Friday, September 17, 2010

Should Christians Be Normal? Part II: The Early Church

In Part I of this series I talked about how our churches have a tendency to conform to the world around them as opposed to standing against the grain of the dominant culture and even going so far as to define a new normal in the world and challenge the world to follow them. (I should add that I obviously paint with a broad brush here. There are certainly local churches out there that do stand out from the crowd and offer innovative approaches for our culture, but I think I would be safe to say in 21st century America, these are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, these churches tend to stand out precisely because there aren't very many of them compared to the number of churches in this country...)

But it certainly has not always been this way... There was a time when a follower of Christ would by definition stand out from the crowd around them—that is to say, a Christian did not conform to this world. When Jesus walked the Earth, he once and for all redefined normal for all those who would follow after him. He modeled a new way in the world[1]—a radically different way of living than what the world of his day considered normal. Followers of Jesus were not only called to practice living that way amongst themselves, they were also expected to follow the example of their Teacher, and make every effort to spread that way of living in the world.

After Jesus died and rose again, these early followers saw it as their mission to continue what Jesus started. As recorded in the book of Acts, with the impetus of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the apostles launched the Church and began to spread the Message of Jesus outward from where it had originated in Jerusalem. The growth was explosive and exponential, and within a few decades, Paul actually preached the Gospel in the very heart of Caesar’s Empire—Rome. To first century Jewish followers of Jesus, having the Message make it to Rome must have seemed like, as Luke puts it reached the very ends of the Earth. Indeed, the Way of Jesus was rapidly spreading across the world as they knew it. Just as Jesus had predicted, with his life, death, and resurrection everything had changed…

The Church that Jesus envisioned was—and is—meant to be a shining beacon of this radically different way in our world. The Early Church had a reputation for challenging the status quo in society. They weren’t content to simply conform to the cultural norms of their day; they sought to transform them.

Of course, people who want to change the world usually aren’t popular with those in power. Rulers have a vested interest in continuing the status quo. There were rare and noteworthy exceptions where leaders did embrace the way of Jesus, but for the most part, the powers that be didn’t have much use for Christ-followers; they tended to view Christians as a threat. In fact, the term Christian was first used as a derogatory term to describe what the followers of Christ were doing. As Luke put in the book of Acts: those Christians are turning the world upside down.

For the first few centuries of Church history, being identified as a Christian continued to mean that you were standing against the prevailing culture. The dominant power of that time was the Roman Empire. It was an extremely risky to be identified as a follower of Christ. Most of the early Apostles became martyrs meaning they died for their beliefs. Many early Christians faced similar fates for the practice of their faith. Quite a few faced gruesome deaths in the Roman Coliseum—fans cheered as lions devoured the hapless and defenseless Christians. In that time, it really cost something to be a Christian—often your very life.

So all this begs the question: If this is what it meant to follow Christ in the first few centuries of Christian history, how did we end up we are today? How did Christianity go from being a powerful force for change in the world, with followers of Christ willing to give their very lives to stand against the ways of this world, to where we find ourselves today.

It's a long story and the answer isn't simple, but I'll turn to that subject in my next post...

[1] Jesus often used the term Kingdom of God when he referred to this new way of living.

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