministers (Lat. ministrae) but found only a “depraved and extravagant superstition.”

Noting the impact that Christianity had had on the culture, Pliny closes his letter with this last paragraph:

The matter seemed to me to justify my consulting you, especially on account of the number of those imperiled; for many persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes are being put in peril by accusation, and this will go on. The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well; yet it seems ca­pable of being checked and set right. There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have been long neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found. From this it is easy to imagine what a host of men could be set right, were they given a chance of recantation.

Pliny’s letter to Trajan is a fascinating window into the world of the earliest Christians. I encourage you to the read the letter in full for yourself. Also, because we have Trajan’s letter reply to Pliny, we get to see how the Romans viewed Christians before AD 117:

You have taken the right line, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those de­nounced to you as Christians, for no hard and fast rule can be laid down, of universal ap­plication. They are not to be sought out; if they are informed against, and the charge is proved, they are to be punished, with this reservation—that if any one denies that he is a Christian, and actually proves it, that is by worshipping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation, however, suspect he may have been with respect to the past. Pamphlets published anonymously should carry no weight in any charge whatsoever. They constitute a very bad precedent, and are also out of keeping with this age.

Here we see that the earliest Christians were willing to give up public gatherings to play their role as exemplary citizens. What the faithful would not do is denounce their allegiance to Jesus or bow their allegiance to Caesar.

Oh, and for the record, these Christians were really being persecuted by the government.



The excerpts above are from Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).



How Should We Then Live

One of my favourite readings from early Christianity is this excerpt from an unknown writer offering a defence of what it means to be a Christian to a certain (also unknown) Diognetus. Writing about the end of the second century, the author seeks to show that Christians have a certain relationship to the countries and governments under which they find themselves living. Given the present politicized environment, it might be good medicine to help the church get back to being the church.

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. 2 For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. 3 This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. 4 But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. 

5 They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. 

6 They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. 7 They share their food but not their wives. 

8 They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh.  9 They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10 They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. 

11 They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. 12 They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. 13 They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. 14 They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. 15 They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. 16 When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. 

17 By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility. 6:1 In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.

Epistle to Diognetus 5:1–6:1

[Paragraphing added to aid reading]

Some Things I Learned About Cheneyville

Recently, I had the opportunity to share some of my findings from my research on the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana. The event was their Founders’ Day celebration, October 18, 2014. My special thanks goes to Rodney White for this invitation.

As I have time, I have been working on the history of the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana from ca. 1800 to the end of the Civil War. One of the most important episodes in this history is the formation of the Christian Church in Cheneyville. It is something of a tragic story as the Christian Church came to be out of a sharp division that occurred within Beulah Baptist Church (founded by the pioneer Baptist missionary Joseph Willis in Cheneyville ca. 1816). What follows is the text of my presentation.


When I began researching the roots of the Disciples of Christ or the Christian Church in Louisiana, I was not looking for information about Solomon Northup, Cheneyville, Beulah Baptist Church, William Prince Ford, or the Tanner family. Nor did I know how important Sue Eakin’s work would become to me.

The few early hints I found led me to the Woodville, Mississippi and a pioneer preacher named Jacob Creath, Jr., so called “Junior” to distinguish him from his famous uncle, the then Baptist Preacher, Jacob Creath, Sr. Disciples historians claimed that Jacob Creath, Jr. was the first preacher of the Campbellite version of the Gospel in the state of Louisiana. This initial preaching moment took place in October 1826 near Bayou Sara. I soon found that this story was more complicated than the Disciples Historians had let on. You see, Creath was a Baptist preacher the entire time he was in Mississippi but, it is of note, that he went straight to Alexander Campbell’s residence as soon as he left Mississippi. Before he vacated the area, though, he had left his mark on several families in Woodville, who would migrate later to Cheneyville. So, in rather short order, my quest for the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana took me from Woodville, to Bayou Sara, finally to Cheneyville.

In 1847 Jacob Creath, Jr. visited Cheneyville. Here he reunited with Banks Marshall[1] and his wife whom he had earlier baptized in 1827 at Woodville, Mississippi. Of Josiah Scott, Creath wrote, “the nephew of Gov. Scott of Mississippi, whose wife I baptized at the same time [as the Marshalls], was also there with Mr. Scott’s mother, and a number of other ‘Disciples’ who had removed from Mississipi [sic] to that portion of Louisiana.” “I preached, of course,” he continued, “the ancient gospel to them. About a dozen believed it, felt its power, and obeyed.”[2] Josiah Scott would later become the minister of the First Christian Church in Cheneyville. Josiah is buried in the First Christian Church cemetery.

Don’t worry; I do not plan to share everything I think I know about how the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church grew out of a major split within Beulah Baptist Church in 1843. I suspect most of you know that story, and some of you deep within. What I would like to do, I hope, will be more interesting for such an occasion as the one we are celebrating today. I want to tell a few stories that have caught my attention as I was trying to find out more about how my church came to be in this state. To be exact, I have three stories to share with you. The first is about William Prince Ford, the second is about Peter William Robert, and the final one is about Alexander Campbell’s visit to Cheneyville.

William Prince Ford

For his involvement in the founding of the Christian Church, W. P. Ford was reprimanded by his former Baptist colleagues. Louisiana Baptist historian W. E. Paxton noted that by 1845 the Baptists leveled three charges against Ford: (1) that he administered the Lord’s Supper to the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville; (2) that he had ordained elders in said churches; and (3) that he gave countenance to the schism in the Cheneyville Baptist Church.[3] An entry in the Spring Hill Church minutes substantiates Paxton’s assessment of Ford’s involvement with the Campbellite reformers:

SPRING HILL, Saturday, January, 1845.

Inasmuch as it has been reported to this church by brethren Wright and Rand[4] that our brother Rev. W. P. Ford had been administering the communion of the Lord’s Supper and himself communing with the Campbellite church at Cheneyville, composed, in part, of persons standing excluded from our sister church called Beulah. And second, That he has ordained elders in said church who are persons excluded as above and person not holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And third, That his course has confirmed divisions, and offenses contrary to the doctrines we have learned, and inasmuch as the said brethren Wright and Rand have entreated brother Ford and told him his faults, according to the Gospel and have not gained our brother,

Therefore we the Church of Christ[5] at Spring Hill feel offended by Bro. Ford’s course, and feel it our duty to entreat and admonish him according the Gospel, and that Bro. Rand acted in this matter in behalf of the church and that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to him.

Resolved, That the church set apart Saturday the 25th inst. as a day of fasting and prayer to God with special reference to the case of brother Ford.

G. Robert, Clerk.[6]

The next pertinent entry in the church minutes records:

Sunday, March 16, 1845. The church met in conference. Prayer by Brother Rand. Whereas Brother W. P. Ford has been admonished and entreated by this church and has refused to hear us. Therefore, Resolved, that he is no longer with us.[7]

How true this last statement was. Ford fully embraced the Gospel as taught by Alexander Campbell. As late as 1850 Ford wrote to Campbell to secure a minister of the Cheneyville Christian Church.

Cheneyville, Parish of Rapid[e]s, La., Nov. 5, 1850

Brother Campbell: It is known to you that there has existed a church of Christ at this place for five or six years. There have been but few additions to its numbers during the last year or two; but I believe, that if an Evangelist would come amongst us, the church might be revived, and members added to it. There is now $350 subscribed for the compensation of a minister, either in the capacity of an Evangelist or Bishop, as may be agreed upon after his arrival. And by the time that fund is exhausted, as much more can be obtained. I have thought, by giving this publicity, some proclaiming brother might be induced to come amongst us, or address me for further particulars.

Yours, in the love of the gospel, W. P. FORD.[8]

Ford’s letter apparently had its desired effect. W. H. Steward became the Christian Church’s first full time pastor in 1854 and he was still with the church when Alexander Campbell visited in 1857.

Ford’s commitment to the new church is felt through the generous contribution of his second wife, Mary Boaz Dawson (m. 1849; d. 1880), the widow of William H. Cureton. She donated the land on which the church was built  c. 1852.[9] What remains of the original columns of this structure still stands in the Christian Church cemetery.

Peter William Robert

In the early 1840s, Peter William Robert, an “elderly gentlemen,” found Beulah Baptist Church in a “lamentable” state, so Jabez Tanner would have us believe in the account he left of the tragic split that occurred in Beulah Baptist in 1843. Despite the impression in Jabez Tanner’s narrative that Robert had recently arrived, Robert was one of those who had migrated from Beaufort District, SC, to Woodville, MS, and then finally to Cheneyville. As such he was actually a long-time member of the Baptist church and already a known preacher. Tanner speaks admirably of Robert’s ministry:

There was but one house in which family worship was maintained. Elder P. W. Robert was truly a man of God. He commenced lecturing publicly and privately in a manner that was entirely new at this place, for in preaching, he held up Christ in front of himself. He read the Word of the Lord and caused the people to understand the meaning thereof. In a very short time there was a considerable stir amongst the people. Persons who had not been on friendly terms for years were induced to become reconciled. To be concise, he preached about a year and baptized in this region about four hundred persons.”[10]

The ministry of Robert also came to the attention of the emerging Disciples. For instance, Walter Scott, in The Evangelist, copied the following letter describing Robert’s ministry.

New Orleans, Nov. 9th 1841.

Since I last wrote you, about three hundred and seventy five persons have bowed the neck to the yoke of Jesus Christ. Principally under the labors of Father Robert, in the Parishes of Ra[p]id[e]s and Avoyelles. All ranks and classes are among the number added through his and our labors; about forty Methodists, twelve Presbyterians, and twenty Roman Catholics are of the number.

Brother Robert is a Baptist; though he preaches the word, and it has been mighty in pulling down the strong holds of Humanism, infidelity &c.

We have agreed to keep Father Robert in the field this year. He speaks about 10 times per week. The people are reading the Bible with as much interest as thought it had just dropped from heaven. He gets every one as soon as they are added, to came forward in family worship, and be active in every duty. I have never wit­nessed more interest in a neighborhood, than in the section where he is laboring, without usual machinery, such as this age of invention has produced. I am much pleased with this scriptural manner of proceeding.[11]

On the first Sunday in August 1841, P. W. Robert baptized Jabez Tanner and forty others. These people formed the nucleus of the Christian Church in Cheneyville. The founding member of the First Christian Church of Cheneyville were Mr. and Mrs. John W. Pearce; Mr. and Mrs. W. P. Ford, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Jabez Tanner, Mr. and Mrs Josiah Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Bordeaux Robert[12] and a Mrs. Andry.[13]

Campbell’s Visit to Cheneyville (1857)

On Alexander Campbell’s second “Tour of the South” (beginning 26 February 1857) he came again to Louisiana but made his first visit to Cheneyville in March 1857. He reported in his journal the Millennial Harbinger,

The cause of Christianity in its sectarian attitudes, had almost expired in that vicinity [speaking of Cheneyville and area]. The Baptist church formerly existing there had ceased to be, and one individual of the Methodist persuasion was the sole representative of that denominational form of religion. The Christian church alone survived, and consisted of some hundred members white and black.”[14]

Of course, the Beulah Baptist did not disappear.

With a brother Meyers, a graduate of Bethany in Cheneyville at this time, Campbell reported they had held a meeting for several days with a favorable response. Since one of Campbell’s aims was to raise funds for his Bethany college—which no doubt, Meyers provided a living exhibit of the type of student Bethany produced—he spoke on the need for Christian education and the role of Bethany. Campbell’s presentation impressed the church as Jabez Tanner pledged $1000.00 and Andrew Jackson, $300.00.[15]

That Campbell’s reported blacks and whites participating in the same church is somewhat unexpected in an area made famous by Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. However, the oddness of what Campbell experienced in Cheneyville led Campbell offer a bit of commentary about the meeting. He noted that a “considerable colored population” was in attendance filling an “entire range of pews from the pulpit to the door” while the white audience filled “three ranges of pews of the same length.” Furthermore, Campbell delighted to note, everyone had cushioned pews! Campbell saw this luxury to be an unusual display of equality in Christian fellowship. Campbell also noted that the congregation exhibited a “more fervent devotion” than he usually experienced.[16]


Cheneyville has a deep, rich history. Some that history is troubled, but today was not the day to go there. However, our path forward will not be made easier by ignoring the past, but by retelling it. And retelling it well. Sue Eakins knew this. So I hope in retelling these few stories I have somehow helped keep history alive here in Cheneyville.


[1] Perhaps Rogers Banks Marshall (b. October 1797 in Caroline Co, Virginia – d. August 1873 in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana). Information online: http://www.fanta-levey.com/ getperson.php?personID=I1709&tree=tree2.

[2] Philip Donan, Memoir of Jacob Creath, Jr. (Cincinnati: Chase and Hall, 1872), 147. Josiah Scott gave $7.50 on behalf of the  Cheneyville Church for a church building in Washington, D.C., reported in Millennial Harbinger (HM) (1851): 353; repeated at MH (1859): 595. After leaving Cheneyville, Creath went to Alexandria where he reunited with an old classmate, James Brice. They had been classmates in Washington, D.C. in 1822-1823. Following his time in Alexandria, Creath visited Major Johnson in Woodville, Mississippi, where Creath resided when he was in Mississippi from 1826–1828.

[3] W. E. Paxton, A History of the Baptists of Louisiana (St. Louis: C. R. Barns, 1888), 149–50. Paxton notes that Ford was born in Henry County, Kentucky, January 5, 1803. He was baptized by G. A. Ir[i]on at Cotile in Rapides Parish in 1829. The following year he moved to the area of Spring Hill (West of LeCompte) and in 1841, with fourteen others, constituted a Baptist church by that name. Paxton continued that in 1844 Ford was ordained to the ministry by Elder B. C. Robert (uncle of Mary Epps), Thomas Rand, and A. J. Spencer (later minister of Beulah Baptist). On Baynard C. Robert, see William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia: A Dictionary of the Doctrines, Ordinances, Usages, Confessions of Faith, Suffering, Labors, and Successes, and of the General History of the Baptist Denomination in All Lands with Numerous Biographical Ketches of Distinguished American and Foreign Baptists, and a Supplment (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 2.991: a pioneer preacher in Rapides Parish, La., was born in South Carolina in 1800. He came to Louisiana in 1818; was ordained in 1821— the second Baptist minister ever ordained in the State. He was a man of intelligence and ability, and was instrumental in founding many churches in his region. He was often moderator of the Louisiana Association. He died in 1865. See also Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 503-05; and Glen Lee Greene, House Upon a Rock: About Southern Baptists in Louisiana (Alexandria, La.: Executive Board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, 1973), 59.

[4] Thomas Rand was one of the most accomplished preachers to come to Louisiana. Cathcart, Baptist Encyclopedia, 2.955, noted that Rand, “the son of a minister of the same name, was born in West Springfield, Mass., July 10, 1813; licensed to preach in 1836; graduated at Hamilton Theological Seminary in 1838; ordained at Bayou Chicot, La., in 1841; died at Lake Charles, La., July 1, 1869. He devoted his life to teaching and preaching, and did much to build up the Baptist cause in the Opelousas region. He was a ripe scholar and fine preacher.” See biographical sketch in Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 493.

[5] Baptist Churches will sometimes refer to themselves in a generic sense as “Churches of Christ.”

[6] Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 169-70.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] MH (January 1851): 60.

[9] See Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (ed. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968; orig., 1853), 76, n. 4; 93, n. 5, 6 and 7; et al.; William A. Wilson Jr., “The Disciples of Christ in Louisiana: 1826-1860” (M.A. thesis, Louisiana State University, 1934), 42.

[10] Jabez Tanner’s letter as cited in “History of Beulah Baptist Church, 1816-1966” (Cheneyville: Beulah Baptist Church), 12. Sometime after 1834 or 1835, P. W. Robert is said to have worked toward the establishment of a Baptist congregation in New Orleans. See Oscar Dubose Bowen, Historical Sketches of the Work of Baptists on the Mississippi Sea Coast and in New Orleans: The Organization and History of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association (Handsboro, Miss.: Gulf Coast Baptist Association, 1882),18.

[11] Evangelist 10.2 (1842): 47. Unfortunately the letter is unsigned in the Evangelist.

[12] Obit for Rosella Ann Robert at MH (1855): 238. Is this Bordeaux’s wife?

[13] We can perhaps add Mrs. Irene Johns (and husband?) who is listed by J. V. Coombs of Danville, IN, as the only charter member alive in 1918. See Unsigned letter from Cheneyville, Louisiana, Sept. 15, 1908 in “A Church with a Marvelous History,” Christian Standard (March 30, 1918), 839.

[14] MH (1857): 312.

[15] Robert Richardson, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell Embracing a View of the Origin, Progress and Principles of the Religious Reformation which He Advocated (2 vol.; Philadelpia: J. P. Lippincott and Co., 1868), 2.628; MH (1857): 312, which has A. Jackson giving $300.00, but on p. 470, notes that bro. Jackson of La. gave $200.00; Lester G. McAllister, Bethany: The First 150 Years (Bethany, W.V.: Bethany College Press, 1991), 102. The Christian Church in Cheneyville built a block wood pulpit for Alexander Campbell to use during his visit; the church still uses the pulpit. Wilson, “Disciples of Christ in Louisiana,” 37, mentioned the pulpit. See MH (1861): 119 for Tanner’s obituary.

[16] Richardson, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2.312-13.

Get Out! Really?

I wrote this when the events related herein were fresh, but I decided not to publish it at that time because frankly when anxiety is up, we don’t hear well. Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can re-engage in a more civil discourse.


Perhaps you have seen the recent pontifications of the Rev. Dennis Terry:

“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

See it for yourself at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/19/dennis-terry-rick-santorum_n_1364414.html.

When I hear stuff like this from those who openly confess to follow Jesus, I think of the quote attributed to Thomas Linacre (c. 1460 – October 20, 1524) who, upon reading the Gospels in Greek instead of the Latin Vulgate, said:

Either this is not the Gospels… or we are not Christians.

When I hear Christians saying the kind of vitriol Rev. Terry spouted, I think

“If this is the Gospel … I’m not sure I want to be a Christian.”

One would think that as a preacher Rev. Terry’s first commitment should be to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ—first and foremost; all lesser loyalties are idolatrous compared to loyalty to Jesus. What Rev. Terry proclaim was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . not even close.

The rhetoric of a Christian America has become so pervasive—and normalized—that indeed the Gospel now sounds odd even to those who think they are Christians. Furthermore, for all the concern that Christians are not allow to speak in America, I find that this kind of pseudo-gospel talk get a lot of public air time.

Given the continued strength of America’s Civic Religion (often cloaked a patriotism), it comes as a surprise to most American Christians that God already has a nation! That nation is the church universal. Every time I hear “God bless America”—and I do want God to bless the country of my birth—something deeper inside me screams, “God bless the Church!” While I don’t disagree that the America is morally bankrupt, a concern closer to the heart of the Gospel is the that church is also wasting away.

Some years ago Gordon Scoville wrote a small critique of the American church in a slender volume called Into the Vacuum: Being the Church in an Age of Barbarism. His thesis was simple: American culture is going down the tube. The American (namely, Protestant) church is deeply intertwined with American culture. Unless the church somehow finds a way to separate itself from American culture and rediscover its true mission, it too will go down the tubes. And so it has happened. Scoville published his little book in 1989. Things have not gotten better.

American evangelicals seem not to see that saving America is simply the wrong mission. The church’s mission has never been to save any country or government. That mission is far too small for the Church. Furthermore for a God who seeks to save people from ” every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6), a church that favors one nation, one race, one language, or one people group, has not caught God’s mission. A hymn that can only be sung in one country is not universal enough to be consistent with the Gospel or God’s mission to save the “world.”

As I said, God already has a nation, the church. This “national” language grows out of the church’s early identity with the people of Israel of whom God said:

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5–6 NRSV)

The Hebrew Bible offers the vision of Israel being the priestly nation to bear witness of God’s goodness to the world. As such a nation, one of the overriding principles of that nation was to welcome the stranger and the alien and to bear witness to the nations far and wide of God’s goodness. However, the storyline, as it gets played out in the Bible, is that Israel was unfaithful to God’s mission and so at the end of the story, the once proud nation finds itself grasping to hang on to its national identity—while exiled hundreds of miles away from their homeland. Despite this exile, and no doubt, with the help of God, the Jewish people were able maintain a national identity even apart from the physical land.

In the New Testament—which most Christian groups claim as the only guide for the church’s faith and practice—the language of nationhood was applied to those who found themselves exiled in a world often hostile to their faith.

In one place, the New Testament says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10 NRSV)

These words described not some physical nation with land, leaders, and legislators, but to the church, that is, those who have committed their lives to the way of Jesus. The language of this church is inclusive: people who were once outsiders are now insiders. (Strange, isn’t it, that is only takes a few generations for immigrants to forget they were immigrants?)

When Christians can no longer unmask the rhetoric of power, they will no longer be able to tell when the Christian mission has been compromised. Manifest Destiny was an American doctrine not a biblical one.

Oh, Jesus certainly had imperialistic goals, to be sure, but they took a cross-shaped form where losing is winning. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and he stated that before the powerful of his day. Jesus told Pilate,

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth? (John 18:36–38 NRSV)

Like Pilate, American Christians have a hard time hearing the truth of God’s way. The way of conquest is not the way of Jesus. Yet, despite what Jesus himself says about the nature of his kingdom, political pundits still tell us we need to take back America for God. (I’m never quite sure who this “we” is: we Americans or we Christians?).

I find it oddly convenient that Rev. Terry’s rhetoric hides certain realities. For example, America was not just a “Christian” nation from the beginning; it was a denominational nation but not a Catholic nation. So, more precisely, America was a Protestant country. Neither Catholics nor Jews necessarily found the New World congenial to their faith.

The early colonial revivalists continually complained about how debased the American populace was. More honest to history, America has always been a mixed nation. Rev. Terry represents Protestants are upset, and perhaps a bit dumbfounded, that they have been marginalized from the mainstream culture. Speaking louder, as Rev. Terry did, will not somehow save the day or the nation.

The Truth about Mary Magdalene

I wish the movie, The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s novel, motivated people to search their Bibles or even read some good sources on church history. Instead, many readers and viewers will uncritically accept the unreal historical background of the movie. As far as mystery and drama goes, The Da Vinci Code is a “good” movie: it is fast-paced, exciting, and suspenseful; nevertheless, nearly every historical “truth” that underlies the movie’s plot is fiction—the book is a work of fiction. The biggest fantasy of the movie (and book on which it rests) is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant with his child at the time of the crucifixion. Later, according to Brown’s fanciful reconstruction, Mary and daughter Sarah find refuge on the shores of Gaul (modern day France) and thus the bloodline of Jesus lived on through the Merovingian kings and survives even today. In the world of The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail, the vessel containing the blood(line) of Jesus. Since The Da Vinci Code makes much of Mary Magdalene, it may be useful for us to separate fact from fiction regarding this female disciple of Jesus.

As important as Mary Magdalene is to Brown’s novel, she gets very little space in the canonical gospels but a bit more in the non-canonical gospels from the second and third century. Her name shows up 13 times in the canonical gospels (while Peter’s name occurs over 90 times). Several of the 13 occurrences are parallel passages or reveals different aspects of the same occasion, reducing the actual appearances to about four. Given this paucity of information on Mary, what is it we actually know?

We know that Mary came from Magdala, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the south end of the Plain of Gennesaret. This is important for several reasons. First, the designation Mary Magdalene distinguishes her from other Marys in the gospel story. She is certainly not to be identified with Mary of Bethany, as Bethany was near Jerusalem while Magdala was in Galilee. The designation also supports that Mary was probably single; since were she married, she would have been called Mary, the wife of X, as is Joanna in Luke 8.3. Secondly, the city from which Mary came had a bad reputation among the Jews and later rabbis, thus, supporting the myth of that Mary was a woman of ill repute. Rabbis attributed the fall of the city to its licentiousness.

We know that seven demons had once tormented her and that Jesus exorcised them (Luke 8.2; see also Mark 16.9). The exact nature of the demonization is left undisclosed, but there is nothing to connect this torment with her supposed life of prostitution. Moreover, there is, I repeat, no evidence of any kind that Mary was ever a prostitute. Yet contrary to The Da Vinci Code, the belief that she was a prostitute was not an intentional attempt on the part of the institutional church to smear Mary’s reputation lest her true secret—that she carried the child of Jesus—become public. Mary became a prostitute inadvertently when Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman in Luke 7.36-50. The “sinful” woman in Luke’s story cannot be Mary Magdalene as she is introduced for the first time in the very next story (Luke 8.2) as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and supported him and his disciples. Interestingly, the confused identity between Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman gained currency in the Latin-speaking West but not in the Greek-speaking East.

Each of the gospel writers speak of Mary more or less depending on how she plays into the story that particular writer is telling. For example, Mark speaks of Mary being at the crucifixion (Mark 15.40), the tomb (15.47), and the empty tomb (16.1). Thus Mary becomes a continual witness of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Mary is accompanied by other women, but seems to be the leader or, at least, the one Mark wished to highlight the most. Mary along with the other women encounter the “young man” at the tomb in Mark’s narrative who tells them to tell Peter and the other about what they have witnessed. Matthew closely follows the details we find in Mark.

Luke tells us that Mary is among a large group of women who supported Jesus financially. Among this group are those like Mary who have been healed by the touch of Jesus. Luke specifically points out that Mary was one of those who told the apostles about the resurrection event, which they were unwilling to accept (Luke 24.10-11, as in Mark 16.9-11).

John introduces Mary Magdalene rather abruptly in 19.25. She is at the cross along with the mother of Jesus and Mary, the wife of Clopas. John does not tell us that Mary observed the burial of Jesus but does have a significant role for her in the resurrection account. In this account (20.11-18), the only account in the NT to refer to her merely as “Mary,” she encounters the risen Lord whom she confuses for the gardener. When she recognizes Jesus, she calls out “Rabboni.” To which Jesus responds, “Don’t cling to me since I have yet to ascend to my Father.” Jesus instructs her to go tell his disciples to whom she announces, “I have seen the Lord.” So for all of the gospels Mary becomes the first “evangelist” to share the good news of the resurrection; the third century church leader Hippolytus will calls her the “apostle to the apostles.”

This, then, is all that we know about Mary Magdalene from the biblical record. Embellishing the biblical record regarding Mary Magdalene began to happen very early in the history of the church. What follows is a quick catalogue of where Mary Magdalene is mentioned among the non-canonical witnesses. These works will generally be unfamiliar to most Christians which creates a real danger of The Da Vinci Code. Since most Christians will not have read these works (nor know how to access them for that matter), they will be lost as to how to answer their neighbors regarding the claims made by Dan Brown’s characters. (Many of the text mentioned below are accessible in English translation at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com).

A second century work Epistula Apostolorum mentions Mary Magdalene in much the same way as the canonical gospels. In this document, the apostles refuse to accept her testimony about the resurrection; they will only believe when they see Jesus himself. The Epistula Apostolorum is an anti-Gnostic document. Gnosticism was an early form of heretical Christianity that pitted the “bad” God of the Old Testament against the “good” God of Jesus and the New Testament. This dualism was central to the Gnostic who saw all physical reality as evil while accepting that only the spiritual can be good. Christians today could learn a great deal from the Gnostics as New Age impulses are simply recycled Gnosticism. Anyway, the Gnostics found Mary Magdalene useful in their critique of what would become known as orthodox Christianity.

Among the Gnostic texts, the important references to Mary Magdalene occurs in the Gospel of Peter (2nd cent.); the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 200); Secret Gospel of Mark (2nd cent.); Pistis Sophia (3rd cent.); the Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Dialogue of the Savior; Gospel of Philip (late 3rd cent.).

The composite of Mary that develops in the Gnostic tradition looks like this: The Gospel of Peter reports that Mary came to the tomb but she did not weep at the burial of Jesus for fear of the Jews. Determined to mourn, she came to the empty tomb where she heard the resurrection news from a young man in shining robes, but she and the other women with her fled in fear.

The Gospel of Thomas, however, moves far beyond the biblical record regarding a suppose competition between Mary Magdalene and Peter. In the final saying, Peter says, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of the Life.” To which Jesus responds, “I myself shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males” (Gos. Thom. 114). Readers of The Da Vinci Code will note that this actually works against Brown’s attempt to recover the “sacred feminine” in religion. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary shares a secret revelation she has received from the Lord in a vision. Both Andrew and Peter reject the vision but a certain Levi defends Mary as one made worthy by the Lord as Jesus loved her more than he did the other disciples.

Mary becomes a primary questioner of Jesus in the Pistis Sophia. Thirty-nine of the sixty-four questions to Jesus come from her. Mary confesses her persistence, “I will not tire of asking you. Do not be angry with me for questioning everything.” To which Jesus replies, “Question whatever you wish” (Pistis Sophia 139). Mary is given a high profile in the Pistis Sophia as “blessed, she whose heart is more directed to the kingdom of heaven than all her brothers, excellent, blessed beyond all women, beautiful in speech, the pleroma (fullness) of all pleromas,” etc. Besides attesting to her now traditional role at the resurrection, the Pistis Sophia also develops a competition between her and Peter. The Dialogue of the Savior notes that Mary is one of three disciples specially chosen to receive special teaching but she is more significant than either Matthew or Thomas since “she spoke as a woman who knew the All.”

In the late 3rd century Gospel of Peter, Mary is the “companion” of the Lord and described as one who walked with him. Again Christ is said to have loved her more than all the rest which is demonstrated by Jesus often kissing Mary. The other disciples were offended by the lavish attention Jesus gave to Mary. For this, the Lord rebuked them with a parable (Gos. Phil. 63-64). The 4th cent. Acts of Philip features a woman by the name of Mariamne that seems to be the same character as the developing Mary legend. She is with Jesus when he divides the world into missionary zones and then travels with Philip.

In summary, the extra-canonical sources paint a picture of Mary Magdalene that begins with the canonical gospels. From here, however, the Mary legend grows: Jesus loves her more than the other disciples and so she became a fit recipient of special revelation. However, what is missing from this more fanciful literature is that Jesus ever intended to build the church around Mary, though the conflict between Mary and Peter in the Gnostic materials may speak of the tension within the early church between orthodoxy and heresy. Again, there is absolutely no evidence in any source, canonical or otherwise, that would even faintly suggest that it had been Jesus’ intent to entrust the mission of the church to her—not even in the Gospel of Mary!

What is also missing is that Jesus was ever married to Mary. Brown’s contention that the word companion meant wife in the Aramaic original of the Gospel of Philip is wrong on two counts. The Gospel of Philip is in Coptic, not Aramaic, and the word “companion” is a Greek loanword, koinonos, “to hold or have in common.” The word certainly means companion, not spouse. In the end, there is simply NO EVIDENCE from any source, canonical or extra-biblical that any such relationship ever existed. Nada. Nil. Zero.

My purpose has been to set before the readers both the canonical and non-canonical source materials related to Mary Magdalene with the hopes that we, believers in Jesus, can talk more intelligently with our friends about issues The Da Vinci Code might raise.

A form of this article was originally published in the Gospel Herald.

Selectivity of Restorationism

Churches of Christ have understood that their mission is to restore the New Testament Church in the twenty-first century. After all, Churches of Christ are part of the Restoration Movement. However, restorationism as a historical project is, at best, selective.

Because we sought to restore the forms and practices of the early church, we have been especially concerned about the Christian assembly and what we do on the first day of the week. These are valid concerns. However, if it remains our only concern, we miss the needed restoration of Christian living in our times. Even so, we should not apologize for even the provisional and incomplete nature of our mission as any project of restoring the New Testament church is necessarily and always selective and provisional based on our current understanding of the will of God.

Our concern to restore New Testament church life gives us a decided strength against the backdrop of modern evangelicalism. For instance, evangelicalism has only recently given focused attention to the nature of the church while we have given sustained attention to the nature of the church for the last two hundred years. From the beginning of the restoration movement, our earliest leaders, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, in the United States, and James Black and Joseph Ash, in Canada, were deeply committed to restoring the New Testament church in present times. For them, to restore church practices was the means towards recapturing the apostolic church in its pristine first-century glory. To be sure, the restoration of church practices fit into a much larger program: a restored church would lead to a united church that would lead to the winning of the world for Christ before his return.

In the 1820s, Campbell ran a significant series of articles in his Christian Baptist journal entitled, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” where he set forth a program for such a restoration. Most of the articles deal with the restoration of church forms and practices. Only in one article did he take up the restoration of the spirit, or disposition, of the early church. Through this series, Campbell makes the “restoration of the ancient order of things” the mission statement for the fledgling Disciples movement and over time, this slogan became the raison d’être for the Churches of Christ.

However, “restoration” did not belong exclusively to the North America Restoration Movement (called the Stone-Campbell Movement by some scholars to distinguish from other restorationist attempts). It was an essential plank in Protestantism, in general. Church historians have traced the call for restitution (restitutio) in such forerunners of the Reformation as Hus and Wycliffe. Later Luther and his colleague Melancthon made restorationist appeals in their stand against Roman Catholic corruptions. Additionally, restorationist tendencies have been found in the reformatory programs of the Swiss Re-formers, John Calvin, in Geneva, and Ulrich Zwingli, in Zürich. Zwingli, interestingly, promoted a kind of restorationism similar to what Churches of Christ would later promote in North America.

The hope that the New Testament church would be restored fired the imagination of several radical reformers who did not think the magisterial reformers (such as, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox) were thoroughgoing enough. These Anabaptists (as they supported rebaptism for those baptized as infants) sought to restore such elements as congregational autonomy, elder-rule, separation of church and state, and church discipline.

The Puritans, reacting to the Anglican and Reformed churches, attempted a more rigorous type of restorationism. They sought to embody a restitution of the Old and New Testament in their formation of government in the New World. For them, the Old Testament was equal to, if not more important than the New, as precedence for political protocol. This legacy still informs the civic religion of the United States that blends patriotism and evangelical Christianity.

Sadly much of the fragmentation of Protestantism in North America has been done in the name of some form of restorationism. Even the most heretical religious leaders sometimes claimed a restorationist platform. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, preached and envisioned a restoration of the church that included apostolic power. One twist in Stone-Campbell history was when Sidney Rigdon led his Disciples congregation en masse into the Mormon Church because Rigdon believed Smith offered a more convincing vision of the restored church. Again, rather uncomfortably Rigdon’s association with the Disciples of Christ is partly responsible for the full name of the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Though, for Campbell, the restoration of the true church did not require the restoration of apostolic power, since he, like many of his heirs today, believed that the apostolic periods and the miracles belonged exclusively to the first century. Not everyone in the Stone-Campbell movement, then or now, agreed with Campbell on the cessation of miracles. For example, William Kinkade, an early associate of Barton W. Stone, passionately disagreed with Campbell on the issue of apostolic power and miracles. In his Bible Doctrine (1829), Kinkade responded to Campbell in chapter playfully entitled, “The Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” As to be expected, he actually defends the continuation of the miraculous with the same logic Campbell had used to disprove their continuation. From the beginning of the Restoration Movement, people have had competing visions as to what restoration actually entails.

Others like John Wesley, deeply influenced by this reading of post-apostolic church leaders, longed for the restitution of the spirituality of the early church in their day. Before Wesley started the Methodist church in the United States, he sought to recapture the spiritual intensity of the early Christians through his holy clubs, something akin to our small groups today.

When spiritual lethargy overtook Methodism, the Holiness movement grew out of it in the nineteenth century. The Holiness movement wanted to restore the church’s spiritual and moral life. But it too gradually grew cold and lifeless and so the modern Pentecostal movement, in its place, sought to recover apostolic experience of healing and speaking in tongues. These believers sought to recover the experience of the New Testament church. More recent charismatic movements, and such new churches as the Vineyard, are still seeking what they believed was lost in the fallen church(es) of Christendom.


So as we look into the history of Protestantism we see that many different people and groups have tried to capture something of the meaning of “restoration.” What we learn from history is that no one does it right and each group tends to choose its own self-chosen identity markers. What also seems to be true is that cycles of excitement are replaced with times of dryness to be then sparked again as people catch the dream of restoring the New Testament Church afresh.

However, we, the Churches of Christ, do differ from other groups in a significant way. Restoration was not one of our themes, it is our theme. Restorationism shapes the core of our being. Yet, the unpleasant and unwanted byproducts of our attempts at restorationism have been pride and prejudice, division and separation. A real danger of any project of restoration is that restorationists can come to believe that their way is the only way to restore the true church and that no one can do it better. Worse yet some will even come to believe that their efforts at purifying the church have re-established the True Church of the New Testament in its pristine glory. Perhaps, to guard against this, we should embark on a restoration of the humility of Christ—I don’t know of a group yet that has taken that up as their platform.

Essentially, as shown in this brief historical sketch, there are three major kinds of restitution or restoration: ethical, experiential, or ecclesiological. There may be other ways to categorize these, but in the main, any attempt to restore the church will fit one of these broad types. No group to date —including us, the Churches of Christ—has been able to concentrate on all three at once, but have tended to focus on one of these to the exclusions of the others.

An ethical restorationist would seek to restore the Christian life to what we believe the New Testament requires. Because of our sometimes-myopic attention to what we do in the assembly, we have not always stressed that correct church practices must be coupled with the highest ethical standards rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament plainly gives substantial attention to this area of our existence and common life. The direct result of our baptism is that we live new lives. Our reception of the Holy Spirit causes us to produce the fruit of the Spirit. Living more ethically may well be the most important kind of restoration we could undertake today.

Experiential restoration implies there is a need to recapture the experience and power of the early church. While this can be taken to an extreme, there is a need to recapture the kind of spiritual authority the apostles had. This is not to supplant their unique role, but to walk in the same spirit of boldness they had. People in our churches long to experience the power of the gospel but do not really expect to find it at our assemblies. This accounts for a great deal of the apathy church leaders face every week. We have people leaving us every year in search of the power of God they cannot seem to find among us. If we have the same Spirit as the early church, why do we walk so weakly and deal with difficult situations so timidly? Why can we not successfully discipline wayward members?

Of course, restoring every church practice to its pristine New Testament quality would not guarantee that people’s hearts would be more devoted to God. More would still be required than the simple restoration of the forms and practices of the early church. I believe we have come to a time when our guiding principles (more assumed than articulated in most places) need some reassessment and our project of restoring the New Testament church is in need of some serious course adjustments. Someone called insanity doing the same things over and over yet expecting different results.

Is there still a role for restoration of church practices and forms—the kind we have tried to practice for the past two hundred years? I believe so, but this venture is going to need a much broader base than it has been. The mere restoration of church practices is empty if unaccompanied by ethical and experiential restoration.

We have built a house that many now find empty, lifeless, even soulless. There are signs that the foundation of our house is cracking and attempts to shore up that foundation only seem to amplify the problems. Why do we think we can somehow build a superstructure and so impress God by the soundness of our work? The focus on restoring church practices has produced exclusion and endless wrangling among our churches. Jesus died for a more significant reason than for us to get all of our practices right. The prophets give testimony that correct practices without the right spirit and experience of God is empty and something God does not want. The prophetic voice still resounds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”