Maybe the early Christians were right after all

Photo by Ove Tøpfer; from Stock Xchange

Excellent discussion yesterday. I’m always hoping for a little push back. That helps me sharpen my thinking and test my ideas.

I want to try and further explore yesterday’s topics, based on some of the discussion:

  1. There are real limitations to saying, “I don’t see _____ in the New Testament.” I do recognize that. But I expect what we do today to at least fall in line with what is in the Bible, to not run counter to the examples there (Francis Chan has an interesting video that talks about this). And if we feel the need to circumvent some biblical teaching, I’d like at least a hint that early Christians saw it the same way. There is a prohibition of eating certain things in Acts 15, yet we have several passages that seem to say that all foods are lawful for us. That’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.
  2. Our situation is different today, with Christians representing such a large percentage of the population of many nations. Does that change how we view God’s teachings? I’m asking as much as anything. I’m wrestling through that one. Here are some thoughts:
    1. As Christians, we are called to give primary loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Even as a Roman citizen, I don’t get a picture of Paul looking to promote the interests of Rome. If Christians come to “power” within a certain country, their actions should be guided not just by what is best for that country, but by what is best for the world in general. That would be a political nightmare here in the United States.
    2. As Christians, we are to live by Christian principles at all times. Imagine what that would look like in governing a country. When negotiating with other countries, we would look to serve them, trying to meet their needs. We would return all land that we have taken from other countries, be it through war, be it through intimidation. Wars would be limited, if not eliminated. There is no way a Christian nation would be in a constant state of war for 70 years.
    3. To some degree, our governments are set up to rival much of what God does. Like the men of Babel, humans today look to band together and make a name for themselves, looking to find in one another what they should be seeking from God. I’m still trying to work out in my head how Christians can effectively be a part of that. I haven’t figured it out.
    4. Even where our situation differs, our dependence on God can’t change. We can’t put our trust in horses and chariots. We need to find the courage to imitate the Christians in Acts 12, despite the scorn and ridicule of brothers who choose not to do so. We need to be willing to let nations rise and fall when necessary, to trust God even when He raises up an Assyria or a Babylon to do His will. We need to be willing to honor Caesar even when Caesar is evil. Honor, but not worship.

OK, them’s my thoughts. I’m sure today the good ideas will be in the comments, as they were yesterday.

The church: God’s answer to tribalism

I don’t think it’s easy for us to understand the barrier that existed between Jew and Gentile in the first century. Not so much in terms of social interaction (although that definitely existed), but especially in terms of religion. It would have been extremely difficult for a Jew to look on a Gentile as an equal, spiritually speaking. This was still true even in the early church.

Because of this, it was a stunning message that Paul and others preached, a message of equality in the gospel: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:14-18) Christ had torn down the wall of division. He had brought Jew and Gentile into one body.

To Paul, this was one of the great truths of Christianity, a mystery that God had kept hidden in the past: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:6)

At the heart of all of this was the church, God’s masterpiece which he had to show off to all creation: “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:8-11)

The rulers and authorities which would divide people, placing them in rival clans, tribes and nations, these powers would be shown God’s power to reconcile, to bring people together. Where is that power seen? In that church. Because of this, the Lord’s church must be an agent of reconciliation, a force for bringing all people together, regardless of nationality, language, race or other human division.

Tribalism is an enemy of the church, a tool of the powers and authorities that set themselves up against God’s authority. God’s truth is that all men are made in his image and all men can be brought into the body of Christ, the holy Christian nation. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

Because of this, Christians must work at bringing people together. We must learn to ignore nationalities and other aspects of tribalism that would separate us from others. We have to come to an awareness of the length, depth, width and height of our kingdom, spanning borders, time zones and continents. The church is God’s answer to man’s tribalism.

Tribalism or Christianity

Tribalism was a problem in New Testament times. Although the universality of the gospel seems obvious to us, it took the early Christians years to realize that the message of salvation wasn’t just for Jews. Then they shared it with Samaritans, since they already believed in the same God, practiced circumcision, and held to a very similar religion. It took divine intervention to get the early disciples to share the gospel with non-believers, and even then, some weren’t too happy about it.

In Acts 11, we see that the believers were scattered from Jerusalem and went out spreading the good news… to Jews. Over time, some came to share the message with Greeks, and many non-Jews were converted. The church in Antioch was one of the first integrated churches. The people around this church came to realize that this was not just another Jewish sect, yet it wasn’t one of the Greek mystery religions either. Astonished at the disappearance of tribalism, the citizens of Antioch had to invent a new term for these disciples: Christians.

When Christians overcome the barriers created by man, the world takes notice.

Tribalism and God’s nation

I don’t want to stray too far away from the topic of our Christian nation. I want to talk, though, about the concept of tribalism. It refers to the way that we define “us” and “them.” Every society has a set of rules that applies to our dealings with “us” and our dealings with “them.” We react differently to what happens to “us” than we do when it happens to “them.” (I discussed this in the post “Glad No Parrots Were Involved“; some read this as “America bashing,” when it was intended as “tribalism bashing”—that’s why the first illustration in that post was from Great Britain).

Tribalism says we can steal from them, but not from us. We can kill them, but not kill us. We can cheat them, but we’re expected to deal justly with us. If one of us is killed, we will avenge it by killing them. We see an innocuous form of tribalism in our sports; penalties against our team almost always seem to be unfair, while penalties against the other team are justified. If our team scores a lot of points, they are going for style points. If the other team scores a lot, they are showing a lack of sportsmanship.

Tribalism can occur at different levels. It can be based on family. Gangs operate via tribalism. Tribalism can be present based on religion, geography, or politics. In the West, people are often tribalistic at a national level, while much of the rest of the world divides itself along different lines.

We have to understand that the Christian nation doesn’t respect manmade borders and territories. As Paul so ably said it, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11) The church isn’t made up of Haitians, Egyptians, Filipinos and Canadians. We are Christians. We are one nation.

Here’s what we have to understand. A believer in China is more “us” than a non-believer next door. A Christian Iraqi is more “our people” than a non-Christian U.S. soldier in the same place. When we talk about “our people overseas,” we aren’t talking about U.S. troops, we’re talking about our Christian brothers.

Does that mean we will operate by the rules of tribalism, cheating non-Christians because they aren’t “one of us.” Of course not. But we will put as much importance on the well-being of Haitians as we do on that of people in our own hometown. More than citizens of the world, we are citizens of heaven, which makes us ambassadors of good to the whole world.

To kill Christian enemies

Since yesterday’s case study was so much fun, I thought I’d expand on it. Let’s imagine that we are in the midst of a new civil war here in the United States, like what I described yesterday. A Christian soldier learns through intelligence that a large group of enemy soldiers will be meeting for a Christian worship service at a site that is poorly defended. Not a church building, mind you, because everyone knows that killing people is okay, but damaging important buildings is a no-no.

The soldier has the opportunity and means to call in an air strike that will kill all those participating in the worship service. They, like he, are soldiers, military targets. Fellow Christians, but fighting for the other side.

Is there any reason why this soldier wouldn’t call in the strike and kill those gathered for worship?