I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. – John 17.14-17
Christianity requires separation from the world. From the very beginning, Christians were urged to keep themselves “unstained by the world” (Jas. 1.27), to avoid “friendship with the world” (Jas. 4.4), not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12.2). John urged Christians not to “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2.15-16).
Therefore when it comes to our entertainment choices, almost all Christians agree that to at least some extent, Christians should be different from the world.
Christians often disagree about where to “draw the line”. “How much bad language and content can be in a movie before it becomes inappropriate for a Christian?” “How ‘worldly’ does a party need to be before it before a Christians can no longer go?” These type of questions can sometimes be tricky. That is why it is worthwhile to consider thoughts from the early Christians.
By “early Christians” I am referring to Christians prior to the year 313 AD, the year the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. Going from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion greatly lessened the degree to which Christians remained separate from the world.
Just like Christians from all generations, these early Christians were flawed. Sometimes they made mistakes. They were certainly capable of “drawing the line” in the wrong places. They wrote uninspired words, and we are free to disagree with them. But they were very sincere. Some of these early Christians personally knew the apostles, and they all personally knew the first generation of Christians. When it comes to questions of entertainment, we would be wise to at least consider the points they raise.
The Early Christians Were Not Opposed to Entertainment
The early Christians were not opposed to having fun and enjoying life. But they did have different values from the world around them, and thus they found different kinds of things to be entertaining.
For example, consider the words of Tertullian (160-220 AD), one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers:
We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight. – Apology, chapter 38
For clarification, when Tertullian speaks of “circuses”, he isn’t referring to clowns and acrobats, but to chariot races. He objected to chariot races because of how dangerous they were and because of the madness of the crowds that attended such events.
According to Tertullian, Christians were not opposed to finding certain things delightful and entertaining. What made Christians different was their consideration of the content of the entertainment. Christians did not find violence, idolatry, or immorality delightful, therefore they refused entertainment based upon these vices. Christians are delighted by different kind of things – things which the world may or may not recognize as entertaining.
The Importance of Considering Content
Athenagoras (133-190 AD) pointed to the fact that it would be hypocritical to support the death penalty or abortion while refusing to even enjoy violent entertainment such as gladiator events.
Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of the gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? – A Plea for New Christians, Chapter 35
For modern Christians, it can often seem very easy to separate the things we watch from the things we actually support. Yet for at least some of the early Christians, they refused to make such a separation. For Athenagoras, to see be entertained by watching a man be put to death was the moral equivalent of actually killing him.
Similarly, Theophilus (died in 183 AD) believed that the things we watch and hear can cause defilement.
We are forbidden even to witness the shows of gladiators, so that we do not become partakers and abettors of murders. Nor may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances they sing there.
For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Theyestes and Terus are eaten. As for adultery – both in the case of men and gods… this is made the subject of their dramas.
But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds. For with them temperance dwells, self-restraint is practiced, monogamy is observed, chastity is guarded, iniquity exterminated, sin extirpated, righteousness exercised, law administered, worship performed, God acknowledged. Truth governs, grace guards, peace screens them. The holy word guides, wisdom teaches, life directs, God reigns. – To Autolycus, III:15
Theophilus believed the things we watch and hear can defile us. Since Christians are of a different character, they refused to be entertained by violent, immoral, idolatrous, or adulterous entertainment.
Around the year 200 AD, Tertullian wrote a treatise titled “De Spectaculis”, also known as “The Shows”, in which he argued that entertainment can be an offense to God. One of Tertullian’s chief concerns was the hypocrisy of those who typically avoid worldly passions, while continuing to expose themselves to those very same worldly passions through their entertainment choices.
The father who carefully protects and guards his virgin daughter’s ears from every polluting word, takes her to the theater himself, exposing her to all its vile words and attitudes. – “The Shows”, Chapter 21
Closely related to Tertullian’s concerns about hypocrisy are his concerns about how a Christian’s entertainment choices impacts the influence on others.
We should have no connection with the things which we abjure, whether in deed or word, whether by looking on them or looking forward to them; but do we not abjure and rescind that baptismal pledge, when we cease to bear its testimony? Does it then remain for us to apply to the heathen themselves. Let them tell us, then, whether it is right in Christians to frequent the show. Why, the rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If any one, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief: you cast in your lot for life or death with your new friends. – “The Shows”, Chapter 24
The early Christians didn’t purposefully seek to be odd or different, but when they refused entertainment with immoral content, people took notice. They saw their different choices, and they wondered “Hmm… I wonder if so-and-so is a Christian now.”
The opposite was also true. When Christians stopped rejecting certain types of entertainment they lost their badge of distinctiveness. According to Tertullian, this was the equivalent of forsaking their baptism and joining up with the enemy.
Cyprian (200-258 AD) also believed that entertainment was extremely influential. Through entertainment, we are introduced to thoughts – thoughts of sinful things which have been done, or could possibly be done, and we learn from what we see.
In the theaters also you will behold what may well cause you grief and shame. It is the tragic buskin which relates in verse the crimes of ancient days. The old horrors of parricide and incest are unfolded in action calculated to express the image of the truth, so that, as the ages pass by, any crime that was formerly committed may not be forgotten. Each generation is reminded by what it hears, that whatever has once been done may be done again. Crimes never die out by the lapse of ages; wickedness is never abolished by process of time; impiety is never buried in oblivion. Things which have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. In the mimes, moreover, by teaching of infamies, the spectator is attracted either to reconsider what he may have done in secret, or to hear what he may do. Adultery is learned while it is seen; and while the mischief having public authority panders to vices, the matron, who perchance had gone to the spectacle a modest woman, returns from it immodest. – Cyprian’s Epistle 1.8
It should be noted that during this time there was never any such thing as plays or dramas that didn’t contain things such as pagan mythology and idolatry, sexual immorality, or murder. There were no such things as chariot races or sporting events that did not glorify idolatry and violence. The primary concern of the early Christians was avoiding the immoral content of entertainment rather than avoiding entertainment for its own sake.
It should also be noted that the early church didn’t have any mandated rules when it came to entertainment. They didn’t put anybody out of the church if they “drew the line” in a different place and decided to attend a play or a sporting event. But they did continually emphasize the importance of avoiding immoral influences.
Were these early Christians right? Did they did they draw the lines in the right places? Maybe or maybe not. They were not inspired, and we are certainly free to disagree with them. But they also made some really good (and challenging) points that we should all consider. It is so easy to make moral compromises for the sake of entertainment. Yet there is no reason why Christians should not continue to strive to be different from the world, even when it comes to our entertainment.