How Faith Changed….

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.

Official Christianity….

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…..

Early Church Historians…

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.

A Small Closure….

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…

Early Christian Practices….

TO start this post here is a quote from Robin Myers book entitled The Underground Church – Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven. By practicing Jesus teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual level.

Given for the past 1500 years or so, or at least since the age of Constantine, Christianity has been pretty much defined by what we are supposed to believe about Jesus it is hard to remember that was not the case for the first four hundred years or so. When we look back at history sometimes we lose track of time. In this instance the institution known today as Christianity went 350 years without a one required set of beliefs that defined them. That is longer than the total history of the United States. There was an accepted diversity in almost every congregation.  Strict alignment to beliefs were just not important to them in those years. Yes, sometimes those outside of their group, such as evidenced by Paul’s letters gave advice but they didn’t dictate beliefs.

We will soon be studying how the change from following Jesus to believing particular things about him happened. Most of the beliefs that we hang our current Christian faith on now were never mentioned by Jesus himself but were instead inventions of men who came later; often times much later.  We will be getting into those details in future posts. To understand the history of the church, even the early history, is to understand man’s involvements in its formation. Yes almost every change that occurred the author claimed divine inspiration as its source. But this is even true for all those things that were thrown aside when the “official” church document known as the Bible was formulated.  Can we really be so sure that everything chosen was from God and everything reject was not?  In order to understand church history it is necessary to look at everything for ourselves and not to just take what others tell us to believe.

This will be especially true in the coming weeks when I start to look at the history of the things that formulated this “Age of Belief” that many are now starting to question.

Were the Early Christians Unblemished??

I want to give you a quick answer up front to the question posed in the title above.  The answer is absolutely not. Let’s use the following quote from Harvey Cox in his book the Future of Faith as a starting point for this post.

Recent discoveries about the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus shed a bright new light on a series of old enigmas. They help clarify how Christianity deteriorated from a movement generated by faith and hope into a religious empire demarcated by prescribed doctrines and ruled by a priestly elite. They trace how a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership, congealed into a rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom. They help explain why women, who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges. These discoveries suggest that Christianity was not fated to develop as it did, that what happened was not simply a natural process like a tiny acorn growing into a mighty oak. A different historical trajectory was possible, and this has significant implications for the future.

Some of my posts coming up it might look like I am trying to put all the mistakes of the church onto Constantine but as quoted above much of it actually took place before that fateful event at Nicene in the fourth century.  When humans are involved in any structure or event they tend to pollute it innocence. This actually started happening to the Christian church even before it became a State religion. As mentioned a privileged clerical cast arose who tried to take over the many varied local congregation even in the early church.  Some were successful; some were not. One example of humans polluting the innocence of the church was the fact that they pushed out women as significant part of church leadership because that is how the empire treated them. Women were to be considered property of men and not leaders of an institution. How could they then be leaders of a religious colony? Knowing about the past is vital not to return to it, but to learn from it, from both its mistakes and its successes. Even the early church had its mistakes as well as its successes. It is important that we recognize that fact if we are to learn from those early Christians going forward in a new church paradigm…

Citizens as Foreigners…

Let’s start this post with a long quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass:

The early Christian text (from the second or third century) known as the Epistle to Diognetus explains that Christianity is neither an ethnicity nor earthly citizenship but a way of life that is somehow at odds with the societies in which the faithful reside. Christians may look like everyone else, but their actions—including practices of hospitality, charity, and nonviolence—make them different: For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe…. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.

The first thing that struck me about this quote is that early Christians deemed their faith as a way of life that is most often at odds with the societies in which they lived. In other words for it they were radicals in their culture. They lived their lives quite differently than those around them.  Can we look at the above quote and say even in the slightest that this is also what current day Christians look like?  I think not! Have we lost the zeal for a true Christian life?  Most statistics today clearly show that today’s Christians have been almost totally blended into the country where they reside. Do we treat our fellow Christians in foreign lands as if there were our brothers? Do we put  our nation’s flag before God? Why is there even any flag showing in our churches? Aren’t we foreigners even in the land of our birth? Sadly we have morphed into something that barely resembles the early members of our religion.

Nonviolence – Absolute Pacifism

Let’s start out this post with another quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story  by  Diana Butler Bass.

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.”

It is clear from the early Christian sources that for the first three hundred years or so the People of the Way were absolute pacifists. They did not believe in joining in on the empire’s wars. In those days when a welcomed Roman soldier wished to become a Christian he was basically told to find another occupation. This changed when some of the leaders began bending to empire demands and especially the power yielding enticements.  Pacifism disappeared when Constantine took over the leadership role of his State mandated religion.

Today many Christians are adamant that abortion kills an innocent life but then go on to say that is ok to kill another human being because your government told you to kill or it is alright to kill someone who has done bad things.  Some of us prefer to go back to the beginning and say, as Jesus taught us, that extinguishing any life is wrong.

I can hear some of you now saying “Then I guess we should have just let Hitler take over the world?”or something like that.  But maybe we just weren’t patient enough to let God solve that man-made problem instead of taking it in our own hands.  I don’t fully know the answer to that question. But I do know that wars are the result of empire actions and decisions and maybe we Christians should emphatically say that we will have nothing to do with it. The Quakers have been doing that since their beginnings. God bless them for that….

The Didache

Given the amount of weight that “correct” beliefs have with so many churches today it is hard to understand just how little weight the early church put on such things.

In the early years Christianity Bibles weren’t available to local congregations because it would be several hundred years before it was formulated by a council of then current day church leaders. But there were several other important documents that were used used by local congregations. One of the most important was what is now called the Didache. You could consider it an instruction book to teach someone who wanted to join the group  known as the Way how to put their faith into practice. For the most part there was nothing in the Didache about the beliefs that we deem so important today.

One thing we must realize about the early Christians was that joining their group was not about taking an altar call. It required several years of “internship” and showing that you were up to the task of “being” part of the Way. The Didache was the manual that many used to insure that you were properly prepared to be a Christian. Here is what Wikipedia says about the Didache:

Most scholars place the Didache at some point during the mid to late first century. It is an anonymous work, a pastoral manual “that reveals more about how Jewish-Christians saw themselves and how they adapted their Judaism for gentilesthan any other book in the Christian Scriptures.”……

(Talking about the use of the Didache by the early church) …

There can also be seen many similarities to the Epistles of both Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch [a couple of other epistles not included in the Bible].  The Shepherd of Hermas seems to reflect it, and Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria also seem to use the work, and so in the West do Optatus and the Gesta apud Zenophilum. The Didascalia Apostolorum are founded upon the Didache. The Apostolic Church-Ordinances has used a part, the Apostolic Constitutions have embodied the Didascalia. There are echoes in Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Cyprian, andLactantius.

As you can see from this quote the Didache was a very thoroughly used document in the early church. We can only speculate as to why it wasn’t included with the Bible. I will talk about that more in coming posts.

Hospitality….

Hospitality was a very important thing to the early Christians. They put it above beliefs in their understanding of Jesus. I will use a quote from Diane Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religionto illustrate this point:

Not offering hospitality was a much greater failure than not believing that Jesus was truly God and truly human. Early Christians judged ethical failings as the most serious breach of community, even as they accepted a significant amount of theological diversity in their midst. 

Hospitality to these early followers meant following Jesus’ command to love one another. But just what did they mean by hospitality? It was sharing whatever you have with those who don’t have as much. It was caring for those who had no one else to care for them. It was loving the unloved. These were things that the People of the Way were most concerned about.

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. Unlike today, the early Christians were extremely good at hospitality.  Hospitality was the primary Christian virtue. From the New Testament texts that unambiguously urge believers to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) through St. Augustine’s works in the fifth century, early Christian writings extol hospitality toward the sick, the poor, travelers, widows, orphans, slaves, prisoners, prostitutes, and the dying. It totally astounds me that the current political party in the U.S. that claims the Christian banner is so unlike any of this characteristics!

From what historians can gather, hospitality—not martyrdom—served as the main motivator for conversions. People just saw how these early Christians lived and wanted to be a part of it. Hospitality was a BIG thing in the early churches.

Lets finish up this post with a quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler). She talks about an early Christian document call the Epistle to Diognetus (no unfortunately this one did not end up in our current day Bible as it just might have changed some of our beliefs about Jesus) :

The early Christian text (from the second or third century) known as the Epistle to Diognetus explains that Christianity is neither an ethnicity nor earthly citizenship but a way of life that is somehow at odds with the societies in which the faithful reside. Christians may look like everyone else, but their actions—including practices of hospitality, charity, and nonviolence—make them different: For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe…. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.