Saint Valentine, while lost amid a sea of chocolate bunnies today, was once a symbol of the religious persistence that defied tyranny in the name of life and marriage. No one quite knows who St. Valentine was, but historians see the story of Valentine in more than one person. One was a 3rd century Roman cleric, performing secret marriages against the orders of emperor Claudius II before being martyred. Another source of Valentine stories was the 3rd-century bishop of Terni, allegedly the source of similar secret marriages and healings before losing his head on February 14th.
While scholars admit the difficulty of separating legend from reality, the result remains: the annals of history gave us St. Valentine and his story of the continuation of religious values amidst tyrannical persecution. As the modern Christian world faces similar issues, St. Valentines’ story provides us with three reminders: the true meaning of tolerance, the cost of holding religious values, and the role the church has to play in shaping the wider world. Almost 1800 years later, what can Valentine’s story teach us about reconciling traditional values with a pluralistic and often faith-hostile society?
One issue modern Christianity wrestles with is the difference between tolerance and acceptance. On a popular front, the language of definitions used in Obergefell v. Hodges, as well as arguments over the conflict between tolerance and religious practice in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrates that this issue remains unresolved in the American consciousness. Contentions on this point, however, are not only an American phenomenon. 1800 years prior, St. Valentine was forced to confront them as well, with far greater consequences at stake. The virtues of Roman society, particularly those of Emperor Claudius, dictated that obedience to Rome’s marriage restrictions would be a show of tolerance from the empire’s Christian community, still an embattled minority in the pre-Constantine era. Valentine’s decision to take a stand was a difficult one, as the cleric struggled to balance the call to obey the government in Romans 13 with Acts 5 and the apostles’ historic decisions to obey God rather than men. In the end, enforcing Roman anti-marriage laws in the name of tolerance was a bridge too far for Valentine. The call to defy the emperor’s tyranny prevailed. While this is not a call for Christian intolerance or theonomy, Valentine’s story gives an insight into the present — Christians ought to be wary of obeying laws that would pit them against their God and the commandments He has provided.
Valentine additionally didn’t choose the revolutionary’s path, burning down Roman idols and calling for violent uprising against the evil empire Rome had become. Instead, he chose the path of peaceful resistance, quietly defying the emperor in service of God’s calling. Valentine realized that being a wise shepherd and overseer of the Christians in Rome had to come before being an obedient servant of the empire. While his fate eventually would match that of the apostles who came before him, he made the sacrifice willingly, knowing he had not wavered in God’s call to shepherd the flock. The choice to defy the empire came with real consequences, consequences Valentine was undoubtedly aware of. Nevertheless, he resisted, knowing the risks. There will be real consequences for following God in a faith-hostile world, and sometimes Christians will have no choice but to face them. Valentine’s story comes as a call for courage to modern-day Christians weathering persecution, as well as a cautionary tale for those who have yet to feel the flame — the time of trials may well be coming.
Secret marriages in Rome may seem like an insignificant thing, or mere fastidiousness over religious observance. To Valentine and fellow believers, however, it was far more. The continuation of Christian marriage in Rome ensured the survival of the population, a population that would see decreasing persecution less than a hundred years later. Valentine’s actions to preserve his congregation’s community had consequences far beyond the walls of Rome. The Christian population in Rome would grow in the wake of Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, spreading past Roman borders into a powerful global movement that remains to this day. This spread, while not perfect in its results, would not have happened without the preservation of church leaders like Valentine. The goal of Christian community, to minister within the church and serve the needs of Christians, is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a direct rebut to society’s tendencies to break down. Strong communities, engaging in purposeful human behavior, are the antidote to entropy.
Valentine’s story of protection, preservation, and faithfulness to the end should be a poignant reminder for modern Christians. Tolerance does not mean acceptance when it comes at the expense of Scripture and God’s clear commands. Refusing to accept social tyranny will have real consequences — the Christian should not be surprised at this. Finally, the actions of faithful Christians are not limited to their own community. In some cases, such as Valentine’s, they led to the birth of one the most formidable ideological forces in the Western world. This transformation wasn’t merely architected by grand figures in hubs of social power; sometimes, it was guided by a simple bishop in an evil empire who refused to bow to the forces of evil.