As you’re reading this, I’m in Italy leading a Southern Seminary study tour through Rome. In the past two days, I’ve spent time praying in Saint John Lateran Cathedral here, and in the ruins of the ancient Christian catacombs. It struck me that we Christians sometimes forget the paradoxical grace of God in giving us a legacy of both cathedrals and catacombs.

The catacombs, of course, are the legacy of a tiny persecuted band of believers, meeting in their graveyards to escape the all-seeing eye of imperial Rome. The cathedrals represent a very different turn in church history: a church that not only could grow in size but could, in fact, outgrow and outlast the Empire itself. The catacombs represent simplicity and earthiness; the cathedrals transcendence and wonder.

We need both, somehow.

Sometimes American evangelicals, traveling to sites of significance in church history, are disappointed. They want to see a Disney-type restoration of “the early church” in a way that makes it seem as though the faith went by time-warp straight from a pristine golden era to the Graham Crusades. This sort of Christian tends to like the catacombs, for the same reason some people love working on their antebellum family histories but don’t like family reunions.

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