A Church So Old It Looks Like New


This post is part of the Patheos Book Club for Chuck Gutenson’s new book The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians (Abingdon Press). You can visit the book club site for more info on the book, an interview with Chuck, and a chance to join the conversation.


1700 years ago this fall, the Roman Emperor Constantine was victorious in his battle at the Milvian Bridge. He came away from the victory giving honor to the God whom his mother had worshiped but whom his predecessors had either persecuted or simply ignored. The year 312 CE thus became a turning point in the history of the Christian movement. Over the course of the next several decades, Christianity swiftly transitioned from being a persecuted minority movement to become an imperial religion. You couldn’t join the Roman army by the end of the 300′s if you weren’t a Christian.

For sixteen centuries Christendom has stood as the unquestioned religious reality of Western civilization. This is not to say that Christendom has not had its detractors, nor that there hasn’t been a diversity of both faith and practice within it’s borders. From the very beginning, the desert ascetics had their doubts about the marriage of Christian faith and imperial power. The monastics carved out corners of resistance, along with the Waldensians and the Brethren of the Common Life, the Anabaptists and the early Pentecostals. There’s no sense pretending that Christendom was a monolith. It wasn’t. But it has been, as they say in energy-speak, the “spine” of our religious grid in the West.

But not anymore. This is the data that’s been coming in from religion polsters for the past decade. It was the religion news story of this summer, articulating most clearly and thoughtfully, I think, in Diana Butler Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion. (Check out her blog for some summary reports.) Though many have been saying it for years, the date is in. Christendom is done. It was a good long run, folks, but it’s over.

So, what now? The single biggest question facing the church in our moment is how we are going to reconfigure and understand who we are in this new era. Of course, there are lots of opinions. And when there is diversity–especially diversity under stress–there will be arguments. These are days when we should pray for patience… and imagination.

But we should also be thankful for gifts to help us find our way. And Chuck Gutenson’s new book, The Right Church, is just that kind of gift. Direct, accessible, and even fun to read, Chuck’s book is one-half intro to church history (if it were taught by the most popular professor on campus) and one-half invitation to imagine a way of life with Jesus in the world today.

Without overwhelming the lay reader, The Right Church really does immerse the reader in the stories that gave life to the early church. It quotes the church fathers at length–our foreparents who walked with Jesus before Christendom–and invites us not to dream nostalgically about what might have been, but to imagine how the same movement that captured their imaginations can claim our lives today.

So Origen becomes a model for developing a Scriptural imagination, Clement of Rome our guide for thinking about how to care for creation. In a chapter on discipleship, Chuck introduces the ancient practice of catechesis, one that I’ve spent considerable time chewing on as we put together The Awakening of Hope over the past few years. “What we desperately need in the church is a means for providing training in both the beliefs and practices that constitute the life of faith,” Chuck writes. Thankfully, we have ancient models to help us imagine how to do this well in our time.

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to say that he believed in a vision for the world that was “so old it looked like new.” By inviting us into the living tradition of the church’s first few centuries, Chuck invites us to do something similar: to tap into a movement so old that it looks like new. And to follow the Spirit in living it where we are.

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  • Matthew

    I am wondering if trying to go back to what is old — then making or adopting it as though it was new — isn´t actually counter-productive in some sense. I can of course appreciate the idea that there was something very special that captured the minds and hearts of the church fathers (and their disciples) — something so great that it forever changed an entire culture — however as the post points out those days (and forms of ministry) are gone. That said … I wonder if a new construct for Christianity in the 21st century, post modern, western world isn´t necessary — yet I admit that such a bold suggestion may cross the line of compromising the Gospel in some way by catering to the new world order too much. I can only really speak for the part of the world I live in, and here in “Christian Europe” attempting to bring back the old methods is probably viewed as attempting to go back to a time long gone — a time that sadly many here want to forget. Miroslav Volf mentioned in a book I read by him that in the western world at least Christianity may very well remain (once again) a religion on the margins — but the voice coming from the margins could very well be as loud as it was in the empire of old. My final thought is that I wonder if Christianty will ever have the strength it once had — even if methods change — when heavy secularism in combination with the influence of Islam presses in … particularly in the part of the world I live in.

  • Matthew

    Oh yes … I also wanted to ask a question. Isn´t it true that in America the religious right has attempted to bring back the “days of old” through waging a culture war and becoming more and more politically active while making social issues the cornerstone of their movement?

    • Samuel Post

      Of course I have no yet read Chuck’s book, but am am intrigued and familiar with the Emergent Church non-movement and the new Monasticism. My take is that the talk of a return to the old or early church beginnings of Christianity by the Emergents or New Monastics is not the same as the call of conservative evangelicals to the “days of old”. The former is a call for the return to a more truly authentic (belief in an original) form of Christianity before its was commandeered and transformed by empire. It is a call to a simpler faith of community , small and large, heavily emphasizing the moral teachings of Christ as exemplified in the Sermon on the mount. It is a call to service not power, to love and compassion, not hate and war. It is a call to a faith unburdened by the trappings and its dependency on empire. It is a call to a faith on the fringe of empire, that voice of love crying in the wilderness on the edge of empire. The latter is a call to a rigid, uncompromising and controlling theology, not born or intimately connected with the early Christian Church, but the produce of empire born and shaped to control believers.

      • Matthew

        Thanks Samuel. Well said and clearly understood.

      • Matthew

        I suppose my next question is … how do we know who is really more right? What I mean is — was the early church (prior to Constantine) more right in its theology, practice, ways of doing things, etc. — or were the reformers and the late reformers (even up to what we see in modern day American evangelical life, theology, and practice) more right? Some might say … well … we cannot go back because we have progressed forward. How do we know the early church was truly more authentic, more real, more right??

        • Samuel Post

          I am not a scholar but have extensively read and it is my understanding that what may be understood to be the the practices and beliefs of the early church would have to initially be considered the most authentic. Of course, there were many differing views and groups early on who called themselves followers of Christ, that number growing from the mid first century until the Church of the empire began to shape and establish an “orthodox” theology and cannon by the 5th century. The less competitive, coherent and sound groups lost in the struggle for primacy with the orthodox view coming out the winner. I would think that this orthodox view was a far cry from the first churches or “gatherings” from Paul’s time. The process of shaping and reshaping and refining the faith that had begun within decades of Christ’s death continues to this day.

          The orthodoxy that the American conservative evangelicals tout today as true and right is not what the first Christians believed or practiced. Most of us who call ourselves Christian today would surely be viewed as heretical in some or all aspects of our doctrines and theology, the most progressive or liberal of us along with the most conservative.

          The reality is that we may never know the true faith of our theological ancestors. But, then should we even think that we could or should ever hope to know absolutely from whence we came? We are not the same people, the same culture or the same society as the first Christians. I believe that we can only attempt to discover the truest and most authentic faith and practices of the early believers and combine that with the faith as it has come down to us individually and collectively today to shape a faith and religious practices that would not be too greatly at odds with the teachings of Christ. There have been thousand of tomes written on the Christian faith and the Messiah with thousand of differing opinions ass to his message. But, there seems to be some consensus on the basics of his teachings and these being best exemplified by the sermon on the mount and related teachings. For me, the red letter of Christ’s teachings would include the descriptors of love (of God and neighbor), compassion, forgiveness, service to others, community, an inclusive egalitarian sense of brotherhood and an eschewing of greed and wealth for wealth’s sake coupled with a giving and sharing spirit. I believe that if we adhere to these, then all doctrinal and theological differences should not keep Christian faithful separated from each other or from the faithful of other religious faith traditions.

          • Matthew

            Thanks Samuel. That said … if the early church was in fact more authentic, could we also say that the writings that circulated during that time (i.e. the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, even the most recent papyrus discovery that claims Jesus was married) were also authentic even though they didn´t make it into the canon and are criticized by the keepers of orthodoxy today?

  • Samuel Post

    Perhaps for some, but for me personally not so much so, except the Gospel of Thomas which is more complete and which seems to me to fit more nicely into the matrix of the established cannon (especially the Gospel for John which is the most Gnostic of the four cannon gospels). Except for Thomas, the materials cited and others are not complete , and in fact consist of very little material to really be helpful to believers in telling a complete story of an early community (as the cannon gospels do) and thus of the early faith community. Furthermore, as enamored with the Gnostics and Gnosticism as many are today , the Gnostics were one of the first heretical (or declared heretical groups) within the early church. and, from what I have read, not necessarily a group (or more properly groups, as Gnosticism was not a unified or monolithic movement) to be admired as one of the “gatherings” of and for Christ. They were more likely than not to be non-monotheistic, believing that an evil God created the physical world to trap man’s soul/spirit and keep it from uniting with the good creator God of the spiritual reality. They were elitists and non-inclusive, restricting membership to a select group of those “in the know”. They were haters/loathers of the material world denying the goodness of the physical creation of God (unlike the early proto-orthodox church which celebrated Christ’s physicality along with the spiritual. To answer your question, for me, most of those writings and others would be less authentic as they embody fewer of the attributes of the Jesus’ teaching that I enumerated previously. Of course this is only my opinion and belief, and I suspect that I would not be considered a “good” or right thinking Christian by many, or most of my brothers and sisters in faith today. But then I tend to believe that our relationship with God and our salvation are personal and individual than corporate or collective.

    • Matthew

      Thanks again Samuel. I am interested in your list of the red letter teachings of Christ that we should (in the modern church) embrace. Where does doctrine fit into this list (if at all?). I think even the early Christians were interested in this topic as well.

  • Samuel Post

    Perhaps Dogmas is the more appropriate term to use than doctrine, as the former may include the latter and has been defined as “those doctrines explicitly formulated by the church and held to be normative for its members by the duly constituted authorities” (Van A. Harvey). As a protestant, my church, with others, have been less likely to speak of dogma but rather incorporate such into our confessions of faith. And even these have come to be less fully understood and incorporated into the personal faith of many protestants today. There may be more than 10,000 independent protestant denominations/churches in the world today most being found in the United States. What is clear is that the reformation would have greatly reduced in number those dogmas/doctrine of the church which must be essentially subscribed to to confirm one as a member of the faith. What might these be? The denomination of which I am a member lists them in the Ground of the Unity:

    ” With the whole of Christendom we share faith in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We believe and confess that God has revealed Himself once and for all in His Son Jesus Christ; that our Lord has redeemed us with the whole of humanity by His death and His resurrection; and that there is no salvation apart from Him. We believe that He is present with us in the Word and the Sacrament; that He directs and unites us through His Spirit and thus forms us into a Church. We hear Him summoning us to follow Him, and pray Him to use us in His service. He joins us together mutually, so that knowing ourselves to be members of His body we become willing to serve each other.”

    “In the light of divine grace, we recognize ourselves to be a Church of sinners. We require forgiveness daily, and live only through the mercy of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. He redeems us from our isolation and unites us into a living Church of Jesus Christ. ”

    Certainly short and sweet, but not unlike the confession(s) of many others. Even within our denomination, our belief in freedom in all things non-essential leads to wide varying interpretations and understandings of these relatively few doctrinal statements/dogma. I guess in short, I would say that many in the modern church find less solace in adhering to Church dogma than in living a life as close as possible to that advocated by the “red letter” teachings of Christ. Or to put it in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will”. At least it is for me, although, sinner that I am, I fail miserably in my efforts to live such a life, and most earnestly hope and pray for a loving and gracious God.