Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to anticipate; the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017. This post is the first in a three-part series.
In recent years, a small but vocal cluster of church leaders has contended that age-organized programs and ministries in the church should be eliminated. These proponents of “family-integrated church” have called for churches to dismantle programs that practice systematic “age-segregated discipleship.” In churches that follow this model, the congregation has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. “We do not divide families into component parts,” writes one proponent of family-integrated churches. “We don’t even do it in Bible study.” The support claimed for family-integrated ministry is typically twofold, contending both that age-organized ministries are unwarranted by Scripture and that ministries for children and youth are a recent innovation that represents the imposition of “individualistic philosophies” in the church.
Open your Bible to the table of contents and take a look at the list of books in the New Testament. There, you’ll find the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leading the list. But did this quartet of early Christians actually have any connection with the books that bear their names? Were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really the ones who wrote the Gospels? If so, how do we know?
Two years after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Macrina the Younger was born. She—as Coleman Michael Ford has pointed out—
lived between two worlds. One world was the age of Christian persecution by the likes of emperor Diocletian and others. For many Christians in the three centuries before Macrina’s birth, persecution leading to death was an ever-present reality. At best, Christians were merely tolerated. At worst, they were brutally executed. The second world was the emerging Roman empire of Constantine, an empire in which Christianity was officially recognized and privileges towards churches and leaders grew steadily.
Two of her brothers—Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa—became known, along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, as “the Great Cappadocians,” due to their contributions to the widespread establishment of an orthodox view of the Trinity in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Basil was a man of action, Nazianzus was a great orator, and Nyssa was a deep thinker—but Macrina is rightly revered alongside these three.
After the family’s wealth was divided among the children, Macrina convinced her mother to establish a religious community for women on the family’s property in rural Annesi in the province of Pontus, on the banks of the River Iris. The family’s slaves were freed and the former maidservants became members of the new religious community, where Macrina chose to work alongside them as an equal. In the words of her brother Gregory,
Now that all the distractions of the material life had been removed, Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her ordinary life and all showy style of living and the services of domestics to which she had been accustomed before, and bring her point of view down to that of the masses, and to share the life of the maids, treating all her slave girls as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.
Basil established a men’s monastery across the river from Macrina’s community, but Macrina’s served as the spiritual leader of both communities. On July 19, in the year 379, Macrina died in the religious community that she and her mother had founded.
“Truth Is to Be Found Only In That Upon Which the Seal of the Witness of Scripture Is Set”
In the days leading up to Macrina’s death, her brother Gregory of Nyssa listened to her and learned much from her about life, death, and the resurrection. He later developed these dialogues into a treatise entitled On the Soul and the Resurrection. In one section of this treatise, Gregory and Macrina eloquently affirm the binding authority of Scripture in the life of the Christian. According to their dialogue, when determining what is true, believers in Jesus Christ
are not entitled to the liberty … of affirming whatever we please; instead, we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon Scripture, and approve Scripture alone and that which harmonizes with the meaning of Scripture. … Who could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of the witness of Scripture is set?
If you’re interested in learning more about different personalities and events throughout the history of Christianity, take a look at my book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Read this article about Macrina. Consider carefully how, in light of her example, godly woman can use their gifts more effectively in their churches. How might you and your family celebrate the feast day of Saint Macrina on July 19?
Interested in apologetics and family ministry?
If so, then you’re likely to be interested in this upcoming conference.
God willing, I will be part of an experience in January 2018 that will bring together apologetics and family ministry in a way that will equip you and your church’s staff for far more effective future ministry. Continue reading.