a bit monkish.
Nerd alert: Yesterday I read portions of "Apology" by Tertullian. Tertullian was in a legal profession in the Roman Empire around the year 200. It’s said that when he was in his early 40s and still a pagan he witnessed a group of Christians being executed in an arena. He was so struck by the peace in their lives and the character they exhibited as they were about to face death, he began to explore Christianity and found Christ.
Tertullian’s Apology is rich with real-world illustrations of Christianlife in the Roman Empire. Through Tertullian we how early Christians worshipped, why they took an offering, and their view of the theater, sporting events, gladiatorial games, and other aspects of society.
What strikes me about Tertullian’s description of Christians in the Roman Empire during his lifetime is how removed from Roman society they were. Much of the derision Christians faced came from those who criticized their withdrawal from much of what Romans enjoyed about life. The Christians may have been Roman citizens, but they wanted little part of Roman society.
Church growth experts today tell us that we need to become part of society in order to transform it. By infiltrating the godless culture around us, we’re able to identify with people, so the relationships we have with them will create trust. This trust gives us permission to share Christ with them.
However, Christians in Tertullian’s day intentionally withdrew from society so they would not be negatively impacted spiritually by it - and the church grew exponentially.
What drew people to the Christian faith was, according to Tertullian, the love they exhibited towards one another. Quoting what has been speculated as a phrase he heard often by pagans about Christians, Tertullian writes, “‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” It wasn’t a church planting strategy, or church growth model, or a strategic plan, or even leadership development. What attracted people to Jesus Christ was the love Christians had for one another.
Study after study demonstrate that Christians in North America have the same view of morality and culture as those who are not professing Christians. We are not withdrawing from the culture around us - we’re embracing it. For example, it’s becoming common for Christian couples to profess their love for Jesus and see the Bible as the Word of God, yet they live together before getting married. We see no inconsistency between reading or watching Fifty Shades of Grey on Saturday night and then teaching Sunday School on Sunday morning. We sing songs in worship about loving one another, yet we can’t agree on how $50 should be spent in the church or what color the carpet should be. They early Christians had found Jesus. They had no need for what the world had to offer.
When those outside the faith see us, are we known for our character, convictions, and our love, or for something else? The early Christians held very conservative moral positions, yet they were known for their love towards others. Sadly, sometimes we separate those two instead of binding them together.
As one of the many souls in the “great cloud of witnesses,” I wonder what Tertullian and other church fathers and mothers who suffered persecution for their faith think when they see the 21st Century church.
Actually, maybe it’s best if I don’t know.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.