Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What did a first century christian church look like?

Colossians 1: 3-6: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,

In the verse above, we see apostle Paul and Timothy giving thanks to God about Colossian church because they have heard about their faith in Christ Jesus, love for all the saints and the hope laid up for them in heaven. He says that the faith, love and hope spring from the word of truth - gospel (v5). Further, he makes a statement that "as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth". Gospel, wherever it reached, and when people understood the grace of God it produced fruits. Gospel produces fruits wherever it is accepted. If the churches are gospel centered, those will be fruitful churches. We can see that this was indeed true about the first century churches.

Let's see couple of verses and first century letters (not from Bible) that proves the above fact. 

1) Hebrews 10:34 - For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 

The situation is that some of the church members had been imprisoned and the rest were faced with the moral dilemma of whether to go underground and save themselves, or whether to go visit the prisoners and risk losing life and possessions.Verse 34 describes what they did and why. They joyfully accepted the plundering of their property since they knew that they had a better and eternal possession. This is how the gospel changed their perspective about their earthly properties and moved them to compassionate actions. 

We do not know who wrote it. It came from the second century. It was, like the New Testament, originally written in Greek. In this brief excerpt we can see a magnificent description of Christian living in what was expected in the early church community.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word -- what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.

3)  From the book The Rise of Christianity (written by sociologist Rodney Stark)

This is a book by the sociologist Rodney Stark, which examines the rise of Christianity, from a small movement in Galilee and Judea at the time of Jesus to the majority religion of the Roman Empire a few centuries later.

Stark argues that contrary to popular belief, Christianity was not a movement of the lower classes and the oppressed but instead of the upper and middle classes in the cities and of Hellenized Jews. Stark also discusses the exponential nature of the growth of religion.
Stark points to a number of advantages that Christianity had over paganism to explain its growth:
  • While others fled cities, Christians stayed in urban areas during plague, ministering and caring for the sick.
  • Christian populations grew faster because of the prohibition of birth control, abortion and infanticide. Since infanticide tended to affect female newborn more frequently, early Christians had a more even sex ratio and therefore a higher percentage of childbearing women than pagans.
  • To the same effect: Women were valued higher and allowed to participate in worship leading to a high rate of female converts.
  • In a time of two epidemics (165 and 251) which killed up to a third of the whole population of the Roman Empire each time, the Christian message of redemption through sacrifice offered a more satisfactory explanation of why bad things happen to innocent people. Further, the tighter social cohesion and mutual help made them able to better cope with the disasters, leaving them with less casualties than the general population. This would also be attractive to outsiders, who would want to convert. Lastly, the epidemics left many non-Christians with a reduced number of interpersonal bonds, making the forming of new one both necessary and easier.
  • Christians did not fight against their persecutors by open violence or guerrilla warfare but willingly went to their martyrdom while praying for their captors, which added credibility to their evangelism.
Stark's basic thesis is that, ultimately, Christianity triumphed over paganism because it improved the quality of life of its adherents at that time.

In the book, Stark writes: "To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services."

This is what is called gospel centered christian living. The churches at those times were indeed gospel centered. 



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