Practical, Visible Christianity

Christians today love to argue doctrines. The problem is, almost all the doctrine we argue is theoretical and cannot be tested. There is nothing practical about our doctrines; there are no ways to see whether they work.

Our forefathers did not see Christianity this way. Theirs was a practical, visible Christianity.

It was a Christianity that is “real world” and that could only be justified if it produced results.

Early Christian Arguments for Christianity

Christianity in its early days was not a major world religion. Paul’s first churches were likely very small, and even by the 2nd century Christians were a small, unpopular, and often persecuted “cult.”

Rumors abounded concerning them. Among the most popular were that they engaged in orgies, tricked new converts into killing babies, then forced them to eat the babies.

Between the rumors and the fact that Christianity was a product of Judaism, but didn’t keep any Jewish rituals (circumcision, animal sacrifices, Sabbath-keeping, and kosher foods), Christians found the need to explain and defend Christianity on a regular basis. Some of those defenses, called “apologies,” are still extant for us to read.

Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this: that we do not live according to the Law [of Moses], are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe Sabbaths as you do? Are our lives and customs also slandered among you? And I ask this: have you also believed … that we eat men; and that after the feast, having extinguished the lights, we engage in promiscuity? (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 10, c. A.D. 150)

Over and over, the early Christian answer is that their lives are marked by a righteousness that all acknowledge as good and godly.

An excellent example is Trypho’s response to Justin after his statement in the quote above. First, Trypho acknowledges that he doesn’t believe the rumors of cannablism and promiscuity. Then, he expresses surprise that Christians expect a reward from God when they don’t keep his “commandments.”

This is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious and supposing yourselves to be better than others, are not separated from them in any particular way. You do not alter your mode of living from that of the nations, in that you observe no festivals or Sabbaths, and you do not have the rite of circumcision. Further, resting your hopes on a crucified man, you still expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey his commandments! Have you not read that the soul will be cut off from God who is not circumcised on the eighth day? (ibid.)

To Trypho, a Jew, righteousness consisted of rituals like festivals and circumcision that separated the Jews from the cultures around them. As a result, despite knowing of the remarkable lives of Christians, he considered them disobedient to God.

I am aware that your precepts in the so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no one can keep them, for I have carefully read them. (ibid.)

The fact is, though, that because of “resting your hopes in a crucified man,” the Christians were keeping them!

And if you wish to compare Christians with yourselves, then even if in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you. You forbid, yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives. You punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin. You are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are afraid even of our own consciences, without which we cannot exist. Finally, from your numbers the prisons boil over, but there is no Christian there unless he is accused on account of his religion or has deserted it. (Minucius Felix, The Octavius, c. 150 – 230)

Justin explains to Trypho what really matters to God:

If, therefore, God proclaimed a new covenant … and this for a light of the nations [which Justin had just quoted Hebrew Scripture to prove], we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety. (Justin, ibid. 11)

What piety was Justin talking about?

We have seen already that Minucius Felix chose avoiding adultery, guarding our thoughts, living by our consciences, and avoiding crimes to illustrate righteousness. We have also seen that Trypho knew about “precepts in the so-called Gospel … so wonderful and so great.”

Surely Trypho is referring to things such as those we read in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus said the humble, the poor in spirit, the merciful, and those who endure persecution are those who are blessed (Matt. 5:3-12). He adds that we will be judged on the last day for our care for those in need that we have met (Matt. 25:31-46).

The early Christians agree that these are the things that matter:

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 11, A.D. 177)

He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil. And this indeed is proved in the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow travelers when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business. (Justin, First Apology 16, c. A.D. 150)

It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to label us. “See,” they say, “How they love one another!” For they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. “How they are ready even to die for one another!” For they themselves will sooner put to death. They are angry with us, too, because we call each other brothers and sisters. … But perhaps the very reason we are regarded as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. (Tertullian, Apology 39, c. A.D. 210)

God’s Foundation

Paul once said that the sure, firm foundation of God has an inscription on it (2 Tim. 2:19). According to the apostle, it says two things:

  • The Lord knows those who are his.
  • Let those who name the name of Christ depart from iniquity.

Over the last 2,000 years, have we found new foundations to lay? Or perhaps new and additional inscriptions to write on God’s foundation?

Conclusion

That last sentence would have made a good ending, but I have to pass on one more thought.

On the last day, which Jesus described in Matthew 25:31-46, is the great Judge of all going to add the doctrines that matter to modern Christians in his judgment of the sheep and the goats? While we’ve been learning new ways to judge who is a sheep and who isn’t, has Jesus been learning, too? Is he changing his plans for the final judgment?

I suspect that his plans for the judgment have not changed at all. I suspect that he is still the great Shepherd of the sheep, that he still knows those who are his, and that the standards that will be used at that final judgment are still being used today … at least by Jesus, who Paul says “knows those who are his.”

Perhaps it would behoove us to conform our judgment to his.

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4 Responses to Practical, Visible Christianity

  1. “There are issues worth dividing over, and other issues where behavior has to triumph over belief, and we have to choose unity over doctrinal agreement.”

    But this really begs the question – what exactly are these issues? Who decides? Is the Nicene Creed enough? On what basis?

  2. Christ came to bring Life, a Life, the Life. Not a philosophy, not an intellectual debate class. Romans 5 sums this up very nicely. If we, therefore, were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more then are we saved by His life. The crucifiction was a reconcilitory act. Much like posting bond. Now you’re out on the street. Better act different or the guy that bailed you out won’t be happy about you having wasted His hard earned money. You will end up in front of the Judge and all your nice words and good intentions will mean nothing.

  3. Christian behaviour is important, certainly (“Be doers of the word and not hearers only…”).

    The love that Christians in the Early Church had for one another clearly marked them out (“See how these Christians love one another!”).

    Their willingness to die for the Faith was a powerful means of conversion (“Blood of the martyrs is seed of Christians”).

    However, you do again seem to be painting a picture that Christians were unconcerned with doctrine which I just don’t see in the Early Church.

    Even through persecutions, there was heresy to fight. Who was this Jesus? The Son of God who died on the cross or an incorporeal spirit who only appeared to die? The answer to this doctrinal question determined whether or not you could join the Church in the Eucharist.

    Even in the Early Church, doctrine had very practical, visible consequences.

    • Shammah says:

      There were some very specific things that the early Christians said were important doctrinally. It would be fair to say they are summed up quite well in the Nicene Creed. I’m assuming that all my readers believe those things, and that any reader who didn’t believe those things would have a pretty good idea that I’m not talking to them.

      There are issues worth dividing over, and other issues where behavior has to triumph over belief, and we have to choose unity over doctrinal agreement.

      The issues we can divide over are minimal. The Nicene Creed is one paragraph; my translation of it has just 123 words.

      Nor am I inventing that idea. Irenaeus gives a list of the important basics–much of which involves teaching about behavior–and it’s very similar to the Nicene Creed, though longer because of the behavioral things mentioned. He then has a very long list of additional things that Christians are allowed to explore, but which are not to be divided over (Against Heresies, bk. 1, ch. 10).

      Behavior, however, can and must be divided over (1 Cor. 5:6-13). Again, within certain constraints that are somewhat well-defined in Scripture and determined in questionable cases by the church (Matt. 18:15-18).

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