Where are we heading as the church? In some ways the best map to get there is where we have already been, a very long time ago. The Jesus message spread quickly throughout the culture of the ancient Roman world. When we look closer, we see that it wasn’t because the church was based on the acceptable social norms, nor was it state sponsorship and acceptance of the church. It was something else. There were irresistible characteristics that the culture saw in the early church. What were they?
On one hand the early church was misunderstood by Roman culture. Early believers were suspect because they had odd practices like a secret supper where they supposedly ate the flesh and drank the blood of some man named “Jesus,” so the Romans asked if the early Christians were cannibals. They called each other “brother & sister,” so the Romans wondered if that inferred incest. They didn’t worship the Roman gods, so the Romans wondered if the Christians were atheists (according to Roman standards). There was confusion and distrust, even false accusation and persecution, from the establishment. But there was also an observation and a growing admiration for what the Romans saw being lived out in the early church as well.
Bruce Shelley, in his Church History in Plain Language, chapter 3, discusses this season of church history. I read the account of a letter written from Pliny, the Governor of Asia Minor, to Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. stating that many people of all ages, from every level of society, male & female, (free or slave), in towns & villages and throughout the country, were becoming “Christians” and Pliny feared the shrines of the Roman gods would become deserted.
As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Because of the dignity and equality expressed in the early church, Christianity appealed to and embraced women, the poor, and slaves, all outsiders in the Roman world. The message that Christ came and died for all spoke significance to every person in every level of society. The Christians treated all with dignity and love because of Christ’s example.
Shelley notes that we see these characteristics within the Ancient Church: High Convictions, High Love, and Practical Expression of that love.
They actually believed in something. They believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. They believed that THE EVENT had happened, that the God of the Universe had invaded space and time. They believed that God came down from heaven and became man. Jesus had come powerfully to redeem men from sin, evil, and darkness. Jesus illustrates in the gospel of Mark:
“Let me illustrate this further. Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger–someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.”- Mark 3:27
St Irenaeus (2nd century) summed this up: “The son of God became a man so that men could become the sons of God.” The early church believed that He had come to make all things right, He had begun this process, and would one day soon complete it. As 2nd Corinthians 5:19 says “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” The church actually believed in something, and they believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. The early church was known for their high convictions that guided their life and actions, even to the point of going to the arena, being burned alive, or thrown to the beasts.
The early church exemplified a higher love. God’s grace and love directed the believer outward to the needs of his fellow men, and to the greater world. In Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor?” (Matthew 5:13 ) And also “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
Tertullian wrote, in the early 2nd century: “The pagan’s remark ‘See how the Christians love one another’…” Oh that it were true now, it is possible. These higher convictions, and this higher love, which we see in the ancient church produced a practical expression of love within the community of the day, it also became a powerful witness to the message of Christ in the greater culture.
They took the words of Jesus and of the disciples seriously and lived them out in practical ways. “I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36), and also James’ exhortation of caring for the widows and orphans (see James 1:27). So the early church took care of widows and orphans, they visited the sick and the prisoners, they loved the poor and the slaves as well as the affluent, they took children in who had been left on the street to die, and they were known for open-handed generosity as well as for burying the dead.
How do we go forward as the church? Perhaps the path becomes clearer by returning to where we have already been, a very long time ago. How do we engage our culture in a way similar to the early church? What needs can be met by our expressions of convictions and love?
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi
Who is Jesus, according to how we live? What would it look like if our prayer and belief, as a church, translates into living out high convictions, high love, and practical expression of that love in our culture? Our culture is desperate to find out.