How To Live Like the First Christians

How To Live Like the First Christians September 18, 2012

[This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring the new book The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians, by Charles E. Gutenson.  Below is the first in a series of posts by Gutenson related to the book.]

From the Introduction

At one level, then, this book is about church renewal.  In a sense, it is about going forward by looking back, a desire to awaken the church of today by appealing to the church of yesterday, and not just any yesterday, but all the way back to the earliest church period –the period closest to the life of Jesus.  The question that lies beneath all of my inquiry is this:  how did the early Church understand the nature of faithful discipleship?  And, then, how should that impact and influence how we live today?

There’s a good deal of mythology and romanticism about the earliest period of the church. Some perhaps believe the prescription for the contemporary church’s ailments is found in a recovery of the supposed purity of the “early church.” This book is not a romantic inquiry into the “golden days” of the church, but rather an attempt to crack open a window into the early church for the explicit purpose of examining how differently they saw the world.  My hope is not that the reader will walk away agreeing with everything one might find in that early period. I do hope, though, that it might inspire some lively debate and that the Spirit might use that debate to sow seeds of renewal in the church.  A renewal that will change us so that when the world looks at the church, it sees a genuine and distinct alternative “way of being”—one more consistent with the life lived by our Lord.

We as Christians are heirs to a remarkably rich tradition dating back at least 2000 years, much longer when you include the prior Jewish tradition from which Christianity sprang.  Within that history, we find different understandings of what it means to be faithful to God’s call upon our lives, and more specifically, how following Jesus is supposed to be lived out.  Perhaps some of those ways of following Jesus stand in a degree of tension with others, but part of the wisdom of the church has been its willingness to allow those tensions to stand side-by-side.  In this way, the differences challenge us more carefully to think through the implications rather than giving the tensions an easy resolution.  Origen once observed something similar about the Scriptures themselves, convinced that God allowed tensions to stand within the text because he knew that a key part of our formation was intimately connected with our sorting those tensions within communities of faith.  It seems Origen believed that God was not so much interested in “blind obedience” as he was in folks who could “think theologically.”  Not every possible circumstance we might face in life is directly addressed in Scripture.  So, if we will but let them, Scripture and the tradition can stand as dual mentors in developing our ability to move beyond following the “letter of the law” to being able to resolve the tensions in a careful and nuanced way that allows us ultimately to be better followers of our Lord.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Christians, this deep and rich heritage, for all practical purposes does not exist.  Why?  Well, the short answer is: ignorance or perhaps more simply, unawareness.  If it is the case that we, as a group, are becoming increasingly ignorant of the biblical narratives themselves (and it almost certainly is the case), it is even more the case that we are ignorant of the broader resources within the tradition available to us in working out how best to be faithful followers of Jesus in our contemporary context.  Most Christians today would consider themselves well read if they have managed to stay plugged into the contemporary Christian scene—reading relatively contemporary books and listening to sermons and Scriptural commentary from the last, oh, say, fifty years. I expect someone in my own United Methodist tradition would consider themselves remarkably well read if they had actually worked their way through some of John Wesley’s 52 standard sermons.  Yet, as old and as rich as those sermons are, they reach back not even 300 years—a very short time when compared to the multi-millennium history of the church.

A rallying cry during the middle ages was “ad fontes,” which means “back to the fountain” or “back to the origins.”  The idea was that Christians needed to get back to the early church period to recapture the vibrant faith exhibited during that period.  It is time again to cry out “Ad Fontes!” and to turn our attention more intentionally to the wisdom of the early church, its preachers and its bishops.  Not necessarily because we will always agree with them, not because we buy into that myth of a pure, early church, but because it is vitally important to us today to consider how Christians of different time periods have sought to be faithful. We need to look beyond the mythology of the early church and discover what the early church wrote and, more importantly, how they lived.

Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is a church consultant and former chief operating officer ofSojourners. He previously served 10 years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology and Philosophy. He received his Masters of Divinity from Asbury in 1995 and a PhD in Philosophical Theology from Southern Methodist University in 2000. A member of the International Society of Theta Phi, an honor society for theological students, scholars in the field of religion and outstanding religious leaders, Chuck is the author of three books (one forthcoming) and numerous articles on a variety of theological and philosophical subjects.

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