Listening to Tommy Nelson teach Church History in the last two weeks, caused a minor crisis of faith in me. It brought all manner of questions and emotions bubbling to the surface. Like so many of the things we see, a quick look at the history of Christianity will make you throw up your hands and ask the Lord what's He's up to.
To begin working through some of these questions, I've started reading Bruce Shelly's Church History In Plain Language. Five chapters in, and helpful nuggets about the history of Christ's church are jumping off the page. Like most stories, this one starts with the beginning—the early church. After a very brief retelling of the life and ministry of Christ, Shelley picks up the trail of the rag tag group entrusted with carrying forth the good news of the gospel to the whole world. "They knew," Shelley said, "man had been redeemed and they could not keep to themselves the tidings of salvation."
This young movement of God upon the earth exploded on to the scene. It spread like nothing ever seen before or since. The burning conviction of early Christians and their remarkable love were not the only means the Lord used to spread the story of Calvary however. He also used the persecution of the church to publicize the Christian faith. "The blood of the martyrs," Tertullian said, "is the seed of the church."
Why did Rome persecute Christians in the first place? And what can we learn from these early Christians that might aide us in our time?
The distinctive lifestyle of early Christians not only set them apart from the crowds, but quickly made them a target.
"The Christians," Bruce Shelly said, "on the other hand, were always talking about their Jesus. They were out to make Christians of the entire population of the empire, and the rapidity of their spread showed that this was no idle dream. Not only did they, like the Jews, refuse to worship the emperor as a living god, but they were doing their utmost to convince every subject of the emperor to join them in their refusal." I love the simple and clear picture of the first thing that marked early Christians, they, "were always talking about their Jesus." It conjures to the mind an image of believers striking up spiritual conversations and sharing the good news of the gospel with such regularity that it appeared to be all they ever talked about. They were filled with such zeal for Christ that they were on a mission to see everyone converted to faith in Christ.
"Simply by living according to the teachings of Jesus," Shelley said, "the Christian was a constant unspoken condemnation of the pagan way of life. It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self-righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life." When you do the right thing, not everyone is going to like it. It's true today, and it most certainly was true for the early church. By refusing to do things contrary to the teachings of Christ, the early church was hated, ridiculed and despised by many. "Conformity," Shelley points out, "not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble-free life." Early Christians were unwilling to go along to get along. They knew that faithfulness to Christ was greater and more valuable than avoiding difficulties.
"The early Christian," Shelley said, "was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time if he wanted to be true to his Lord. This meant that everywhere the Christian turned, his life and faith were on display because the gospel introduced a revolutionary new attitude toward human life." Christian views on a host of issues marked them as different from everyone else because they didn't just talk about their views, they lived by them. No matter what it cost these early Christians, they held to their values, principles and the truth. Their faith influenced their day to day lives and put it on display for the world to see.
To recap, the early church was persecuted and maligned by society for always talking about Christ and living distinct lives driven by conviction and faith. Does this sound like church you know? Does it sound like you and I? How are we doing if compare ourselves against the example of the early church?
I've got a lot of work to do personally. My speech isn't seasoned with the good news of the gospel near enough and my life by and large looks similar to everyone else's. But I'm working on it. I'm taking these things in to the presence of the Lord in prayer and asking Him to create this in me by the power of the Holy Spirit. And I'm praying the same for you as well.