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Saving Christianity - The "Early Church" to the Rescue?

Thomas Whitley

The past few days have seen scores of post in response to an NYT piece asking if liberal Christianity can be saved. I asked if it needed saving and others have asked if non-liberal Christianity can be saved. One post that stuck out to me, though, and seems to have gotten a lot of traction among many of my more "moderate" Christian friends is a piece by Rachel Held Evans, "Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-in-Between." In her post Evans passionately expresses how she feels stuck in the middle between conservative and progressive Christianity, not feeling at home in either "camp." She also pleads for conservatives and liberals to work together, to not wish for the demise of the other. I can appreciate her desire for all of Christianity to become "better" (even as subjective as that idea is - my word, not hers), but I was a bit struck by her use of the make up of the early church to promote her wishes.

But if the early church could survive—and in fact, thrive  amidst persecution—when it included both Jews and Gentiles, zealots and tax collectors, slaves and owners, men and women, those in support of circumcision and those against it, those staunchly opposed to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols and those who felt it necessary, then I think modern American Christianity can survive when it includes democrats and republicans, biblical literalists and biblical non-literalists, Calvinists and Arminians...so long as we’re not rooting for one another’s demise.

She is quite right to point out the huge amount of diversity in what we call the "early church." Certainly, there were "conservatives" and "liberals." She is also right that the "early church" survived, even thrived in some circumstances, but where I think she strays is in the unspoken presumption that the different groups of early "Christians" weren't "rooting for one another's demise."

She is right on point that the "early church" seems to have done quite well for itself amidst persecution, but that was rather early in her history and provided the members of the community a single goal to focus on, a single enemy if you will. Even within this climate, though, debate raged and vitriol ruled the day for many groups. One group calls another "heretics," a different group claims that another group practices infant cannibalism, while yet another group forcefully asserted that none but themselves really knew God.

The early church was extremely fractious; Evans has touched on this. But she has only done just that. The tacit implication in her statement that these early groups of "Christians" did not want sole claim to being "God's people" and somehow saw a bigger picture and realized that they were "brothers and sisters in Christ" is just not true to the facts. To be sure, some early Christians likely did have this attitude, at least part of the time (I'm thinking of Paul taking up a huge peace offering to present to the Jerusalem Church - though I see rather selfish motives behind this move).

However, we cannot suggest that the "early church" is some perfect, pristine model of how Christians should behave for the remainder of history. With attacks leveled by one Christian against another that make Westboro Baptist Church seem tame, it often seems to me as if it is anything but that.