FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Spirituality of the Early Christians

with Jerry Sittser | November 22, 2011
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Can history be a valuable spiritual resource for us? Professor Jerry Sittser takes us back through church history and helps you understand the lives of the martyrs and the early Christian community.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Can history be a valuable spiritual resource for us? Professor Jerry Sittser takes us back through church history and helps you understand the lives of the martyrs and the early Christian community.

  • 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.

Can history be a valuable spiritual resource for us?

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The Spirituality of the Early Christians

With Jerry Sittser
November 22, 2011
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Bob: When was the last time you did something purposefully or intentionally—that you knew would make life harder for you?

Jerry Sittser says that’s what the Desert Fathers chose to do centuries ago.

Jerry:  You’ll notice most of us try to avoid struggle like the plague.  If we struggle, it’s because it’s been imposed on us.  You know, we go through a hard time—we’re fired from our job, or have marital problems, or a wayward child—whatever it happens to be. 

They chose struggle because they considered it an essential dimension of the Christian faith.  The goal is not to overcome our problems so that we can live a nice, comfortable life.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, November 22nd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Today, we’ll find out some of the things we can learn from, not only the Desert Fathers, but from many of our brothers and sisters who have lived in past centuries.  Stay tuned.

Bob:  And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  You know, from time to time, people will ask me about books that I’ve read.  They’ll say, “If you had to pick the most influential books you’ve read over your lifetime, what would they be?”

I’ve got kind of a go-to list that I’ll go to.  I haven’t really thought about this until recently; but one of the things I’d go to is not a book that I read, but a series of lectures I listened to.  Back about 15 or 20 years ago, I bought a series of 50 lectures on cassette tape.  For our younger listeners, this is how your parents used to listen to audio—it was on a little thing called a cassette tape.  (Laughter)

It’s an old, ancient contraption.  But I bought these tapes, and it was 50 lectures on church history.  I bought them, just kind of thought, “This will be interesting to see what I pick up from it.”  Well, at the end of listening to all 50 lectures, I was stunned by the impact it had had on me because it showed me, first of all, that many of the theological questions we are wrestling with in our day have already been wrestled with by minds many times sharper than ours.  They’ve been answered well by those folks.

Secondly, it showed me that it was really narcissistic to think of the fact that God was only at work in our day and in our time.  To see God at work throughout the last 2,000 years of the history of the church opened my eyes to stuff I hadn’t really stopped and thought about before.

Dennis:  It’s why you and I wanted to bring our guest into the studio today—to give them a little bit of a church history lesson.  I’d like to welcome Dr. Jerry Sittser back to the broadcast.  Jerry, welcome back.

Jerry:  Thank you, Dennis and Bob.

Dennis:  It’s good to rub shoulders with you again.  He’s written a book called Water from a Deep Well.  Jerry is a professor at Whitworth University, father of three, a beekeeper of notoriety with his daughter, Catherine—

Bob:  You didn’t mention that he’s also a newlywed.

Dennis:  He is a newlywed.  Some of our listeners have read your book, A Grace Disguised; and they’re going, “Really?!  Really?!”  Introduce us to Patricia. 

Jerry:  After almost 20 years of single fatherhood, I took the plunge, at the age of 60, into matrimonial bliss once again. (Laughter)

Bob:  And you had an interesting—as we were talking about this—you had an interesting perspective.  You said you did not marry your wife for love.

Jerry:  No, that was Martin Luther.  (Laughter)  Bob, I’m on radio here, and she may be listening; and this would not be a good thing at all.  (Laughter)

Dennis:  No, no.  You’re still on your honeymoon! 

Jerry:  I did marry her out of love.  I will say, though, in all seriousness, that I view marriage as a kind of spiritual discipline.  I’m not stretching it to say that my own knowledge of the history of the church has really helped me to understand marriage, not simply as an institution that assures eternal happiness and bliss, but as an institution that God has established by which to grow us as followers of Jesus—as mature disciples. 

It is not a stretch for me to say, honestly, that I view marriage a lot like monastic institutions in the Middle Ages.  It’s a setting in which God puts us—a setting that requires discipline and commitment, tenacity, growth of character, and conviction.  You learn how to love a woman or—as the case might be—a man over a 30-, 40-, or 50-year period of time.  You are accomplishing a great thing—and to raise children on top of that.

Dennis:  Jerry, I want you to know, Bob and I have been doing radio now for almost 18 years.  You’re the first guest to ever compare marriage to a monastic experience.  (Laughter)

Jerry:  And, Dennis, I assure you there are some differences between living in a monastery and being married.

Dennis:  Yes, I would think. 

Well, first of all, I want to congratulate you on your monastic experience—your marriage to Patricia.  I also want to congratulate you on your book.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  It’s really a history from the early martyrs to modern missionaries.  It’s a history of church history.

Jerry, you trace Christianity through 11 eras.  As I mentioned, you start with the martyrs and you end with modern missionaries.  Why did you start with martyrs?  Obviously, it’s where the Christian church starts; but what’s the benefit for us today to read the stories of these martyrs?

Jerry:  Well, it was chronological; but there was a more fundamental reason as I read a lot of these martyr accounts and, of course, all kinds of other literature on the early Christian period.  I realized that martyrdom was almost essential to our understanding of Christianity and, especially, Christian spirituality because the martyrs died, basically, for one reason—they called Jesus, “Lord.” 

It is that commitment to the lordship of Christ that really sets Christianity apart as a unique religion.  Here is God, Who has come to us as Jesus Christ, born in a stable, growing up as a common person and living in a small town (Nazareth).  He launches in a three-year public ministry, and then he is ignominiously crucified, a brutal form of execution that the Romans invented.

End of story.  End of story.  That’s what would have happened had there not been, three days later, a resurrection.

Dennis:  Yes.

Jerry:  Not a resuscitation, a resurrection!  That set the Christian faith in motion.  So people rightly would call Jesus, “Lord.”  He is God in human flesh.  That’s why those early martyrs suffered. 

Now, chances are I’m not going to suffer martyrdom and neither are you—but that we call Jesus, “Lord” is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.  Christianity entered a pluralistic world, just like ours is pluralistic.  There were lots of religious options—they all had their own time in history.  Rome tolerated all those various religious options—it loved pluralism as long as you bowed the knee to Rome itself.

We live in a pluralistic age today.  It’s just as tough to call Jesus, “Lord” today as it was 2,000 years ago, even if we don’t have to suffer literal martyrdom.  That’s where Christian spirituality must begin.

Bob:  In China today or in Iran today, they would face similar consequences to those early Christian martyrs.

Jerry:  They would.

Bob:  If you name the name of Christ, you could lose your life.  In our culture, if you name the name of Christ, it might actually help your insurance business grow a little bit or it could get you a few more customers here and there.  That perverts our way of thinking about what it is that we’re actually committing our lives to; doesn’t it?

Jerry:  If we not only call on the name of Christ, but if we live with Him as Lord, it is going to have long-term consequences in terms of the values that we embrace, the way we treat people, the way we steward our resources, the practices that we follow, the lifestyle that we pursue, and so on. 

Dennis:  Yes.

Jerry:  It’s all going to have long-term consequences for our lives.  So I want to suggest that’s where it has to begin.

Dennis:  I love what you said in your book.  You said, “The stories of martyrs don’t make me want to die a martyr’s death, but live a martyr’s life.”  Therein is the message for those of us today.  There needs to be more of us confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in our neighborhoods, the marketplace, at school, as we go about our duties—regardless of our responsibilities, we need to represent Him first and foremost. 

Jerry:  If the early martyrs had simply considered Jesus a religious option, they wouldn’t have suffered.

Dennis:  You tell the story of a courtroom scene that was from Justin Martyr’s Second Apology.  I think it’s a great picture of courage, not only of a woman, but also of an observer in the courtroom.

Jerry:  Right.  She’s being dragged before the court because she had become a Christian.  Her husband accused her, not of being unfaithful, but basically of crowding him morally.  So he drags her in front of the court, and she is condemned to death.  Somebody, as an observer, is there and protests and says, “This is not right!  She has not been accused of a crime!  She’s not done anything wrong.”

The judge looks at him and says, “Well, are you a Christian, too?”  He says, “Yes, I am.”  That’s enough, and he’s dragged off to martyrdom.  Then, another person.

You’ll notice, in all three of those cases, they were accused of only one thing—of bearing a name—not a crime, but a name.  It was the name itself that was enough to convict a person.  “I am a Christian.”  You see, in a lot of these martyr accounts, that’s all one has to say, “I’m a Christian.”  That’s enough.

Bob:  And they could have kept silent; but chose not to keep silent, knowing the consequences.

Jerry:  They could have kept silent or they could have said, “Well, I like Jesus among these other kinds of gods.”  No problem.

Dennis:  There was another era.  I have to tell you, this may be—I kind of like truth that is stranger than fiction—but it was the era of Desert Saints.

Jerry:  Desert Fathers and Mothers; right.

Dennis:  Who actually chose to struggle.

Jerry:  Yes, they withdrew into the wilderness—the desert—especially in the eastern Mediterranean.  That desert typified a place of loneliness, and isolation, and struggle; but it was also outside the mainstream.  That’s why they chose it.  They wanted to withdraw from sort of mainstream Christianity, which had become increasingly favored by the state and enjoying cultural privilege.  They thought that was a compromise of the Gospel.

They were nicknamed, “the athletes of God,” or “bloodless martyrs”.  In other words, people who were living a martyr’s life, just like before.  They wanted to normalize the life of struggle in the Christian faith.

You’ll notice most of us try to avoid struggle like the plague.  If we struggle, it’s because it’s been imposed on us.  You know, we go through a hard time—we’re fired from our job, we have marital problems, or a wayward child—whatever it happens to be.  They chose struggle because they considered it an essential dimension of discipleship. 

Bob:  When you say they chose struggle, they didn’t go in and say, “Fire me,” or “I quit”; but they didn’t steer away; right?

Jerry:  They didn’t do that; but I mean by struggle—is they practiced severe forms of self-examination.  They practiced disciplines like fasting, vigils, poverty, and chastity.  They sought the face of God.  They prayed in a regular rhythm. 

Dennis:  Tell about the houses that they lived in and just how they punished the flesh.

Jerry:  They did.  The technical word is “ascetic.”  They were very ascetic; that is they practiced what I call disciplines of deprivation.  They would live in caves, or they would live in huts, or small settlements.  They would usually gather—a collection of them would gather—around a mentor.  They called him an abba.  Then they would meet with that mentor on weekends.  They would study Scripture; they would talk; they would pray; they would discuss how to live out the Christian life; and then they would separate.

They practiced their disciplines.  They usually had a trade they would practice; for example, weaving mats, or ropes, and that sort of thing.  They would give to the poor; and they, themselves, would live in poverty.  They look really isolated, but they were closer to civilization than you would think.  They exercised a lot more influence than we would think, too, because a lot of people came out to see them—they were so fascinated by them.  So there wasn’t quite the isolation that we would think.

Dennis:  Jerry, you tell a story (in your book) about one of these young men who was being mentored.  His name was Abba John.  He had been struggling with his passions.  Of course, the mentor had told him to memorize Scripture.  He’d practiced some spiritual disciplines; and he came back and said, “I’m at rest.  There is no more war of my flesh and the Spirit.” 

I just thought this was a great picture because this is the opposite of Christianity today—it seems, in America.  The abba warned him (quote), “Go and ask the Lord to stir a new war in you.  Fighting is good for the soul.”  What these guys did is—they believed that the soul needed struggle.  The soul needed to have tension against it so that it would grow in dependency and knowledge of God.  We’re in need of that message today; aren’t we?

Jerry:  We are.  It’s interesting their favorite metaphor to describe Christian discipleship was athletics.  They wanted to produce spiritual athletes.  Now think about what an athlete does.  They live in tension all the time.  They do drills; they do laps—whatever the athletic practice happens to be.  They have a coach.  They’re instructed.  There’s a lot of repetition involved.  The way you build skill and strength is by that kind of tension.

They said that should be a regular feature of the Christian faith.  The goal is not to overcome our problems so we can live a nice, comfortable life.  They believe that life in this world should be characterized by that kind of struggle of discipleship and that we should choose things that put us on the edge and push us to grow as followers of Jesus.  So I think that’s a marvelous image to use—the life of struggle.

Dennis:  Everything within me wants to move to the life of ease.  Another quote you had—you’re a beekeeper—another quote you had in here that I think is a great image of the culture we’re living in today—it was from another abba who made this statement—he said, “Just as the bees are driven out by smoke and their honey is taken away from them, so a life of ease drives out the fear of the Lord and takes away all good works.”

I really like that because everything within my flesh wants to move to the comfort zone.  What these desert saints were pressing one another to do was press into the conflict.  Now, they may have abused it and gone too far—

Jerry:  They did.

Dennis:  —and become a bit eccentric about it, but their message today is one worth heeding as a follower of Christ.

Bob:  Yes, I want to ask you about that eccentricity because you haven’t taken on the Desert Fathers as your model.   You haven’t sold your home, and moved to a cave, and chosen to abandon any comfort in life.  What have you learned from them, and what are you not imitating that they took on?

Jerry:  Well, they were excessive. I admit that in the book.  I’ll admit that on the radio, and I’ll admit it everywhere.  They were an odd collection of people.  Having said that— that call to robust discipleship—that call to choose a way of life that pushes us to be followers of Jesus in day-to-day—that even calls us to sacrifice things for the good of the Kingdom—for the work of the Kingdom—strikes me as being a very relevant message for us today.

Again, they used the metaphor of athletics.  We need to submit ourselves, if you will, to a kind of training routine.  As Dennis said, I think a lot of that has been lost.  We idealize the garden—and what we mean is this perfect set of circumstances that are going to make us happy.  That will change from person to person.  It’s going to be a nice house in a gated community; three kids; 10 grandchildren; a round of golf on the weekends—whatever it happens to be, that will vary from person to person. 

God wants to use an imperfect world to make us into a garden—as people.  That is not going to happen if we idealize this perfect state because we’re not going to change.  We, as imperfect people, are going to try to create an ideal, perfect world instead of God using an imperfect world to make us into pure and perfect people.

Bob:  You know, Jerry, we come to the Desert Fathers or some of the later mystics, or some of these people throughout the history of the church who went too far; and I think we have a tendency to say, “Well, we can’t really learn much from them.  I mean, look where their pursuit took them.  We’ve got to be careful.”  We do tend to throw the baby out with the bath water at that point and say, “I’m not even going to study the Desert Fathers, or the mystics, or the contemplatives, or any of these other groups, because it led them to error.”

Jerry:  That’s right.  I use a phrase in the book—it is a Latin phrase—abusus non tollit usus:  “Abuses do not nullify uses.”  Okay, now I’ll ask you two guys, “You do the marriage stuff; right?  Has marriage ever been abused? 

Bob and Dennis:  Sure.

Jerry:  Is that an argument against marriage?

Dennis:  No. 

Jerry:  What is an argument for?—right marriage—good marriage—healthy marriage.  Abuses of something—in the history of Christianity—there have always been abuses—abuses of disciplines, abuses of sacraments, even abuses of conversion.  We all call ourselves evangelical here; but there have been lots of abuses of that, too; right?

Dennis:  Right.

Jerry:  So when you use abuse as an argument against the thing itself, you miss out on a lot.  What we need to do is reclaim the good that was in it.  That takes discipline, and practice, and hard work.

Dennis:  So, your take-away from the martyrs and from the Desert Saints, as you look at your own Christian faith and your own walk with Christ—“How is Jerry Sittser different today, or what are you practicing that you learned from these two eras?”

Jerry:  I would say Christian athleticism, in a way.  In other words, to be as serious about discipleship as an athlete is about training—but always to do it in an environment of grace—grace!

Dennis:  Practically, what does that look like for you?

Jerry:  Oh, it has to do with the way I make decisions about spending money; the way I treat people; how I invite them into my home; the kind of rhythm that I follow from day-to-day—all of those kinds of little choices that have a cumulative effect. 

Dennis:  I’m hearing you saying that you’re putting on your track shoes.

Jerry:  I’m trying to.

Dennis:  Every day.

Jerry:  Very imperfectly.

Bob:  Well, you know, the Scriptures say that we are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.  The word “discipline ourselves”, in the Greek, is the word gymnadzo, where we get our word “gymnasium”.  It’s really saying, “Go to the gym.  Work out.  In order to have godliness appear in your life, it’s going to take a workout.”

Dennis:  And there may be a listener wondering why they’re hearing a message like this on a FamilyLife Today program.  This has everything to do with how you become a godly husband, godly wife, father, mother, grandfather.  It is the most important spiritual commitment of our lives that will shape our earthly relationships and impact their outcome.

Bob:  And I think it’s one of the things that, as a ministry, we’ve said is going to be at the core of what we’re all about.  We’re going to talk about marriage and family, but we start first with you and your relationship with God and getting that right because that’s the foundation for everything else. 

Dennis:  If you’re not growing there, you’re never going to have the marriage and family God designed you to have.  That’s why I would encourage you to get Jerry’s book.  This is going to challenge your preconceptions of what Christianity is and what a walk with God looks like.

Bob:  Well, it’s going to introduce you to some of your crazy uncles in the faith—and some of the folks throughout—

Dennis:  Well, these guys from the Desert Saints—

Bob:  Right—

Dennis:  One of them put a stone in his mouth and kept it there for three years. 

Bob:  Like I said, “Some of the crazy uncles that we’ve got.”

Dennis:  The reason he did that was to get rid of gossip from his tongue.  He wanted to remind himself of a spiritual discipline to control his tongue, and he left the stone there.  I’m just trying to figure out, “How in the world, you would eat?”

Bob:  I’m thinking maybe we should sell some “gossip stones” in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  “You could go online and order”—No, sorry!  (Laughter)

What you can go online and order is Jerry Sittser’s book, Water from a Deep Well; and we have that in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  Go to for more information on how to get a copy of the book——or give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word,  “TODAY”.  When you get in touch with us, mention that you’d like the book you heard us talking about on the radio—the book, Water from a Deep Well—and we’ll make arrangements to get a copy of it sent out to you.

Now, I wanted to make sure that all of our listeners are aware (and I think many of them aren’t aware) that we produce a twice-a-month e-magazine called, The Family Room.  It’s a great publication that comes out at the beginning of the month and the middle of the month.  It’s full of articles, and it will help you strengthen your marriage and your family.  It’s absolutely free. 

For example, coming up in the next issue, there’s an article about how to keep Christ at the center of your Christmas; and then there’s an article by Dennis and Barbara on ways to keep your marriage fresh.  They’ve got five suggestions for you on how to breathe a little fresh air back into your marriage.  These are the kinds of things that come out in every issue, and we’d love to have you as a subscriber.   It doesn’t cost anything.  All you have to do is go to and click on the link for “The Family Room”.  Sign up; and when the next issue comes out, we’ll get it sent out to you.

We hope a lot of you will sign up and start getting The Family Room sent directly to you, twice a month.  I think you’ll really enjoy it.

I want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to continue our conversation with Jerry Sittser, talking about what we can learn from our brothers and sisters who lived centuries, even millennia, ago.  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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.


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