Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ancient Perspective on Evangelism

Over the past few years, I have read some interesting studies on the evangelism of the church in the first three centuries. What really jumps out at me is the high level of unyielding expectation alongside the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that brings true freedom, community, and joy. The early Church preached Christ as the ultimate victor.

In contrast to conversion of Jews which took place in a very short period of time, conversion of pagan gentiles usually took more time. Unlike Jews, pagans had little concept of God, his word, biblical ethics, godly virtue, etc. The church tended to classify pagans in the process of conversion as moving from being a seeker to a, hearer, to a kneeler, to faithful. The time of being a seeker was a time for Christian inquiry. The time of being a hearer was the time of receiving Christian instruction. The kneeler phase was the time of intense spiritual preparation for baptism. After baptism, the faithful were completely incorporated into and nurtured to mature faith by the church. So the early church had developed a clearly defined process of discipleship for those seeking to become a Christian.

Hippolytus was an elder in the church who was born in the later part of the 2nd century. He was a disciple of Irenaeus who was a disciple of Polycarp, elder of Smyrna, who in turn was a disciple of John the Apostle. His writing, known as "The Apostolic Tradition," was an attempt to maintain the practices of the 2nd century church, which he saw being corrupted. Therefore, his writings give a window into the practice of the 2nd century church.

When Hippolytus writes about evangelism, the picture we get is that no one was in a hurry to get pagans into the water. Since they were so clearly enmeshed in pagan thought, belief, world-view, and lifestyle, there would be a period of instruction and clear guidance as to what repentance means. It is clear that considerable thought went into what repentance means for pagans who wished to become Christians. Keep in mind that this is before the time of Constantine when Christianity became fashionable. At the time of Hippolytus, the church was still on the margins of society. Here is an excerpt from Hippolytus' The Apostolic Traditions, concerning those who were in the process of converting to Christianity:

"15:1 Those who are newly brought forward to hear the Word shall first be brought before the teachers at the house, before all the people enter.
2Then they will be questioned concerning the reason that they have come forward to the faith. Those who bring them will bear witness concerning them as to whether they are able to hear.
3They shall be questioned concerning their life and occupation, marriage status, and whether they are slave or free."

What follows is a long list of various acceptable and unacceptable occupations and marital situations. Those involved in unacceptable situations or occupations were to change or "be rejected." Those involved in Romans entertainment, whether gladiatorial shows, dramatic shows, or other types of entertainment had to be rejected. Christian took a dim view of Roman entertainment because so much of it involved killing. A government official who wore purple had to resign or be rejected, probably due to his duty of carrying out capital punishment and the required allegiance to Ceasar. In fact, anyone involved in an occupation involving allegiance to Caesar or activity that was contrary to Christian ethics had to cease. If one was a military man in authority, he was not to execute anyone and was not to take military oaths. Christian's not already in military service were not to seek it. Then there are the more obvious changes that needed to take place, such as the pimps, prostitutes, pagan priests, or the one who is living in sexual sins.

This clearly demonstrates the early church's attitude toward the world. It was very clear that conversion meant a turning away from commitment to the rulers and authorities of this world and turn allegiance to Christ as Lord, living in community with his people. They were the Kingdom of God under the eternal lordship of Christ the victor king, and therefore refused any activity or occupation that either demanded allegiance to Caesar or involved activity contrary to Christian ethics. Expectations were clearly high. Their negative view toward Roman entertainment and their rejection of many, many "respectable" trades due to their connection with paganism, and their rejection of public office put Christians on the margins of society. Repentance was not merely saying one believed Jesus is the Son of God, but is was also about declaring allegiance to him. Anything and everything that conflicted with that allegiance was rejected. The Kingdom was social, political, and spiritual. It meant re-identification as a citizen of the kingdom. They didn't worry so much about public "respectability" and acceptance as they did about walking with Christ in his Kingdom which transcends this world.

Would setting the bar so high dampen the desire to become a Christian? It did not. In spite of the fact that Christians were marginalized at best and persecuted or killed at worst, a steady stream of genuine converts entered the church.

But there was another side to this picture. Christians were among the most compassionate people due to their conviction of the sanctity of life. The regularly rescued abandoned babies, rejected abortion, which often killed the mother along with the baby or rendered the mothers infertile. When pagans ran from disease, danger and other such things in an attempt for self-preservation, Christians sacrificially stayed behind and cared for the sick, destitute, and the helpless. Christians had a close bond with each other and took care of each other. There was a "social security" among Christians that amazed the pagans. If a seeker quit his trade in preparation to becoming a Christian because it was unethical or ungodly, he could rest assured the church would help him get on his feet so he could support his family. In fact, several early church writers referred to the church as "mother." What they meant by this is that the church's role in addition to evangelism was the nurture of believers into a mature faith.

As I reflect on all of this, here are some good qualities I see in the early church that we can learn from:

1) Clarity: The early church had a clear understanding of what their place in life was. They were not of this world and had been transferred to the Kingdom of God, which re-characterized their affections, loyalties, beliefs, and attitudes. They were citizens of Heaven, not of this world. They were very specific about what this meant in daily life. The Gospel of liberty freed them from bondage to the principalities of this world and united them to Christ as their ruler. Repentance was literally a change in life, not just something to be done "at church." No one coming to baptism would have been unclear as to what "conversion" meant.

2) Conviction: The early church was passionate about their loyalty to Christ as King, Lord, and Victor over the rulers, powers, and authorities. They were passionate about living as loyal citizens of the kingdom in a hostile world. Unlike many of the pagan religions, Christianity was not just a series of religious rituals, it was a lifestyle, a philosophy, and true template through which to view all of life.

3) Openness: The process of discipleship revealed that the church was open to outsiders. Among them were those who were "seeking" or "hearing" but not yet converted and fully incorporated into the church which happened at baptism

4) Compassion: The church had a reputation for compassion. Unlike pagans, they cared for their own and even cared for outsiders. Ministry to the poor, caring for the outcast, adopting children that were discarded, caring for the elderly, and the equal status among slave and free, men and women, foreigner and native all as brethren stood in sharp contrast to the pagan culture around them. This was perhaps the strongest apologetic for the Christian faith.

5) Nurture: The church had very clear steps for outsiders, especially for those with a pagan background. The classifications, seeker, hearer, kneeler, and faithful made it clear what stage they were at and white kind of nurture they needed. The rigorous instruction, mentoring, and nurture firmly grounded believers in the faith in a world they were no longer of. They taught them how to live in two worlds with their loyalty clearly in the next.

So, here is something to reflect on. What can we learn from our brethren 1800-1900 years ago?


For further Reading:

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission.

Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church.

Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community.

______________. Journey to Jesus: The Worship Evangelism, and Nurture Mission of the Church.

White Light and Black Light

It couldn't have happened at a better time. I had just finished preaching a sermon about light and darkness earlier that day. Jesus is the true light who "lightens up" everything (Jn 1:9). There is nothing to do in the darkness except grope and stumble.

And there I was after dark, running across the yard with the dog. Well, running until I stepped in one of his ongoing projects - a hole that he has been digging on. POP! I felt something snap in my angle…and the pain! Never felt pain quite like that. I was completely helpless laying in the yard. I couldn't get up. To top it off, the dog was climbing on me. He is just a puppy, so I don't know whether he thought I was playing or he was concerned.

The world is in darkness, and many do not even realize it. Oh, there is light, but it is not the true light. It will light "some" things up, but not everything. I like to use a blacklight to illustrate this. It will light some things up, but not everything. What it does light up does not appear as it really is because the colors will be off. There will be dangers that do not show up.

Some examples that I can think of include such things as the current way of dating. It seems rather harmless on the surface. A new boyfriend or girlfriend every week? What could be the harm? Everyone is doing it. Yet, I wonder how continuing a pattern of using people until they are used up will affect a person? I wonder how the casual going together followed by break ups desensitize people to the ravages of divorce? Whether it is for popularity, to fit in, or some other reason, is this really a good thing? A better question - is this a godly thing?

Then there is the "faith is private" message so prevalent today. I hear it often these days. "Religion should have nothing to do with public policy." Whether it is the ethics of medical research, the direction of public policies, or the education of our young people, religion no longer has a public place. God has been replaced by science, psychology, sociology, and other things of this nature. The result is voodoo science that no one sees as voodoo science. Whether embryonic stem cell research, abortion, cloning, so called' euthanasia, and other such things, the guiding principle seems to be pragmatics. But is pure pragmatics good? Many of the Hitlers and the Stalins of the world sure seemed to think so. The sad thing is that when Hitler was committing some of his most atrocious acts, much of the religious community did nothing. Faith was a private, not a public matter. In matters of public policy, the church took a hands off policy.

The scary thing is that in our country faith is considered a private matter much more so than in Europe a century ago. Professing Christians often do not see God as a relevant part of their world, only in their religious devotion. That is why you can have contradictory public figures who profess faith in God and the Bible as his word yet hold social and political ideologies that are contrary to the nature and will of God. They have divided truth up into secular truth and religious truth. Secular truth is the truth of science, history, medicine, etc. It is seen as public, objective, universal truth. Religious truth is seen as private, subjective, and personal. This is not "true" light. It is black light.

I have come to realize that "secularism" is an illusion of supposed enlightened minds. The word "secular" is less than 200 years old, so you will not find it in scripture. The concept does not even exist in scripture. Why? According to scripture, God is the creator and sustainer of the world.

"For by Him all things were created, {both} in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col 1:16-17).

This is God's world, it all belongs to him.

"The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1).

Many today use a world that comes from the field of anthropology, "World View." In primitive places in the world, they speak of an "animistic worldview" that sees the world and all of it objects as full of spirits who need to be appeased. In our country, there is the secularist world view that divides the world up into religious and secular. But the Biblical world view is that the world and everything belongs to God and is accountable to God.

"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse" (Rom 1:20).

God was involved in world affairs of people other than Israel. Some more well known examples come from Nineveh through Jonah and Babylon followed by the Persians and the Medes through Daniel. In fact, God refers to Cyrus as his "anointed" (Isa 45:1). Amos 6:2 seems to imply that God had done something among places we know nothing about.

A biblical world-view is a huge subject to tackle. There is a biblical and theological view of everything, whether it is medical ethics, politics, history, science, philosophy, or mathematics. Most classes on these subjects, even in Christian schools, do not begin with God as the foundation of whatever discipline is being studied. There was a time when biblical theology was considered the "Queen of all the sciences." This world view no longer dominates the world of academia.

The question always to ask is this - where is God in this? How does God view this? How does the nature and character of God affect this? If you are not used to thinking this way, then it will be hard. Resist the inclination to try and avoid or explain away uncomfortable conclusions, especially conclusions that suggest you need to do an overhaul in your thinking or practice. If not, then you have blacklight. It may look cool, it may draw more attention, it may be more acceptable. However, at best that will lead you into the potholes rather than the glory of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the true light, and we need to see our lives, activity, our world through his eyes.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Musings About What is Important

I have been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on the nature of love. There are those that define love in so many ways. There was a time when I would have automatically thought of unbelievers as being the ones who have all of these various ways of defining love. But I have come to realize that many Christians have unknowingly fallen into the trap of defining love according to their own pre-conceived notions, friends, culture, etc.

In a recent teen gathering, one of the young men made the distinction between what he described as "Love," and "Lo-----ve (said with oogly emotions)." The former is true love, the love that Christ commanded in John 13 when he said, "I new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have love you…" It is not "lo-----ve" that puts butterflies in your stomach, that might be hear this week and gone the next. It is not the puppy love that star struck people have experienced. It is the love that God has demonstrated. I was glad to hear that these young people already beginning to have a good handle on what real love is.

But in my experience, I have both seen and heard twisted definitions of love. I still remember Steve's dad, Larry. He was gruff and emotionally abusive. I am not sure if he was every physically, abusive, but it wouldn't have surprised me because sometimes there was evidence of what looked like physical abuse on his wife. This was a man who regularly yelled at his wife and kids. If they didn't get good enough grades, didn't act polite enough, didn't come home on time, or when the kids were younger, if they went across the street, he would yell at them, lecture them, and often demean them in his tone of voice and in what he said. Most of us without hesitation described him as mean and self-centered. Most of his conversations were full of himself. He rarely truly listened to what other people were saying unless it was to use it against them, win an argument, or something like that. The befuddling thing about Larry is that he thought this was okay. He used to tell people that he was trying to care for his family, and at times he would even say it was because he loved them. In reality, he was trying to justify his meanness under the guise that it was love. The reason he was such a hot-head, the reason he could be so mean, the reason he was an unsafe person, according to himself, is because he loved.

I eventually learned that his wife, Tammy, had grown up with a Father not unlike Larry and an emotionally and physically distant mother. Tammy never really understood what love was. Her Dad "loved" her so much he used to abuse her. It wasn't until Tammy became a Christian that she began to experience Christian love. To make a long story short, she tried to get into some counseling, but Larry refused. Out of concern for her children and herself, for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, Tammy separated from Larry. Tammy and her kids began to experience Christian love from brethren in the church. It was not harsh, but gentle and kind. At first it frightened her. But as her faith grew, her love grew as well.

Love. What is it? Tammy only began to understand it after experiencing it through the kindness of Christians and through spending regular time in God's word. She began to see Jesus as the perfect husband, and how she could be a godly mother to her children by following his example.

Love is not what we say it is. Love is what God demonstrates. Love is what God says it is. One interesting feature about the most common word for Christian love in the New Testament is the word chosen to express it, "agape." It is interesting that this word is used very, very little in secular Greek literature of the day. In secular literature, things like "philia" (affection) and "eros" (fleshly love) are commonly found. But in scripture, agape is used profusely for Christian love and the love of God. The fact that many writers did not use the more common "philia" for love, but chose the rarely used "agape," itself shows that the godly concept of love differed from what the culture at large thought of.

This is why it is so important to spend time in the word. The word of God is the "sword of the Spirit," according to Ephesians 6. The word will help to combat worldliness. It will help fight off acceptance of a worldly concept of love.

1 Corinthians 13 gives an explicit description of "agape." This "agape" chapter tells us first of all that, "Agape is patient, agape is kind." Tammy experienced patience and kindness in that group of Christians. The harsh "love" of her husband and father was not Christian love, in spite of the fact that Larry called it "love." 1 Corinthians 13 also says that "agape does not act unbecomingly." Another way to put it is that it does not act in an ugly way. It is kind. Larry was one of the most unbecoming men we knew at the time.

When it comes to love, I think Christians everywhere need to remember that it is the greatest command and that all of our service, all of the Bible hinges on love. Jesus said the entire law and the prophets rest on the command to love God and love our neighbor. I recall that Jesus was a kind and loving person. Usually when he was harsh, it was with the abusers, such as the Pharisees, whom he described as "white-washed tombs." But overall, the scriptures tell us that Jesus was righteous and full of compassion and kindness. Jesus demonstrated the love of God. Jesus demonstrated real and genuine love.

One of my favorite illustrations of the nature of love is to talk about fake plastic food that you sometimes find in food displays in the store. Sometimes they are very real looking. I remember picking up a block of cheese, only to discover it was not real cheese. It was rubber! Let's say you look at a barbeque grill and there is a steak on it. You can't tell whether it is real or not. One way to test it is to light up the grill and start grilling the steak. If it were a real steak, what would happen? It would first start to sizzle. It would let off a pleasing aroma. Juices would start running off the steak as it begins to turn into a golden brown color. You stomach would start growling as you anticipate a good steak. And if you like a good steak, it would still be pink in the middle and brown on the outside and served with… well, you get the picture.

Now, lets say it is a plastic steak. What would happen then? It sure wouldn't sizzle, but would start to melt. Instead of a pleasing aroma, it would let off toxic fumes. Instead of your stomach growling, you would probably get sick to your stomach at the fumes. Instead of turning brown, the steak would melt and turn into an ugly, sticking, useless black lump of burnt plastic.

That is the different between "real" love, the love of God, and other kinds of love. When the heat gets turned up, when things get ugly, when it gets hard, self-defined plastic love gets ugly. It can even make you sick, just as we were sickened at Larry's brand of love. However, "real" love turns into something even more pleasing. There is no more powerful demonstration of this than Jesus at the end of his ministry washing the feet of Judas, comforting one of the thieves on the cross, or praying for his persecutors as he hung there. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13:8, "Agape never fails."

I believe that if we as husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, co-workers, friends, and brethren base our relationships on this so very different "agape," then our relationships will never fail.

How important is love? Here are some clear answers:

"And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets" (Mt 22:37-40).

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have {the gift of} prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed {the poor,} and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor 13:1-3).

What is love? Here is a very good description:

Love is patient,
love is kind
and is not jealous;
love does not brag
and is not arrogant,
does not act unbecomingly,
it does not seek its own,
is not provoked,
does not take into account a wrong suffered,
does not rejoice in unrighteousness,

but rejoices with the truth;
bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails;…" (1 Cor 13:4-8).

What is love? Here is an excellent definition to spend reflection time on:

"…God is love" (1 Jn 4:8).