I responded with eagerness to the invitation to be part of the Patheos Book Club about Charles E. Gutenson’s book The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians. But upon receiving a copy and seeing the subtitle, I began to have doubts – was this going to be yet another of those books that claims to offer the early Church as an ideal pattern, and ends up doing justice neither to the texts nor to the differences between ancient times and our own?
As I began reading, my concerns were quickly allayed. The Right Church does things that no other book I have read managed to accomplish as effectively – to say nothing of in the same amount of space. Gutenson writes to introduce Christians in the 21st century to the spiritual and ethical treasures of ancient Christianity. I have read quite a number of books that provide works of ancient authors in their entirety, or excerpts from them. I have read quite a number of others that discuss the theology of those ancient authors, and a much smaller number that have offered the views of those ancient theologians as speaking to our own time. What I had not encountered before reading Gutenson’s book was a text that (1) provided excerpts that seemed to be neither too many nor too few, (2) offered their perspective not as though it were a straightforward solution to the ails of today’s church, but simply as part of our heritage that we ought to hear and allow to challenge us, and (3) focused not merely on the theological views of the church fathers, but their ethical exhortations on matters such as wealth.
Gutenson begins by addressing the “romanticism” with which some approach the early church. The introduction is important to read, even if you are the sort of reader who tends to skip pages numbered with Roman numerals at the beginnings of books. In the introduction, Gutenson explains why it is crucial to hear from the early church and not ignore the early voices of our Christian heritage, while also not treating ancient Christianity as though it were a panacea or a model that we can transfer to our time directly. There are blind spots and shortcomings to all cultures, all eras, and all expressions of Christianity, and listening carefully to perspectives from other times and cultural contexts can help us become aware of things that we may have missed – not least in those instances when we have allowed the cultural values of our era or nation to so blur into our faith that we can no longer distinguish them.
Although the book is divided into three main sections focusing on church, society, and civil life, the categories blend somewhat – not surprisingly, as various aspects of individual and communal life are interconnected. Gutenson turns attention first to how the ancients read Scripture. He places ancient perspectives on the plain or literal meaning and the figurative or spiritual meaning of Scripture into conversation with debates in our time about inerrancy, infallibility, and authority. He astutely points out for consideration the fact that literalism did not in ancient times prevent those who adhered to it from ending up adopting heretical stances, any more than it does today. Gutenson has a way with words, and after telling a brief story about a child with a pet duck who ends up killing it because his loving grip is too tight, he compares this with the way many treat the Bible – attempting to “love” the Scriptures, but on our own terms, we “strangle the Spirit’s ability to speak to us through it” (p.20).
Gutenson turns next to the topic of unity, and after discussing both the paramount importance given to unity by ancient Christian writers, and the fragmentation of denominationalism in our own time, makes some concrete suggestions on how we might do more to work for unity than we currently do. The third chapter focuses on discipleship, providing examples of the lengthy period of teaching that ancient Christians required before allowing someone into the community of faith through baptism. It seems as though most denominations today are quite happy to make converts where the ancients were more concerned with making disciples.
The first chapter in part two looks at ancient Christians’ notions of “freedom” and how they differ radically from the kind of freedom modern Americans tend to focus on. While that obviously offers challenges a contemporary focus of ours, I felt that chapter 5 is even more powerful and relevant, focusing as it does on wealth and poverty. Ancient Christian authors such as the Cappadocian Fathers were incredibly blunt, and in this chapter more than any other, I felt as though these ancient voices could in fact have been addressing our own time directly. They view the acquisition and keeping of wealth as theft, convinced that if God had given you more, it was only so that you might benefit from the experience of giving that wealth away to help those who have less than you do. Needless to say, many today view any suggestion that their wealth is rightly the property of the poor to be theft, the very opposite of ancient Christians like Basil. The final chapter in the section focuses on stewardship of creation, and here Gutenson acknowledges that no ancient author addressed modern concerns relating to technology and the environment, but nevertheless the principles they articulated may still be relevant.
The final section focuses on civil life, with the first chapter considering Lockean liberal democracy and what the church gains and loses by accepting it as the framework for its own social environment. Gutenson compares our situation to that of the church in the time of Constantine, when the church moved from being viewed as perhaps detracting from the well being of society through its refusal to participate in Roman worship, to itself becoming the “chaplain of the empire.” Chapter 8 looks at the ancient church’s views on war and the military, noticing the diversity of views and contrasting them with the general acceptance of “just war theory” by most modern Christians. The ending of that chapter offers a particularly powerful challenge, as Gutenson notes that a particularly large segment of the Christian population tend to be the most likely to support a proposed war. He then suggests, “Even if we do not come to agreement with the early church, perhaps we could come to agree that those who follow the one who was identified as the Prince of Peace should be the hardest to persuade to go to war, and not the easiest” (p.151). The final chapter looks at the attitude towards possessions particularly among the desert monks.
The entire book offers powerful and relevant examples of the perspectives of ancient Christians on matters that we still wrestle with today – and which we ought to wrestle with, and regarding which we ought to contemplate different perspectives, more frequently than we do. I strongly recommend The Right Church for small groups and Sunday school classes in churches which want to explore their Christian heritage in connection with contemporary issues. And I recommend it to anyone who knows only what the early Church Fathers and other ancient Christians said about abstract matters of theology, and know little or nothing about what they said about practical matters of everyday life. Their perspectives are ones you may not agree with, and they will often not be ones that can be applied without change directly to today. But they are insightful, challenging, and profoundly Christian, and they deserve to be heard, more than they currently are. I am grateful to Charles Gutenson for having provided them with this opportunity to speak to us.