The deed is everything, the glory naught.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1832
We Christians are a corporation or society of men most strictly united by the same religion, by the same rites of worship, and animated with one and the same hope. When we come to the public service of God, we come in as formidable a body as if we were to storm heaven by force of prayer, and such a force is a most grateful violence to God. When this holy army of supplicants is met and disposed in godly array, we all send up our prayers for the life of the emperors, for their ministers, for magistrates, for the good of the state, for the peace of the empire, and for retarding the final doom.
The presidents or bishops among us are men of the most venerable age and piety, raised to this honor not by the powers of money, but the brightness of their lives; for nothing sacred is to be had for money. That kind of treasury we have is not filled with any dishonorable sum, as the price of a purchased religion; everyone puts a little to the public stock, commonly once a month, or when he pleases, and only upon condition that he is both willing and able; for there is no compulsion upon any. All here is a free-will offering, and all these collections are deposited in a common bank for charitable uses, not for the support of merry meetings, for drinking and gourmandizing, but for feeding the poor and burying the dead, and providing for girls and boys who have neither parents nor provisions left to support them, for relieving old people worn out in the service of the saints, or those who have suffered by shipwreck, or are condemned to the mines, or islands, or prisons, only for the faith of Christ; these may be said to live upon their profession, for while they suffer for professing the name of Christ, they are fed with the collections of his church.
But strange that such lovely expressions of Christian charity cannot pass with some men without a censure; for look, say they, how these Christians seem to love each other, when in their hearts they hate each other to death! How forward are they to stake down their lives for one another, when inwardly they could cut one another’s throats! But the true reason of this defamation, upon the account of styling ourselves brethren, I take to be this, because the name of brother is found with these men to be only a gilded expression of a counterfeit friendship. But you need not wonder at this loving title among Christians, when we own even you yourselves for brethren by the right of one common nature; although indeed you have canceled this relation, and by being inhuman brethren have forfeited the title of men; but by what diviner ties are we Christians brethren! We who all acknowledge but one and the same God as our universal father, who have all drunk of one and the same Holy Spirit, and who are all delivered as it were from one common womb of ignorance, and called out of darkness into his marvelous light. But maybe we cannot pass for right brothers with you, because you want a tragedy about the bloody feuds of the Christian fraternity; or because our brotherly love continues even to the division of our estates, which is a test few brotherhoods will bear, and which commonly divides the dearest unions among you.
But we Christians look upon ourselves as one body, informed as it were by one soul; and being thus incorporated by love, we can never dispute what we are to bestow upon our own members. Accordingly among us all things are in common, excepting wives; in this alone we reject communion, and this is the only thing you enjoy in common; for you not only make no conscience in violating the wife of your friend, but with amazing patience and gratitude lend him your own. This doctrine, I suppose, came from the school of the Grecian Socrates, or the Roman Cato, those wisest of sages, who accommodated their friends with their own wives, wives whom they espoused for the sake of children of their own begetting, as I imagine, and not of other folks.
Whether the wives are thus prostituted with their own consent, in truth I cannot tell, but I see no great reason why they should be much concerned about that chastity which their husbands think not worth keeping. Oh, never-to-be-forgotten example of Athenian wisdom! Socrates the great Grecian philosopher, and Cato the great Roman censor, are both pimps.
Roses and Figs, by Paulette Tavormina, 2013. © Paulette Tavormina, courtesy the artist and Robert Klein Gallery
But is it any great wonder that such charitable brethren as enjoy all things in common should have such frequent love feasts? For this it is you blacken us, and reflect upon our little frugal suppers not only as infamously wicked but as scandalously excessive. Diogenes, for all I know, might have us Christians in his eye when he said that the Megarensians feast as if they were never to eat more, and build as if they were to live forever; but everyone sees a straw in another’s eye sooner than a beam in his own; or else you must be sensible of your own beastliness in this case, for the very air in the streets is soured with the belches of the people coming from their feasts in their several wards. The Salii cannot eat supper without the advance of a loan, and upon the feast of tithes to Hercules the entertainment is so very costly that you are forced to have a bookkeeper on purpose for expenses. At Athens likewise when the Apaturia, or feasts in honor of Bacchus for a serviceable piece of treachery he did, are to be celebrated, there is a proclamation for all the choice cooks to come in and assist at the banquet; and when the kitchen of Serapis smokes, what baskets of provisions come tumbling in from every quarter! But my business at present is to justify the Christian supper; and the nature of this supper you may understand by its name, for it is the Greek word for love. We Christians think we can never be too expensive, because we think all is gain that is laid out in doing good; when therefore we are at the charge of an entertainment, it is to refresh the bowels of the needy, but not as you gorge those parasites among you who glory in selling their liberty for stuffing their guts, and can find in their hearts to cram their bellies in spite of all the affronts you can lay upon them; but we feed the hungry, because we know God takes a peculiar delight in seeing us do it.
From the Apology. Born around 160 in Carthage to pagan parents, Tertullian converted to the Christian church while in his mid-thirties. He wrote this defense of Christianity around 197. As the founder of Latin Christian theology, he was also an early exponent of Christian life and thought in the West. He saw no correlation between faith and philosophy, and once posed the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The Apology offers one of the first descriptions of agapē, the love feast of early Christians.