Christians as Wild Beasts: A (partial) Defense

No wild beasts are so dangerous to men as Christians are to one another.

When the average believer reads that quote, they shake their head in sadness, mourning the quarreling and bitterness that often invades and then puts to death Christian fellowship. And there are many warnings about this kind of behavior throughout the Bible. One such treatment is found in James 4:1-3

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (NIV 84)

The word translated fights refers to a state of war and implies a long and protracted conflict. Quarrels, on the other hand, refer to individual disputes or battles. So we might rephrase this question: What causes wars and battles among you?

Notice that this question assumes that there is wars and battles going on. That’s a pretty safe assumption, isn’t it, when we’re talking about…well…nearly any activity in which people are involved. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty safe assumption for the church as well, isn’t it? 

As I read this passage, I find it interesting that James doesn’t mention the issue. We have no idea what people were fighting about because James doesn’t tell us. I think that is instructive in and of itself. 

We tend to dismiss our bad attitudes by appealing to the fact that “I’m right!” And hidden in those two words is the idea that since God is righteous, and we’re right, God is on our side. But James doesn’t seem to be interested in who is right or who is wrong, but merely that the fight is going on in the first place. He makes this clear by showing the source of our quarrels.

Question: What causes fights and quarrels among you?

Answer: Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 

The Greek word translated desires is the source of our word “hedonism.” Hedonism is the technical name for the ethical doctrine holding that only what is pleasant or has pleasant consequences is intrinsically good. In other words, good is defined as what makes me happy. 

The Greek word used here is found in only three other verses in the New Testament.

Luke 8:14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.

Here we’re told that worry, riches, and pleasures are enemies of spiritual maturity. Notice that riches, by themselves aren’t evil. Neither are pleasures. But the temptation to live for them is what is the problem.

Titus 3:3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Here again we find that pleasures are enslaving. And the lusting for pleasure evidently produces malice, envy, and hatred.

2 Pet. 2:13 They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you.

Once again we see the idea of living for pleasure—hedonism—as destructive and wicked. Now, most of us wouldn’t admit to being hedonistic, but in reality, this attitude of hedonism is, unfortunately, rampant in the church. I was counseling a woman not to get divorced and when I mentioned that she would be sinning against God she said that can’t be true because she was sure that God didn’t want her to be unhappy! What was the arbiter of truth? What makes me happy!

James continues that these pleasures aren’t harmless. They battle within you. Peter makes the same point in his first letter:

1 Pet. 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

These desires not only battle against your soul, but they also cause you to wage war against other people. James is stating that envy, left unchecked, will inevitably lead to violence. If you don’t think that’s so, that envy really isn’t all that bad, remember that Jesus was crucified because of envy.

Mark 15:9–10 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.

Knowing that our wars and battles come from hedonistic desires, which cause envy leading to violence, the statement above is a sad testimony about the state of the Church. 

Or is it?

No wild beasts are so dangerous to men as Christians are to one another.

What I failed to provide in my original quotation was the source and circumstances of the quote. Context being king, it makes a difference who said it and why.

The author is Julian the Apostate, Emperor of Rome (Augustus-- February 360 to June 363). He was the last of the pagan emperors. His uncle, Constantine I, was the first Christian emperor. After his death in 337, however, a protracted battle for succession began in the family. Several emperors, one of whom was an Arian, came to the throne and died, either by assassination or in battle before Julian came to power.  

Julian is remembered as a reformer who endeavored to fix the corruption associated with his office. He fired thousands of cooks, chamberlains, and household servants without compensation. He reformed the taxation system and tried to strengthen the power of the Senate, both by decreasing their number and showing them special honor. Nevertheless, his main goal, and where he spent the majority of his time, was to restore paganism and eliminate Christianity.

There would be no need for persecution since martyrs tended to grow rather than diminish Christianity. Instead he re-opened pagan temples and granted amnesty to the orthodoxy Christians who had been sent into exile by the former pro-Arian emperor. The return of the exiled believers was actually a clever play on his part, for he thought:

No wild beasts are so dangerous to men as Christians are to one another.

They would soon be at each other's throats, he thought, and Christianity would be destroyed from within. 

What is important in understanding this statement, however, is the use of the term Christian. When Julian used it, he was lumping together all who gave allegiance to The Galilean, as he called Jesus, whether they held orthodox beliefs or not. 

The Arians, who had held the upper hand politically until this time, argued that Jesus wasn't God. Instead, he was the highest of God's creation, through whom God created everything else. 

The most famous opponent of Arianism was Athanasius of Alexandria. Because of his stanch defense of the deity of Christ against the heretical Arians, he was exiled at least five times and perhaps as many as seven. This led to the phrase Athanasius Contra Mundum--Athanasius Against the World.

This is the sentiment expressed by Jude:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

The faith, as it is used here, refers to the content of what was to be believed. In other words, there was an objective meaning that must be not only believed but also defended against those who would oppose it. In fact, the word translated contend refers to the exertions of an athlete and is similar to the word Paul uses in 1 Cor 9:25

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

And so Jude doesn’t just urge his loved ones to simply resist false teachers, they are to actively and energetically fight for the truth. Put another way, they were to resist the Arians with all their might. And the reason they must fight for the truth is that it was being attacked, and the way it was being attacked called for a vigorous defense. 

Now, it should be quickly added that my defense of being a wild beast as Julian referred to believers is only a partial defense. Paul teaches in his second letter to Timothy (2:24)

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 

Thus, whenever we quarrel, we are wrong by definition. We should never slip into bitterness, name calling, or ad hominem attacks. This is not the Christian way.

And so we see this fine line we must walk. While we must be gentle and gracious, we must, at the same time be vigorous in our defense of truth. 

It used to be that, if we were to err, we would err on the side of contending for the faith, being too ready to fight, to militant in our beliefs, too ready to argue. But that reputation has taken it's toll. Now, at least from my observation, we have become to ready to capitulate in the name of peace, too ready to forsake in order to be charitable. It used to be that the major sin was compromise. Now it is intolerance. 

I'm not advocating being a wild beast. But Contra Mundum is still appropriate. And many in the church have forgotten that.