My pastor sent me a screen shot of something that looked like it was posted on Facebook. It was a meme of sorts that showed the following comparison between the early church and modern Christianity. The quality of the picture wasn’t good enough to post so I’ve reproduced the content below:
|WILLING TO SELL EVERYTHING THEY HAD FOR THE GOSPEL||BUY A NICE HOUSE IN THE SUBURBS, SUV, AND GO TO SOCIAL CLUB CALLED CHURCH|
|BEATEN, WHIPPED, MURDERED, DEPRIVED, IMPRISONED FOR THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL||STAYS IN COZY CHURCH BUILDING HOLDING EVENTS HOPING PEOPLE COME|
|TAUGHT SOUND DOCTRINE, STUDIED TO SHOW SELF APPROVED UNTO GOD||WATERED DOWN MESSAGES THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH SCRIPTURE|
|BELIEVERS DILIGENT TO LEARN ALL SCRIPTURE||SOCALLED BELIEVERS THAT KNOW A FEW VERSES THAT TICKLE THEIR FANCY|
|WILLING TO PICK UP CROSS||NOT WILLING TO DO ANYTHING|
|LIGHT TO THE WORLD, LIVED A SET APART LIFE, ACTED AS A LIVING EXAMPLE||WANTS TO BLEND IN AND DO EVERYTHING THAT PAGANS DO|
|ABOUT OTHERS||ABOUT ME, ME, ME, ME, ME|
|GENUINE LOVE FOR OTHERS||PUT ON A PHONEY SHOW|
I have a big problem with this kind of thinking for several reasons. To start, it idealizes the early church and acts as if it was perfect, without warts of any sort. But this isn’t the picture we see when we take the entire New Testament into account.
Think of Paul’s harsh rebuke to the Corinthians! There was a group of people who were immature, selfish, engaged in sexual immorality, idolatry, class discrimination, and a host of other sins. They were far from perfect and pale in comparison to many modern congregations. And issues like this weren’t limited to pagans turned believers in Jesus.
James wrote to Jewish believers in the diaspora and had to correct selfish prayer practices; class discrimination; and a general lack of the kind of action that proves faith. Or to go back to Paul; the pastoral epistles are full of warnings and rebukes about corrupt elders; false doctrine that had crept in; and congregants who wanted to have their ears tickled with happy-go-lucky messages. Examples could easily be multiplied.
But please don’t misunderstand me; the fact that there were issues with many of the early Christians doesn’t somehow devalue the whole movement. It’s not as if everyone was corrupt. Conversely, the worst examples of today’s believers don’t represent all of the modern church and that’s another issue I have with lists like this. They intentionally exclude information that runs counter to the point they’re making.
The truth is that there are missionaries in many parts of the world giving their lives for the gospel as I type this. There are selfless Christians all over the place, even in the wealthiest suburbs. There are countless believers who labor in prayer, and Bible study, and lead godly lives that are a witness to the goodness and grace of Christ!
My point is that there’s a false dichotomy at work in the above list. It acts as if the entirety of the old was good while the entirety of the new is bad. But we can easily flip the script and take the best examples of the modern church and compare them to the worst of the ancient church. But pitting the old against the new isn’t the way to do things; we can recognize the good and bad in both and then talk about continuity and discontinuity and ponder the reasons for each.