Early Church


I mentioned earlier that I am quite tired of the bad press the Church is always getting.  Of course there are issues that need to be addressed and changes that need to be made to have a more effective Church, not only in America but around the world.  Yet I wonder if one of the things that need to be addressed and changed is the constant complaining about ourselves.  For one thing the world does not think a whole lot about the Church these days, does it?  And I am not entirely sure they are going to want to have much to do with us when we are constantly publicizing how horrible we actually are as well.  The world says we stink (to put it very mildly) and then we respond, “Yup we do stink.”  Clever!

Like anything it is always easier to point out the negative instead of finding the positive.  So here is one reason why I love the Church…the people.  Now I will be the first to admit that church people aren’t perfect, in fact they are far from it.  But that is exactly what I love.  They are humans, just like me.  They are full of flaws, mistakes, mixed emotions and faulty reactions.  But they are people and I love them for it.  The problem is we expect too much of our brothers and sisters in Christ…we expect them to be perfect.  Really?  Are you perfect?  So we bicker sometimes and often about little stupid things.  Have you been married for more than a year?  Have you lived in the same house with a family member for more than a week?  Then you would know that it is often the people we love the most and that we are the closest to that we find it easiest and most comfortable to bicker with over stupid things.

We are a family!  We are brothers and sisters in Christ in the household of God as Paul says in Timothy.  If you want to find a church where everyone is perfect and always get’s along…then stop looking for a church because you will not find one like that.  Why?  Because even though we are Christians, we are still humans in the process of being sanctified.  It is a process that isn’t immediately completed the moment you say the sinner’s prayer.  In fact, it is a process that will last a lifetime.

So get used to that brother who always makes sure he is the first in line for food at the church banquet; the sister who bellows out every note and lyric of every hymn or praise song above everyone else; the guy who sits behind you every service sniffing in your right ear when all you want to do is turn around, hand him a kleenex and say “blow your frickin’ nose!”; the kid who double dips his communion bread in the cup of grape juice we use for communion leaving bread crumbs floating  for the next victim who is going to dip the body of our Lord in Christ’s blood–thanks kid!; the elderly lady who takes 3 minutes to dig for the loose change at the bottom of her purse while the patient usher holds the plate under her nose; the pastor who tells the same life stories each Sunday to illustrate non related points and the list goes on endlessly.

But these are the people we are commanded to love because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Why are they goofy?  Because they are people.  They are broken.  They come with baggage and in constant need of healing and a warm friend to say, “Peace be with you…I love you.”  Your hug may be the only hug they get all week.  Your smile may be the only smile that warms their heart.  And we all need each other.  What annoys people about me?  I get quiet and short-tempered when I am tired or hungry and I can tend to be a private person on many things.  I love to talk about theology and scripture and can tend to share more than someone asks for and can thus come acrossed as a theological know it all.  I don’t mean to be that way but I have to be purposeful in not coming acrossed that way.

I love to sit around a table with my church family over good to not so good crock-pot meals and cheap church coffee and for a brief moment in our lives shut out the cares of the world and laugh together.  I love when I am feeling down or things aren’t going so well, to hear the old church lady say in her simple faith “Jeremy, it will all work out for those who love God…he is in control.”  And even if I don’t agree with their premise, I hear and receive the love and care those words carry from their hearts.  I know those old church ladies love me and will be proud of me even if I turned out to be the world’s biggest failure.

I love the hymns I have song a million times and the ability they have to bring tears to my eyes when I hear the small voice of my daughter sing them next to a 90-year-old woman who used to be my daughter’s age.  I love the lipstick marks on my sports coat or dress shirt from the elderly women who gave me hugs.  The smell of Old Spice on the old ushers.  I love the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a charismatic contemporary church or in a reserved liturgical service.  I have found him just as strong in both but in different ways.  Why?  Because the human hearts in a 150 year old church hunger for him just as much as the human hearts in the youthful modern church.

I once attended a church that was very old.  I remarked to one of the lay leaders that the building was very beautiful.  It had a gorgeous chandelier, beautiful architecture, a balcony overlooking the sanctuary, a spectacular painting of Christ behind the platform, and the pews were rather ornate.  After the third time of mentioning to this man how beautiful and historical the building was he interrupted me and said, “It is the people inside that are beautiful.”  He was right.  Those people in that small congregation are beautiful.  They are all unique and they all have different and very special life stories.

I believe that if we would pause and listen to each other we would learn to love and appreciate each other.  I have heard all of the gimmicks of how to fix the Church today, how to start revival and how to make our churches grow.  I have read the countless books and heard the many lectures and sermons.  Yet I believe that what the world wants now more than anything, is a family that will love them unconditionally.  That’s the Church folks.  I find the love of Christ more and sense his presence greatest sitting around a table of brothers and sisters in Christ fellowshipping like a family than I do in loud technological churches with fine-tuned theologies and theatrics.  Each has its place but being a family must be at the center of it all.  Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength.  The second greatest commandment is like the first…love you neighbor as yourselves. What’s that mean?   Well the second is LIKE the first.  I think it is impossible to do the first without also being able to do the second.  At least, obeying the first will cause the second.  Loving God will cause us to love each other.

I love being a Christian and I love Christ’s Church.  Although there is always work and reform to be done in the Church there is so much that blesses me and that I am thankful for.  The Church has never been perfect and if we think the early church had it all together…think again.  The Church has always been filled with humans and humans have always been imperfect, opinionated, silly, childish, passionate and yet lovable.  If God can love us…than we can love us too!

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At the beginning of Thomas á Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ he speaks of the most important thing a Christian can do in their life time is to study Christ.  Yet it is not enough to merely study him but to imitate him in our everyday lives.  The very practice of doing or saying what  Jesus said or did is to experience a bit of life through the mind of Jesus Christ.  Think about it, when Jesus didn’t ignore those who were often invisible in his culture (like children) but embraced them.  Such an act changes a person from the inside out.  One learns to see the disenfranchised with compassion and love.  Or when Jesus said to turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile for an enemy.  This sort of sacrificial living teaches that life is not all about us and that even the hearts of our enemies can be softened.

We can also examine the lifestyle of Christ, how he spent significant amount of time away in prayer.  We all need this time of prayer and fellowship with God.  We can often fall into the trap of feeding our rational/intellectual side of being human and neglect the other basic need of being a social being as well.  We need that time to simply have relationship with God.  This is vital for becoming like Christ.  Paul encourages us in Romans to have the mind of Christ, to renew our minds.  A very big element of this is spending time, getting to know Jesus.  What does this do?  It helps us to truly think, act, and speak like Jesus.  I believe that this is the reason for so much nonsense in the world and even among so-called Christians who appeal to a gospel, that Paul says in Galatians 1, REALLY ISN”T A GOSPEL AT ALL.  Why?  Because they have perverted the faith of Christ, the apostles, the early Church fathers and mothers, and great men and women of God down through the ages for a lie.  How?  Because they do not truly know Christ or have not spent significant time in his presence getting to know him.  Instead they follow their passions, imaginations, feelings, emotions, lusts…to create something that though it sounds biblical because they use scripture, it is not biblical at all because they twist scripture.

In Jeremiah God speaks of false prophets crying out, “Peace, Peace” but the message and warning from God was that “there is no peace” but judgment.  Why is this important to recall?  Because we need to be in tune with God the Father and be aware of what is coming down the pike.  We need to be able to heed his warnings.  We need to be able to know the truth when we hear it and know what is false.  There is a lot of false teaching out there as we speak.  We live in a very pluralistic society where people are making up beliefs as they go along.  While studying philosophy in my undergrad, one thing that drove me nuts was that there was a philosopher for every crazy belief you could think of.  One day my professor said, “Philosophy is a dangerous thing, with the right charisma and eloquent rhetoric, a philosopher or orator could prove that a toothpick is God.”  Sounds ridiculous huh?  Well there are people that teach that god is in everything, in all matter and that that matter possesses the essence of God.  Therefore if God is in a tree and that toothpick came from the tree that housed God…the toothpick is God too.

So what is the safeguard to all of this.  Praying, and sticking to the faith you have received.  Pay attention to that check in your spirit that says, “You know…that sounds all nice and stuff but something isn’t right here, something is off.”  St. Irenaeus was a bishop in the ancient Roman province of Gaul in the second century AD.  He was very close to the time of the apostles and had received the faith that had been handed down to him by very trusted and faithful men.  In turn he taught the “barbarians” in Gaul, the simple folks who could not read or write.  Yet he says in Against Heresies if someone came and began to teach them a different Gospel than what the apostles had handed down to them they would recognize it immediately as a lie and would turn and run the other way.  It is a faith that many have suffered for, died for, and guarded, not only with their words but with their hearts, minds and lives.  We need to honor them by taking our faith as seriously as they did.

The moral of that story is that it is better for most Christians to not even listen to deception and to flee from it instead.  Now God has called many throughout the Church ages to practice what is known as “apologetics” or the defense of the faith.  Yet these individuals are usually deeply grounded in the teachings of Christianity and are very familiar with why we believe what we believe and most of the details behind our faith.  But the truth of the matter is that most Christians do not have the time, the resources, the interest or the calling to engage in this.  We are all part of the same body with different gifts, passions, and callings that are equally as vital and useful to our community as the next.  I have no ability in leading worship because I sing like a sick duck.  Yet I am thankful for those who are called into this ministry who can lead us into the presence of God through worship.

I say all this because it is necessary in our day to stay anchored in the faith and know what that faith is.  There are a lot of false gospels as Paul says in Galatians, but they are no gospels at all.  In fact, he says “If anyone teaches you another gospel than the one we have given, even if I or angels come doing so, let him be cursed.”  Pretty strong language that wouldn’t go over big in our day.  But his language emphasizes the urgency of his warning.  This is why Jesus was so sturn with those who departed from the true faith, same as the apostles, same as the early Church fathers and mothers.  Thomas Oden says in his three volume work Systematic Theology that “the vital question for Christians is not rather it is palatable but rather it is true.”  We are not interested in only the things we like about scripture but what is true…what is scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles claiming is true.  That’s what we want to know.  That’s what we need.  That’s what God expects of us.

Now don’t run off on me!:) I am aware that terms like “morality”, “virtues” and “ethics” seem quite dry and archaic.  But I think that some of my readers that would initially tune me out here will find this post very encouraging and invigorating.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a classical historical work by Edward Gibbon that was been a foundational authority on the Roman Empire for the past few centuries.  It is certainly not an easy read, but it is full of priceless information about the long period of time that the Empire existed.  This work is important to Christians because it is during the reign of this empire that Christ lived, died and rose again.  It was during this empire that the early church grew rapidly and thrived.  It was eventually this empire that would adopt Christianity as the state religion under Constatine.  And when this empire collapsed in the West, it was Christainity that remained as the leader of the West in its institutionalized form as well as in its pastoral role.

In one part of this great work, Gibbon addresses the phenomenon of how the Church grew so rapidly in the first several centuries.  Gibbon gives five solid reasons.  For the sake of this post we will examine one, and address the others in later posts.  The one I want to focus on in this post is that the Church grew rapidly because of “The pure and austere morals of the Church” or as he puts it later on “The virtues of the first Christians.”

Gibbon points out that the early Christians “demonstrated their faith by his virtues.”  That is to say, someone outside the Church could pick out a Christian based upon their virtues, moral and ethical behavior.  Imagine that.  In a contemporary society when pastors are divorcing their husbands or wives; ministers are having adulterous affairs or skimming off the top of ministries to buy a Rolls Royce or expensive clothing; Christians are suing Christians at the drop of a hat and so on.  Yet, these early Christians put strong emphasis on the transforming power of God to cause a change in their behavior that they committed to maintaining.

When they repented, they expected a “reformation of manners.”  Good ethical and moral behavior was expected of them.  We see this taking place even in Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth.  In the words of one of my professors, Paul was basically saying in those letters, “Stop acting like that…true Christians don’t behave that way!”  A life of vice was not acceptable.  So much so, that when the “most abandoned sinners” observed this lifestyle, many were attracted to the faith and the possibility that they too could be changed into the image of Christ.  They observed that the “driving passion” of these Christians was a “perfect life”, that is a virtuous lifestyle free from malice and vice.  In fact, they were so concerned with living holy lives, that if they were guilty of anything they were “guilty of an excess of virtue.”  Some of those early Christians would read scripture and take things very literally and at times perhaps legalistically.

The pagan world looked at that early Church and although they might not understand why there was a change in their ethical behavior, they were amazed by it and often drawn to it.  This is recognized by historians like Gibbons, who often states that he as a historian is not interested in establishing theological truths but understanding and stating history.  Yet it is also recognized by external evidence by secular officials of Rome like Pliny the Younger.  While emperor Trajan was in power, Pliny wrote to him asking how he should deal with the people known as Christians in the mid to late second century.  It is a priceless document because in it Pliny states that besides the fact that the Christians refuse to worship Caeser as a god, they are law abiding, loving, and good citizens.  He attests to their moral fortitude.  In fact, the early Christians thought it very important to be blameless citizens, unless the laws interfered with the laws of God.

Further on in the Roman Empire, Justin the Apostate came to power.  Under his reign he attempted to reestablish paganism as the state religion.  However, he admitted that he had an enormous struggle.  The struggle was that even though he had estabished a pretty efficient system of bishops and officials to oversee the practices of this pagan religion, the Christians’ moral and ethical behaviors, as well as their endless acts of charity far outweighed anything the pagans could do.

Gibbon and many other scholars point to this as one of the main reasons why Christianity grew so quickly in the Roman Empire and throughout the world.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Church today needs to return to this.  The Church needs a moral, ethical, love revival.  The Church needs to stop apologizing for its high moral standards found in scripture and tradition and begin to live it out.  Part of why we do and don’t do the things we do is because God expects us to be holy and different than the world.  There should be a contrast that is markedly different about us.  So that when it comes to issues like pre-marital sex, drunkeness, violence, gossiping, bickering, oppressing, ridiculing etc–the Church should be pure and blameless.

Many unbelievers argue that they can be moral and ethical too without Christianity.  I argue that they do not have the longevity, pure motives, and complete ability to do so.  I argue that all you have to do is walk into a mall and see just how well they live out those so called morals by the way they treat each other.  I also argue that the morals and ethics they have are not solely intrinsic but they are running on the fumes of morality taught to our culture by Judeo-Christian inheritance.  Lastly, I argue that any ability they have to give the appearance of morality is based upon what the patristic fathers saw as a mere imprint of the image of God that they were originally created in.  That is to say, that their morality is based upon an inward conviction that God has installed to warn them of what is wrong and right.

The problem today is that the world looks at the Church and doesn’t see much of a difference.  People are not dumb, they know when we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  I argue that Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit have the ability to live moral and ethically pleasing lives before the Lord.  However, most Christians don’t even try.  We join churches (which are basically social clubs for many) take on the title of Christians, carry our Bibles, act special on Sundays and then lead worldly lives the rest of the week.  This is not good enough.  Paul would say, “That is not how Christians behave.”