Archives For August 2012

Nudges….

August 27, 2012 — 1 Comment

This is another aside post that is somewhat linked to the previous one. In that post I discussed how I replied to some fellow Christians Facebook comments about how it was not the government’s job to take care of the poor. These Christians admitted, but it seems not many of them do, that it is the church’s job to do that. I then went on to agree with them fully. I’m sure they were surprised with my agreement. But I then went on to say since the church presently only takes care of about three percent of the need the government must step in to fill this enormous gap. At the conclusion of that post I mentioned that I hope I planted a small thought in their hearts.

That got me to thinking about all the arguments and such between our political parties. Each party seems to think that somehow they can turn their advocate around if they could just win this discussion or make that particular statement. They think that somehow they can cause a person to flip on a dime with their world views.

This type of logic is not limited to politics; it also occurs frequently in our cross-denominational struggles with the Christian church. There are currently about 39,000 different versions of Christianity out there. Each one is convinced that they are right and everyone else just has it wrong in one way or another. Many are convinced if they can just quote the right Bible verse then their opponents will give up their current way of being a Christian and join them.

Disregarding the overall premise of these examples the logic of a quick “win” is, at least in my mind a faulty conclusion.  Once a person has it in his/her mind that their party/church/way of life is the correct one it is almost impossible to get them to change their minds. The only thing that we can hope to do is to give them a little nudge in the direction you want them to head. Then over the years enough nudges might get them to re-think what the previously thought to be untrue.

You can’t change a Tea Party Republican into a moderate one let alone a Democrat by winning one or even many arguments.  But if you can put a small thought in their mind that their current way of thinking lacks something maybe eventually they will eventually come around. If you can plant a seed in a Christian who believes that his version of Christianity is without error maybe she/he will eventually look at those words of Jesus in a different light than the spin they have been taught.

Except for a few very very rare occurrences these things just don’t happen overnight. They take a long stream of nudges to make them happen. When we realize that fact we will treat our opponents, although we will come to know that they are not really opponents, in a different light.  Remember the secret to this is nudges not insults or rants….

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It looks like it is going to take a few weeks before I can adequately start my parallel study of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Christian Church. I want to at least know enough about the Roman Empire that I can make some worthy analogies. So, in the mean time I am going to be doing some “Asides”. These are posts that have nothing particularly to do with the study but instead are things that just pop into my head. Below is a post I am also doing tomorrow on my “RJ’s Corner blog about a FaceBook discussion I recently had with some fellow Christians.

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I got into a discussion on FaceBook recently about Church/State responsibilities.  This one started out on a good friend of mine’s page where he stated:

As a pastor I try to steer clear of citing personal preferences when it comes to politics. …. Having said that, I am certainly happy that a man of great integrity and moral character, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, is a part of the conversation.

Of course this brought on some other friends who stated it is absolutely necessary for pastors to point out God’s standards in guiding his flock in making the proper choices among the candidates.  At that point I commented that I don’t think it is God’s standard to take billions away from aid to the poor and give it to millionaires as tax breaks? Of course as an expected response I heard that it is not government’s job to take care of the poor; that is the church’s role. I think I surprised them when I agreed with them entirely.

Here are my further comments on the subject.

I couldn’t agree with you more that it is our job as Christians to take care of the poor. So why is it that we seem to only be able to do about 3% of the job? What do you propose the other 97% of the need do if we take the government safety net away from them. It is nice to sit back and talk about this in abstract but for the last nine years I have spent at least two days a week volunteering at a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Every time another piece of the safety net is torn away we get a few more people who rely on us for their nourishment.

So, lets quit spending 90% of what we collect in our churches on ourselves and do like the early Christians did and spend almost all of it on those who are doing without. They called this giving “hospitality” and it was central to their early beliefs. When that happens I will march along side you and I’m sure government will gladly get out of the way. But given how we are doing right now that will take centuries to accomplish. Lets all get out of our pews and into the community where Jesus intended us to be…

 I am struck by the arrogance of us Christians when all we do is talk about it not being government’s job and then go back to our usual ways. Every statistic shows that Christians are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to charity, divorce, riches, and other worldly things. I think Jesus is very disappointed in us in that regard. I hope you don’t respond that we are all sinners and somehow that allows us to shirk our responsibilities. Yes, the poor will always be with us especially when we Christians talk in platitudes instead of actually doing things.

One of my favorite quotes that isn’t heard much in Christian churches is 1John 3:16. It is interesting that it is so close to the other one. 
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. “

I am happy that the Lord gave me the proper words in response. I never heard anything more but I hope I put a tiny thought into these Evangelicals’ hearts. When we Christians live up to our responsibilities then our government doesn’t have to do it in our place….

I know in the introduction to this study I said I would not be following a timeline but instead be giving you a mosaic. But after thinking about it for a while now I have decided to do the timeline approach. In addition to a time line I have decided to try to interweave it with the history of the Roman Empire. I know this is a very ambitious undertaking and right now I just don’t know how successful I will be but I am never one to shrink from a challenge.

Two things make me change direction here. One is that I really have never studied just what happened to the mighty Roman Empire. I know it, like the U.S. today was the superpower of its day. But I am really not versed in how the rise to power happened or  how the decline came about so quickly. I have prided myself on my diligent lifelong study of U.S. history but have never delved much beyond our shores.  This is a unique opportunity to widen my historical horizons.  There seems to be many analogies between what happened to Rome and what we as a country are currently going through. It will be interesting to try to discover those parallels as well.

The second reason for this change of heart is that I am critically aware of  the links between Christianity and the Rome. It will be interesting to see just what was going on in the empire when significant event occurred in the church.  I don’t think you can really understand one history without understanding the other. I will be on the lookout for these types of links as we study this dual path of history. In order to accomplish this I will need to do a number of posts on Roman history before we actually get into the Christianity aspect of the study.  I think this is proper in order to try to understand how the Roman Empire got to where they were as that little rag-tag group later called Christians came on the scene.

I hope that you are not disappointed with the dual approach. Since I am doing posts only about a week or two before they are put on-line I really don’t have a good idea right now just when different time periods will be covered. I will talk about each period until I am satisfied that we know enough about it to see the links between the Roman State and the Christian church. For a number of years I know they are very intrinsically linked. Way too much so for my tastes. This makes for a more ambitious study than I originally intended but as I said at the beginning of this post I feel I am up to the challenge.

So, come back soon for the next phase of this study. I think it will be very interesting to me and I hope you will enjoy it also. This new approach might throw my usual Monday and Thursday posts out of whack for a little while. I will decide that as I go….

This will be the beginning of I don’t know how many posts on the early leaders of the church. By early I mean after the Apostles but before Constantine (350 AD). Again I want to state very clearly up front that I am not a theologian or someone who is very learned in this area. I am just an ordinary guy who has questions about these sort of things.

I am doing this study to try to learn how we got to where we are as a church today. In the beginning diversity was a celebrated part of the church but then strict adherence to a particular set of beliefs took over.  In the early part of this study I want to try to discover just what happened. That is the purpose for this section and every other that will follow.

The early church leaders were as diverse as those they tried to lead. For the most part they were an affluent bunch who generally lead a privileged life prior to, and sometimes after,  their conversion to People of the Way. Of course being affluent meant that they were usually studied in greek culture and were literate. That is they could put down their beliefs in writing whereas most common men and women of the time were illiterate. We have a few stories of these others but for the most part only the ones who could leave a written text are now known.

The other thing we need to realize about the early church leaders was that they were not historians as we come to know them today. They were generally considered theologians in that they had opinions on where the church should be going. But for the most part they were people who wanted to influence the direction of the church for one reason or another. For the most part I am sure that they all thought they were getting their opinions directly from divine revelations but since some of their views directly opposed others direct revelation could not be true for all. We also cannot be so naive to think that those opinions that dominated were necessarily the ones God provided.

We must also remember that they were men (and a few women) who relished power as most do. As many of them gained power they lost tolerance for other who held differing views. This is what makes church history so messy. Power corrupts everyone to one degree or another. That is just human nature.  We must recognize this fact when studying any history, especially something as important as  church history.

I’m sure I will not be covering all the early leaders of the church here and maybe not even some considered the most important.

And the study goes on…..

How Faith Changed….

August 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

This will probably be my last post about the early christians for a while. Next time I will begin to concentrate on some of the early theologians,bishops/historians/leaders or whatever you want to call them, and how they influenced the direction of the church. Closing this chapter, at least for now, it is important for you to remember what “faith” was to the early Christians. Here are a couple of quotes from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith that I think summarizes this important topic.

At its outset “faith” meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming of the Reign of God. But when Christianity became swollen into an elaborate code of prescribed beliefs and ritual obligations policed by a hierarchy, the meaning of “faith” was warped almost beyond recognition….

Initially faith had meant a primary life orientation, but the evolving clerical class now equated “faith” with “belief in” certain specified doctrines and patterns of authority, which, in any case, themselves changed periodically depending on who held the ecclesial scepter. The result was a disaster for dissent and open discussion. Yesterday’s heretic may be tomorrow’s saint, but the heretic is still dead…..

If the people of the Way were to see what became of their church I think they would be totally shocked!! To them faith meant a primary life orientation, a way of life, not strict obedience to a fixed set of belief about Jesus. Most of those belief were solidified long after Jesus left the earth. They would also be confused as to why women were pushed out of leadership roles in the church.

The people of the Way would be very disheartened to find that it is very difficult to discern  today’s Christians from those others around them! To them their faith meant following a very dynamic lifestyle that was generally in conflict with the empire around them.  How did the church come to be much more like the empire than a foreign group called the Way?

The People of the Way would be devastated to see how today’s Christians seem to ignore those around them that are struggling for their very existence! The very cornerstone of the people of the Way was to take care of these unfortunates as Jesus taught them. How could they now be more likely a target of church goer’s venom as “those people who are takers instead of producers”. How could the church of Jesus Christ have devolved into what we see today?

The People of the Way were more about living the life that Christ taught them and about the coming  Reign of God on earth as well as heaven rather than prescribed beliefs and ritual obligations to be forced upon them. They deemed their faith as a way of life rather an altar called that instantly secured a path to an afterlife that they generally cared little about.

What happened to make such a dramatic change.  That is what we will be studying next.

I am going to jump ahead a little here so that I can put something into your mind before we tackle early church leaders. To illustrate my point I want to once again use a quote from The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox:

Thus, it is now clear that the “official Christianity” that eventually emerged was only one among a range of “Christianities” that thrived during the earliest years. The distinction we still make today between “orthodox” and “heretical” movements did not exist. There was nothing inevitable or preordained about which version, if any, would predominate.

It is very important in our study of church history to remember that what we know today as “the church” was initially only one of several Christianities that thrived during the early church history. We will be studying how this one version came to dominate all the others. I think you will be surprised at how that came about.

For now it is enough to know that for several centuries there were no distinctions such as heresy or orthodox. To me heresy has a particularly brutal history of its own. What the power structure did to stamp out opposing beliefs was initially beyond my comprehension. I had no idea how draconian those practices were.

I only bring up this particular topic as being one of many surrounding church history. We must never forget that the church was not immune from the old saying that “power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts”. Like our constant disputes today between Republicans and Democrats in empire politics the church has had similar battles throughout its history. Each side was totally convinced that they are right and the other side was wrong/heretics/blasphemers.

We must remember that the history of the church is also and maybe primarily about the history of man and power struggles. All power seekers claimed divine inspiration but the “official Christianity” that survived was more, at least in my mind, because of the brutal power they held over their advocates than having more divine authority.

Church history is indeed a very messy history that is only recently beginning to see the light of day. But it is necessary to see this mess in order to understand why the Age of the Spirit will likely dominate in the decades and centuries ahead…..

The Future of Faith (Cox, Harvey)

As we have seen, these early Christian “historians” were neither critical nor neutral. They were not even historians. They were churchmen who aspired to become the leaders of the next generation of Christians. They were anything but disinterested, and they had an agenda that was not particularly hidden. Looking for a potent way to establish their own authority, they seized upon a very compelling idea.

A historian is supposed to be a person that is critical of stated history but remains neutral as to the results. Some of the early church  “historians” were as Mr. Cox mentioned not really historians at all but men, and I mean men literally, who were looking for ways to get and maintain authority in the church.

The very compelling idea mentioned here was apostolic authority.   True biblical scholars knew that neither Paul nor the apostles had passed on any “apostolic authority”. They had in fact warned against that very thing! The ancient writers in this area were by no means neutral in their beliefs. They were in fact fighting for control in order to consolidate power. This is an every present thing throughout all human history.

This authority has been recently found to be self-justifying fiction. When today’s biblical scholars and historians had to cope with the new evidence from Nag Hammadi they came to understand that apostolic authority must now be understood as an invention of a much later than thought period of the church. In fact they have found that early Christianity was actually far more diffuse than previously thought.

Since this is the first time I think I have mentioned Nag Hammadi I should probably tell you a little about that. Here is what Wikipedia says:

Nag Hammadi is best known for being the site where local farmers found a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book, in December 1945. The mother of the farmers burned one of the books and parts of a second (including its cover). Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive.[1] The writings in these codices, dating back to the 2nd century AD,[2] comprised 52 mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the possession of such banned writings, denounced as heresy, was made an offence.

The contents of the Coptic-bound codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.

All the texts have been public since 1975, and are available online.

While the Nag Hammadi could take up an entire historical study I will only be referencing it a few times at the beginning of this study. It is worthy of a more critical examination which I hope to attempt and do later.

Just a quick aside to give you some words from a Sojourners email I recently received. We must all take to heart the words of Jesus in this matter. It shames me that this discussion is even necessary in our country:

We have a genuine hope for a long term bipartisan solution and, in particular, a moral non-partisan commitment to protect the poor and vulnerable from being expendable in these fiscal debates. We should also say that Democratic budgets have not been models of fiscal responsibility and social justice either. But what the House budget is calling for is morally objectionable on religious and biblical grounds — and people of faith from all political stripes should say so. In particular, to roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible, and the faith community has to speak out.

Here is what the debate reveals from the highest moral lens: the House GOP budget wants to extend tax cuts and credits for the wealthiest people of our society while cutting tax benefits for the poorest — including millions of low-income working families with children at risk. Proven and effective tax credits, which can lift families out of poverty, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which have historically had bipartisan support, are now being dramatically reduced. All the while, tax cuts for the wealthy are further expanded and the amount of money the richest can keep from their estate taxes continues to grow. This is an egregious contrast and a starkly immoral budget choice.

To reward the rich even more while actually punishing the poor is a direct offense to all of our religious traditions. For Catholic lawmakers, it is a fundamental violation of Catholic social teaching, and the Catholic bishops have said so. They called this budget choice “unwise” and “unjust.” Every Catholic lawmaker who votes for those misplaced priorities should be held accountable by their church. But that accountability can’t stop with Catholics.

The Bible confronts every Evangelical lawmaker with more than 2,000 verses that call us to defend the poor and vulnerable. If we say we believe the Bible, we simply can’t support policies that directly reward the rich and punish the poor: Christian lawmakers can’t keep going into their prayer breakfasts and leaving their Bibles at the door.

A Small Closure….

August 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

We have filled a small corner of our mosaic of church history so I will soon be moving on to discuss some of the early theologians of the church. I am certainly not done talking about the ordinary people who made up the beginnings of the church but I wanted to try to have a small closure for now.  I couldn’t find a better quote about that than this one from Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith:

In the last few decades however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.

This quote was in reference to some recent discoveries, among them the Dead Sea Scrolls and other studies.  What I want you to learn from these studies so far is:

  • There was never a single “early Christianity”. Instead it was a very diverse group.
  • The idea of heresy was unknown for hundreds of years. Given its preponderance in later church history this is a very important thing to remember.
  • Apostolic authority was the invention of later years. Church leadership and its very vertical structure was an invention of men who came centuries after the early people of the Way. Let’s not forget that as we move forward.
  • There were basically no creeds or hierarchies in the early church. This is probably one of the most important points.
  • We must understand the early Christians relative to the times they lived.
  • We must understand that at some point in early church history the leaders reversed course and came to admire and even emulate the empire they were taught to be distinctly separate from.

It is difficult to know where to put the blame for this reversal of being a foreigner in the empire’s land and being one of them. It was not a distinct moment in early church history but instead creeped into it via the opinions of some of the early leaders being influenced by the power of the empire. That is not to say that we cannot identify turning points but it was not a single event that caused this reversal.  We certainly can and will  be looking at this in this study.

Is it possible to bring back the foundations and practices of the early church today? To a degree yes it can be done but we must realize that it must be done relative to our current situations and our past history. The old saying that “You can’t go home again” is true in the respect that it won’t be the same as when you left. You will be a different person with different perspectives and wisdom. The same goes for the church…