Preface: I was born in 1973 to a couple of Baptists. I’ve never been to the first century, or a synagogue in any century. Nor have I been Jewish or middle eastern. All I know about church in the first century comes from a stack of books, old documents, the lifelong research of some modern smart guys and a vivid imagination. Oh, and I have some biases, bunches of them actually. So I’m not to be trusted when I tell you stuff about it.
I’m fairly certain the early church (before about 300 AD) understood the central message of Jesus differently than we modern protestants tend to (I know there are exceptions, there always are.) What is this central message of Jesus? Mark chapter one says that Jesus preached the Good News everywhere He went, which is this: The time has come, the kingdom of heaven has arrived. Repent.
Kingdom of heaven:
Kingdom of heaven today means a place we go when we die. In the early church, the smart guys say, it meant the present and future reign of God – everything broken is fixed, God’s will is done on earth right now by us.
Repentance today means being sorry for sins committed and deciding not to do them any more. In the early church, the smart guys say, repentance meant transferring allegiance from Caesar and self to King Jesus, from Rome to Heaven, and acting like it – a total change in the direction of loyalty resulting in a changed life.
Am I wrong to suggest that the central message of Jesus is the thing that’s supposed to be central to us Christians – we’re “little Christs” after all – and therefore also central to gatherings of Christians called “church?” Two churches that understand the central message of Christ differently will differ in a lot of ways – they’re built on different foundations, leaning in different directions as a result. Am I right here?
Membership today means agreeing to be counted by a church’s pastors and denomination. In the early church, the smart guys say, membership wasn’t a concept. You didn’t become a member; you became a Christian.
A Christian today (In protestant America, in general) is a person who admits she is a sinner, believes Jesus died for her sins and confesses that Jesus is the payment for that sin. In the early church, the smart guys say, a Christian was a person who was catechized (learned about the teachings of Christianity) for about two years (some less, some more) and then stood before a congregation and took part in a ceremony in which they pledged their allegiance to King Jesus and then spat in the face of Satan/at the ground.
Spitting today is not allowed in church…unless you’re playing softball. In the early church, the smart guys say, spitting was a declaration of war. Christians spat in the face of Satan/at the ground to enter the war on Satan and all forms of evil in their own lives and all around them using every resource they had.
The central message of Jesus, the good reason He came to earth and did all He did and left behind the Church (all us Christians) and churches (Christian gatherings of some sort we can’t yet agree on here), was to defeat evil and replace it with His rule right now. My theory is that our understanding of this central message determines to a great degree what we believe church/Church is. Is that true for you?
How good is your church (defined by you however you want for now) at putting into practice the central message of Jesus? Is it central to your church? Am I right to suggest that this central message is foundational to why we go to church (or don’t) and how we are the Church?
I wonder if I’ve put the whats before the whys when thinking about church. In the comments of the last two posts you guys did the same thing. We’ve provided stellar well-intentioned lists of things church should do and offer here over the last two days: music, community, service opportunities, accountability, leadership, mentors, giving, a hedge against heretics, teaching etc. What I don’t naturally start with when I describe church (in whatever form) is WHY it exists. Seems backward to me. I’m trying now to start with the good reason it exists and work from there to find a good reason for me going or not going or both. To me the Good News, this central message of Jesus, seems like the clearest why we’re given, the best reason, I can find for church (in any form). What do you think? Is there a better one? If you asked your pastor or yourself why church exists, what would the answer be?