Early Christians On Shows

Early Christians On Shows
By David W.T. Brattson

Editor’s Note

David Brattston is a lawyer in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The article presents his person, independently derived conclusions from a study of early church history. His attention was first drawn to the United Pentecostal Church International by a radio interview stating that the UPCI had reaffirmed its holiness teachings, which were at one time embraced by most conservative Christian groups. He was struck by the remarkable similarity between the UPCI’s teachings and those of early post apostolic Christianity. Lawyer Brattston writes as an independent scholar and not on behalf of the Lutheran or United Pentecostal churches.

Our purpose in publishing the article is not to endorse every doctrine or view of each writer cited, but simply to demonstrate that ancient teacher of various backgrounds held in common some basic principles of Christian living.

Early Christians On Shows

In the first three centuries A.D., all Christian authors who said anything about theaters and stage plays considered them to be forbidden to believers. Christian opposition to theatrical performances thus dates back to the earliest days of Christianity and did not begin with the sixteenth-century Reformation or later Pentecostals.

In the A.D. 190s the dean of one of Christendom’s foremost Bible schools called the theater “the seat of plagues.” [1] As for peer pressure, he taught that a knowledgeable Christian “never surrenders himself to the rabble which rules in the theaters.” [2] About a century later a manual for churches stated that “we should utterly avoid the theater” and advised: “Beware of assembling with them that areperishing in the theatre, which is the assembly of the heathen, of error and destruction.” [3] After “another century, a Christian poet ranked stage plays as among worldly things that are absolutely to be avoided” and informed backsliding Christians that they were deceiving themselves if they believed that watching them was in accord with God’s law. [4]

Christian writers prior to the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 gave many reasons for the ban on play going. In the middle of the second century, the pastor of Antioch mentioned to his friend that Christians were not
allowed to attend stage plays lest their eyes and ears be defiled. [5] Before A. D. 192 Tatian the Syrian wrote that Christians refused to attend because of the sins portrayed and the foulness of the language. [6] Novatian, a pastor at Rome shortly after A.D. 250, spoke against “the shameless corruption of the stage” on the grounds that it portrayed, and thus encouraged, dishonesty, slander, immodesty, debauchery, and undesirable traits of character, and was full of profane words. [7]

Early Christendom’s most prominent critic of shows was Tertullian, an eminent lawyer in the city of Rome who returned to his home in what is now Tunisia and became a clergyman. In a book written to present Christianity to pagans, he mentioned that “among us [Christians] nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard which has anything in common with . . . the immodesty of the theater.” [8] In two books directed to Christian women he taught that “a Christian ought not attach himself with . . . turpitudes of the stage” and denounced “the profane pleasures of worldly shows.” [9]

Tertullian’s “On the Shows” is the leading Christian book against play going in the first three centuries. It gave many reasons for the Christian position: the baptismal vows denouncing the devil and all his works, the fact that Roman censors often outlawed plays in the interests of public morality, the actors’ indecent gestures and costumes, voluntary effeminacy, the lust for pleasure and impurity that dramatics impart to audiences, stage plays excite to anger and ill will and either strong emotions for an object other than God, the blasphemous and vile words and attitudes, the way onlookers are distracted from remembering virtues, the theater’s origin in idolatry and the retention of pagan aspects in his day, and the fact that in the theater “nothing is in repute but what is elsewhere in disrepute.” [10]

Tertullian drew an analogy with the artificial darkness in playhouses: the presentations take place “in their own darkness and their own gloomy caves, lest they should see the light of day.” [11] He also argued that just as a person is defiled by what goes out of his mouth, so also is he defiled by what goes into his eyes and ears. Because the eyes and ears are the closest attendants of the soul, the soul cannot remain pure if its closest associates are soiled by what is portrayed on the stage. They are polluted by scenes of lust, murder, crime, and other forbidden acts, which a Christian should not call to mind or dwell upon. For all these reasons, Tertullian stated that rejection of such amusements was the main sign to a man’s neighbors that he had accepted Jesus. [12]

Another prominent author was Lactantius, who lived a century after and was tutor to the court of the Roman emperor, then in northwestern Turkey. Lactantius was also a lawyer. His Divine Institutes emphasized the need for Christians to curb pleasure seeking and despise worldly things. in other reason for shunning the theater was based on his reasoning that whoever voluntarily witnesses a sin is guilty of being an accessory to it. When God outlaws an act such as murder, He forbids the person to give his consent to watching it – or a representation of it in a play. Moreover, seeing sinful acts on the stage gives some people ideas about copying them, and thus plays corrupt audiences by example and suggestion as well as by sparking their desires. Lactantius called this “the corrupting influence of the stage.” [13]

Another of his books, the Epitome, taught that public shows ought to be avoided for a number of reasons: their depiction of unwholesome acts (especially murder and sexual sins), immodest gestures that guide spectators to lust, the associations with idolatry, and his idea that “the spectator is involved in the same guilt as the perpetrator” of a sin. [14] He believed that shows exerted a more depraving influence on the mind and were more effective in provoking unchristian desires than were songs, smells, written literature, and physical objects that incited covetousness. He was very concerned about the impact of the “school of corruption” on youth; he feared that it would teach them vices and sins at a time of life when their inclinations should be curbed and governed. [15]

Early Christians also held a low opinion of the acting profession. A guide to church practices compiled in central Italy in A.D. 217 provided that any actor who wished to be admitted to the church must first promise to give up his career forever. [16] In North Africa around A.D. 249 a former actor began teaching the profession after he was baptized, although he no longer appeared on the stage himself. The church’s division superintendent held that he could do neither if he wished to remain a member. [17] In the early fourth century a council in Spain repeated the rule that actors must renounce their occupation and promise not to resume it. If they broke their promise, they were to be expelled from the church. [18]

Although very few Christians in the first three centuries A.D. even mentioned theater going, all those who did write about it considered it to be contrary to a Christian lifestyle. The most common reasons against it were its defiling and corrupting effects on the audience and the lewdness of the language-which can apply equally to motion pictures today. The ban was not a temporary fashion or a local custom. The time span among the authors mentioned above is from the middle of the second century to the early fourth century. They lived in Syria, Italy, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. The exhortations to avoid the theater were not mere recommendations or suggestions but were solid rules, as is indicated by the language against it, the treatment of actors who wished to live as Christians, and Tertullian’s observation that “among us [Christians] nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard which has anything in common with . . . the immodesty of the theater.” There is no known Christian writing from this period that defended shows: the opposition was unanimous.


Except as otherwise indicated, all translations are from “The Ante-Nicene Fathers”, American editors, revised by A. Cleveland Coxe) Reprinted Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), and cited as ANF.

1. Clement of Alexandria. Pedagogus 3.11, ANF.

2. Clement of Alexandria. Stromata 7.7, ANF.

3. Didascalia apostolorum 12, translated by R. Hugh Connolly (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1929)
4. Commodian. Instructiones 57, ANF.

5. Thoephilus. Ad Autolycum 3.15.

6. Tatian. Ad Gracos 22f.

7. Novatian. De spectaculus 6, ANF.

8. Tertullian. Apologiticus 38, ANF.

9. Tertullian. De cultu feminarum 1.8.

10. at 17, ANF.

11. Loc. cit.

12. Ibid, 3-6, 8, 10, 14-17, 21 and 24-30.

  1. At 6.20, ANF.

    14. At 63, ANF.

    15. Loc. cit.

    16. Hippolytus of Rome. The Apostolic Tradition (New York:  Macmillian, 1934).

    17. Cyprian of Carthage. Epistula Euchratio: Pro delictione.

    18. Council of Elvira. Canon 62, in Jan Womer. Morality and Ethics in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

    Written by David W.T. Brattston

    The article is from the Pentecostal Herlad, August 1994, Pages 8-9.

    The above material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the author and is to be used for study and research purposes only.