Early Church Inspires Faithful
June 30, 1998
arly Christian churches had attributes that can inspire Christians today, a theologian at The Catholic University of America said during a recent talk on the development of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the Oriental Orthodox churches.
Discussing the Armenian Church's "distinctive marks," Robin Darling Young said its qualities included active lay leadership; a continuity with the Jewish tradition; devotion to a group of women martyrs who were instrumental in the conversion of the country; and successful adaptations from a prior culture. These traits can inspire Christians today, Young said.
Lay leadership was important within the Armenian church from its early stages when Armenian noble families were involved in the church's governance. Distinctions about nobility are no longer made, but active lay leadership continues today. "Now, there are lay councils that participate in the election of bishops," Young said. "Lay boards of churches have a strong participatory role on both the local and supralocal levels."
The Armenian Apostolic Church also had a sense of continuity with the Jewish tradition that Christians can follow today by wider recognition of the Judaic roots of Christianity. The sense of continuity among Armenian Christians was born in the persecution faced by early Armenian Christians. Caught between two empires, the Persian and the Greco-Roman, Armenians "were faced with being forced to renounce their faith under pressure from the Persian government, and saw a parallel between themselves and the Maccabees," Young said. The Maccabees, the subject of two Old Testament books, struggled against foreign kings who persecuted the Jews.
Another distinctive aspect of the Armenian Apostolic Church is its devotion to a group of women martyrs. Because these women were key in the conversion of Armenia, "they were called preachers and still are," in the liturgy, she said. "But as with other early Christian groups, public liturgical ministry in the organized church was reserved to men." Young sees this as a basis for actives roles for women in the church today.
Finally, the church successfully incorporated the existing regional culture into its practices. Although this happened in other areas where Christianity was introduced, those regions shared a Greco-Roman tradition. In Armenia, the Persian culture dominated. Incorporating cultural practices can still be used as a method of drawing nonbelievers into the church.
Young's talk was at the conference "Orientale Lumen II," which drew participants from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The event was co-sponsored by Catholic University's School of Religious Studies, the Society of St. John Chrysostom and Eastern Churches Journal. The conference focused on Pope John Paul II's 1995 apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen, praising the riches of the East and urging a restoration of East-West church unity. "Orientale lumen" is Latin for "eastern light."
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