What is happening to the Church that Jesus started nearly two thousand years ago? Would He recognize it as the institution whose members would live like He lived, bringing honor and glory to the Father who is in heaven? That same church today tells us that Jesus died for our sins; taking the punishment that we deserve, in order that God‘s perfect justice would be satisfied. What we don’t hear so much is that He also was an example to us of how to live a life that glorified God and that we are supposed to follow that example.
Three distinguishing marks of Jesus and the early church were: separation from the world, unconditional love and childlike obedience. Jesus was obedient to the Father and the early church was obedient to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“No one can serve two masters,” declared Jesus to his disciples (Matt. 6:24). However, Christians have spent the greater portion of the past two millenniums apparently trying to prove Jesus wrong. We have told ourselves that we can indeed have both-the things of God and the things of this world. Many of us live our lives no differently than do conservative non-Christians, except for the fact that we attend church regularly each week. We watch the same entertainment. We share the same concerns about the problems of this world. And we are frequently just as involved in the world’s commercial and materialistic pursuits. Often, our being “not of this world” exists in theory more than in practice.
But the church was not originally like that. The first Christians lived under a completely different set of principles and values than the rest of mankind. They rejected the world’s entertainment, honors, and riches. They were already citizens of another kingdom, and they listened to the voice of a different Master. This was as true of the second century church as it was of the first.
The Letter to Diognetus, the work of an unknown author, written in about 130, describes Christians to the Romans as follows: “They dwell in their own countries simply as sojourners…. 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, they surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men but are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death, but [will be] restored to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They possess few things; yet, they abound in all. They are dishonored, but in their very dishonor are glorified…. And those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.” The Letter to Diognetus can be found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
A Love Without Condition
Christian symbol: This symbol was used primarily amongst Christians in early church history (1st and 2nd century A.D.) etc etc… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At no other time in the history of Christianity did love so characterize the entire church as it did in the first three centuries. And Roman society took note. Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, “See how they love one another!”
Justin Martyr sketched Christian love this way: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
Clement, describing the person who has come to know God, wrote, “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”
A Childlike Trust in God
To the early Christian, trusting God meant more than a teary-eyed testimony about “the time I came to trust the Lord.” It meant believing that even if obedience to God entailed great suffering, God was trustworthy to bring a person through it.
“A person who does not do what God has commanded shows he really does not believe God,” Clement declared. To the early Christians, to claim to trust God while refusing to obey Him was a contradiction (1 John 2:4). Their Christianity was more than verbal. As one early Christian expressed it, “We don’t speak great things—we live them!”
One distinguishing mark of the early Christians was their childlike, literal obedience to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They didn’t feel they had to understand the reason for a commandment before they would obey it. They just trusted that God’s way was always the best way. Clement asked, “Who then is so irreverent as to disbelieve God, and to demand explanations from God as from men?”
They trusted God because they lived in awe of His majesty and wisdom. Felix, a Christian lawyer in Rome and a contemporary of Tertullian, put it this way: “God is greater than all our perceptions—He is infinite, immense. Only He truly understands His true greatness; our hearts are too limited to really understand Him. We are making a worthy estimation of Him when we say that He is beyond estimation…. Anyone who thinks he knows the magnitude of God, diminishes His greatness.”
The Church Today
Have it Your Way
Have it Your Way… (Photo credit: Richard Elzey)
The church in America today is firmly planted in the world. Church members are only required to invest 1 to 3 hours a week “serving God”. Most church members that the work of the church should be done by the clergy and that the laity job is only to financially support that work. This attitude has become so prevalent that even the pastorate, for the most part, has bought into it.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in
common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14) If this command relayed to us by the Apostle Paul would be obeyed, we would see a stronger community of faith. As it is, the children of “Christian” parents are no more sin resistant than the children of atheist parents. More than likely, these families are Christian in name only! So their children date, and eventually marry, someone that doesn’t share their faith. As a result the faith that they have ends up becoming compromised or even abandoned.
This may be the cause of the divorce rate in the church being the same as the divorce rate in the country at large. The world says that life is ‘all about me’; what makes ‘me’ happy. The world says that if you are a Christian you should tolerate sinners, including the sin. The church is believing them. The world says that we should tolerate homosexuality. In our tolerating what God says is an abomination, the world’s agenda is to encourage this abomination. It has even gotten to the point that several major mainstream denominations have ordained homosexual clergy.
Christ taught love the sinner and hate the sin. It appears to me that we have turned it around. We hate the sinner and love the sin. If we loved the sinner we would lovingly encourage him to repent of his sin and be reconciled to God. By accepting the sinner and his sin, we are allowing the person to remain at enmity with God and damning his soul to hell.
With the plethora of denominations and several churches in each community competing for the same membership, it is no wander that there seems to be no objective standard of Christian behavior. If your behavior is incompatible with the teachings of one congregation, the congregation down the street will be more than happy to accommodate. Christ meant for His church to help reconcile people to His Father. Much of the church in America today is quite happy to allow you to be damned and will help you feel good about it; therefore beware!
In the “Sermon On The Mount”, Jesus gave us a stern warning. “Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Belonging to the right church will not get you into heaven! Being born in the right family will not either. There is only one way to enjoy a favorable outcome in eternity; follow Jesus!