Practicing Christ with the Early Church

A Review of The Right Church by Charles E. Gutenson

There’s something about ancient wisdom.  If you want to sell a book about spirituality you’re better off putting something like “unlocking the ancient secrets” rather than “revealing the cutting edge.”  The cutting edge is where we live so much of our life, always jumping to the latest in technology, our iPhone’s always quickly obsolete, our computers constantly begging for an update and then an upgrade.  We hunger for something deeper, something tried and found true again and again.

Of course much of what passes for ancient is no new thing.  We human beings have certainly changed our landscapes and “improved” our tools and technologies, but when it gets to the essential stuff of life we’re not too different from the people who first embraced Christianity nearly 2,000 years ago.  They worked through hot button issues, they had their progressives and conservatives, they wrestled with how to interpret ancient scriptures in a new context, and how to live the Christian life in a world that was often antithetical to an authentic faith.

Unfortunately much of that ancient wisdom has been shrouded in the unfamiliar—left to text books written by scholars, or readers of bewildering texts that require some careful contextualization.  Ministers study the early church in an M.Div. program, if they’re luck for more than an introductory course, but the early church is left there in the seminary with its influences spread piece meal across the church tradition without context.  We can be thankful that Charles Gutenson has provided a remedy to all of this in The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians.

The Right Church is a short, readable and rich introduction to the early church with an emphasis on the living questions early Christians wrestled through and how those questions might affect us today.  Whether its Origen’s useful way of reading scripture on a literal and spiritual level, or the incredible witness of the desert fathers and mothers, Gutenson offers a tantalizing account of the early church that draws us both more deeply into the Christian tradition and our own life in Christ.

While some of the book is focused on broader theological questions, this book is more deeply focused on Christian ethics—how to actually live out the faith.  Care of the creation, how to relate to wealth, the level of involvement we should have in government, and the questions of whether Christians should be just warriors or pacifists—Gutenson teases out how the early church explored each one and offers their thinking and example for those who continue to explore these issues today.

The Right Church is an excellent guide to anyone seeking to engage with the work of the early church and find new sources for understanding the conflicts that still plague us today.  This would be the perfect book for a gathering of friends to explore together as the church.  Maybe your friends will even find practices that you can engage in together that will draw you more closely into the life Christ called us to, the right church we’ve been seeking so long.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.


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