FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Spiritual Disciplines of the Early Churc

with Jerry Sittser | November 23, 2011
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How did the early Christians differ from believers now? Professor Jerry Sittser outlines 11 different eras the Christian community has experienced since the resurrection.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • How did the early Christians differ from believers now? Professor Jerry Sittser outlines 11 different eras the Christian community has experienced since the resurrection.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

How did the early Christians differ from believers now?

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Spiritual Disciplines of the Early Churc

With Jerry Sittser
November 23, 2011
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Bob:  Have you ever considered going into full-time vocational, Christian service?  Jerry Sittser says, “If you’re a follower of Jesus, you are in full-time vocational, Christian service.”

Jerry:  There is no arena that’s more, sort of, naturally holy than any other.  It’s not more Christian to be a pastor than to be a public school teacher.  You can live for God in both of those arenas.  That’s a word I think we could benefit from learning.  Pastors and so on need to realize that the people in their pews need to be equipped and inspired to live for Christ right where they are.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 23rd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife® Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  We’ll think together today about how we can do all things, even eating and drinking, for the glory of God.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  You wouldn’t think that if you were going to have a conversation about the history of the church and God’s work through the centuries that you’d come up with a whole lot that would be controversial in our day, but it’s just not the case.  I mean, as a case in point, one of the issues from history is the issue of contemplation—how we meditate and contemplate around the Scriptures. 

Well, you can go online today—you can go on the web, and you’ll find folks, who if you even mention the word contemplation—if you’re a contemplative—in fact, if they’re listening right now, we’ll be on their website before the end of today’s program because we just brought up the word.

Dennis:  Some of our listeners may be wondering why Bob is mentioning contemplation—it is because we have taken a journey back in the past in church history—to really the history of Christianity, starting after the time of Christ, with the martyrs—what we’ve already talked about this week, the Desert Saints.  We’ve had a church historian who has spent, really, almost 20 years studying church history.  Is that right, Jerry? 

Jerry:  That’s right. 

Dennis:  Of course, that’s Dr. Jerry Sittser who joins us again on FamilyLife Today.  He is a professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.  Is it Spokane (spō-‘kan) or Spokane (spō-‘kān)?

Jerry:  Spokane (spō-‘kan).

Dennis:  Spokane (spō-‘kan); I got it correct.  He has written a book called Water from a Deep Well.  Before I take you into some of those eras, Jerry, you outline 11 different eras that the Christian community has gone through over the past 2,000 years or so.  I had to ask you this question, “If I had the ability to put you in a time machine and to go backwards to any era, which one of those 11 eras would you choose to live and why?”

Bob:  You want a monastery?  Do you want a desert?  Do you want the medieval—where do you want—

Dennis:  —the Reformation?

Bob:  —Where do you want to be?

Dennis:  Evangelical; modern missions?

Jerry:  I think there would be two places.  One would be—I’d love to hear John Chrysostom preach.  He was a late 4th-, early 5th-century preacher, bishop.  Eventually, he became the Archbishop of Constantinople.  So, he had to preach to the emperor, and his family, and so on.  He was an unbelievable preacher. 

In fact, his name John Chrysostom—Chrysostom is his nickname.  It means “golden-mouth”.  When you read his sermons today, they still read well. 

He was prophetic.  He could be very direct.  He would often challenge the emperor and the upper classes with the way they were spending their money, for example.  He did this extemporaneously.  Scripture would just pour out of this man’s mouth because, in the six years he spent in isolation, he memorized almost the entire New Testament. 

Dennis:  Wow! 

Jerry:  So, it would just flow out of him.  He was an unbelievable preacher.  To listen to his sermons would have been a wonderful experience.

The other thing is, I think, I would have liked to have joined Martin Luther in his home with his wife Katherine, their six children, all the students, elderly people, and riffraff who were living with them.  He was an excellent conversationalist.  It would have been very lively to sit around that table and get Luther going on some subject.

Jerry:  No, no.  He called her, “My Lord Kate”.  (Laughter)

Bob:  There are some husbands who can relate to that. 

Dennis:  Yes.

Bob:  I’ve heard a story (I don’t know if it is true or not) that he was in a period of depression.  He came down to breakfast one morning, and Kate was dressed all in black.  He said to her, “Well, who died that you’re dressed in black?”  She said, “Well, based on the way you’ve been acting, I presumed God did.”  (Laughter)  So, that’s a little of what—

Jerry:  I hadn’t heard that, but I wouldn’t put it over—I have another one, though.  He was—Martin Luther was sitting studying.  Of course, all the noise of his home would drive him crazy some times.  He locked himself in his study, and she took the hinges off the door to get to him.  (Laughter)  She was—

Bob:  no push over.

Jerry:  She was a force to be reckoned with—quite a woman.

Dennis:  She was a lord of sorts. 

I want to go back to the Desert Saints.  You can tell I really like these guys.  They were eccentric, as we’ve said a bit earlier. 

You start the book out talking about early Christian martyrs.  You, then, talk about the community of faith and early Christians who stuck together, and who addressed the plagues, and met the needs of people; but this third era, the spirituality of the Desert Saints—these characters who moved away from civilization to struggle—to struggle with the flesh, to struggle with their own passions, their own thinking. 

You point out something that they teach us today, that we dare not miss, about how we think really determines what we do.

Jerry:  Well, I’ll set it up this way.  You and I have lived long enough to have seen some people (even our friends) make some decisions that were incredibly stupid and costly.  We look at that, and we’re so perplexed.  We immediately say to ourselves, “What was he—” 

Dennis and Bob:  —“thinking?”

Bob:  Sure. 

Jerry:  Right?  Okay.  Well, one of the leaders of the Desert Fathers was a man by the name of Evagrius Ponticus.  He was kind of the philosopher and psychologist of the desert—he had a very interesting life journey—I tell in the book—the last 16 years he spent in the desert, and he wrote a number of books. 

In one of them, he outlines what he called “The Eight Deadly Thoughts”.  Logismoi is his name.  His argument is this:  All sin begins with what he called a provocation (what we would call a temptation).  We face something that immediately awakens us.  Then, he said that leads to a kind of disturbance of the soul, where we face a point of decision:  “Which way are we going to turn?  Is it going to be toward or away?” 

If we turn toward, he says, “The first thing we do is we engage the sin in our minds.  We begin to fantasize.”  That’s the word he used, fantasize.  We created an alternative reality in the mind of sin, even if we don’t actually do something wrong.  This fantasy can exist on its own for months or even years, without actually doing any sin.” 

He came up with eight categories of this kind of fantasy, or logismoi, as he called it—

things like gluttony, envy, pride, vain glory, and so on.  Then, right time, right place, right circumstance, we actually choose to sin behaviorally.  His argument is, by this time, it’s almost too late because we have been cultivating it in our minds for so long.  So, the real battle is always in the mind. 

Bob:  You look at some of the prayers of confession that have been prayed throughout church history; and you see, “Lord, we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed.” 

Jerry:  “In thought, word, and deed.”  Yes.

Bob:  We don’t tend to think of our thought life as being sinful unless we’re thinking about sexual lust.  Most people agree, “Okay, yes, to have sexual lust that you are dwelling on, that’s a sin; but to be lusting after a new car, that’s not really a sin; is it?” 

Jerry:  A house, a romance, a food, an ideal vacation, the perfect job—all those kinds of things that can just kind of worm their way into our soul and really over the long-haul pervert us in a lot of ways.

Bob:  Isn’t this what Jesus was trying to say in Matthew 5 when He said, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ I tell you not to lust in your heart.  You’ve heard it said, ‘Do not murder.’  I say don’t be angry?”  He’s really saying there are deeper issues than just your behaviors.

Jerry:  Exactly.  These Desert Fathers really focus on that and, therefore, call us to a serious form of self-examination—to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves.

Dennis:  Therein lies part of what my take-away was from reading your book.  These saints of old seemed to have time to contemplate (back to a word Bob used earlier), to ponder, to think about God, and purposely remove themselves from the pace of life so that they could truly drink water from the deep well. 

Today, we’re so busy listening to music, doing things on our iPhone®, on our computer, constantly busying ourselves with activity—we don’t have time to hear God in the midst of the day. 

Jerry:  I don’t think so.  I mean, I think, we’re so profoundly distracted—I don’t even think we are aware how distracted we are with the constant noise, the way we’re always checking e-mail, always texting on our phone.  I just think we’ve crowded God’s voice out.  We simply don’t have enough room to hear anything at all.  I do think we can practice some disciplines that will protect us from those kinds of excesses. 

You know, we decide we’re not going to check our e-mail after six o’clock; we’re going to spend time with the family, for example.  We’re going to read a book.  When we go on vacations, we’ll take a break from some things.  We’ll do all those little things that are going to protect us from this noisy, distracting kind of world that keeps us sidetracked from the things that matter most.

Dennis:  You need to know, Jerry, I’m practicing some of the spiritual disciplines that you write about in your book from some of these Desert Saints, those who lived in monasteries, and the mystics of sorts. 

There are so many of these eras that I’d like to discuss—but I’m going to take you to one that is a passion of my heart.  I want to see what we can learn about an era you call “ordinariness”—the laity movement of the medieval period; is that right? 

Jerry:  The late Middle Ages; correct.

Dennis:  Explain what you mean by that era.  Now, you’ve got—again, you’ve got 11 different eras of church history, and you summarize each era in a word.  I found this one interesting.  Why did you pick this word to describe it?

Jerry:  Well, the spiritual life in the Middle Ages tilted in the direction of the monastery.  Therefore, celibacy, a set of disciplines—disciplines of deprivation and so on—so that, the monastery, which began for very good reasons, became the dominate institution of the Middle Ages.  Consequently, the form of spiritual life that people practiced tended to lean in a monastic direction.  You were holier if you became a monk, less holy if you were a priest, least holy if you were a lay person.

Dennis:  So, retreating from the culture in a way? 

Jerry:  Yes.  It was more idealized.  Now, these monasteries were hardly separate from culture.  They were dominant, cultural forces; but when it came to the spiritual life—spiritual practice—not being married was more spiritual than being married, for example—belonging to a monastery was more spiritual than being a regular lay person and this kind of thing. 

With the growth of cities, universities, and the profit economy in the 13th and 14th centuries, a growing number of lay people said, “We want more.  We don’t want to be third-class citizens in the church and in the Kingdom.”  They began to seek for a richer, more robust kind of spiritual life.  Of course, they had the model of the monastery sitting before them.  So, they would create kind of lay monasteries, believe it or not—little communities in the city that people would join. 

Underneath it was this growing hunger to apply the spiritual life to ordinary life because that’s how most people live.  They live as ordinary people.  They marry, they raise children, they’re bakers, they’re bankers, they’re merchants of some kind, they just do life in the secular world, and they need help.

Dennis:  They wanted to make a difference where they lived, and this became a movement during their era.

Jerry:  It became a movement, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries.  There were all kinds of new, little institutions that were born.  They’re irrelevant—The Brethren of the Common Life; The Third Order Franciscans, The Beguines for Women.  Underneath it was this hunger among laity for a richer, deeper experience of the spiritual life. 

That really became a set-up for the Reformation when, finally, the reformers said, “Look, you can be as spiritual as a banker as you can be as a priest.  You can be as godly as a married person as you can be as a person who’s taken vows of celibacy.”  God wants all of our life experience to be submitted to Him.  There is no arena that is more sort of naturally holier than any other.  It’s not more Christian to be a pastor than to be a public school teacher.  You can live for God in both of those arenas.

So, the late medieval ages really sort of leaned toward the Reformation when they rediscovered the value of marriages as spiritual discipline and of our secular vocations as a spiritual discipline.  That’s a word I think we could benefit from learning.  Pastors and so on need to realize that the people in their pews need to be equipped and inspired to live for Christ, right where they are.

Dennis:  Jerry, I think there is a similar day occurring right now for the church and for laity.  I think there is an opportunity for them to engage and be disciples of Jesus Christ in their neighborhoods, their churches, their businesses, and their communities, by taking a stand for what God teaches around marriage and family. 

It’s why we’ve created a whole array of tools to put in their hands to help them make a difference like the Homebuilders Couple Series®, a small group Bible study that they can teach in their neighborhood to other couples.  We’ve created the Art of Marriage®; Bob Lepine created that.  We’ve also created another resource called LifeReady® Marriage Oneness, which is an eight-session DVD-assisted discipleship training course.

All of these were designed to be put in the hands of the laity, just like occurred in times past to make a difference where they live.  I think this is a lesson we can learn from this era; don’t you?

Jerry:  I think it is a wonderful lesson.  There’s another interesting little theme to emphasize here.  That was the early Christian catechumenate, which again was training normal people—people living in the ordinary world to be disciples of Christ. 

The laity, of course, has become a kind of derogatory term; but when you think about it, laity find themselves in circumstances where they’re in the best position to live out discipleship in the normal world.  Think about it, the three major responsibilities of people who are not pastors or full-time servants in a church—they’re married (many of them, not all of them), they’re raising children, and they are doing some kind of secular work.  That’s most of their daylight hours.

Anything that’s going to equip them to serve in those spheres for Christ, in my mind, is a good thing.  We do have some resources from history that are going to inspire us and move us in that direction.

Dennis:  I want to take you out to the last two eras that you describe in your book.  One is the era for evangelicals; the other is for pioneer missionaries who have gone to the world.  How did you describe our era of evangelicals and of pioneer missionaries going to the world?  I’m assuming you would say that’s the era in which we are alive right now; correct?

Jerry:  It is.  It is very dominate in our period.  In the case of evangelicals, it was their emphasis on conversion, on actually choosing to follow Christ.  So, conversion was a very important motif in that evangelical era, which we live in today.  Billy Graham would be one of the greatest symbols of that evangelical period, but the other thing that’s characterized evangelicalism has been their entrepreneurship.

You think about what evangelicals around the world have done in the last 200 years: the hospitals they’ve started; the schools of education around the world; the various mission agencies; the relief organizations.  Evangelicals have always been activists because they want to live out the Gospel in the world.  So, that’s been the characteristic of the evangelical period.

In the case of pioneer missionaries, it’s been risk-taking and single-mindedness.  Those early stories of missionaries are harrowing to read.  I mean, they’re kind of crazy in a way.  I think there were some of them who were crazy; but their courage, their commitment, their willingness to suffer loss, to be able to extend the reach of the church around the world, to me, is so inspiring and impressive, especially if we can kind of prevent ourselves from some of the excesses that did characterize them; for example, their lack of commitment to family, marriage, their compromise in some of those areas—not all of them did it, by the way.

Dennis:  Well, I have to tell you, Jerry, as I was reading your book, I kept comparing my own walk with Christ and with God—and the title of your book—the title of your book is Water from a Deep Well.  After I’d waded through the waters from all 11 eras, I thought, “My life isn’t a deep well; it’s a mud puddle.”

I’ve read these guys and the lessons they pass on to me.  It’s my hope that, not only my life would be impacted by what you’ve written here, but that it would—it would impact our listeners, too—that they would take a drink from the deep well and that they would take a step back, take a look at their own walk with Christ, and go, “What can I learn from times past?”

Bob:  One of the things that was curious to me as I read through the book—and I’ve been struck by this as I’ve looked at church history—it seemed to me that throughout the history of the church, the average Christian has known more or had a deeper understanding of God and the Scriptures than many modern evangelicals today. 

A farmer in the 17th century, who was a follower of Christ, would have known more theology than most lay people who have been a part of an evangelical church for

20 years.

Jerry:  At least, since the Reformation, that would be the case; yes.

Bob:  I think the point you are making is, “It’s time for all of us to cinch it up and dig a little deeper.”  Right?

Dennis:  Well, at the beginning of the book, Jerry quotes C.S. Lewis, I believe, who said, “In any era, it would be wise of a follower of Christ to allow a fresh sea breeze to blow through his soul by reading some old books from other eras.”  In essence, what Jerry has done here—I have no idea how many books, Jerry, that contributed to this book; but what you’ve done is synthesized a lot of writings from 2,000 years ago, all the way to the present.  You take us into the company of what you call super-Christian heroes. 

You don’t paint them as someone who is unattainable, but someone who can rub shoulders with us and challenge us to go deeper in our own faith and our own walk with Christ.

Jerry, one of your other books, A Grace Disguised, ministered to Barbara and me profoundly a number of years ago.  I think this book, right here, is going to cause some conflict in our marriage over who gets to read it again because I want to go back through it and underline even more from it. 

I appreciate you.  Glad you were on the broadcast.  Hope you’ll come back and join us again soon.


Jerry:  Gladly.  It’s been wonderful.  Thank you.

Bob:  With that, let me encourage listeners to get their own copy of your book, Water from a Deep Well, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  Go online at; and you can find out more about Jerry Sittser’s book, Water from a Deep Well

We also have the book you mentioned, Dennis, A Grace Disguised, which is really an outstanding resource for people who are experiencing loss.  In fact, the subtitle is How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  It’s a book that you wrote, Jerry, after the death of your wife, one of your children, and your mother-in-law.  Really, it’s an outstanding book; and we would recommend that to you as well.

Find out more about both books online at; or call us—

1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.  We’ll make arrangements to get a copy of either or both of these books sent out to you. 

Now, early next month, we are going to be sending out the new edition of our twice a month e-magazine.  It’s called The Family Room.  In the upcoming issue, we’ve got suggestions for you and your family about how you can keep Christ at the center of your Christmas celebration this year. 

Dennis and Barbara Rainey have an article on ways to keep your marriage fresh.  In fact, they’ve got five very practical suggestions on how to breathe a little fresh air into your marriage.  The e-magazine, The Family Room, is absolutely free.  We’d love to have you on the mailing list.  If you’re not currently receiving this e-mail twice a month, go to, and you can sign up there.  Just click the link that says, “The Family Room”, and you can get signed up online. 

Again, the website is; and you sign up when you click the link, “The Family Room”.  When you do that, we’ll get the next issue of our e-magazine sent out to you.  I think you’ll enjoy reading this when it comes to your inbox a couple of times every month.

I hope you can be back with us again tomorrow.  Here in the United States, it’s going to be Thanksgiving tomorrow.  Hope you can give part of your Thanksgiving Day to be with us.  We’re going to hear a message from Pastor Bobby Scott about how we can continue to honor and praise God in the midst of challenging circumstances.  We’ll hear about the fire that burned down his family home on tomorrow’s program.  I hope you can tune in for that. 

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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