We may complain a lot about trying to live a 1st century Christian life in the 21st century—there are so many new temptations that we have to contend with, so many cultural differences, so many challenges that we believe the 1st century apostles and New Testament writers never anticipated. Blah, blah, blah! It is high time that we read the history books of the ancient world and understand that it was plenty challenging for 1st century Christians to practice 1st century Christianity; and everything that we deal with today, 1st century Christians dealt with a form of it—sometimes in spades!
Do we have to deal with religious and cultural diversity? The Roman, pagan world had tons of diversity. The Roman Empire embraced peoples from modern day Iran to modern day Britain and all their cultures and religions with them. Everyone expected everyone else to put up with the other religions and when any sort of religious unrest or intolerance reared its head, it was quickly and decisively squashed. In the reign of Caesar Claudius the Jews were expelled from Rome for a time (c. AD 49-51) over religious riots about a certain “Chrestus” (sic) between Jews and Christians (see Seutonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars and Acts 18:2). Is “ecumenism” and denominational union socially expected and politically correct? Welcome to the 1st century world!
But we live in a post modern world, where claims to absolute truth is rejected and we an embrace of everyone’s “truth” is encouraged. Again, welcome to the 1st century world! Post-modernism is really just ancient paganism. Remember this biblical exchange?
John 18:37, 38 “Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate *said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and *said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.”
Pilate’s response was no mere throw-away line. Every street corner philosopher (and there were plenty of them) had a “truth” to sell—everything from Socrates and Plato to Epicurus and the Stoics to the eastern philosophies like gnosticism. Every god was “true”, every philosophy had its own value, and the politician who could buy the best poets (yes, the poets sold their services to propaganda machines) had the best political positions for the public good. And Christianity of the 1st century was preaching, John 14:6 “…I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
But we live in such an immoral world that even religious institutions have begun to promote immoral behavior! Yes, welcome, once again, to the 1st century world, where the gods behaved like soap opera stars and sometimes like porn stars. Where “sacrifices” and religious ritual often included sexual activity of various orientations. Where the gods couldn’t care less about morality, but were instead concerned primarily or only about whether they’d be “fed” (via sacrifices) or not. And Christianity was “competing” by calling for real righteousness, justice, and morality!
But we also live in an age of entertainment and where worship needs to have enough flash and pizzazz. People are expecting you to give them a show that will help them feel like they are in the presence of God! Welcome to…well, you’ve sure gotten it by now. The 1st century religious world was full of pageantry, show, images, smoke, and majestic music. They even paid engineers to rig the temples and the idols to perform wonders and miracles for the public to bolster their faith in the gods—sometimes to let the gods “actually” speak. All of these things were in direct competition with Christian worship services of the 1st century.
The 1st century also had plenty of gender equality among pagan “clergy” and goddesses! The 1st century had lots of religious eye-candy with idols and icons and gorgeous temples! And the pagan world was quick to oppress and persecute Christianity for its counter-cultural beliefs!
And no doubt (sarcasm alert) Peter and the other apostles gathered in a worried conclave, when they found out just how out-of-step Christianity was with the rest of the world to hire a consultant group of pollsters, cultural critics, and futurists; and after “much study and prayer” came up with an “improved” Gospel message—one that didn’t offend, one that was progressive and “with it”, one that would be more relevant to the world. Or not! Mostly not.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do realize that Paul taught that we need be Jews to the Jews, Greeks to the Greeks, etc. (1 Cor. 9:22), but Paul never sought to change the Gospel or the pattern of the church. Here are a couple of samples of Paul’s teaching about that…
- Galatians 1:8, 9 “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
- 2 Timothy 1:13 “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.”
But getting back to the main point, can anyone who has ever read 1 and 2 Corinthians really think that we don’t face the same problems as the 1st century? The same calls for relevancy to culture, to adopt a new hermeneutic (Hellenism and nascent gnosticism in their case), to be less bold about the truth of the Gospel, to be less judgmental about sin, and to create a better or more interactive “worship experience”. Yet the constant call was to stand firm:
- 1 Corinthians 16:13 “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
- 2 Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
- 1 Peter 5:9 “But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.”
- Ephesians 6:11-15 “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE;”
For there are 21st century challenges against God’s patterns, against the inspiration and authority of Scripture, that oppose the 1st century, the biblical, kind of leadership of Christ’s church, that claw away at the biblical model of involvement, the priesthood of all believers, in convincing and motivating the next generation to keep to the old paths, to sharing the “Old, Old Story” to a world craving novelty and something different, modern challenges to morality, gender roles, and propriety for 1st century Christians — both men and women, to keeping the saved saved, to raising up godly, spiritually-minded young people, challenges to godly transformation rather than worldly conformity — BUT WE MUST STAND FIRM!
Rather than constantly taking the culture’s temperature and trying to gauge what they want, we need to take courage and provide them what they need for eternity. We need…
- …less sociology and more “Bible-ology”
- …fewer cultural studies and more Bible studies
- …fewer futurists and more “eternalists”
- …less concern about being relevant and more concern about convincing men of the relevancy of the truth to their souls
- …less worship experience and more true worship
- …less discerning of trends and more discerning of the pattern
- …fewer polls and more souls
Is it possible to stand for 1st century Christianity in the 21st century. Not only is it possible, it is necessary!