The Church Captive (5)
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. Philippians 3.17-19
“…we Christians are conquered in this spiritual warfare, first by our carnal vices and proud way of life, and then by the weakness of our wavering faith, whose feebleness is the reason for being surrounded unawares by our enemies in triple ranks, who have been given to punish our luxurious ease. For prosperity’s blind ease is the cause of all the evils.”
- Columbanus, Epistle V to Pope Boniface
A vision for the status quo
Columbanus (543-615 AD), the greatest of the Irish peregrini, arrived from Ireland to Gaul in 590, accompanied by 12 companions. At nearly 50 years of age, Columbanus left his teaching post at the monastery in Bangor to follow the Lord’s call to the mission field. He and his hand-selected team immediately set about the task of spreading the Gospel and Kingdom of Christ. And almost as immediately, they were swamped by young people, eager to discover true Christian life.
Columbanus was appalled by the conditions of the churches in Gaul – desperate, compromised, bordering on moribund, under assault from the devil. The Lord’s sheep lived in fear while His shepherds cozied up to rulers, blinked at the sins of their colleagues, and concentrated on the acquisition of material comforts. As Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, the situation in the churches and among their clergy was very similar to what Gildas described in The Ruin of Britain. The bishops of Gaul were “simoniacs and plagues” and ought not to be in communion with the Catholic Church, Columbanus opined. They bought and sold parishes, elevated to the clergy unqualified lackies, neglected the care of the Lord’s flocks, and were trying to make a big deal out of something that should not divide Christians – when and how to observe Easter.
Columbanus let Gregory know that he had read his excellent Pastoral Rule (still excellent today, by the way), and that he and Gregory were on the same page about the work of shepherds. But the bishops and priests of Gaul were not following that handbook. And soon they would be after Columbanus’ head.
Over the next 12 years, Columbanus and his team proclaimed the Gospel boldly and forthrightly, in season and out of season. So many thousands of young people came to Christ that they had to start three monasteries – Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontana – to accommodate them. They preached the Gospel of faith in Jesus, simplicity of life, strictness of spiritual disciplines, and intolerance of sin. This last area caused them to run afoul of both kings and clergy, as Columbanus and his team spoke out publicly against the scandalous sins of the nation’s civil and religious leaders.
The Irish monks faced persecution. Attempts were made to silence them, then to exile them from the country. They persisted in their mission and continued to bear fruit. Local kings were in competition with one another, so when the monks were exiled by one, they simply went to another and continued their Kingdom mission.
The Frankish clergy were the greatest cause of concern for the Irish monks. These bishops and priests perceived Columbanus and his team as a threat to their comfortable status quo, and they preferred not to be disturbed by the outspoken witness and obvious success of these Irish rubes.
After 12 years of putting up with Columbanus’ growing ministry and influence, the bishops of Gaul decided to silence him and to bring his ministry under their control. They convened a synod in Chalon in 603, in which they determined to hoist him on his unorthodox Easter petard, and send him packing.
The problem was that Columbanus refused to submit to their authority, and declined their invitation. Instead, he wrote them a lengthy epistle in which he addressed their concern about Easter by citing Scripture and the Fathers, and let them know in no uncertain terms that their conduct toward him and the Lord’s flocks was altogether unacceptable.
He charged them with seeking lives of ease rather than the Kingdom of God. Their complaints against him had no grounding in Scripture, whereas their conduct in ministry ran contrary to the teaching of our Good Shepherd. They minimized sin, both among their ranks and in their parishes. They risked no teaching that might bring the wrath of civil authorities against them. They feared men and persecution rather than God. Columbanus called on each of the members of the synod to “examine himself, whether he has firmly fulfilled or borne these duties, lest he should be estranged from the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ”. He insisted they lay aside their pride, lusts, and mortal cares and seek the peace and wellbeing of the Lord’s flock. The “poisons of pride and envy and vain glory” must be replaced by sincere love of the brethren.
As for him and his monks, they would continue to follow their rules, which Columbanus saw as “the commands of the Lord and the apostles” only. He likened the Frankish clergy to the mariners of the book of Jonah, calling on them to cast off whatever might be contributing to the sinking of the Lord’s vessel, and to strive to bring the Church safely to His rest.
Yet he recognized that his challenge would not be embraced, for “all these things can hardly be fulfilled by those who often look at women and who more often quarrel and grow angry over the riches of the world.”
Taking it to the top
The persecution and threats continued, and this prompted Columbanus to write letters to two more popes, seeking their intervention for the sake of the Lord’s flocks. He urged an unnamed pontiff and, later, Pope Boniface, to wake up to the situation in Gaul and enact corrective measures. The Church, he said, was taking on water. The clergy were neither loving nor caring, but were angry at the Irish mission and captive to the things of the world. Columbanus insisted that he was only interested in “the edification of the church”, which he saw to be in grave trouble and sailing “in perilous straits”. The sheep were terrified and in need of succor, for they were being tended by wolves, rather than true shepherds. Through “the carelessness of their shepherds”, the sheep in Gaul were “cast down” and being oppressed by the enemy of the Church.
The shepherds of Gaul were building with wood, straw, and stubble on the “marvelous foundation” which Christ had laid: “Oh, what fuel for hell-fire is everywhere made ready from these unhappy buildings, on the burning of which that sparkling word of the Lord, describing the vastness of that ever-living fire, fell with the saying, ‘Take heed to yourselves, lest perhaps your hearts be hardened’”.
He meant this as a warning, not only to the clergy of Gaul, but to their bosses in Rome. The Church in Gaul was captive in fear and trembling to men who were themselves captive to worldly interests and not prepared to consider a change in their status quo.
The god of the belly can supplant the God of all grace and truth, and we become “surrounded unawares”, unless we keep a close check on our walk with and work for the Lord (1 Tim. 2.16). And when we are captive to anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ, the people we serve will be captive to some form of near-Christianity rather than to the glorious Gospel of the Kingdom, and the faith that has been entrusted once for all to the saints.
Let us build houses: where? On earth. Let us procure fields: on earth again. Let us get power: on earth again. Let us get glory: on earth again. Let us be rich: always on earth. These are the ones “whose god is their belly.”
- John Chrysostom (344-407 AD), Homily on Philippians 14.3.18-21
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
All quotes by Columbanus from G. S. M. Walker, tr. and ed. Sancti Columbani Opera(Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957), pp. 7ff.