The Influence of the Early Church
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Jerry SittserGerald Sittser is professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University, where he has served for 30 years. Over the past few years he has worked with many partner churches to engage the culture and equip disciples with the good news of Jesus. He has written nine books, among them A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss and A Grace Revealed, The Will of God as a Way of Life, Water From a Deep Well: Ch...more
How did the unlearned, poor disciples of the early church change the world? Jerry Sittser shares what the early Christians did to influence their neighbors and transform their culture.
The Influence of the Early Church
Bob: The Bible tells us we're to set our mind on things above, not on things on earth. Jerry Sittser says that's part of how the early church changed the world they were living in.
Jerry: They believed in a kind of transcendent kingdom, that was not of this world, but it had everything to do with this world. So Christianity was kind of seditionist/a subversive movement—but not in the way we popularize it or conceive of it today—where we're marching; we're protesting; we're forcing the powers that be to bend to our will. They didn't do any of that; and that was the secret, in my opinion, to their impact and their success.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 8th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Are there things we can learn from the first century church about how to have an impact in the world we live in? Jerry Sittser says that there is a lot we can learn. We'll talk with him about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think all of us, at some point,
have looked at the small band of people, who were around when Jesus ascended into heaven, and thought, “How did they change the world?”
Ann: —because they were really nobodies in that culture.
Bob: Yes, exactly; and you think, “What can we learn from them that can help us figure out how we can change the world today and point people to Jesus today?” We're going to get a chance to visit that theme today with one of my favorite people; alright? Jerry Sittser is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back!
Jerry: Thank you, Bob. It's so good to be here.
Dave: You guys go way back.
Bob: We do, and this is your first time to meet Jerry.
Ann: Yes, I'm already fascinated by the talks we've already been having before recording.
Bob: Yes; Jerry is a professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Although, your season there is coming to a little bit of an end; right?
Jerry: Official retirement next June.
Bob: Wow!—and how many years?
Bob: Think of the students; think of the legacies—you have impacted the lives of so many men and women who—some of them still write to you and call you and talk about the impact you had on their life.
Jerry: Last Monday, I taught my last “History of Christianity 1”class. About a dozen alum showed up, and the last thing we did in the class was sing five great hymns from the “History of Christianity” course.
Dave: Did you really?
Jerry: It was just glorious.
Ann: I want to be in your class.
Jerry: We sang a hymn by Prudentius—but historic hymns—Prudentius. We sang Be Thou My Vision; we sang a hymn by Francis of Assisi. It was lovely.
Bob: Was A Mighty Fortress—was that one of them?
Jerry: No, I kept pre-Reformation.
Bob: You stayed out of—
Jerry: —Bernard of Clairvaux. [Laughter]
Bob: Jerry has written a book that is still a classic. I mean, anybody you know, who is going through a season of loss and grief—the book, A Grace Disguised—I don't know how many copies it has sold; I know how many I've given away. It's part memoir because of the season of loss and grief that you went through; but it's also how God meets you in that season, and shepherds you through that season, and what you can learn about Him and about yourself in that season. It's profound; it's a book we keep in our FamilyLife Resource Center.
Your new book is fascinating; it's a book called Resilient Faith. The subtitle is How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. We've got to start with: “What is the ‘Third Way’?”; don't we?
Jerry: Yes, we do. I'll try to make this short and sweet. The phrase first appears in a second century document written by an unknown Christian apologist; that is, a defender of the faith. He wrote around the year 140; it's very short. I'd really encourage listeners to read it. You can find it online—it's called the “So-Called Letter to Diognetus”—it's beautiful; it's beautifully-written. It's only 12/14 pages long.
This unknown author is writing to a Roman official. He uses the phrase, “third race” or “third way,” to describe what the Roman official already knew about Christianity. There was something about the Christian movement that was so new, and so unusual, and unique that Rome didn't know what to call it; so they called it the “third race” or the “third way.” The first was the Roman way. The second way was the Jewish way: Rome was very familiar with Jews; there were a lot of Jews in the Greco-Roman world—about ten percent of the population was Jewish—some five million people.
Ann: I didn't know that.
Jerry: The third way was this new, small, new religion called Christianity. Rome was partly fascinated by it, partly disturbed by it, and partly hostile to it. The unknown author of this letter, writing to Diognetus, wants to explain/describe what made Christianity so unique; hence, “third race”/”third wave.”
Bob: Interesting that Judaism stood out—because Rome was conquering people, right and left; and they all had their tribal religions—but somehow Judaism stood out among those religions.
Jerry: It did. Those were called Diasporic Jews because they were away from the Jewish homeland. By 70 AD that [homeland] was shut down: the temple was destroyed and the wall was broken down. Most Jews were already dispersed; that pretty much dispersed the rest of them.
Rome respected Judaism because Judaism was an ancient religion, and Rome liked things old. They were always suspicious of new things. Rome had a tremendous capacity to absorb new things into its pantheon of gods and into its various rites and rituals. Judaism could not be absorbed. They actually gave Jews favors: they didn't force Jews to serve in the army, for example. Judaism was different enough and observable enough that Rome could keep an eye on it. As I say in my book, it is like an opposing team, wearing a jersey; you always know they're there. They practice circumcision; they ate Kosher; so it tended to isolate Jews.
Because it was so difficult to become a Jew, Rome could respect it; but very few people became it, so to speak. In the book, I say that the way of Rome was accommodation; the way of Judaism was isolation. The way of Christianity was different; it was immersion.
Christians in this early period—roughly from 35 AD to the eve of Constantine, the last great persecution/around the year 300—so we're talking about a 265-year period of time. Christians had this amazing capacity to fit into the Roman world: speak the same language, shop in the same markets, eat the same food, dress the same way, speak the local languages or dialects. They had this tremendous capacity to adapt but not be absorbed. They were able to maintain high standards of discipleship and a very distinct belief system; and yet, not isolate.
Now, that's amazing to me; and that's really the story I tell—how they actually did that.
Bob: As we look at where we are, would you say that America is post-Christian today?
Jerry: No, I do not think it's post-Christian. We still have very high rates of identification of Christian belief. Most recent poll is 70 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians. By the way, 10 years ago, it was 84 percent; so in 10 years—from a statistical point of view—a precipitous drop. But most Americans still identify as Christian.
I would say we're post-Christendom; that is, it's not culturally familiar anymore. There's not as much privilege and power, being Christian, as there used to be. Christianity and America were virtually synonymous for several centuries; I would say that's not the case so much anymore.
Bob: Even Christian morality or Christian identity—things like kids knowing what Easter is all about—we've lost a little of that in the culture.
Jerry: Well, just look at the process in the last maybe 25/40 years. The church spent centuries “Christianizing” a pagan calendar; we're “paganizing” the Christian calendar—all you have to do is look at Christmas or Easter. My favorite holiday now is Thanksgiving because it's kind of the least preferred.
Ann: It’s not commercialized.
Jerry: It's not as commercialized, outside, once you get past the turkey, you know.
Bob: “…in the world, not of the world”—is that encapsulating the third wave?
Jerry: Yes; except I think, when we hear that, it's often: “…in the world but not of the world.” They had a strong kingdom theology. The Jesus they followed was Lord; they called Him Lord, and they paid a price to call Him Lord. He was in competition with Caesar, but it was such a different kind of competition.
Jesus never raised an army; He never wrote a book; He never built a palace. It's kind of interesting—in one of the chapters of the book, I contrast the difference between Caesar Augustus, who was called the son of god, and Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Son of God—really different “sons of god”—those two are. [Laughter] You know, if we had been living during that period, we would have wanted to be invited to parties in Caesar's palace, not a party in a stable in Bethlehem.
Jerry: That's the God we serve. But we call that God “Lord”: “Jesus Christ, the Lord.”
They believed in a kind of transcendent kingdom, that was not of this world; but it had everything to do with this world. Christianity was kind of seditionist/a subversive movement—but not in the way we popularize or conceive of it today—where we're marching; we're protesting; we're forcing the powers that be to bend to our will. They didn't do any of that.
Jerry: And that was the secret, in my opinion, to their impact and their success.
Bob: This is what I find fascinating; because we think: “Okay, what's our strategy need to be?” “What should cultural engagement look like?” “What's the approach we need to take?” I read your book and its: “Believe that Jesus is who He is, and that the kingdom is real, and that it's bigger than the world we live in,” and “Live like that's true, and watch what happens.”
Jerry: —“and watch what happens.” They did that with enough success to maintain a growth pattern and an impact on the culture for 265 years. That's a longer period than going back to our Declaration of Independence.
Obviously, there were exceptions—there were Christians that fell away—we know this; I mean, the documents indicate this. But the general trajectory—scholars estimate, that in the year 40, there were about maybe 5,000 Christians; by the year 300, there were
5 million. And that happened under a great deal of duress the whole time.
Bob: You said that it went 265 years; by the time Constantine becomes the emperor, that was a shift away from the “third way”?
Jerry: It's a complicated story. Constantine gave legal recognition to Christianity in the year 313. The emperor, Theodosius, at the end of that fourth century, made Christianity the official religion of the empire. The numbers changed dramatically. We can estimate in the year 300—about 10 percent of the empire was Christian—about 5 million people, just on the eve of the last great and biggest persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.
By the year 360, 50 percent of the empire was Christian, and it became popular—
Bob: —real Christian or nominal Christian?
Jerry: Well, a lot of it is nominal. I mean, you can't handle that growth rate.
Jerry: Before that, they had a process by which they would disciple people; it would take two to three years.
That [change of recognition] elevated the level of serious Christianity to a critical mass in a given church; all that began to break down. It happened slowly over a period of maybe a hundred years, but all of that began to break down.
Bob: For somebody to come into the church in the first 200 years—I say this/I think of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, who's traveling; right?—they baptize him—
Jerry: —right away. Cornelius was baptized right away. But let's think about this: “What book was the eunuch reading?”
Bob: The Book of Isaiah.
Jerry: Yes, in the chariot; so he was a God-fearer.
Jerry: Cornelius was a fellow traveling Jew; he built a synagogue. So early conversions, in the apostolic period, were usually people who were either Jews or associated with Judaism.
Imagine what it's going to be like when the Christian movement grows from Jerusalem to Samaria to Antioch—which was a very diverse city—scholars estimate 18 identifiable ethnic groups. That became the launching pad for missions to Corinth, Philippi—and on it goes—Roman world: Carthage. Alexandria.
Imagine what it would be like for a Christian to meet somebody, who came from a genuinely pagan background. They don't know anything about Genesis; they don't believe the world was created by God. They don't know about Moses, and Abraham, and Esther, and Ruth. They don't even know the categories: creation, fall, redemption—blank slate/nothing—zero. You baptize them into what?—they didn't know enough. So they developed this process of two to three years to gradually move them into the Christian fold; so that, being Christian was truly meaningful.
Bob: And that's two to three years of catechetical training, and you couldn't be baptized until—
Jerry: You could not be baptized until afterwards; they were called the Rites of Initiation. But think about that—I like the fact that you chose the word, “ training”—it wasn't education; it was training. It was more like what you do with an athlete or a musician, not what you do in a conventional classroom.
Dave: And that culture is similar to what we're living in right now; right?
Jerry: I think so.
Dave: So we should copy a lot of their discipleship methods.
Jerry: That's music to my ears. [Laughter] Honestly, right now, I'm actually busy at Whitworth, developing a two-year new catechumen, and it's not just information. The reformation catechisms were information/doctrine-driven.
Bob: Right, right.
Jerry: They taught doctrine; they taught the biblical story; they taught something along the lines of creeds—all that. But they had a sponsor—what we would now call a mentor—they trained them in discipleship.
It's interesting—during the Rites of Initiation, when they were being scrutinized or examined by the bishop before baptism—they wouldn't simply ask: “Ann, do you believe in God the Father, Almighty?” and “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son?” and “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Do you believe in the life of the church?” And you would say, “Yes, yes, yes,”—repeat that.
Then they would ask: “Ann, are you visiting widows?” “Are you reaching out to the poor?” “Are you visiting prisoners?” That was as important to them as having correct doctrine. That was all part of the training process, under the guidance of a mentor, who would go through the same training with them. Mentors would go through it two, three, four, five times—just like athletes do. It's like musicians playing scales every day.
Bob: The people who are asking the question were people who were doing that as a rhythm of their own life. They were taking care of the widows and the orphans; their orthopraxy and their orthodoxy were both solid.
Jerry: They were a seamless whole.
And I love the fact that you used the word, “rhythm.” This is amazing—early on, before we even get into the second century, one of the earliest Christian manuals written, the Didache, actually says Christians should be taking three times a day to pause to turn to God in worship. By the middle of the second century, it's five times a day. These were natural rhythms that they developed, constantly turned toward God: “You work in the world, you raise your families, your turn toward God.” They used the Lord's prayer three times a day—all of these rhythms that taught a disciplined way of life.
If they had not done that, Christianity would have been reabsorbed by the Roman world. The only way it could remain distinct was either isolate from the culture or train people with enough maturity and strength to be able to live in that culture and not capitulate.
Dave: If they don't do good works, they don't change the world. Doctrine is not going to be enough; it's got to be both.
Jerry: Rome complained about the good works, often with a kind of grudging admiration. I mean, I've got quite a bit in the book about even emperors; in fact, there's an early second century document, where a Roman provincial governor is writing to the Emperor Trajan. He said: “Christians are affecting our economy. [Laughter] They're not buying temple merchandise. They're not buying animals for sacrifice.” Merchants are complaining because the Christian lifestyle is challenging pagan values.
We have evidence in a plague that swept the world in the year 250—Christians were exemplary in how they cared for the sick and the dying. They would not only bury their own dead; they would bury the dead of their pagan neighbor.
Bob: —at risk to themselves.
Jerry: Many did; in fact, a bishop writes a letter to his diocese and says: “Many Christians were heroic in how they cared for the sick, and they got the disease themselves.” And then in this wonderful kind of theological statement—bad science, but good theology—he said, “They took on the disease of other people onto themselves.” He said that because some of the people they were caring for recovered, and they died. Of course, they have the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus as a kind of image; so their point is
that they took on the disease themselves, just like Jesus did for all of us.
Bob: You're talking to a lot of moms and dads/to a lot of people who love Jesus and who long to see the gospel explode in our culture. Do parents start to integrate monastic lifestyle patterns into their home? Do we start to have worship at 7:30 in the morning with our kids?
Ann: I'm thinking, “Where's that discipleship stuff you're writing about?”
Jerry: Well, I mean, yes, Bob. I have a chapter on identity and community, and I make three brief points. One is that the Christian movement introduced a new kind of fundamental identity in the Roman world—it's not based on wealth or status; it's not based on ethnicity or religious identification—it's based on being a new creature in Jesus Christ. That shapes all what I call your “secondary identities”: it's whether you're married or single, whether you're husband or wife, whether you're a household servant or a master. Christianity didn't erase those categories; it slowly began to transform them.
The other thing is that Christianity claimed to be a new commonwealth. Rome thought it was the empire of the world—the commonwealth—controlled by its army, its rituals and rites, and ultimately, the authority of the emperor.
This little fledgling movement said: “Actually, no; we're the new commonwealth under Jesus Christ, as Lord. We're creating a new kind of people that's global.” But then, they turned right around and create something vital at the local level: they call it the oikos ecumene—“commonwealth”—oikos: “household”—a new household church.
I would suggest that families need to think of themselves as units of discipleship—not just for the nuclear family—but for kids that play soccer with their own children, neighbors, single people, elderly people. We become discipling units in our families. And that means we have to think about our values: that we're going to raise children, who are not going to be professional athletes—which every parent with a seven-year-old soccer player thinks he or she is going to be; and of course, we all know that's nonsense—but that we do soccer as a way of interfacing with non-churched people to introduce them to the Christian way of life and Christian belief system.
Bob: This is where we can learn from history. We can learn from those who have gone before us, rather than thinking that they didn't know anything about our day and about technology. No; they knew about life, and about humanity, and about Jesus. I love your book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. I think it has a lot to say to us today.
You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy of Resilient Faith by Jerry Sittser. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also order by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY. So again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—that's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Get a copy of Jerry Sittser's outstanding book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.
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We hope you can be back with us tomorrow as we continue our conversation about what we can learn from the early church that applies to how we live for Christ in the 21st century. Jerry Sittser will be with us again. I hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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