If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.
– John 15:18-19
Few saints of the church were so misaligned in their lifetimes and yet has been so revered after their deaths more than Athanasius. An Alexandrian cleric from the 4th century, he came to the forefront as a staunch defender of the deity of Christ and a prominent critic of Arianism, which affirmed Christ as an exalted being but not divine. Although the Council of Nicaea in 325 affirmed Christian orthodoxy by defending the Trinity, Arianism remained widespread across the Christian world. Because of Athanasius’s prominence as a bishop, this inevitably resulted in conflict both with the Arians and the Roman emperors who were at the least sympathetic to them.
In the forty five years between his consecration as bishop of Alexandria and his death, he spent seventeen of those years in exile, sent away five times by four emperors. Pope Liberius, under intense pressure from the Arians, condemned him. He was accused by his enemies of sorcery, stealing from the church, and even murder. He was called a “contemptible puppet” by Julian the Apostate and may have even been referred to as a “black dwarf” by others (though this name has been disputed). Despite opposition in his own lifetime, he was praised in the years following his death, and his orthodoxy was further confirmed in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople where the Arian heresy began to die out. Today, he is revered by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike for his unwavering defense of Christological doctrine.
One moniker that has stuck with Athanasius throughout the years is the Latin phrase Athanasius Contra Mundum, or Athanasius Against the World. It is an apt phrase for a man whose theological stance among many was deeply unpopular and often cost him his reputation, his job and his livelihood. Indeed, while Athanasius may have not been a martyr, the message he carried cost the lives of many of his contemporaries as well as other Christians throughout the ages.
If you think about it, contra mundum can be applied to any faithful man or woman, can it not? After all, the Lord made very clear that following Him has a cost (Matt 16:24-25) and the history of the church proves this. Read it, and you will see that the elect have always been fighting something, whether that be a theological error within or pressure to conform from without. Especially when the loves of the world stand in contrast to the righteousness of God (1 John 2:15), conflict is sure to arise. And as the quoted verse above makes clear, the world wants nothing to do with Christians and certainly wants nothing to do with God. The Gospel by its very nature is antagonistic to the world.
The modern day connection between us and our ancestors in the faith (i.e. Athanasius) is not only in the world’s hatred for us, but arises out of the church itself. Just as the Arians before us, there are those in congregations and in pulpits that propagate unorthodox and contradictory teaching. Also like the Arians, they have leverage in popular social and political support, no doubt a good way to get on the world’s good side. What is of upmost concern is that they proclaim to share the same message, believe in the same God, and read the same Bible, pointing to them to assert their arguments. In reality, what they preach is a false God, false doctrine and a false message. The Apostle Paul, in particular, had particularly strong words for those who preach a false gospel (Gal 1:8) and so do a good host of others.
Admittedly, talking about doctrine is not the most fun thing in the world. Talking doctrine, after all, has caused a good deal of stress in church history. This is not to say either that we should be trying to divide ourselves whenever we can. We are commanded to keep unity as much as we can (Ephesians 4:3). But it is also true that if we are to worship properly, preach properly, serve properly, and most importantly, love properly, we got to have our basics down first. If we don’t have those down, the rest becomes dysfunctional, and Jesus knew this (John 14:23).
Brothers and sisters, the church cannot and must not bend to what the world wants the body to believe, nor cave into heresies from among our midst. Rather, follow the apostle Peter and set the example of defending what is good and true and holy,
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.
– 1 Peter 3:15
This may make us contra mundum, but that’s okay. We’re in good company.