Archives For Early Christians

We spent the last two posts reviewing an article entitled “The Six Worst Things About American Christianity” from RedLetterChristians by Steven Mattson. Now that I have had a few days to digest these words I want to turn the article’s six points around to imagine them as lessons we U.S. Christians should learn. Here they are:

1) We must realize that no one has an exclusive connection with God  —  Much of what we know about early Christianity is the result of  a scribe writing down Christian stories that had been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years and even those original manuscripts have been lost to us. What we have now are copies of copies. Men throughout the ages have been penning their interpretations of what those original messages might have been.  This almost infinite list of opinions spreads from King Constantine and his council and Augustine in the fourth century to Luther and the other reformers in the 16th century all the way down to thousands of theologians at work today.

We must realize that none of these various man-made beliefs about God are without error. They might have been inspired by God but they were without question, even to the literalist, penned by men. The best thing that could happen to U.S. Christianity is that we would finally quit our “us” vs. “them” mentality of the various opinions of Christianity. We need to go back to kindergarten and learn to play nice with others. We need a little less bravado and a lot more humility.

2) We must not confuse our dedications to Jesus’ teachings and our political affiliations. — Neither U.S. political party at its roots are Christian. They are both mainly power based organization currently just wanting to force their worldviews on each other. The early Christians were very aware that God’s kingdom is not of this world. We need to re-learn those lessons. Don’t allow your Christianity to be hijacked for political purposes.

3) Christianity is counter-cultural — Christianity is not like the latest fad that is determined by our current cultural trends. We in the U.S. live in very shallow lifestyles. The teachings of Jesus are often very counter to what we endear in this country.

4) We don’t hold a “special” status with God — We in the U.S. have got to get it out of our minds that somehow God loves us more than he does others. God has agape love for all of his creation and by definition that is an infinite amount for each of us. How can some of us have more than and infinite amount of God’s love?  We may be the current biggest military and industrial force in the world and therefore have more than our say in what goes on in the world but that does NOT infer special status with God.

5) Remember, we Christians are meant to “march to the beat of a different drummer”.  — Jesus clearly told us again and again “don’t cling to your stuff”.  We in the U.S. are totally obsessed with consumerism. That is clearly not where Jesus wants us to be.

6) There is no such thing as a “power-hungry” Christian. — Jesus told us to have a servant mentality, not a master; that is very different from the U.S. culture teaches us. For us Christians it should never be about control or influence but instead about loving and caring.

What matters to those who look to history for important lessons is that something was lost in the fourth century that permanently changed the nature of Christianity. If we do not recover that spirit of loyalty to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to saluting the Nicene Creed, the decline of the church will continue. If we persist in arguing across our theological divides in a perishing world, then the church deserves its fate. If we cannot reverse the move away from praxis and toward doctrine that was sealed by Constantine, the church will become, and deserves to become, the relic of another age.
It was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin (an inherited disease for which the institution that makes the diagnosis also claims to have the only cure) and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.
Are we born bad and must be saved, as conservatives assert, or are we born good, as liberals maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world, or is this the ultimate form of Child abuse?

The words above are from a book entitled The Underground Church by Robin Meyers. I must admit that this book along with the book by Harvey Cox entitled The Age of Faith have fundamentally changed my perception of what the church should be. The words above were an “aha” moment for me. When I discovered that much of what I thought was from Jesus but in reality came many years later from man it changed my perception of what being a follower of Jesus really meant.

When I took the time to study early church history it opened my eyes to some truths that were hidden from me and from so many others today.  When I realized that for the majority of its history Christianity has been in a constant conflict about its theology it made me realize that some of what I am told to just take as truth may actually just be the version that won out in a previous church conflict.

As the quote above states a major shift happened in the Church when Constantine changed it from being groups throughout the empire who followed the words of Jesus to a State mandated religion it changed the church in a very basic way. The power that came along with this dictate was corrosive to the church leaders and thinkers.   In order to rescue the church from the mistakes made during these periods we must get back to the pre-Constantine  church.  Simply parroting the doctrine of past theologians will no longer hack it with many who are looking for a more spiritual foundation for their faith.

The emergent movement that is taking place today within the church says that it is ok to believe that some of the things from past leaders could have been wrong hearted. It is ok to say we don’t fully understand the heart of God. In other words it is ok to say that we and all those who preceded us are human beings with human foibles and weaknesses and just may have gotten some of it wrong. That inevitably include the past leaders and theologians. Yes, even the popes.  I’m sure even Martin Luther would agree with that last part….

This post is about the fourth great rummage sale and that is the “Great Emergence”. In this post I am only giving you a small taste of the emergent movement In future posts we will look at just what the Great Emergence is and where it is going.

Lets start off this post again with some words by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence:

The Great Emergence, like the Great Reformation or the Great Schism or the time of the Great Gregory or the Great Transformation, is a generalized social/ political/ economic/ intellectual/ cultural shift. Like its predecessors, this one too is a phenomenon initiating in the Western experience; though unlike the preceding reconfigurations, the Great Emergence is not limited to the Western world in its expectations, expression, or exercise. It suffers also from an unfortunate confusion of terms that its predecessors did not have to surmount.

As pointed out above the cultural trends that are pointing to the Great Emergence are spread far beyond the religious realm. Another important point made by this book is that this rummage sale, unlike those in the past, is not limited to just the western world. In fact many African and South American nations are at the forefront in this transformation. That in itself is very frightening to many of us here in the United States.

There is much trepidation in some current Christian denominations when the words “emergent church” are discussed. There is almost a panic among some as they see their spiritual life being extinguished.  It should be pointed out again that as in the past the Great Emergence is not about shaking Christianity off its foundations but instead is about opening the blinds and letting new, and some not so new, light in.

Anyone who has read some of my posts of the last few months know that I believe the emergent movement will take the church back to its roots of “Being” instead of just “Believing”. In other words it will take us back to our roots but this time with a twenty-first century understanding.  I will have much more to say about this in coming posts.

Lets close out this post with, again, some word from the book The Great Emergence.

One of the hallmarks of the Church’s semi-millennial rummage sales has always been that when each of the things was over and the dust had died down, Christianity would not only have readjusted itself, but it would also have grown and spread. Never has that principle been more operative than now. In the hands of emergents, Christianity has grown exponentially, not only in geographic base and numbers, but also in passion and in an effecting belief in the Christian call to the brotherhood of all peoples.

I am very aware that I have probably not began to cover the questions you might have about this movement.  We will be getting to more of those in future posts. But for now I will be going on to some other topics, including the most important thing of all and that is the words of Jesus. 

A Giant Rummage Sale…

November 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

Anyone who has visited this blog in the recent past know that I am pinning great hope on the “emergent” church being able to rescue the current Christian establishments from their focus on believing things about Jesus as opposed to of “being” a Christian through our actions. I was very disheartened when I discovered the statistic that almost no one can tell the difference between a Christian and anyone else in the population. People who call themselves Christians live their lives pretty much like everyone else. In fact they actually divorce more often than non-Christians! Something has to change to move the church and its current occupants to be more Christ like. I am praying the emergent church will be able to do that.

One of the major proponents of the emergent church is Phyllis Tickle.  In her book entitled The Great Emergence she shows us that every 500 years the church remakes itself in a major way.  Here are some of her words from that book:

The only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And, he goes on to say, we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales. Now, while the bishop may be using a bit of humor to make a point, his is nonetheless a deadly serious and exquisitely accurate point.

Any usable discussion of the Great Emergence and what is happening in Christianity today must commence with yesterday and a discussion of history. Only history can expose the patterns and confluences of the past in such a way as to help us identify the patterns and flow of our own times and occupy them more faithfully. The first pattern that we must consider as relevant to the Great Emergence is Bishop Dyer’s rummage sale, which, as a pattern, is not only foundational to our understanding but also psychologically very reassuring for most of us. That is, as Bishop Dyer observes, about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events. First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.

 I will be spending the next few posts looking at the three previous remakes of the church and how it changed as a result. I am a lifelong history buff and a thorough believer that if we don’t understand history we are more prone to be repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Next time we will start with the first major remodel of the church in the sixth century.

This is part three of my review of the book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus by Robin Meyers. This is somewhat the continuation of the study of the pre-Easter Jesus and the after-Easter Jesus mentioned in the previous text. Here is the quote for this post:

The simple fact, that the Bible came to us through a process of review and selection by human beings who condensed an enormous amount of material down to four gospels, a pseudo-history we call the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters that complete the New Testament, is remarkably unknown to most Christians…..

The Bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints— but the Bible is not what we worship. The God to which the Bible points us is what we worship, and the claim of the first followers of Jesus was not that he was God, but rather that he revealed the fullness of God at work in a human being. For our part, however, the evolution from symbol to idol is inevitable. We are always tempted to make golden calves out of the instruments of revelation, and the result is more than just the sin of idolatry. Jesus becomes the Christ, and then Jesus is lost. We stare across the abyss of adoration at a deity we can worship, but not emulate.

Claims of biblical infallibility are identical to claims of the metaphysical divinity of Jesus. Both make idols of the temporal, and idolatry is the mother and father of all sins. What we learn if we study the Bible carefully is that this library of books, this far-flung and diverse collection of literature….

What it preserves is not a formula sufficient for salvation but the repository of wisdom from a particular people living in a particular time and place, elevated through a human process to the status of sacred scripture. As scripture, the Bible is therefore “authoritative” for the community that regards it as scripture, and then that community is shaped by those divine encounters, which continue to spark new encounters with the divine…..

Prior to this quote was the mention of all the gospels that did not make it into our Bible. Mr. Meyers goes into great detail in pointing out the shift from the pre-Easter Jesus to the post-Easter one. I certainly agree with his conclusion that the bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints and that I don’t worship the Bible but instead use it as a source of understanding, through human hands, the nature of God.

When the church insists that the Bible itself is to be worshipped as coming directly from God with no possibility of human error and is to be taken literally they do damage to the body of Christ.  They, as Mr. Meyers says make an idol of the document about Jesus instead of making his words the center of our lives.  When we use the Bible to further understand the messages of Jesus, instead of adoring the book itself, then we have the perspective that Jesus intended.

 

Today Christian families are often also military families but at the beginnings of our religion that was definitely not the case. Up until about the time Constantine made Christianity a State religion (about 350 CE) to be a Christian meant you refused military service. Of course Augustine in the fifth century disavowed this belief and put forth the first rationalization of a “just war”. After that this belief, like so many others, was all but thrown out the window by many future church leaders.

Here is a story by Diana Butler Bass from her book  A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story — 

Martin of Tours (ca. 316–397) was born into a pagan family, but as a young man he expressed interest in Christianity. His father, however, was appalled by the religion and forced Martin to join the Roman army. While he served as a soldier, Martin’s curiosity about Christianity grew, as did his strong sense of morality, until he became a catechumen. The cloak episode supposedly occurred when he was still an inquirer. The cloak is most likely the stuff of pious legend, a story told to make a point. But the point was clear: Martin was devout, even before baptism, and followed the way of hospitality and sharing. When he was baptized, Martin demonstrated yet another early Christian practice by asking to be released from the army. “I am Christ’s soldier,” he maintained; “I am not allowed to fight.” Martin was not a conscientious objector in the modern sense; he was merely stating early Christian practice.

Before theologians Ambrose and Augustine in later decades made a case for just war, Christians were not allowed to fight. No record exists that Christians served in the Roman army before the year 170. The strong consensus of the early church teachers was that war meant killing, killing was murder, and murder was wrong. In the third century Cyprian of Carthage noted, “The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed. And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.” Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Origen all specifically condemned participation in war. “The Christian fathers of the first three centuries,” states theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, “were generally adamant that discipleship requires close adherence to the nonviolent and countercultural example of Jesus’s own life and his sayings about the nature of the kingdom.”

About the only current day Christian denomination to continue following this practice is the Quakers and lately even they have been lax in forwarding this principle. There are even some churches today that put a sword in Jesus’ hands and proudly announce that he will kill our enemies.  That brings back dreadful thoughts of the Crusades where millions were killed in the name of Jesus. I think Jesus is totally shocked by all of this.

I think the words of Cyprian are as applicable today as they were eighteen hundred years ago when he wrote them:

“The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed. And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”

No this post is not about anything in today’s world. There are some Christians who are on evangelism missions abroad who are doing risky things but for the most part Christians are pretty well settled down in their safe lives much like everyone else in this country.  But that definitely was not the case for many in the early church.

Here are some words about early Christians doing very risky things to show that they were followers of Jesus and were intent on following his examples.  This quote is from  A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass.

During the second century’s great epidemic, known as the Plague of Galen (165–180), in which hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets, Christians proved their spiritual mettle by tending to the sick. As Bishop Cyprian of Carthage would later claim, that plague was a winnowing process, in which God’s justice was shown by “whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsfolk as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.” Because they did not fear death, Christians stayed behind in plague-ravaged cities while others fled. Their acts of mercy extended to all the suffering regardless of class, tribe, or religion and created the conditions in which others accepted their faith. Christianity succeeded because it “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.” Translated from sociologist-speak, that means Christians did risky, compelling, and good things that helped people.

The basis of this story is centered around the early Christian concept of hospitality.  Hospitality is defined as the practice of welcoming those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” into the heart of community.  It was a central theme in the early church. Lets review those Bible verses about the least of these.

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34–36)

This testimony represents Jesus’s notion of hospitality. It seems that so many Christian congregations put up walls against the “least of these” instead of welcoming them. From personal experiences I know churches do occasionally have a project usually around Christmas or Thanksgiving where they collect canned goods and such and some even buy small gifts for a needy family. While this is a good first small step it does little to satisfy the actual overall need.  It is estimated that church giving accounts for about 3% of the overall need of the poor and homeless. The other 97% is usually met by our government.

If only today’s churches took to heart the words of Jesus to even a small degree of the early Christians our government would not have to do as much in our place.

As we have learned in several of my recent posts Origen was one of the most influential theologians in the early church who was later deemed a heretic and then after that a saint again.  He spent quite a bit of time reading the “scripture” of his day. I put scripture in parens here because there was no Bible as we know it today in existence.

Today Origen is definitely not one of the more popular early Christian figures with some in our establishment churches. That is particularly true of those that believe all of the Bible comes from God’s lips and is totally factual and inerrant. That belief has never been as universal as some would have us believe. Here is another quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story  by Diana Butler Bass.

Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed, The object of all these statements on our part, is to show that it was the design of the Holy Spirit, who deigned to bestow upon us the sacred Scriptures, to show that we were not to be edified by the letter alone, or by everything in it—a thing which we see to be frequently impossible and inconsistent; for in that way not only absurdities, but impossibilities, would be the result; but that we are to understand that certain occurrences were interwoven in this “visible” history which, when considered and understood in the inner meaning, give forth a law which is advantageous to men and worthy of God.

Origen believed that scripture was much like Jesus’ teaching in that he used parables which are fictional stories to relay a message and so to do the other writers of ancient script.   Origen was not an infrequent visitor to the scripture. In fact he spent twenty years on his Hexaple which was a massive work of Old Testament analysis. There was probably no one in his day that had more knowledge of the ancient writings than him.

This will probably conclude our study of Origen. As I have said before he definitely shows that the earliest versions of Christianity were very diverse. It was not until the power struggles that frequently occurred within the church establishment did this willingness to accept a diversity of belief become stifled. I celebrate the fact that the current emergent movement is willing, in fact they actually celebrate diversity in their midst.  They accept that there is more than one “right” way to being a follower of Jesus Christ and that gives me confidence that the church of Jesus Christ just might live to see a bright future.

With this post I will begin looking at some of the early church leaders.  We will start with Origen.

Here a quote from another Diana Butler Bass book. This one is entitled A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

While Tertullian emphasized the negative aspects of the military to Christian discipleship, Origen pointed out the positive vision of a life of Christian peacemaking. He criticized the army as a society of “professional violence,” pointing out that Jesus forbids any kind of violence or vengeance against another. “We will not raise arms against any other nation, we will not practice the art of war,” he wrote, “because through Jesus Christ we have become the children of peace.” To him the spiritual life means rejecting all forms of violence, an “absolute pacifism.”

Origen lived between 185 – 254AD. He was considered one of the most distinguished writer of the early church. One of his beliefs was in the pre-existence of souls and universal reconciliation. That is he believed that all our souls have been in existence just waiting for our time on earth. He also believed that because God loves all of mankind and wishes all of them to be saved that he will indeed bring all souls back to him. Origen was not the first prominent person in the church to believe this as Clement of Alexandria, whom we will be studying soon was also in the group.  When Constantine era bishops took power this is one the ideas that they rejected. They therefore deemed Origen a heretic. But today he is again generally regarded as one of the Church Fathers by the Catholic church.

Origen also believed that there was just too much inconsistencies within the documents that made up the then bible for it to be taken literally. He believed that it was necessary to gather all of the existing copies of many documents in order to try to discern just what the original writer intended. This included many of the document that later made up the “official bible”.

Origen’s views of the Trinity were also contrary to later authors. He saw the Son of God as subordinate to God the Father and not as an equal. This later became a common view of many of the “ante-Nicene Fathers” For this and many other beliefs that were later purged in the post-Constantine church where he was deemed a heretic but fortunately, unlike many declared heretics that followed him, some of his writings survived the purge to be included in church history.

Here are some additional comments made about him in Wikipedia:

Origen was born in Alexandria to Christian parents. He was educated by his father, Leonides of Alexandria, who gave him a standard Hellenistic education, but also had him study the Christian Scriptures. Name of his mother is unknown.

In 202, Origen’s father was martyred in the outbreak of the persecution during the reign of Septimius Severus. A story reported by Eusebius has it that Origen wished to follow him in martyrdom, but was prevented only by his mother hiding his clothes…

Eusebius reported that Origen, following Matthew 19:12 literally, castrated himself. This story was accepted during the Middle Ages.  Scholars within the past century however have questioned this, surmising that this may have been a rumor circulated by his detractors.

As you can see from this commentary Origen held many beliefs that are not part of the “official” beliefs of the current day church. But it was not until the purges of the post-Nicene period that he posthumously felt the sting of the “church”. To end this post Origen was one of those mentioned previously who was a  Saint then a Heretic and then a Saint again.

Church history is messy indeed….

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…..