Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

5 Reasons Why Many American Christians Wouldn’t Like the First Ones

 

If you could meet one of the first Christians would you like them?

I’m convinced that many American Christians would not. In the course of 2000 years, Christianity- while maintaining the basic tenets, has morphed and shifted from the way it was originally designed and lived out. Since we tend to live in a culture that is rather self-centered, we have a tendency to assume we “have it right” while completely overlooking the fact that our version of Christianity might appear quite foreign– even hopelessly corrupted– if viewed through the eyes of one of the first Christians.

If those entrenched in American Christianity could transport back in time to experience Christianity as it originally was, they’d be uncomfortable at best, and at worst, would probably have declined the invitation to join Christianity at all.

Here’s 5 of the major reasons why I think many American Christians probably would not have liked the first ones:

1. The first Christians rejected personal ownership of property and engaged in a redistribution of wealth.

Americanized Christians often fight to make sure our taxes are lower, fight to repeal healthcare for poor people, and throw a fit over a small portion of our income going to provide foodstamps. While touting “voluntary” and “private” charity as the way to go, we give on average 2-3% of our income to the church or charities– not nearly enough to actually address the needy in any meaningful way. But what about the early Christians?

Well, the first Christians were quite different. In the book of Acts (the book that tells the story of original Christianity) tells us that “all the believers were together and held everything in common, selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). We’re further told that there were no poor among them, because those who had land or property sold it so that this wealth could be “redistributed” to the needy (Acts 4:35). While on one hand communal property and redistribution of wealth was voluntary, scripture tells us that “all” of the believers in the church did this– meaning that it wasn’t exactly voluntary but a condition of being accepted into the group.

If Americanized Christians were to see how the first Christians lived, it would be denounced as some sort of communist cult being led by folks who distorted the Gospel.

2. The first Christians didn’t like big, show-y church stuff.

The first Christians weren’t fans of the “go big” and showmanship stuff that we see plaguing the church in America today. Churches back then were house churches with maximum numbers that would be considered below the minimum amount of people you’d want as a core “launch team” to plant a church in the United States. They rejected the need for wealth, fancy meeting places, or any kind of honor that would elevate them above someone else.

One early writer wrote, in critique of early Christians:

“They despise the temples as houses of the dead. They reject the gods. They laugh at sacred things. Wretched, they pity our priests. Half-naked themselves, they despise honors and purple robes. What incredible audacity and foolishness!”

If one of the original Christians were to be transported through time to attend the average American church with fancy projection screens, high salaries, and entertainment based church services, they’d probably walk away shaking their head at the thought that was actually considered church.

3. The first Christians didn’t warn anyone about hell.

Any time I have posted on why I believe the traditional teaching on hell is unbiblical (see series, here) I get a lot of pushback. Not infrequent is the argument that I have “removed all motivation for following Jesus” which is usually followed with “may God have mercy on your soul” or something like that. The folks at Way of the Master have successfully convinced much of conservative Christian culture that preaching hell is absolutely central to inviting people to follow Jesus. However, if that were true, I’d think we’d expect to see hell be front and center with the first Christians.

Small problem: it’s not. When you read the book of Acts, it’s almost as if they didn’t believe in hell at all because hell was not something they used to motivate or warn people. There’s no “can I ask you if you’re a good person?” and no “if you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Yes– the first Christians were passionate about spreading the Good News, passionate about inviting people to follow Jesus– but when you read the story of the early church in the Bible, talk and warnings of hell are actually absent.

If Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort were to fly back in time to see how the first Christians– those who walked and talked with Jesus– were doing things, they’d say they were totally doing it wrong, and have succumbed to liberalism.

4. The first Christians weren’t patriotic.

Flag-waving Fourth of July type services?

Not in the early church. The first Christians weren’t patriotic at all. This was in part because they were oppressed by a brutal empire, but also in part because they saw themselves not as citizens of an earthly realm but citizens of heaven whose allegiance and loyalty were for God’s Kingdom instead of an earthly nation. These first Christians were caught up into the invitation to build God’s Kingdom, and would be utterly dumfounded as to why anyone would get caught up into patriotic nationalism– something early Christians would believe to be idolatry.

A 2nd century Christian once said, “This world and the next are two enemies…. We cannot therefore be the friends of both.” This attitude would have made patriotic nationalism impossible, because they had no attachment to earthly nation states– realizing instead that Christians are called to live as people completely different than the rest of the world.

Many of today’s Christians would consider the first Christians “ungrateful” but conversely, the first Christians would consider those of today to be idolaters with mixed up priorities.

5. They were universally pacifists.

Like it or not, the historical fact is that Christianity was built upon the foundational belief of total nonviolence. The first Christians were so dedicated to this principle of nonviolent enemy love that slews of them became martyrs– willing to be killed by their enemies before they were willing to lift a hand to harm them. In fact, for the first 300 or more years of Christianity, the belief in pacifism was a universal belief.

In addition, the early Church was exclusive in some ways– and American Christians wouldn’t be a fan of who they didn’t allow to join the church: soldiers and magistrates. The first Christians believed using violence against an enemy was incompatible with being a Christian– very similar to how conservatives will say being a homosexual is incompatible with being a Christian. After some time, they did ease up on allowing soldiers to join the church (in the late era of the early church), but even then they only allowed soldiers who were willing to commit to nonviolence. Some of these converts were executed by military authorities for refusing orders to kill, but the first Christians realized that to kill an enemy is perhaps one of the most anti-Christ behaviors one can engage in, and so they were willing to die before killing.

This is perhaps where American Christians and the first Christians would really dislike one another: American Christians would think they were hippies who didn’t stand up for themselves, and the first Christians would look at the gun carriers and unapologetically proclaim that they weren’t Christians at all.

Christianity has a history– and it’s an important one. Those who were closest to Christ himself speak to us from history, if we will listen. While the scriptures haven’t changed in 2000 years, Christianity itself certainly has fallen prey to the powers of culture to distort and twist. Christianity in America is no different– it has become distorted to the point that those who first founded Christianity and walked with Jesus, would hardly recognize it.

I say, we need to move backwards, not forwards… We need to return to the beliefs and wisdom of the first Christians, even if that makes us uncomfortable.

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Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

BLC

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

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  • Tracy O'Brien says:

    I think the comments below, even more clearly than the article, show the modern church’s differences with the early church.

  • Timothée Ambroise Pierre Hayes says:

    Where did you get your quote on “they despise purple robes”? No source? The main reason that the Early Christians met in homes was because their religion was not recognized. For people who really want to know what the early Church was like, and how they worshiped, you should read the Church fathers, the men who studied from the Apostles themselves or those who studied with the Apostles.

    Justin Martyr (convert) gives an account in A.D. 150 from Rome about how the Church worshiped.

    The real reason American “Christians” would not get along with early ones is because American “McChristianity” is all about comfort and convenience, not about sacrifice and suffering. Taking up your cross daily to follow Jesus is not optional. Yet in the U.S., and thanks to them all throughout Latin America, “health-and-wealth” gospels and nonsense things like “The Rapture” (Darbyism) sell big to people who want to be saved, want to compartmentalize Jesus and still feel good about themselves. Many sects even claim it is pointless to confess sins at all since Jesus already died for them and washed you clean! Alley-LOO-ya.

    The early church suffered LOTS of persecution and gave us lots of great leaders : Pope Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius and hundreds of others. But there were TONS of heresies sprouting up and LOTS of spiritual wusses who handed over letters and leaders to the Roman persecutors, and there were TONS of cases of immorality and things we wrestle with today. When Constantine legalized Christianity, his Arian sons still persecuted it (read up on the life of Athanasius) and Constantine himself remained sympathetic to the Arians, refusing baptism (as if it were a magic solution to salvation) until his death bed and this performed by an ARIAN heretical bishop. BTW, you should also read up on the persecutions of the Church leadership and faithful throughout the Monophysite heresy (empress Theodora was quite a Jezebel) . BUT, if anything, several scholars would argue that it was AFTER Constantine that the general morality and discipline of the Church actually fell into line. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kAHwie7lmM

  • lorasinger says:

    My grandparents, my father and into this generation, our beliefs have followed all the five above. The government made them give up #1 but they also believed that Jesus was a man, not a God. They used only Matthew of the bible and focused on Jesus teachings alone. Their group goes back to the late 1500’s, started first by a Jew called Simon. They first called themselves “(a) Way of life”. I wonder where their roots fit in with the first Christians or even those before, the Jerusalem Christians who later called themselves “Ebionites” or “The Way”.

  • david hughes says:

    I’m a Christian, and I’m also liberal in my societal viewpoints. I believe in distribution of wealth, same sex marriage, saving the environment. Being liberal and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive.

  • bondservant1 says:

    Just as today’s US Christians don’t have everything right, the ones 200+ years ago didn’t either. Let’s be careful not to play the either-or game.

    And – while it was mentioned that Christians in the book of Acts held everything in common, it needs to be emphasized that this was a “private group.” It had nothing to do with the government or force of govt. When Christians first came to the US and were forced by govt to share everything, it was an abysmal failure. Important clarification because too many people think that a “social gospel” – where it’s the goverment’s job to help people, and with money taken by force – is biblical. Hardly.

  • When you say things like “Christianity was built upon the foundational belief of total nonviolence” you need to support it with historical and scholarly evidence, not quotes from other Christians, especially not from those of your background. The evidence must be historical and scholarly, not partisan.

  • David Cohen says:

    6. They didn’t quote the KJV of the Bible. In fact, they didn’t have a Bible at all. Oh they had scripture, and they read their scripture at gatherings, but that scripture consisted of whatever books the members of the group had on hand. This one might have a copy of The Gospel of Matthew, that one may have a copy of Romans and the other one might have a copy of the Epistle of Barnabas, and as far as that group of Christians were concerned, THAT was Christian scripture.

    Modern Christians have an almost fetishistic attachment to their favorite version of the Bible, and insist that there cannot be any true Christianity without it. The early Christians, by contrast, relied on oral history and personal testimony to spread the Word of Christ. The idea that there can be no Christianity without the Bible would have confused them. One can almost hear the early Christian telling the modern Christian, “Okay, you devote yourself to your book. I will devote myself to Christ.”

  • david hughes says:

    Just be good to one another. If everybody valued other people as much as they value themselves and their own beliefs the World would be a much better place.

  • I think what we have in common is the indwelling holy spirit. There is no ‘church’ w/ out that I think.

  • Corey Mondello says:

    #5 ‘They were universally pacifists.’ ???? I am sure the Native American at the time you speak of, would point out all the abuse and oppression they lived under when Christians came to clain North America as their god-given land.

  • david hughes says:

    I’m not referring to the article, but society in general with this statement. Why is it ok to lump all Christians together with grand, sweeping statements? If you do that about Muslims you are called a bigot. Like Muslims we are not all alike, I am very accepting of everyone no matter what they believe in, or how they were born (yes some of us believe that homosexuals were born as they are), I don’t own a gun, and I’m not driven by right wing politics. Implying that ALL Christians think alike and act alike just seems a little fascist to me.

  • hcat says:

    Jesus Himself did say a lot about hell. The apostles sort of soft pedaled it.

  • MrPete says:

    Some of this is accurate, but point #1 is exactly wrong.
    The first Christians voluntarily shared their own wealth/earnings. They were personally involved (the Good Samaritan.) That matches today’s conservative ethos.

    Totally opposite to today’s forced-redistribution policies of the liberals/socialists/etc.

  • MrPete says:

    On #3, it’s a bit hard to make an argument from silence. We don’t know everything that was said. We DO know that Jesus talked quite a bit about hell. He also motivated quite a bit by making things much harder than the ten commandments… he took it all the way to what’s in your heart… and talked about being tossed from God’s presence because of not knowing God… even though people might have done all kinds of “good” things, even for all kinds of “good” reasons.

    If you are claiming that the first century Christians simply ignored that part of Jesus’ message… I’d suggest your claim might lack common sense.

  • MrPete says:

    On #5, I wonder what the OP thinks about Romans 13 and the many other places where Christians discussed the important part that governments play in administering justice via the sword? I see nothing suggesting a belief in total nonviolence.

  • MrPete says:

    On #2, I agree 100% at one level. However, Jesus himself did some Big Showy Stuff in front of varying-size crowds. Huge crowds followed him for a long time.
    I guess I would say: it isn’t about the size of the crowd at all.

  • BertF says:

    I agree with points 1, 2, 4 and 5 but point 3 is not right. In Peter’s Acts 2 sermon he quotes a passage of Joel warning of God’s judgment on the Day of Judgment. Luke says that Peter “warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” His call to those listening was to “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” All of these statements are based on an O.T. understanding of God’s wrath against sin and on Jesus’ many statements about hell. Paul specifically speaks of being saved from God’s wrath in Romans. Talk about God’s wrath at the final judgement is meaningless if hell doesn’t exist. It was meaningless for Jesus to talk about hell and warn people about it if it doesn’t exist. Faith in Jesus doesn’t just save us from hell and avoidance of hell should not be our only motivation to follow Jesus. No one likes the thought of hell. But efforts to get rid of hell are much more about our post-modern discomfort with punitive justice and God’s wrath than it is about being more true to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

  • David Stewart says:

    Some ironies I find in this….
    1. “While the scriptures haven’t changed in 2000 years, Christianity itself certainly has fallen prey to the powers of culture to distort and twist.” An exclusive focus on Acts, ignoring Paul’s doctrinal writings, which are CANON.
    2. Emphasizing holding things in common, yet ignoring I Thessalonians 2:10, where Paul says if an abled body person won’t work, then he or she shouldn’t eat. Clearly, Mr. Corey thinks it’s okay to ignore the fact that part of the issue many an American Christian has with government assistance programs is that sometimes, they discourage people from working to better themselves. Not all poor people will ever come off of government or charitable assistance, but Scripture clearly balances assisting the poor and needy with is the poor or needy person so, because of their own doing or forces beyond themselves.
    3. Mr. Corey essentially discounts the doctrine of hell by talking solely about the lack of comments in Acts, yet concludes with the quote above. While this article is dated, it has become more and more fashionable amongst so-called Progressive Christians to care only about what Jesus taught. Jesus consistently referenced hell in the Gospels and Revelation references it. Then Paul occasionally writes references it too. Seems to me that if Mr. Corey doesn’t believe in the doctrine of hell, then admit it rather than dance around it.

    Mr. Corey and his allies may accuse other Christians of being selective in their application and interpretation of the Scriptures, but this proves that liberalized and politicized American Christianity is not any more saintly than the more traditional, conservative version, which Mr. Corey is poo-pooing.

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