Observations: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The last time I read Justo Gonzalez’s two volume Church History was decades ago. As he revised and updated the set in the last ten years, I thought they would be worth another read. As I read the early chapters of the first volume I was reminded of the marks of the early Church, not those mentioned in the Creed (“one, holy, catholic and apostolic”) but those that were lived out by early believers. These early believers were as diverse as the empire in which they lived and, yet, they were devoted to both the concept and reality of the Christian community. Whether in cities, towns or villages, believers from diverse backgrounds would gather together. They gathered for fellowship, for learning, for the Eucharist, for mutual encouragement.
To be a Christian outside the community of the Church, was an oxymoron and remained so until the popular adaptation of the idea of individualism that accompanied the Enlightenment. Those today who cling to that individualism, believing somehow that the Church is merely an “added extra” are more in line with Voltaire than with the Apostles and/or the Church Fathers.
The second mark of these early believers was their embrace of the teachings of Christ. I use the word “embrace” advisedly as this was not mere intellectual assent to the reality of the life and teaching of Christ. They actually believed that his life was to be imitated and that his teaching was to form their lives and to inform their behavior. As a result of this, the Early Christians were renowned for their kindness and the measured tone of their discourse. Even those who persecuted them readily acknowledged their open handed benevolence to the poor and the destitute. They were especially noted for their care of strangers (read “immigrants”) and their willingness to care for the sick and the dying, especially in times of plague or natural disasters. Indeed, one could say without exaggeration that this, along with martyrdom, was the core of Christian witness in the early Church.
Yes, doctrine became increasingly important as the Church made its way through the first four centuries, but it did so owing to the lived experience of believers in those 400 years.
Now, you can find similar observations in any number of very fine books on the Early Church. Yet, I think these observations do raise some obvious questions concerning what is taking place around us at the present time.
For instance, what does it mean when the Church is no longer the Church? Part of what I mean by this is systemic. Tim Keller has written a fine article on the decline of mainline churches, a decline that is not only numerical but also a decline in influence. One has to say that the decline has been a self-inflicted wound in many, if not most, cases. Such a verdict, however, does little to assuage the pain of many small towns where such churches are closing by the score. Russell Moore’s recent article on the future of the Church contained a warning for evangelicals over the lack of integrity that is resulting in a generational exodus. This, of course, is not even to speak of those who have left the Church for a multiplicity of reasons – politics, abuse, Covid, scandals – and have no intention of returning.
Both Keller and Moore point to the abandonment of belief, not necessarily by those who are leaving, but by those who are responsible for promulgating the faith. As Moore writes:
“If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised. But what happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? …What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis.”
It seems to me, in many quarters, that crisis can best be seen in what I can only describe as the victory of anger and grievance over empathy and kindness. Yes, I know there are exceptions and, perhaps, your Church and your life are the very examples of “Matthew 25” Christianity. If so, please keep doing what you are doing! There are, however, other voices being heard and they claim to be speaking for Christ as they angrily weigh in on politics, culture and the like wrapping them in to a twisted version of Christianity. What is perhaps worse, however, is that empathy and kindness, once the very hallmarks of Christian character, are berated by some or are considered signs of weakness by others. How did we get to such a state as believers that belligerence is not only accepted but amplified and applauded, even in the church?
Despite it all, I remain hopeful. Somewhere out there someone is reading the Sermon on the Mount, and considering it as a life. Somewhere out there someone read Matthew 25 and decided to help in a soup kitchen. Somewhere out there a young pastor is sitting by a hospice bed saying prayers and holding the hand of a stranger who is dying. Somewhere out there a small group is celebrating the Eucharist together before they go out at night with sandwiches and blankets for the homeless. Somewhere out there someone believes the truth of Jesus and the gospel and is looking for others of like mind and a place to belong…
In God’s time, the Church may rise among us again.