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“But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor.” – Gal 2:18
This phrase penned by the Apostle Paul follows the prophetic impulse of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah:
“Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:9-11 (NIV)
For those of us with that same prophetic impulse, I hope that you will be fueled with a passion to “build” what God is wanting to build and “tear down” those systems, beliefs, and practices which God does not approve. The apostolic and the prophetic are essential to the laying of foundations of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The “builder” anointing and impulse of the apostolic and prophetic is coupled with the “destroy and overthrow” anointing. The Spirit of God resists the proud. Anything, temples, kingdoms, or belief systems which resist the gentle flow of the Holy Spirit are marked for destruction.
Isa 57:14 And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
Then, after the destruction, the anointing to build takes the lead. Those whom God has rescued, the poor and the needy, the ones who have humbly sought God for grace, then become the builders.
Isa 61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The caution Paul offers in the building process is to beware of building systems that will resist the gentle flow of God’s Spirit as He seeks to rescue and restore the poor and needy.
Wikipedia strongly espouses verifiability and a neutral point of view, but critics of Wikipedia accuse it of “systemic bias and inconsistencies”. They say “favoring consensus over credentials gives undue weight to popular culture” in its editorial processes.
From a vantage point of a missionary, I see an important similarity here to the argument that laity, those lacking credentials from a church denomination or seminary, have no business leading a church plant or Missional community. The argument goes like this: “Those untrained leaders could lead their people into heresy or false doctrine.” That was a major concern of the early church.
If reliability and accuracy are really the issue, and not the status of “experts,” then it’s worth noting that “an investigation in Nature (scientific journal) found that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”.” In this Nature article, Alex Bateman and Darren W. Logan write:
“Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a free collaborative website, written and maintained by volunteers, would dominate the global provision of knowledge.”
So then, should an “untrained” leader draw together a group of Christ’s followers and attempt to demonstrate and declare the gospel of Jesus by making disciples from within their specific people group, their neighborhood, workplace, or school? Could such a group represent an authentic church gathering?
For centuries leadership of churches has been left to “experts”, those with credentials, degrees, and funny hats. Concern for this issue was pronounced during the recent post-colonial period, after WWII, when newly independent nations opened the opportunity for multiplied thousands of new independent churches which resulted in the greatest expansion of christianity in history, especially the Global South (see Inter-Varsity article). Many attempts to train the multitudes of new church leaders in Africa and China, through programs based mostly in the West, such as TEE (Theological Education by Extension), could not keep up the pace of church growth at the end of the 20th century. At issue: what would come of these “younger” churches? Would they slip into heresy and error?
Perhaps a little humility is required as we respond to these questions. The church in the West has not been without error, despite her theological “maturity.” The early church had error, the Medieval church had error, and the Protestant church has had error. Some error is difficult to perceive from a purely Western mindset. What could be wrong with promoting individual choices for Christ, reducing the gospel message to “three steps” or “four laws”? Well, getting “saved” for heaven is not the kingdom message Jesus preached. And it’s not the gospel message Paul preached. Salvation is much more comprehensive, and not just a private decision. The West has exported this erroneous gospel message through the modern missionary enterprise for more than a century.
Examining the laundry list of error in Western theology would require several other posts, so let’s just humble ourselves long enough to accept our brothers and sisters in the now Majority church of the Global South, not as immature “younger” churches, but as full fledged churches.
Like the world of Wikipedia, we now live in a new, “flat” and globalized world (See Thomas Friedman’s popular book, ‘The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century’), where information, correction of error and validation of facts now spread instantaneously around the world. Whether we are ready or not, it is time to consider our ways, to search the Scriptures for understanding the way to reach our new world.
Jesus did not make it complicated and neither should we. It is simple to experience community with those you already have an affinity, a similar culture. People who already share interest and time together are more likely to worship together and work together on a mission of Kingdom expansion.
This is the approach to missions and church planting in India put forth in the 1930s by Donald McGavran, the late missionary statesman who coined “Homogenous Unit Principle“, groups which can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. McGavran was studied church growth, proposing a church which is not sending mission so much as it is itself sent. With so many different cultures in India, McGavran saw the need to encourage many cultural expressions of church. The different people groups should not be forced into one church cultural mold, like your neighborhood mega-church. Could it be that McGavran’s approach would also now be appropriate for churches in the Western world?
Lesslie Newbigin, another great missionary statesman, spent over 30 years living as a missionary working with the Church of South India. When he returned to England, Newbigin noticed something: the Western world had become as pluralistic as India, with new “faith” in materialism. (See Newbigin’s book: The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.) The West, especially Europe with the USA not far behind, had already lost much of its “Christian” heritage. Once vital Church structures in England are now nightclubs with names like “Ministry of Sin.” Newbigin saw the need to not only continue to send missionaries around the world, but also to receive missionaries to re-evangelize the post-Christian West. He suggested the formation and structure of Western churches require a new reformation in order to reach our Western society with the gospel. He and many of the leaders in world missions today, contend that the Church in the West must again become primarily a missions station sponsoring Missional communities among the people groups in our cities. The Anglican Church is championing “Fresh Expressions” of church formation for the communities in which it has been established for many hundreds of years.
What am I proposing? Three things:
- First, I propose we learn humility, perhaps unlike or feeble attempts to humble ourselves in religious services, temporarily weeping at the altar and then returning to our comfortable lives behind our TVs, in our over-sized houses, and compressed lifestyles. We must humble ourselves, relinquishing our supposed rights to power, privilege, and too often prestige.
- Second, like Wikipedia, we should learn to trust every believer to gain access, participate, and contribute to theological conversations. We should trust those with a desire to be a witness to their community.
- Third, we should flatten our church hierarchies, eliminate the exclusivity of church “membership”, and commission believers to “go” into their world to plant simple church communities.
Imagine if Jesus could once again become the main focus of conversations and life in your neighborhood, your workplace, and on a your campus, perhaps it would also be possible for the message and works of Jesus to fill an entire city. No, I am not suggesting we merely “unite” churches (which tend to be organized in a competitive business model anyway). Unity is not something we create, it is something the apostle Paul exhorts us to “preserve”.
This vision for a new church-planting movement in our neighborhoods could only be realized if everyday believers, people like you and me, choose to go on mission in our sphere of influence, planting the church where you are through non-formal gatherings in homes, workplaces, and campus dorms. Of course, those with the status as “experts” may resist this missional movement for various reasons. But I am confident that the leaders whose hearts belong to Jesus will cheer ANY effort to reach our world with the good news.
The hard part is this: We have to renew our thinking, repent of our fixed cultural habits, and begin to walk worthy of this calling. Church is not just something you attend…it’s something you are. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you; that’s true of every believer. The good news is within us.
We need break our individualistic mindset in order to see our world is not just one big community of individuals. It is hundreds of people groups, small communities put together to make up your city.
So I am proposing ‘simple churches’ or missional communities to be formed by two or more believers among these people groups. Missional communities are incarnational in that they arise out of and focus on the communities they desire to reach. Imagine multitudes of new small groups of believers in Chicago, LA, and New York, and in university campuses, businesses and suburbs in your area… Leaders need to find courage to once again be the church and release a new generation of churches in their most localized and organic form. This is what I propose: Form simple churches that are “Wiki-Missional.”
Our table is the center of our home. It’s the place our family comes together, the place we welcome friends, neighbors, and strangers. We invite others into the kitchen where we chop and sauté vegetables, bake bread, stir sauces, pour the fruit of the vine (juice or wine, you choose), and prepare to savor the meal. Rich conversation with others around food is how we live, how we love each other, how we teach our children, and how we learn about others and our world.
We thought everyone enjoyed meals as families. We thought everyone invited people into their homes to share their lives. Sadly, we’ve met a growing number of people who rarely if ever sit at table with their families, let alone anyone else. By sharing our table with international students, young people from various religious and non-religious backgrounds, happy homes and broken homes, we’ve learned how very desperate this generation is for authentic relationships.
But that’s not all. The simplicity of sharing meals and intimate conversation may be more than we thought.
Think about it. Table fellowship was central to early church gatherings. Long before all the complex religious practices, the beautiful sanctuaries and the hierarchy of leaders were added to the simplicity of sharing life in Christ with others, believers shared meals from house to house. Though some gatherings may have been in the synagogue or a rented hall, much of the growth of the church came about in the intimate spaces, especially table fellowship. Without the New Testament scriptures, people gathered to remember the words Jesus spoke. They experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and spoke the simple gospel message and the church rapidly grew. People opened their homes and others brought their appetites, desiring to grow in their relationship with Jesus, which caused the growth of the “spiritual house”, the new temple of worship. It appears Jesus intends, and the early apostles taught, that we should be priests offering spiritual sacrifices from the altar of table fellowship. Peter writes:
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 2:2-5
There’s more. The New Testament “priesthood” is very different from the Old Testament priesthood and their focus on Temple worship. Before Jesus went to the cross, he prophesied the total destruction of the Temple, which came about before the end of the first century, and which resulted in the end of Temple worship. Jesus instituted a new form of altar worship, table fellowship. He instructed his followers to remember his sacrifice. Paul writes to the Corinthian believers:
“the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Cor. 11:22-24
Jesus instructed us to “remember” and Peter instructed us to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God”. Priests offer intercession, prayer for the people, including all nations. The Old Testament priests were born priests; they were from the tribe of Levites. The Levites offered the blood of bulls, goats, and doves for the remission of sin. Some became corrupt, seeking and maintaining power, and failing to intercede for the nations. Of all the words Jesus spoke, he spoke most harshly to those corrupt leaders that failed to be priests and a light to the Gentiles.
The “tribe” of priests in the New Testament are also born to a priesthood; they are born of the Spirit. They are not individually priests with special callings. The priesthood is all those born of the Spirit. New Testament priests do not shed blood, as the Levites did. Instead, they recall the complete and finished work of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, our high priest:
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” – Heb. 7:23-27
So this priesthood is not for a select few in the Church, not a specialized role that must be earned and not a special class of people within the Church. This priesthood of all believers is the call to intercede, to pray and offer a different kind of “sacrifice” on a different kind of altar.
Table fellowship had become very controversial in the early church. Peter struggled with the issue and Paul confronted him about it:
“But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” – Gal. 2:11-12
Jewish believers needed to learn Christ’s mission. They needed to be free from their cultural and religious systems of power. They needed to recognize how those systems resist Holy Spirit.
Finding freedom in the Spirit will lead us to cooperate with him. He is here to make Jesus known in all the earth. The Holy Spirit is spreading the good news. Our part is to be that priesthood, inviting our neighbors to table fellowship. Preaching is important, but we must not neglect breaking bread with neighbors as part of our intercession for our neighborhood as a kingdom of priests.
How do people react to individualism, environmentalism, and poverty in Madison? These forces may be at the same time subtle and powerful. Globalization is having a paradoxical effect, connecting people and resources through technology and isolating people in reaction to the enormity of global needs. “As the [global] demand for water continues to increase, there is greater pressure placed on an already shrinking water supply,” says Joel Pedersen, a UW-Madison environmental chemist. “More people are considering the reuse of water.” While most expect individual freedoms to continue, others are sounding the alarm to warn us that individualism in Western culture is a major contributor to global problems. In Madison, research on water resources, HIV/AIDS, and global poverty is churning in the laboratories of the University of Wisconsin. How should today’s Jesus follower respond? Followers of Christ believe in community, but most have so aligned with the culture of individualism that they take little notice of urgent global human needs. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Perhaps, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, evangelical believers in the 21st century should ask “Who is my neighbor?”
The letter to the Galatians may be Paul’s most important, representing the life and death struggle for the universal Church. It may have been followed by what may be the most important event in early church history, the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul also exhibits his most combative attitude in this letter. He does not open with any sense of gratitude for the church at Galatia, as was his custom. Paul, instead, must take on those other “teachers” who are presenting a “different gospel”, which undermines Paul’s gospel of justification by grace. Those other teachers were what Paul calls the “circumcision faction” (NRSV), who were demanding Gentile believers to observe the law of Moses, to become circumcised, which is to rely on Jewish Heritage.
Paul had met with Peter, had joined him at table fellowship with Gentiles, and later rebuked him for pulling away from that fellowship when those “Judaisers” arrived. Even Barnabas pulled back and joined in this “hypocrisy.” Paul calls into question the motives of those teachers; was it to avoid persecution or to gain some advantage?
It’s unclear exactly who those other teachers are that are putting Gentile believers under a “yoke of slavery,” but his words for them are as biting as ever. He claims they will “pay the penalty,” that they are “accursed,” and he wishes that they would “castrate themselves.”
Paul declares that the believers who have come under that “yoke” are “stupid” and “foolish.” They are by their actions denying the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel of Grace Paul preached to them. They are willing to “add” something, as if something more were necessary, to their simple trust in God.
Paul’s argument is that everyone, even Jews who do ‘works of the law’ in accordance to their heritage, must abandon their hope for a right relationship with God through trust in any other means, including Jewish Heritage. We must all find our hope and place our trust in Christ alone. Paul argues that Jewish heritage is more than adherence to Mosaic Law. Their father is Abraham, whose faith in God and not his adherence to any law. Therefore, Paul argues that reliance on law is finished for all Christians. The law does not and cannot foster the kind of faith and trust that leads to life. The Law was an imperfect agency, added as a kind of tutor, which identifies sin.
Followers of Christ are to emulate the trust of Abraham. The controversy called for the Council of Jerusalem. The consequences of this letter and this issue had divided churches, and if it had not been resolved, may never have allowed for Gentile believers without conversion to Judaism. The consequences would have dramatically hindered missionary efforts. The core of this issue may be the strong tendency of many Jews to place their trust in their ethnic and religious identity.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to eliminate all barriers to full religious participation based on race, sex, social status, etc. This is the challenge, I believe, for any cross-cultural transmission of the gospel. For that reason, if this controversy had not been sufficiently quelled, it would have done irreparable violence to the gospel of grace.
By the time the Letter to the Ephesians is written, the church has emerged as a social and political force. The author, likely not Paul, has identified problems of the universal significance of God’s act in Christ. This letter shares the theme of Romans (Jew & Gentile conflict), but that conflict is apparently fading. There’s little reference to that conflict in Ephesians. However, a wider conflict in the Greco-Roman world has emerged: The challenge of the pagan worldview of pantheism. In this letter, the author argues that Christ is supreme.
This author is not likely to be Paul. Though clearly dedicated to Paul’s message, the author brilliantly outlines Paul’s gospel of grace. The message is Christ and his supremacy. In this letter we find a “representational Cristology”, which is the revelation that we can determine our future based on Christ’s life and resurrection.
The flow of the the argument is in two parts. First, the “Universal Significance of Christ” (1:3 – 3:21), which includes meditations on the meaning of Christ and the revelation of God’s eternal plan, with the presence of Holy Spirit as guarantee until inheritance. Christ is described as “head” of creation and of the church, but Christians sit with him in heavenly places. Therefore, Christians are free from the prince of the power of the air. God’s mysterious and eternal plan has always been Christ’s death & resurrection.
The purpose of the Church, then, is to make the mystery known, to declare the outcome of Christ’s finished work. That is, the church is to declare the unity of humanity in Christ, that there is no longer any “wall” or distinction between Jew or Gentile. Through the cross, Christ has reconciled all to God. (4:1-6:20)
The author then directs the reader’s attention to behavior, how we should then live, in light of these realities. Believers need to understand how to relate to non-believers and how to make their stand against forces of darkness. We are called to “live worthy”, functioning as members of a family, with good order, and self-sacrificial love.
The Johannine letters refer to the danger of itinerant teachers who had “gone out” (not “sent”) from a larger fellowship (1 John) to smaller house churches (2 John). These “deceivers,” probably claiming to be “without sin,” may have denied Christ while demonstrating the allure and power of the world. They might compare to those who preach a prosperity gospel and claim a higher form of spirituality.
Today’s congregations are caught in a similar conflict between two extremes: One is the “secular” materialist view, which denies the miraculous and, for some, even the resurrection; and the other is the “sacred” super-spiritual view, which tends to minimize the incarnation. (i.e. “Docetism” and an evangelical form of “Gnosticism”)
John’s letters testify that Jesus came in the flesh, saying “we are eye witnesses!” Jesus is human, but not merely a human being. Docetists believe Jesus only “seems” to have come in the flesh, and only “seems” to have suffered physically. This is a devastatingly dangerous error John warns against.
On the other hand, Jesus is not only spiritual; he is personal, a living soul who walked among his people and was raised from the dead. He is eternally incarnate, forever in human flesh.
Why is false teaching about the incarnation so dangerous? Because failure to understand Jesus’ incarnation will result in a failure to be human. Failure to know Jesus’, his eternal human nature, will result in a failure of personal responsibility. Worse, failure to know Jesus will result in a disregard for life, all of life. Incarnation is inextricably linked to ethical living.
Two forlorn Jewish disciples met a stranger as they were leaving Jerusalem, the center of their world. After hearing them explain that their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, had been crucified, the “uninformed” stranger responded, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 NIV) The resurrected Jesus explained what was plainly written in the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke’s gospel concludes with Jesus’ statement that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47 NIV)
How can this message of Jesus be pronounced “to all nations” if the Jewish people, centered within the context of a national expectation of the coming Messiah, failed to recognize him? If his disciples who walked with him and heard his teaching had failed to understand, what were the implications for the apostles who began to preach the gospel to different cultures? How do different contexts, and different centers of cultural understanding, effect the interpretation of the message? What must we therefore understand about the role of culture in the understanding of the New Testament? After feigning a continued journey, Jesus sat to break bread with his fellow travelers. In an instant his identity was revealed and he left those two disciples with hearts ablaze and compelled to go tell somebody.
In his book, Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Justo González offers helpful insights for Biblical interpretation through cultural paradigms of marginality, poverty, mestizaje and mulatez, exile and aliens, and solidarity. Making use of these paradigms, I will argue that the reinterpretation of the apostle Paul’s identity, the misinterpretation of the gospel message across cultures over the centuries, and the challenge Paul presents to the Church to disarm principalities and powers over cultures are all necessary to overcome the temptation to confuse the message of the gospel. Understanding the role of culture is essential to understanding the New Testament and therefore the mission of the Church.
(This is the first of five posts on this topic. Look for the next in a few days.)
Something about that encounter on the Road to Damascus was so “utterly trustworthy” that Paul was convinced that the God of his fathers had appeared to him in the person of Jesus. God had called Israel to fulfill a purpose, which is the future for all people. This has always been the purpose of Israel’s election. Jesus is the ultimate exodus for Israel and the whole world. Israel’s destiny is summed up in the Messiah. Paul is not teaching Christian dualism and he is not launching a new movement. He is not forming a separate people. However, he is preaching a new message, one of the fulfillment of Israel’s promises, one new humanity.
Throughout his life, Paul was committed to Jewish monotheism. What changed was the depth of his understanding of that “fighting doctrine,” which declares “blasphemous” all other gods, all other philosophies, and all other political loyalties. The contrasting changes and consistencies in Paul’s identity within his faith community, his understanding of the Law, and his eschatological vision were clearly the result of his personal encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Paul realized a vital relationship with the One “true content” of Jewish monotheism, Jesus Christ. Paul became “known” by the God of Israel. (Gal. 4:8-11)
According to the Hebrew scriptures, the Messiah’s coming and Israel’s redemption would result in an in-gathering of all nations. (Isa. 2:3, Mic 4:2) Jewish expectation was that the purposes of God would eventually include the whole world. Paul now understands that Jesus took up Israel’s identity. The good news is that Israel’s representative has succeeded and their true fulfillment is “in Christ.” The embodiment of self-giving love, the self-designated “Son of Man,” gave Saul the task to announce God’s message of reconciliation with sinful humanity. Saul comes to be known as Paul after being sent out with Barnabas on their first missionary journey. As an apostle of Christ Jesus and faithful monotheistic Jew, Paul is chosen as an instrument to fulfill Israel’s mission to all humanity.
Paul met the One who became a human being and a servant, the One who was willing to die for sinners like a criminal and rise as the “firstborn from the dead.” Paul gave up his violent zeal because Jesus made “peace through the blood of his cross.” Paul saw the apocalyptic significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s theology had not changed, however he now understood that the Law, due to human weakness, could not free humankind from the consequences of sin.
Next post: Concluding thoughts on Paul and Judaism
Based on his missionary journeys in the Book of Acts, it’s very likely that among Paul’s letters in our Bibles, his letters to the Thessalonians were probably the first. Paul’s main concern for the Thessalonian believers relates to Christ’s second coming. Nothing has changed. For as long as I can remember, Christians have had similar questions about Christ’s second coming. What can we learn from Paul’s letters regarding the second coming? More than I can relate in this short post.
Because Paul’s first letter shows a curiosity among early Christians about Jesus’ return, we should not be surprised when today’s Christians are also curious.
The Thessalonians were despairing over the long delay of Christ’s return. The fame of their church had spread beyond Macedonia, even though there was apparently little formal church organization. It was truly an organic movement of believers radically committed, no matter what the risk, to a new king, Jesus.
Paul writes to assuage the early Christians’ worries about Christ’s delayed return, especially their questions about those who have already died. This is when the letter gets interesting.
Paul writes about what Christian tradition has called the “rapture.”
Paul writes with pastoral compassion. He is particularly intimate in his first letter, as he not only teaches and corrects, he also admonishes with advice regarding behavior. This is not a private letter. He admonishes the one who receives it to read it aloud for the whole community.
In his second letter, Paul addresses the Thessalonians’ anxiety that Christ may have already returned. They thought they had missed it. This was a festering eschatological confusion, which continues today. In this second letter, Paul is comforting those suffering under persecution and uncharacteristically speaks of the coming wrath and judgment.
Again Paul is primarily addressing apocalyptic issues, which are consistent with his background in apocalyptic Judaism. So what does he say about the rapture?
The return of the Messiah will be sudden and the events preceding his coming will be observable. It will be sudden, like a thief, but it will not be a secret. No, you won’t wake up from your nap on a plane and find your neighbor’s underwear “left behind.”
This notion of being “left behind” is the popular view, but it does not stand up to an honest and thorough study of the scriptures. Jesus is coming. But everyone will know when it happens.
More on this in a later post.
I was fascinated when I recently read how Christian persecution began locally as early believers refused to participate in pagan rituals. Freedom to worship was supposedly protected by Rome. It was a time of relative peace, depending on who you were. Special protections were available to Roman citizens and wealthy landowners in occupied territories. Most everyone but Caesar was taxed, however, even the emperor had to pay tribute to the gods. So why did persecution of the early Christian Church become Roman policy?
The early church practices were very different from local religions in the Roman Empire. The early Christian believers were not isolated ethnic groups worshiping their pagan gods or ancestors. They appeared very different to Roman observers. Their multi-ethnic character and their rapidly spreading distribution made them look like one of two things; they were either a merchant class marketing something throughout the Roman empire, or their were fomenting political revolution. As evidence emerged that these people were declaring a new ruler, Jesus of Nazareth, a peasant Jew who was publicly executed and rose from the dead, the Romans became alarmed. Their political and economic system relied on the ultimate worship of only one god-man, Caesar. This growing movement was worshiping Jesus as Lord!
Most of us know Christians were persecuted in Rome. However too few appreciate how fierce that persecution became and how much it occurs today.
Do Christians experiencing persecution today? Many Western Christians do not experience persecution or martyrdom to the extent that they did in the time of Paul. On the other hand, believers around the world may be experiencing more persecution and martyrdom than any previous period in history. I can’t be sure, however. I’m not sure how well documented are the persecutions in the 7th and 8th centuries, particularly toward the Church of the East.
Consider one of the more recent persecutions of Christians in Orissa, India. This is a briefing from Wikipedia on the total damage:
“According to All India Christian Council, the 2008 violence affected in 14 districts out of 30 and 300 Villages, 4,400 Houses burnt, 50,000 Homeless, 59 People killed including at least 2 pastors, 10 Priests/Pastors/Nuns injured, 18,000 Men, women, children injured, 2 women gang-raped including a nun, 151 Churches destroyed and 13 Schools and colleges damaged. The violence targeted Christians in 310 villages, with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced and homes continued to burn in many villages.  Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in relief camps.  Some of the tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh and took shelter in churches of those districts.”
Dear friends in India are helping hundreds of Orissa refugees right now. You too can help by sponsoring an Orissa Christian for discipleship training.
I want to mention how stories of persecution are close to home for me. First, I must help end the rumor that Youth With A Mission was attacked in Orissa. See this official message for further clarification.
As a YWAMer, I learn of persecutions against our missionary community and fellow Christians around the world. Persecution and martyrdom, such as occurred in Orissa, has not occurred in the West in recent years. But there is persecution. It’s just not reported as such. To find out about it, we may need to read reports from other than secular sources.
In Dec. 2007, two of our Youth With A Mission staff and three others at New Life Church were gunned down in Colorado. The murders were committed by a young man with mental disorder, according to the reports. The response, on the part of the YWAM community, was to forgive and pray for the gunman’s family.
Today, I believe we need to prepare to respond to persecution. The more we are given to Christ’s mission, the more we will experience and taste persecution. Paul’s example in his letter to the church in Philippi, is useful for us:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
From my experience, evangelical churches are largely Gnostic, which removes Jesus from much of any daily practical consequence.
Today’s church leaders need to consider the incarnation of Christ. Jesus incarnation is eternal, therefore the practical concerns related to Jesus’ resurrected body (and eventually our own) are eternal. Because he has eyes, ears, and a nose, arms to embrace, and taste-buds to enjoy foods, every facet of our physical existence has an eternal stamp of Jesus incarnation on it. Education, Government, Media, Arts, Sciences, every Social and Cultural concern today will have a fuller appreciation in the resurrection. If trees are for healing nations, as it states in John’s Revelation, perhaps there will still need for some further healing between peoples, such as Palestinians and Israelis.
The question this all raises for liberals and conservatives is this: How then should we live? Should we not engage every facet of our existence on this green earth with respect to the resurrected Christ?
A great friend from over 20 years ago asked me this question: “Is the church to be a transformational community of believers or a reformational community of believers or both and if both which is to be first?” He writes: “Whatever is first will determine purpose, values, vision and mission.”
I think the Church will always have a core of thorough-going martyrs, who’ve carried their cross to their ultimate death to self. Others are following from a distance, like Peter after his denial of Christ. They are conflicted, knowing they need a savior and willing to make personal sacrifice, but too often out of self-righteous motives. The trick is telling the difference between the core and the cultural Christians. Jesus spoke to 500 when he ascended to heaven, but then only 120 actually obeyed and waited in the upper room.
So, transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit through the community of the atonement, those who have taken up their cross to follow Christ. Reformation may only be outer adjustments, priorities, and structures. Still, reformation is necessary. Consider Christ’s declaration that he is the “Bread of Life.” That was a sort of reformation, causing many to refocus their priorities and perhaps become core believers.