This week I was researching a topic for work when I discovered an interesting tidbit of church history. Apparently, birthdays used to be a big deal for Christians, and not in a good way. Early in the church’s history, birthday celebrations–particularly those of emperors or kings–were associated with pagan culture and were consequently condemned.
For instance, early church theologian Origen (ca. 185-254 ca.) wrote rather scathingly,
Indeed one of our predecessors has observed that the birthday of Pharaoh is recorded in Genesis and recounts that it is the wicked man who, being in love with the affairs of birth and becoming, celebrates his birthday. But we, taking our cure from that interpreter, discover that nowhere in the scriptures is a birthday celebrated by a righteous person.
At that time, Roman society was big on birthdays. You might even remember that John the Baptist was beheaded in celebration of Herod’s birthday (Matt. 14). The early Christians therefore rejected this practice as a sign of distinction from the surrounding pagan culture. As a result, Christians did not formally observe Christmas for the first 300 years of the church’s existence.
Today, the rejection of birthday celebrations sounds rather silly. Few of us have a lot of theological stock invested in this practice. However, this type of historical eccentricity is not uncommon. Throughout the history of the church, each generation has grappled with issues that were pressing at the time, but became less central or even marginal by subsequent generations.
For another example, consider Christian music today. There are more Christian recording artists than I can count, and worship pastors frequently lead with songs they have written themselves. The present-day church is producing new music every day.
But it has not always been so. Isaac Watts, who famously wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World” created quite the scandal with his hymn writing. Born in 1674, Watts lived at a time when the only acceptable hymns came directly from Biblical poetry. Watts bucked this tradition by writing “original music,” a decision that invited tremendous criticism and character attacks. His music was described as “flights of fancy” and “Watts’ whims.” He was accused of arrogance, and his introduction of this new hymn tradition resulted in church debate and division. Today, we take this practice for granted.
For a final example, consider re-baptism. I have heard countless evangelical pastors encourage church members to get baptized on the grounds that the first one wasn’t “meaningful” or “you didn’t really know what you believed at the time” or “you did it for the wrong reasons.” Plenty of modern day Christians would be shocked by this language (in fact, I myself profoundly disagree with the theology behind those statements) but our disagreement is nothing compared to the horror such words would have elicited in the Protestant Reformers.
In his work “Concerning Rebaptism,” Martin Luther decried the above reasons for re-baptism as “godless and hypocritical” because they place greater emphasis on personal faith than on the free grace of God. On the grounds that re-baptism was the equivalent of re-crucifying Christ, many Anabaptists (which means “baptize again”) were executed for their beliefs.
Although baptism, as a central component of the Christian faith, is of far greater importance than birthdays or hymns, I think we can all agree that the Reformers’ response to re-baptism was, in the most extreme cases, wrong. No matter how much I may disagree with another Christian about their views on baptism, I am not prepared to kill them over it.
As you can see, it is easy for a generation to lose perspective. Whether the issue is small or large, our circumstances can magnify a problem in such a way that we cannot grasp its true perspective. Learning this lesson from church history, we do well to remember that spiritual stumbling blocks come in all shapes and sizes. They are not limited to sinful temptations. A theological truth can just as easily become a stumbling block as money or sex.
The church’s track record should humble us. It should also press us to wonder about our own generation’s theological stumbling blocks. What current debate will cause later Christians to snicker or grieve? What are our greatest theological or missional blind spots?
While I have my own suspicions, I also wonder how I can ever be sure. Either way, I think the very asking of these questions is bound to shape us in edifying ways.