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Worship during a pandemic is tough, but not as tough as it used to be, an ancient letter reveals

In the year 112 A.D. the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia faced a dilemma. 

A strange new religion had appeared in his jurisdiction. It was spreading like a contagion. He didn’t know how to respond. 

The governor’s name was Pliny the Younger, and the followers of this new religion were called “Christians.” 

Some citizen of Bithynia had sent Pliny an unsigned letter complaining about these fanatics, even naming names — attaching a long list of people he accused of following a Jewish rabbi named “Christ” who had been executed by the Romans more than 70 years before.

In a report to emperor Trajan, Pliny described how, as this new religion spread, Roman temples were being deserted. That was a direct threat to the merchants who sold the meat for the sacrifices, and when their revenues began to dip, they naturally began to squawk.

The governor gave them three chances. If they remained loyal to their Lord, he had them executed.

Pliny’s response was to round up the people on the list and demand to know, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a Christian?” Some vehemently denied it and readily called on the Roman gods, paid reverence to an image of the emperor and, as a crowning touch, cursed Christ. Others grudgingly admitted that they had once belonged to this Christ cult but insisted they were no longer part of it. They, too, went through the required rituals and cursed Christ.

Since Pliny’s informants assured him that no true Christian could ever curse Christ, the governor was satisfied with the responses of these two groups and ordered them set free. 

It was the third group that perplexed him: individuals who not only admitted that, yes, they were practicing Christians, but despite Pliny’s threat of execution, they stubbornly refused to repeat the Roman rituals and renounce Christ. The governor gave them three chances. If they remained loyal to their Lord, he had them executed.

In his report, Pliny acknowledged that he could not uncover any actual crimes that these Christ fanatics had committed. He even arrested two humble slave girls and had them tortured, but they still would not renounce their Lord or admit to any illegal action. (Their names are known only to God, but when I get to heaven, those two steadfast sisters in the faith are high on my list of people I want to meet.) From his interrogations Pliny was able to extract this information, which he passed on to the emperor:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath … not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, nor falsify their trust.”

From that long-ago letter, I draw three conclusions:

• Sunday has always been a sacred day to Christ-followers. Pliny simply called it a “fixed day,” but we know from numerous Christian sources which day it was. Romans knew it as “The Day of the Sun,” and Hebrews called it “The first day of the week.” For disciples of Jesus, it was preeminently “The Lord’s Day,” because it was on a Sunday morning that the most amazing event in human history occurred: A dead man came back to life and walked out of his tomb.

• Worship has always been the most important part of Sunday to Christ-followers. Pliny’s letter is precious to us because it is the very first description of Christian worship by an outsider, and the central focus of Sunday for those early Christ-followers was so obvious even a clueless Roman official couldn’t miss it. It was their appointed day to worship Jesus. 

• Worship has always been worth the cost. There is a small but revealing detail in Pliny’s report: the phrase “before dawn.” Sunday was a regular work day back then, so in order to worship, believers had to rise very early or assemble very late at night, as the church in Troas did in Acts 20. There was nothing convenient about Sunday worship in the first century, and that is even before you factor in the very real possibility that going to church could cause you to be tortured — or even have your head chopped off!

We today are once again facing hardship, not from persecution but from a pandemic. Once again Sunday worship is a dangerous activity. If we are to remain loyal to our Lord and safe in our health, it will take some effort. We may have to wear a mask or assemble in an unfamiliar configuration or at an inconvenient time. If we are at risk, we may have to meet in a smaller group, or attend a “virtual” service online and observe communion at home. 

… if you’re going to faithfully worship Jesus in the current situation, you’ll have to work at it — maybe for the first time in your life.

Whatever you decide, whatever approach you take, if you’re going to faithfully worship Jesus in the current situation, you’ll have to work at it — maybe for the first time in your life.

I can’t help but feel that if some of our Bithynian brothers and sisters from 112 A.D. could speak to us — and maybe someday in eternity they will — they would say, “We were faithful to Jesus. You can be, too.”

DAN WILLIAMS Dan Williams is vice president for church relations for Harding University in Searcy, Ark. 

Filed under: Churches of Christ Coronavirus COVID-19 covid19 faith Opinion pandemic worship

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