This article was originally written in June 2019.
These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be…and we must also move beyond the boundaries of our own comfort to be who we are called to be.
Diane LeClerc, in her book Discovering Christian Holiness, points out that as long Christianity was under the umbrella of Judaism rather than a radically new, un-Jewish form of religious faith, it enjoyed “a type of immunity and toleration” (78) with regard to the way it was seen and responded to by the Roman Empire. The relationship between the Roman Empire and Judaism had a history with established boundaries, regulations, and expectations. As long this new movement–The Way–kept to itself, didn’t make waves, and stayed within the already established boundaries delineated by the already existing understanding between Rome and Judaism, The Way would have remained relatively safe and unbothered.
People often say that Jesus did not come to earth to start a new religion. Whatever our opinion of that statement, one thing is clear—
Jesus presented such compelling example and demonstration of God’s power, plan, and purpose that those who took it seriously simply could not responsibly stay within the boundaries of Judaism as a religion, nor move forward while staying in the narrow lane of Roman expectations for them as nothing more than a Jewish sect.
These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be. The result brought about an era of church history in which martyrdom was viewed, according to LeClerc, the highest sign of holiness. That is, the willingness to die for ones faith in Jesus Christ was seen to be highest form of devotion, commitment, and outward evidence of a transformed heart and life.
For much of the history of the church in America, perhaps, it might be said that we have been like The Way, staying within the boundaries established by Rome. That is, perhaps the church has enjoyed the protection, safety, and comfort protection by favorable government regulations (freedom to gather, freedom to worship openly, and tax-deductions) , the safety of a general cultural favorability to basic Christian thought and life (there was a time when parents who didn’t attend church sent their children to Sunday school because it was “good for them”), and the comfort of economic and social well-being and success (large buildings, extensive facilities, land ownership, and large congregations).
At a glance it might seem that the church in America has enjoyed one of the best and most fruitful periods of church history. But it hasn’t come without a price. We’ve been able to enjoy these things as long as we stayed within our own lane. One example–churches enjoy tax-exempt status and privileges, so long as they abide by certain state-established laws and regulations. The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this lane–wide and comfortable as it is–has helped or hurt its ability to live out the compelling example of Jesus of God’s power, plan, and purpose.
The followers of The Way they may well-have enjoyed similar protection, safety, and comfort under Rome, if not for an undeniable conviction that their movement called them to so much more.
In other words, their understanding of their foundational and ultimate purpose would not allow them to remain trapped inside a box—they had to break free, live out their purpose, and follow the example and teachings of Christ regardless of the consequences. This was the way they must go.
The contemporary situation in America is somewhat different has it has been in the not-so-distant past. The church is being moved out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society. This is not a missional choice by the church, it’s not motivated by a conviction that to live responsible Christian lives the church must renounce the protections it once enjoyed. Instead, these changes are coming by way of a rapidly shifting cultural, economic, social, and religious landscape that is pushing the church out from its once well-respected position in society. As a result, there is this foreboding sense of mourning over what is being lost, anger because it is being lost, and and “all-American” desire to fight back and take back what we believe is rightfully ours, all the while only giving lip service to the overriding theme of holiness that is the ultimate purpose of God the church—full and complete love for God and Christlike love for neighbor.
This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students. I have reproduced a few of those responses below:
My Response to K: You wrote, K — “What if we took our church calendars and examined the events and activities of the church each month or year in light of this statement? We could do the same with our budgets and our curriculum. Families and individuals can do the same with their calendars and budgets.”
This is something I’ve often thought about–how do budgets reflect who we are? How do we allow budgets to determine the things we do and don’t do? In my particular ministry, I talk a lot about house churches or “no-designated-church-building” churches. It’s not an idea that is easy to accept for most of our churches leaders who were taught (to put it very simply) that churches must have buildings. But there are two great advantages–(1) churches can be planted with virtually no financial investment required, and (2) monies that are given/collected can more easily be used in ways that directly reflect the mission and priorities of the church. May we all score well on the rubric of love! 🙂
Response from G: I really appreciate the perspective you lend when you write, “We can see the church moving out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society.” As a young up-and-coming Latina American, I hadn’t really thought of the church as holding a respected position in society until recently. I was kind of rushed into learning about politics in 2016 because it felt like my life depended on it. The divisiveness of that time that continues to protrude into our rhetoric, has proved that half of the population in North America is unhappy with those in power, the church being one of those. I am not sure if this is because of who makes up our churches or because Christianity is what the ideals of the founding father of this nation were but now, the church is definitely facing a loss of its seat in power. People are angry at that. Truly, the “’all-American’ desire to fight back” is real as you said. But at what cost? I guess I am just echoing your thoughts and really appreciate the narrative your perspective shares. It makes sense to me! I think this may be an opportunity for our churches to gracefully respond to the challenges that face it. I hope we respond in love and haven’t lost our footing in the way of holiness
Response from M: Thanks for your addition to this class! I appreciate what you have to offer to us by way of your perspective living outside the USA. You have the unique opportunity to look at questions of culture and exile and empire through a different lens. It is pretty obvious that the church and Christianity in general are losing their position of spiritual authority and respect amidst a culture that is changing at a rate we cannot keep up with.
I really was struck by what you pulled from our reading about The Way and how they had a certain amount of protection from Rome so long as they did not make waves or push the boundaries. I rather agree that same thing applies to present day Christianity in that we are tolerated so long as we do not make too many waves. We have not been in this place before. We are coming to a place where we may at some point be called on to step up or step away from the protections we once enjoyed to order to live by our convictions. I was also thinking about another angle on this….I think it comes from “The Screwtape Letters,” where it is suggested that Satan will leave us be so long as we are complacent. Satan has no need to waste his energy on stopping our efforts because we are not accomplishing anything for the Kingdom.