Christianity has changed over the years. This change has not taken place in Christianity’s core beliefs, which are substantially the same as they were at the beginning. The change has happened in its outward expressions. The soul of the faith is little altered; its body has changed.
When the faith began, it was considered a sect of Judaism. Its first members were all Jews, Jewish proselytes and Gentile worshipers of Israel’s God. This remained true for years, but eventually non-Jews, including those who had never expressed any interest in Judaism, began putting their faith in the Jewish Messiah.
Crossing that border strained the early church and forced her to think theologically about the relationship between Gentiles and Jews and the relationship between both groups and God. For the most part, the transition from Jewish sect to world faith was successfully made, and the Christ-followers, both Jews and Gentiles, viewed themselves as one new people – a new humanity united by faith in the God of Jesus.
That ethnically diverse early church, unlike its later manifestations, had almost no sway in society as a whole. The church had little money, few influential members, and scarcely any property. When they met together, it was not in ornate and spacious sanctuaries but in members’ homes. Christians had no voice in civil government and Christianity was condemned as an illicit religion. During the first 250 years of the church, there were periods when Christians were routinely stripped of property, imprisoned and even executed.
Yet under these unfavorable conditions, faith in Jesus Christ spread across the Roman Empire. People were converting to Christianity in large numbers, not because they were forced but because they believed the good news about God that Christians were sharing. There were times in those first two centuries when becoming a Christian made no social or financial – or even legal – sense, and yet people were choosing to become Christians in increasing numbers.
After the Emperor Constantine decreed an official tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD, the church began to prosper materially. Christians could finally meet openly, and within twenty years church buildings were springing up. Government officials went public about their faith. The church became influential in society.
Contrast the early church’s social powerlessness to the medieval church’s social dominance. Kings and princes acknowledged their allegiance to the church. Daily life was ordered around the activities of the church. Sundays were no longer work days, as they had once been, but days for people to go to church. When the church spoke, rulers trembled, and what the church wanted, she got.
The hegemony of the church faded with the Protestant Reformation, and faded even further with the secularization of the Enlightenment. In Europe and America, Christendom’s social dominance diminished rapidly after the Second World War. Many Christians have bemoaned this loss of power while many secularist has cheered it, but both have seen it as a serious blow to the wellbeing of the church.
I’m not so sure. Though some Christians feel threatened by the loss of cultural influence, it may turn out to be the bitter pill that saves a weakened church from its addiction to power and comfort. Christians may turn their eyes back to Jesus and away from cultural clout. Instead of a mad, every-man-for-himself scramble for the American Dream, Christians may again seek God’s kingdom and discover there the riches of a relationship with God and each other.
The church will not be revitalized – “revived,” as we Evangelicals like to say – apart from change. But change can be discomfiting, even threatening. Perhaps the change the church is now (unwillingly) going through – the loss of moral authority and cultural dominance – will provide the context for a spiritual revival. Instead of an organization bloated with uncommitted members and distracted by competing loyalties, it can again be a healthy and agile body, responsive to Christ and helpful to the world.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/8/2016