Tertullian: Teaching the Truth of Ancient African Christianity

“Be in the world, but not of the world,” is a familiar phrase among Christians. But, where is it written explicitly in the Bible? What is the book, chapter, and verse? Answer: It isn’t explicitly written in the Bible. This is a maxim that is attributed to one of the earliest and best known teachers of early Christianity, Tertullian of Carthage.* This Punic (native African-Phoenician) rhetorician gave instruction on modest living and prayer to fellow believers, encouragement to those arrested and tortured (“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”), and explained the Trinity 150 years before Constantine became Emperor.** Early Christian history nerds consider him to be the earliest Latin Church father. Although not a canonized saint (in later years, he followed the Montanist heretics), his writings are packed with faith, hope, and wisdom.

Why does Tertullian and his words matter? Because if we don’t teach the fullness of who we are in Christ, other people will teach us other things to mislead us from the Lord. One of my favorite hip-hop artist was a member of the Five Percent Nation. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. A leader in the Hebrew Israelite community said in an interview that he was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist. Both of these churches teach “the great apostacy,” that after the death of the Apostles (about 100 AD), true Christianity ceased to exist and remained hidden until the Great Awakening movements (1730’s and 1800′ until the Civil War). Denominations such as the Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostals taught this as well. This doctrine ignores the contributions of African (as well as European and Middle Eastern) heroes, scholars, writers, and other Christian men and women to the faith. Coupled with doctrine of “scripture alone,” we have been robbed and are robbing others of powerful universal histories and lessons on how to follow Jesus.

Even more threatening than non-Christian beliefs is the complacent faith many Christians have about the lives of the saints. Ancient Celtic monks applied The Life of St. Anthony the Great to their daily practice and became a light of humble repentance throughout Europe. Today’s St. Patrick’s Day is more about beer drinking games than prayer. There was actually a clergyman named Valentine who endured a horrible beating and was beheaded for not denying Christ. Even legit romance probably wasn’t on his mind. Nicholas of Myra was honored with a feast on December 6th, not the 25th. We have mixed up our spiritual priorities and have made right and wrong relative. Without knowledge of who we are in Christ, we risk living in un-Christian ways.

Tertullian was not a perfect man. The ancient fathers and mothers had flaws. But, there are records of their holy examples and wisdom that have stood the test of time. For our personal walk with the Lord and the health of America’s Christian culture, we should return to and practice some of their ways as they sought Jesus.

*David Wilhite, Ancient African Christianity, pg. 121, Tertullian, To the Martyrs, 2.5

**Tertullian, On Modesty, On Monogamy, To the Martyrs,  Adversus Praxeas

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