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Things Christianity Lost Early On

What do I mean when I say that Christianity has lost much of what once typified its beliefs, practices and disciplines and that with those losses, much of our potential witness of and for the kingdom of God has been diminished?

First, what I do not mean. I do not mean that the Spirit of God is not active in the lives of people today. For a great telling of her own true story, if you have not already heard it, listen to the amazing testimony which Nadia Bolz-Weber shared at a recent ELCA youth convention. RHE has it posted on her blog. God has always worked with whatever we have, by faith, given God to work with.

I mean, rather, that basic teachings, disciplines and practices which were present in the early church did not survive for very many generations. If you look over the list of subjects on which I have commented, these are expressions of faith which were practiced and which were basic ways people believed and behaved during early Christianity.

I am not saying that Creation Theology, Calling, Guidance, Healing, Homileo, Mutuality, Pacifism, Simplicity and Common Purse were ever perfectly lived out by any early Christian community.[1] I Corinthians gives us a glimpse of how bad things could be in a primitive church community: debating with each other during worship; turning the common meal into a mirror of Roman society where some had nothing to eat and others got drunk, proposing that women again be reduced to second class citizens, wondering why they could not still use the services of prostitutes… But in II Corinthians they were also being taught the common purse and were learning to share their resources among themselves as well as with others. If they ever followed Paul’s advice for public worship, they experienced powerful formal worship without losing its give and take (Homileo) or the full participation of women (Mutual Submission).

It is not clear how many Christian communities participated in a common Calling to Redeem Creation, in a Simple lifestyle or in Mutual Submission to each other. We do not know how common Healing was among them nor do we know how fully they engaged in Guidance, a discipline which we see exercised in Antioch of Syria and Jerusalem in Acts 13:1-4 and 15:25. We do know that for centuries all Christians were Pacifists and that for centuries most communities Shared Their Resources fully.

In the early generations these things were being taught. Then, at some point early on, they were not being taught; they ceased to be taught. Whether suddenly or gradually, each of these beliefs, disciplines and practices were lost because they were no-longer emphasized by current Christian leadership.

Early Christians practiced the discipline of Guidance together. Then, a few centuries later, Guidance disappeared from the practice of the churches in the society and it, along with Meditation, Solitude, Simplicity and Study could only be found in the monasteries. Christians were taught early on that all were called to holy living which would “bring to nothing the things which are;” then, a few centuries later, only the clergy were seen as having a holy vocation. The early generations understood that the Jewish male discussion of Torah had expanded to include women who could pray and prophesy along with the men; then, such exposition of the scriptures became, once again, the prerogative of males only. Yet, even more restrictive than in Israel: Scripture study and discussion was reserved only for special males, set apart as priests, an office which God had demonstrably abandoned in AD 70. Early on, believers understood all creation was their inheritance; then, at some point, it became orthodox to see going to heaven as the ultimate future of every Christian.

My subject in these posts: the basics of Christianity, what Christianity is about and how its people relate to their work, to each other, to their future and to their Lord changed; it became something altered: a society-changing community became a religion for an empire and/or, single-gender, communal outposts, often purposely insulated from and largely irrelevant to their larger societies. Christianity had changed in substantive ways, not so as to become no-longer Christianity but it changed so much as to be no-longer able to achieve its original corporate earthly mission.

That is because neither a religion of an empire nor intentionally irrelevant, single-gender communities can fulfill either the great commission – make disciplined followers out of all the earthly nations – nor live out the Lord’s Prayer in life: bring the ways of heaven, the kingdom of God, the majesty of Godʼs name down to the earth.

My Thesis Summarized

In the early centuries Christianity moved away from its essential purpose and task. That is what I mean when I say Christianity “fell” early in its history; it turned away from what it was always meant to be and do. This is not a matter of how well people were practicing the faith; it was a matter of what was actually being taught as the faith. Christianity still collects citizens of the kingdom who often, incidentally, do many good and kind things during their earthly sojourn prior to leaving for heaven: witness, Nadia Bolz-Weber. It just rarely ever sees putting those kingdom citizens to work transforming society within and through their daily callings as having anything whatsoever to do with “salvation.”

Practices Regained Because of the Reformation.

I did not comment in this series on Prayer, Study or Service among Richard Fosterʼs Disciplines.[2] Prayer was largely lost to the laity in churches of the monastic or Papal periods;[3] as was Study. Prayer and Study are firmly in the hands of the laity again: these are specific victories of the Reformation. Since then Prayer has belonged to everyone who is not afraid to let the laity pray without a script while Study largely became the forte of some Lutherans and among Congregationalists and Presbyterians, even of lay-people! Service, a Discipline which was to some degree elevated by the Franciscans and other mendicant orders of the Papal period, eventually became a hallmark of the Methodists. And although Mutual Submission on the male/female axis has taken a long time to catch on, most older Protestant denominations understand that women and men may both and equally be yoked to all forms of ministry, in and outside of the congregations. The more progressive churches figured out the ordination of women in the early 20th century. However, the Pentecostals beat them to this by several decades because in the revivals of the late 19th century and onward, the Spirit of God, again, fell fully on both men and women.

I Am Praying to See It All Again!

So where does this leave us today? Recognizing that much of what was powerful and vibrant about primitive Christianity has been either lost along the way or has shrunk down to pitiful shadows of former practices of faith. Think of the tradition of congregating for a common meal called the agape feast. These meals were held at tables around which Christians gathered during worship. In modern worship centers and sanctuaries all that remains of those tables is the tiny wooden ledge on the back of each pew where we stick used communion cups.

We are also left with an explanation of sorts for the dim shadow of power which we see in much of Christian expression today. How can a community which meets for exactly an hour once a week to listen to a paid spokesperson talk for twenty minutes or less about things dimly remembered concerning triumphs which may or may not have actually occurred in the distant past, a community which then disperses to insular dwellings without any further thought of the day’s “religious” activities be expected to change the world? It has not even been changed itself. “Long ago and far away” was compelling enough to catch up some of us, even Nadia. The gospel, however, is and was always about “here and now.”

If Christianity is to emerge again as a world-shaking power, it must rediscover its “here and now.” We need to pray, to pull on heaven, to raise up that “Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people” Foster hoped for in print nearly forty years ago! Only by the power of God might we become “a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom.”

Justice-bringers, hope-sowers, honor-sharers, flesh-healers, care-givers, sacrificing saints for all to see, resurrection power, “here and now.” It has happened before. Pray with me it all happens again!

Comments? Hopes? Prayers?

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Endnotes

1 Back to Post N. T. Wright has said (and I suspect has also written) that when St. Paul urged the Christians at this or that church to love each other even more than they had done, Paul did not mean, “You have warm, fuzzy feelings for each other; I want you to have even warmer and fuzzier feelings!” No, Paul meant, you have begun contributing to each others needs — love in action — now love each other even more; be even more involved in lifting each other up! Christians then fell short just as we do now and needed encouragement to be and do all they were called to be and do just like us.

2 Back to Post Fosterʼs Inward Disciplines are: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting and Study. The Outward Disciplines: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Service and the Corporate Disciplines: Confession, Worship, Guidance and Celebration. See, Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline The Path to Spiritual Growth, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983 [1978])

3 Back to Post Here and elsewhere I use the four approximate periods of “settled” Christianity, each of roughly 500 years which Phyllis Tickle has made popular in her work on periods of deep change within Christianity: CE 30-500, the early period; 500-1000, the monastic period; 1000-1500, the Papal period and 1500-2000, the reformation and post-reformation period. We are therefore, says Tickle, living in a chaotic period (which may yield deep and lasting change) which she refers to as “The Great Emergence”, after-which the “Christianity” which emerges may well last until 2500 of our era if King Jesus does not “meet” those who live “in the air” (a welcoming party, escorting the king down to occupy fully his redeemed creation).

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