Modern Christianity vs Original Christianity

Modern Christianity vs Original Christianity February 16, 2015

Benjamin Corey, a former fundamentalist Christian who is now a progressive Christian finishing his PhD in theology at Fuller Seminary, has a blog post about the many differences between early Christian communities and the modern church. The differences are rather wide, especially this one:

Here’s 5 of the major reasons why I think many American Christians probably would not have liked the first ones:

1. The first Christians rejected personal ownership of property and engaged in a redistribution of wealth.

Americanized Christians often fight to make sure our taxes are lower, fight to repeal healthcare for poor people, and throw a fit over a small portion of our income going to provide foodstamps. While touting “voluntary” and “private” charity as the way to go, we give on average 2-3% of our income to the church or charities– not nearly enough to actually address the needy in any meaningful way. But what about the early Christians?

Well, the first Christians were quite different. In the book of Acts (the book that tells the story of original Christianity) tells us that “all the believers were together and held everything in common, selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). We’re further told that there were no poor among them, because those who had land or property sold it so that this wealth could be “redistributed” to the needy (Acts 4:35). While on one hand communal property and redistribution of wealth was voluntary, scripture tells us that “all” of the believers in the church did this– meaning that it wasn’t exactly voluntary but a condition of being accepted into the group.

If Americanized Christians were to see how the first Christians lived, it would be denounced as some sort of communist cult being led by folks who distorted the Gospel.

How many megapreachers do we have who are multimillionaires in this country? A Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson would have been considered a heretic among the early Christians. And this one seems particularly prescient for much of American Christianity:

4. The first Christians weren’t patriotic.

Flag-waving Fourth of July type services?

Not in the early church. The first Christians weren’t patriotic at all. This was in part because they were oppressed by a brutal empire, but also in part because they saw themselves not as citizens of an earthly realm but citizens of heaven whose allegiance and loyalty were for God’s Kingdom instead of an earthly nation. These first Christians were caught up into the invitation to build God’s Kingdom, and would be utterly dumfounded as to why anyone would get caught up into patriotic nationalism– something early Christians would believe to be idolatry.

A 2nd century Christian once said, “This world and the next are two enemies…. We cannot therefore be the friends of both.” This attitude would have made patriotic nationalism impossible, because they had no attachment to earthly nation states– realizing instead that Christians are called to live as people completely different than the rest of the world.

Many of today’s Christians would consider the first Christians “ungrateful” but conversely, the first Christians would consider those of today to be idolaters with mixed up priorities.

One could easily note how dramatically Christianity has evolved in just the last few centuries as it has mixed with Enlightenment ideals. I’ve noted before how the position of institutional Christianity has changed in regard to church and state, slavery, women’s rights and civil rights. Those allegedly eternal truths of Christianity change significantly over time, but few Christians are aware of it or would acknowledge it.

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  • daved

    Point 4 may explain the drive of the Dominionists towards a theocracy — if the Church and the State are one, there is no problem with patriotism being antithetical to Christianity.

  • Daryl Carpenter

    “Well obviously that communistic way of living was for *then* is no longer applicable” is the way I imagine American Christians would get out of it. This of course relies on knowing what parts of scripture are still in use, which is naturally applied on a pick and choose ad hoc basis. This varies within denominations, with each one convinced their reading is the right one and “The Truth™.”

    There’s also the problem of whether Acts is a reliable historical document, although for conservative Christians this isn’t a particular worry: it’s in the bible, so it has to be true. The above method is therefore more preferable.

    An area where I think there is a similarity is with beliefs in the end times, something many Americans Christians have a large interest (fetish?) with. Much of the New Testament (Jesus, Paul, other epistles, the Book of Revelation) were under the impression that the world was very soon coming to a conclusion. That it obviously didn’t is not something modern Christians like to think of, but they share the belief that end is right around the corner…

  • I remember taking my old Volvo in to the dealership, for stalling every time I came to a stop. Long story short, after an hour on the lift, the mechanic said it was on account of some mixed up priorities in the idolater.

  • eric

    If Americanized Christians were to see how the first Christians lived, it would be denounced as some sort of communist cult

    That’s because it was a communist cult. But that shouldn’t be too surprising; if you look at how new religious movements start, “commune” is a pretty common structure.

    Frankly, I don’t find the transformation from early commune-based churches into a 6th century hierarchy to be as surprising as what’s happened in US evangelical protestantism since the 1950s or 1960s. Ever since the GOP southern strategy, basically, US protestantism in the south has done a remarkably fast (in historical terms) about-face on numerous social issues. And I bet with SSM they’ll change again. From 1930 to 2030, American evangelical protestantism will go from supporting the poor, the environment, socialized health care and welfare, and being very conservative on sodomy and other sex stuff, to being anti-welfare, anti-environment, and pro-SSM. Heck, even on abortion the map has basically flipped. Here is what it looked like in the 1930s. Lookit that big swath of southeastern green! From Virginia to Florida, all of dixie was basically ahead of the rest of the country (for their time; they still weren’t pro-choice the way we would describe it). But now they’ve done an about-face. We live in interesting times.

  • eric “being very conservative on sodomy and other sex stuff”

    Also the title of my third novel. It was hailed as being “whatever the opposite of erotic is”.

  • “Modern Christianity vs Original Christianity”??

    Modern Christians would win without a doubt!

    They have much better weapons, and anyway the Early guys are already dead…and that’s quite a disadvantage.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Modern Christians would win without a doubt!

    They have much better weapons…

    Yeah, but those early Christians could work miracles with what they had.

  • heddle

    This is spot-on. (And rather obvious).

  • Loqi

    anyway the Early guys are already dead…

    Well, except for that one wandering Jew…

    Yeah, but those early Christians could work miracles with what they had.

    I’m still picking the moderns. There’s a reason imprecatory prayer isn’t considered assault with a deadly weapon. Having had people pray at me and someone point a gun at me, I can tell you one is scarier.

  • raven

    I wouldn’t call fundie xianaity…modern.

    It’s a maelstrom of right wing extremist politics, primitive superstition, hate, lies, and hypocrisy.

    The fundies own the Dark Side of our society. I used to compare them to satanists. The satanists look far more benign. Satan and the demons have become redundant and are now unemployed.

    Fundie xianity

    Based on hate check.

    Based on lies check

    Worship a Monster god check

    Practice human child sacrifice check

    The satanists look much more benign. And one other difference. The satanists all but don’t exist as such but fundies run around 26% of our population.

  • raven

    Strangely enough, I don’t have that much of problem with modern xianity.

    Or at least some versions of it. To call this one religion any more is stretching the point, something even some xian scholars are now saying. They’ve evolved and diverged too much as speciation occurred.

    A lot of Mainline Protestants and Catholics are OK. The head of the US Episcopal church is named katharine and she has a Ph.D. in Oceanography. I’d guess she doesn’t think much of the pervasive fundie xian mysogyny.

    AFAICT, the Mainlines and Fundies got together and divided up xianity (metaphorically). The fundies took the Dark side, the bad parts. The Mainliners took the Light side, the good parts. They really are almost opposites in every way.

  • Michael Heath

    Benjamin Corey writes:

    . . . the believers were together and held everything in common, selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). We’re further told that there were no poor among them, because those who had land or property sold it so that this wealth could be “redistributed” to the needy (Acts 4:35).

    Mr. Corey fails to provide a sufficiently broad context. The original Christians were preparing for the rapture. Jesus Christ told them through Paul they didn’t need to build a multi-generational base of wealth since His return was imminent where they and all the dead Christians rotting corpses would be swept up into the sky.

    So after Jesus Christ failed to return, Anglo-Jesus stepped in and revealed to the next generations of Christians the ABSOLUTE TRUTH OF REAGANOMICS. Anglo-Jesus recruited the humble people-loving prophet Rush Limbaugh (Viagra be supplied in plenty to Him!).

    Mr. Limbaugh’s visions while struggling vainly to achieve an erection were particularly focused on God’s revealed edict that Christians fuck the poor and be especially hateful towards ‘the least among us’, especially those groups God’s legions of angels demagogues were particularly focused on hating.

  • Erp

    I’m not sure how accurate it is to say that all early Christians were in a commune. The central Jerusalem community centered around James and Peter seem to have been but those Paul was writing letters to don’t seem to have been (individuals were owning slaves, running their own businesses, and a certain wealth divide in the Corinthian community). Big differences seem to have been pacifism, a lack of political power, and a certain push towards egalitarianism. Note that the lack of political power may explain the lack of sanctioned violence in the New Testament in contrast to either the Tanakh or the Quran (both written in part or whole by those who held political power with the ability to wage war or severely punish people [the most early Christians before the early 4th century could do was shun]).

  • bahrfeldt

    The current crop of “patriots”, xtian or not, are loyal as long as they and theirs are not the ones having to pay in inconvenience, blood or wealth for conducting wars or for maintaining the system. Same as it ever was.

  • Baktru

    Ok Brayton give up already. It’s been said before, it is still true. This place NEEDS “Like” buttons. Just for Modus. Go for it.

  • Baktru, we don’t need a “like” button for me. It’s assumed. Besides, it would just inflate my ego, which is already pretty big on account of me being so awesome.

  • grumpyoldfart

    How many megapreachers do we have who are multimillionaires in this country? A Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson would have been considered a heretic among the early Christians.

    No, they would have fitted right in. When Paul mentions that he is collecting money for the poor he is not talking about the destitute, he is talking about John, James, and Peter who humbly (?) regarded themselves as “The Poor”. Those early preachers were redistributing wealth alright – from the pockets of parishioners into the pockets of the preachers (so exactly the same way it happens today).

    And those first Christians didn’t make polite requests for donations; they demanded all of the cash and they killed anyone who held anything back. You can read one of the stories here:

    In that story Peter gets annoyed with Ananias and Sapphira because they didn’t hand over all of their cash and eventually he kills them! Of course, when the young men of the church find the dead bodies lying at the feet of St Peter, he says it has nothing to do with him. He says God killed them! And the silly bastards believed him! They even helped him hide the bodies in a vacant lot down the street from his church.

  • dingojack

    MO – “whatever the opposite of erotic is”

    Fifty Shades of Grey?


  • anubisprime

    Modern Christianity vs Original Christianity

    The original version was all fine and dandy and got the meme going like a freight train in the ancient world, then it became a very handy tool to manipulate populations, kingdoms and principalities….then folks discovered how to turn the human penchant of ignorance and fear into one gigantic mega scam for the benefit of the personal pocket and to run society as a fiefdom beholden only unto the one with the rhetoric that made up the wildest stories and offered the greatest opportunity to be bigoted and ignorant against the scape goats of society and convince the victims that they should be proud of it…and that pretty much is how it remains to this day.

    Evolution in action…

  • observer

    The comments on the linked post are fascinating. Basically, multiple types of angry Christians calling each other infidels, all citing different parts of the same source text.

    I don’t know what can save humanity from itself, probably nothing, but I’m pretty certain it won’t be Christianity.

  • cjcolucci

    What? Heddle showed up and nobody made fun of him for a religious belief he doesn’t hold? And I don’t get to do a comment saying heddle is wrong about a lot of things, but he doesn’t believe X? We’re slipping, people.

  • CJO, egregious by any standard

    The first Christians weren’t patriotic

    There was no such thing as a nation state at the time, so neither was anybody else.

    As regards communalism and the supposed rejection of private property, there’s no evidence for it outside of Acts that I know of. (Leaving aside the gospels, where it’s certainly advocated by Jesus as an ideal.) It’s not an issue in the letters of Paul, and if donation of one’s property were truly “a condition of being accepted into the group” as Corey says, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t have been.

    Acts is proto-Catholic apologia, at pains to paint the earliest church in the most favorable light possible. The idea of communalism within a group was a popular ideal among elites in antiquity (and Acts was clearly written with an elite audience in mind at the time when the nascent church was for the first time attracting adherents from the upper echelons of society).

    My theory as to why this was is that, lacking any sort of theory of economics, ancient elites liked to imagine that the problems of poverty could be alleviated by the simple expedient of the masses being content to share and share alike. “Communism for thee, but not for me” in a nutshell. The lack of a working theory of economics is relevant in that it meant that for elites conceptually there was no connection whatever between what we would call “income inequality” and their own often ostentatious wealth. There were for them, in essence, two totally unrelated economic spheres, the subsistence economy of nearly everybody and the wealth-generating commercial and large-scale agricultural activity of landholders and financiers.

  • U Frood

    But shouldn’t Christians accept that ideal economic state in the inerrant Bible as gospel? If God’s omniscient, surely the economic system he suggested for his followers must be a good idea.

  • Matthew Harris

    I am very skeptical of his point 1. He assumes that the book of Acts is an historical account of early Christianity. It is not. The evidence points to the book of Acts being historical fiction. The author of Acts may have wanted early Christians to be communal, but that doesn’t mean that they were.