The catacombs, of course, are the legacy of a tiny persecuted band of believers, meeting in their graveyards to escape the all-seeing eye of imperial Rome. The cathedrals represent a very different turn in church history: a church that not only could grow in size but could, in fact, outgrow and outlast the Empire itself. The catacombs represent simplicity and earthiness; the cathedrals transcendence and wonder.
We need both, somehow.
Sometimes American evangelicals, traveling to sites of significance in church history, are disappointed. They want to see a Disney-type restoration of “the early church” in a way that makes it seem as though the faith went by time-warp straight from a pristine golden era to the Graham Crusades. This sort of Christian tends to like the catacombs, for the same reason some people love working on their antebellum family histories but don’t like family reunions.
But the catacombs and the cathedrals both remind us of two things: God’s sovereignty in sending down the faith, and the frailty of humanity as stewards of that faith. We can’t romanticize the early persecuted church. After all, the New Testament Scriptures are often rebuking those churches for precisely the things we see going on in our churches today: division, carnality, immorality, arrogance (1 Cor. 4:7-13, 5:1-8, 6:1-8). And, if Christianity had remained in the catacombs, it is quite possible that you and I would have never encountered Christ.
In the heroic stories of church history (Athanasius defeats Arius! Augustine turns back Pelagius!) and in the awful parts (state churches and triumphalism and scandals), God is orchestrating a flow of the river of redemption that takes it from the hillsides of Judea through the bustling streets of Antioch right down to that Baptist church in Arkansas, or wherever it was that you first heard the name of the Christ of God.
The kingdom of God is vast and tiny, universal and exclusive. Our story is that of a little flock and of an army awesome with banners. It’s a Christianity of persecution and proliferation, of catacombs and cathedrals.
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