If you could meet one of the first Christians would you like them?
I’m convinced that many American Christians would not. In the course of 2000 years, Christianity- while maintaining the basic tenets, has morphed and shifted from the way it was originally designed and lived out. Since we tend to live in a culture that is rather self-centered, we have a tendency to assume we “have it right” while completely overlooking the fact that our version of Christianity might appear quite foreign– even hopelessly corrupted– if viewed through the eyes of one of the first Christians.
If those entrenched in American Christianity could transport back in time to experience Christianity as it originally was, they’d be uncomfortable at best, and at worst, would probably have declined the invitation to join Christianity at all.
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.
2. The first Christians didn’t like big, show-y church stuff.
The first Christians weren’t fans of the “go big” and showmanship stuff that we see plaguing the church in America today. Churches back then were house churches with maximum numbers that would be considered below the minimum amount of people you’d want as a core “launch team” to plant a church in the United States. They rejected the need for wealth, fancy meeting places, or any kind of honor that would elevate them above someone else.
One early writer wrote, in critique of early Christians:
“They despise the temples as houses of the dead. They reject the gods. They laugh at sacred things. Wretched, they pity our priests. Half-naked themselves, they despise honors and purple robes. What incredible audacity and foolishness!”
If one of the original Christians were to be transported through time to attend the average American church with fancy projection screens, high salaries, and entertainment based church services, they’d probably walk away shaking their head at the thought that was actually considered church.
3. The first Christians didn’t warn anyone about hell.
Any time I have posted on why I believe the traditional teaching on hell is unbiblical (see series, here) I get a lot of pushback. Not infrequent is the argument that I have “removed all motivation for following Jesus” which is usually followed with “may God have mercy on your soul” or something like that. The folks at Way of the Master have successfully convinced much of conservative Christian culture that preaching hell is absolutely central to inviting people to follow Jesus. However, if that were true, I’d think we’d expect to see hell be front and center with the first Christians.
Small problem: it’s not. When you read the book of Acts, it’s almost as if they didn’t believe in hell at all because hell was not something they used to motivate or warn people. There’s no “can I ask you if you’re a good person?” and no “if you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Yes– the first Christians were passionate about spreading the Good News, passionate about inviting people to follow Jesus– but when you read the story of the early church in the Bible, talk and warnings of hell are actually absent.
If Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort were to fly back in time to see how the first Christians– those who walked and talked with Jesus– were doing things, they’d say they were totally doing it wrong, and have succumbed to liberalism.
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.
5. They were universally pacifists.
Like it or not, the historical fact is that Christianity was built upon the foundational belief of total nonviolence. The first Christians were so dedicated to this principle of nonviolent enemy love that slews of them became martyrs– willing to be killed by their enemies before they were willing to lift a hand to harm them. In fact, for the first 300 or more years of Christianity, the belief in pacifism was a universal belief.
In addition, the early Church was exclusive in some ways– and American Christians wouldn’t be a fan of who they didn’t allow to join the church: soldiers and magistrates. The first Christians believed using violence against an enemy was incompatible with being a Christian– very similar to how conservatives will say being a homosexual is incompatible with being a Christian. After some time, they did ease up on allowing soldiers to join the church (in the late era of the early church), but even then they only allowed soldiers who were willing to commit to nonviolence. Some of these converts were executed by military authorities for refusing orders to kill, but the first Christians realized that to kill an enemy is perhaps one of the most anti-Christ behaviors one can engage in, and so they were willing to die before killing.
This is perhaps where American Christians and the first Christians would really dislike one another: American Christians would think they were hippies who didn’t stand up for themselves, and the first Christians would look at the gun carriers and unapologetically proclaim that they weren’t Christians at all.
Christianity has a history– and it’s an important one. Those who were closest to Christ himself speak to us from history, if we will listen. While the scriptures haven’t changed in 2000 years, Christianity itself certainly has fallen prey to the powers of culture to distort and twist. Christianity in America is no different– it has become distorted to the point that those who first founded Christianity and walked with Jesus, would hardly recognize it.
I say, we need to move backwards, not forwards… We need to return to the beliefs and wisdom of the first Christians, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com
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