Friday, March 16, 2007

Christianity Then and Now

My newsletter article today:

Once a month I have a conference call with the three other pastors and the seminary professor who joined me last January for a trip to Rome. We are participating in a Lilly Foundation funded "Pastoral Excellence" program. Our chosen study project has to do with looking at the ways Christianity in our day looks like early pre-Constantinian Christianity. This means, in essence, that we are living in times just like the days of early Christianity, when there was no "orthodox" hierarchy able to define what is true Christianity, and when it was not possible to assume that everyone was Christian. Christians were in a minority, and had to be able to make their case in a culturally hostile setting why anyone would want to be a Christian.

We had a call this morning, and once again discussed an assigned book about early Christianity. This month's book was From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries by Peter Lampe. Here are a couple of interesting tidbits of information from this book. One, Lampe notes that in the early years of Christianity Rome was dotted with a number of house churches. The predominant number of Christians in these house churches were poor, and care and concern for the poor was a major point of mission for the churches and it was also the way evangelism was done. Those who were cared for often became Christians themselves.

How poor were the members? Because there was a shortage of wealthy Christian patrons to support the church, some members sold themselves into slavery to provide financial support for the mission of the church. There was such an imbalance between the number of wealthy and poor Christians that Pope Calixtus ruled that it was acceptable for a wealthy woman to live with a slave or a freedman without being married. (If she had legally married either slave or freedman she would have forfeited her estate.) So allowances were made for living together to keep the finances in the Christian house.

I mention a Pope, which makes us think of the Catholic Church and its present-day hierarchy. But that's not the way it was then. Lampe points out that among the house churches in Rome there was incredible diversity of theology and freedom to practice Christianity as they understood it. Some of the churches held theological positions that were later deemed heretical. But in those early days the churches coexisted peaceably and cooperated on care for the poor and widows. They were all followers of Jesus and they were all part of an oppressed religious minority. It wasn't until the church began to grow in numbers and influence in the community that the majority"proto-orthodox" movement began to notice that there were "heretics" among them and moved to define the "true" Jesus.

It is my belief that we are living in a time when Christianity looks more and more like it did before the conversion of Constantine. The very definition of Jesus and what it means to be Christian is up in the air as Christian "authority" loses its grip. We can no longer expect, especially in major metropolitan areas, that everyone will be Christian. All sorts of eastern and new age and "no" faith perspectives are part of the religious market place. Why would anyone want to be a Christian today? It is once again a very relevant question.

And my very brief answer to that question is that unless we are meeting real material and spiritual needs there is no reason. Doctrine doesn't matter; practice does. It isn't what we say we believe - whether we can recite a creed or believe in the Trinity or hold that only Christians who are saved are going to heaven - it is whether we are living our lives with a compelling spiritual and practical story that would make someone want to say: "Wow, why do you do what you do?" It is all about making the realm of God that Jesus talked about real here and now.


Anonymous said...

There should be a definition of Christianity.
We define things all of the time. Take for instance, football. I suppose you could ride horses and use a basketball and still call it football. But it isn't football.
People are free to practice spirituality that falls outside of the definition of Christianity. God gives us a clear choice.
But there is nothing wrong saying at some point a belief does not fall within the ballpark that is the Christian faith.

That of course just leaves us with the situation of what definition to use.
In this case, we have the writings of the early church fathers to use.
Paul spent much of his time dealing with the false teachings that cropped up in the early church. The apostles left us plenty of guidance and sound advice. Who better to define Christianity than the people who actually met and served Christ in the flesh.


phil weiler said...

This entry reminds me of the discussion in Crossan & Reed's book, In Search of Paul, where archaeological evidence from the 1C CE is cited in reflection on the Pauline NT writings. I've got to get hold of a copy of Lampe's book, since it looks significant too.