I grew up believing that in order to heal and set the church free into her calling, we needed to get back to the values of the early church.
Did you grow up in a tradition that believed this, or perhaps used it as a tag line for youth group in order to stir passion and wonder in your community?
Yeah, the same for me as well.
Given that evangelism as we understand it was virtually non-existent from the 6th century until the 17th century, this fresh emphasis on the power of God in the church feels like a return of sorts. But what if there is another huge aspect of early church ethics that we blatantly ignore because of our fidelity to nationalism and an American identity which ultimately supplants Christian ideals in favor of “realistic” goals and commitments?
It may be a low blow but as I survey the charismatic-evangelical landscape, it is hard not to notice how these “get back to the gifts!” pastors also carry heavy ties to political ideologies that not only conflict with early church ethics, but subvert the very principles Jesus laid out for the disciples to walk the tight-rope of the civic duty of the Christian.
I also grew up believing that the powers that be, whoever they “be,” were attempting to remove Christ from the marketplace of ideas by various means. One might have been an employer barring employees from saying “Merry Christmas” to declaring “Happy Holidays.” Christians took up arms (not actual arms) and began to protest, with our various coalitions drafting op-ed pieces to convince the population they needed to write to their representatives in Washington.
How about those Starbucks coffee cups!? No, just stop, please. It was never a real thing anyway. The real injustice is caught up on the burnt taste I pay for, day after day, without addressing those grievances to my helpful barista.
Now, I will argue that more important than putting “Christ” back in “Christmas” is putting Him back in Christianity. The former is about how businesses need to do business with the beliefs of those communities around them, and the latter has to do with the forgotten witness to the world. It is forgotten because we are more known for what we are against than what we are for, so whenever the color and lettering on a coffee cup is more of an issue than how forgiving and hospitable we are to strangers, we have a problem. But, you already knew that! Right?
The idea that we could turn to legislating away a grievance of a lack of representation by local business owners, and even the state in the public schools, is a choice to assert power. More specifically, Christian power. But is this godly? Is this an accurate vocation according to the New Testament writers, including the ministry of Jesus? I will say, “no.”
In order to concede the rise of Christianity as a natural phenomenon, one might ask how the Christians spread their movement in the first three centuries. Some will point to the conversion emperor Constantine, who during the 4th century sanitized the state and made Christianity the state religion, a faith community that was birthed out of Judaism and had only known persecution. Yet, up until the 4th century, Christianity had easily become the moral conscience of many large communities without casting a single vote. This means that part of the rise of Christianity, was the powerful self-sacrificial nature of followers of Jesus who refused to enlist in the military, and were willing to die for their values.
And that is just it: If this movement we are a part of is so natural, then explain to me how this makes sense with the early christian tradition of martyrdom? We want the power of God to be in the church, but do we want the self-sacrificial nature ethic that goes along with the birth of the church?
The church is not made up of ideologues, even though those ideas we have today have been developed over 2,000 years. We are primarily a worship movement, who live from the place of devotion, and over time have come up with ideas that help define why we do what we do. But ultimately, we are a people who worship.
What can a state power do with a people who aren’t violent? What can state power do with a people who are willing to die in order to not be obedient to the state, which at that time was to participate in the sacraments of the civic religion?
“What emerges is a new call to non-violence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could mete—in imitation of Christ.”-George Kalantzis
Professor George Kalantzis*, from Wheaton College, spent time researching the development of Christian involvement in state sponsored war system. what he found that within the first three centuries (pre-Constantine) there is not a single shred of proof that Christians participated in state sponsored war. In fact, the good professor found that in order to be baptized into the church one had to agree to never participate in such activities, because to participate was to capitulate to the civil religion.
And when we say we need to get back to the early church, are we sure we want to go back to the understanding of Christian ethics that the early Christians had?
Tolerance is not position of a follower of Jesus because tolerance is the position of those in power. It is a weak replacement of real love, which goes beyond suffering the existence of someone, but actually extends to not only loving your friends (which Jesus calls easy) but also loving your enemies.
In order to return to the point, I do believe that Christians should get back to the emphasis on worship that the early church possessed, and work outward from there. But in order to have the kind of impact our ancient brothers and sisters seemed to have, our appropriation of that movement must not be limited to the Holy Spirit emphasis in various contributions to Christian magazines, sermons, etc. We must also add that a certain disposition to the State power must also be adopted, however that plays out in a constitutional republic or a nation-state. The spirit behind empire is still present, but so is the Spirit within the church. May we never allow the voting box to eclipse the Kingdom of God in importance, and may never again confuse the spirit of power from the Spirit who holds the true power.