Who Should Read this Book – Readers interested in church history would of course enjoy this, but I think there is wisdom to learn from the early church for pastors, church leaders and anyone ministering/mentoring persons in faith.
What is the Big Takeaway – The earliest church (100-300 AD) rather than having any sort of evangelism plan or mission strategy actually limited visitors to worship services and even asked non-members to leave halfway through! The focus of the church at this time was developing people to live in the way of Jesus, specifically defined as patient trust in God’s plan for the world. Through this the church grew as outsiders noticed these changed lives and were curious.
And a Quote
“Christian communities worked to transform the habits of those who were candidates for membership – tinkering with their wiring or even attempting a more far-reaching rewriting – by two means: catechetical, which rehabituated the candidates’ behavior by means of teaching and relationship (apprenticeship); and worship, the communities’ ultimate counter formative act, in which the new habits was enacted and expressed with bodily eloquence” (41)
This book left me with a feeling of melancholy. On one hand, I absolutely loved it. As I read, I was moved and inspired by the way the early church taught new and prospective followers of Jesus. Working in ministry myself, I imagined ways to borrow this ancient wisdom. Certainly some of what Kreider talked about will already be known by people with a modicum of knowledge of the early church. But there is plenty that was new, especially the way he explains and illustrates the early Christian understanding of patience. They simply trusted God and sought to live as Jesus called them. They were not worried about the ends (success, growth, etc.) , they lived as they knew was right.
Just one example of this is where Kreider talks of how Christian leaders were concerned with potential convert’s actions towards poor people and not opinions on why people were:
“The leaders did not ask about the candidates’ orthodoxy, about their mastery of doctrine, about their memorization of biblical passages, about their piety or prayer life. THey did not ask about the many areas of distinctive Christian habitus that catechumens were attempting to master. They did not ask about the candidates’ opinions and attitudes – for example, what they thought about poor people. They did, however, want to know how the candidates treated poor people. Actions said it all” (156).
You could add to this examples of nonviolence in a violent culture, not charging interest in business, caring for people sick during plagues and much more.
On the other hand, I was sad because this all seems so distant from the church today. There is a big difference between then and today; in the early church, the majority of the populace had little to no knowledge of Christianity. So as rumors spread, the early Christians would be in a position to dispel rumors by their living. But we live on the other end of Christendom. Our world (at least the West) is not one that has no knowledge of Christianity but that everyone has encountered Christianity in some way. People have experienced and read stories of abusive leaders and wealthy mega church pastors and much more that lead to negative views of Christianity which, if we Christians are honest, are often deserved.
It all begs the question – what is Christianity? What is real Christianity?
Reading this book solidified my opinion that one of the greatest tasks for Christians today is to renounce the heresy of Christian Nationalism and the errant ventures of the culture wars. In these and other things we see the remnants of Christendom which ties right in with the final two chapters here, on Constantine and Augustine. Kreider shows how the conversion of Constantine began a process of changing how the church functioned, what it required of people and how people were taught. A century later, Augustine changed the entire definition of patience. Where earlier writers (Tertullian, Cyprian) spoke of patience as trusting in God and acting the right (Christ-like) way in outer acts, Augustine shifted the focus to the interior. For Augustine, the focus was on your inner disposition of love. But this allowed Christians to claim an inner disposition of love while acting in quite anti-Jesus ways.
Augustine could thus utilize all the power at his disposal to crush the Donatists and Pelagians. Rather than living and teaching as he knew was right, while allowing freedom of religion to these so-called heretics, trusting that God would work for the triumph of truth eventually (patience), Augustine impatiently did all he could to achieve victory as soon as possible. This was a replacement of patience with impatience. This set a precedent that led to burning of heretics, crusades and other violent, anti-Christian acts that could be performed, perhaps even in the name of love (we must kill the heretics to show our love of God!).
And we still have that today. Christians in America will justify almost any means if they think it is reaching the proper end (Won’t somebody please think of the children!). This is Christian Nationalism – our nation is at stake and we must do anything we can to save it! This is culture wars – in order to get the judges we need to protect our way of life we are justified in doing/saying almost anything.
This is where I borderline fall into despair for, as I said above, its not that people are not exposed to Christianity. Its that they’ve seen Christians and the church as just another power-hungry group in society.
I have certainly spent a few paragraphs hammering on some segments of the church and I’m sure they’d be quick to say the other side (progressives, liberals) uses the same tactics. Its worth saying the solution is not, for people like me, to just as impatiently and just as pragmatically, join with those who are willing to do anything to defeat the Christian Nationalists.
That’s not the solution.
There is plenty of hope and plenty of wisdom in this book. One primary lesson is that God is patient and working in the world. Our task, as Christians, is to shape our lives into conformity with Jesus Christ. We must do justly and live virtuously. Kreider’s book is a resource that gives profound insights on how to do this. One of the biggest areas we ought to change our thinking and acting is in regards to violence. The early Christians were non-violent; they didn’t join the legions or kill people. If a soldier converted, he was at times instructed to stay in the military but not kill (and how did that work). There’s a lot of specifics we don’t know and lots of questions came up as people in various professions wanted to join the church. With all that in mind, its worth asking: What if Christians today just refused to kill people or even own weapons of death?
Another question, as I despair on the reputation of the church, is: What if we worried less about the reputation of “the Church” and just sought to build the reputations of our churches in our local communities? No one or two of us can change how “THE CHURCH” is viewed but we can make impacts in our local communities. Rather than worrying we can, as Kreider illustrates the early church did, patiently trust God’s plan and work for the good in our communities.
Two more things. First, I think that any lessons we would draw from a book like Kreider’s must be filtered through our different contexts, as I alluded to above. We are in a different situation than the early Christians which means the way we go about living our patient lives might look a bit different. Specifically, I do not think we would be faithful if we simply built communities totally separated from the world. Drew Hart touched on this in his essay in the book A Living Alternative; in my review of that book I commented at length on Hart’s challenging words and I’d direct an interested reader there. Just a taste, here is one quote from Hart:
“Those that practice and identify with Anabaptism in the 21st century in America tend to be white, privileged, and undeniably situated in dominant culture. If societies—as living mechanisms, inherently having systems of advantage and disadvantage—manage those that participate in them, then it would seem that American Anabaptists are increasingly not only benefiting from societal advantages, but are blind to them all together.”
(See full review here: https://dmlhershey.com/2021/05/24/a-living-alternative-anabaptist-christianity-in-a-post-christendom-world-edited-by-joanna-harader-and-a-o-green-review/)
What I am trying to say is that the takeaway from Kreider’s book is not to just do our own thing apart from society and let the world go as it will. Instead, we ought to join with our Christians brothers and sisters whose experience is probably much closer to the early Christians (the church on the margins). We learn from them, serve with them and follow them.
Second, Kreider talks about how Augustine adopted the idea of two tracks for Christians. There were monks and nuns who continued to live like Jesus while everyone else, having to function in the world as soldiers and politicians and what not, were able to be more flexible. This links up with the work of Charles Taylor who identifies the same thing in the medieval church. Taylor argues one of the steps towards secularization was the Reformers calling all people to the higher level of living (the “fast track”). Ironically though, this ended up as a step towards secularism as this way of life was simply out of reach for the majority of the populace (Taylor’s argument is much more complex and my few words here did not do it justice). My point is, some of us will read a book like Kreider’s and desire for everyone to live like these early Christians. And sure, maybe we all should. But maybe that’s simply not possible?
In other words, the sort of church we see between 100 and 300 is inevitably going to be quite small. You can’t both open the doors to everyone and see a community where everyone has the high moral and ethics expected in the early church.
This ties back in with Kreider’s point the early church did not have a strategy of evangelism. Part of the reason Christians could live in this patient way was a deep trust in God and not a big worry to reach every single person as soon as possible with the message of Jesus. The American tradition of fundamentalist evangelism with its “you might die tonight…” message is anything but patient. If your goal is to get people saved ASAP so they don’t go to hell, you can’t have the high standards for membership the early church did. To be blunt, they simply didn’t worry about the eternal soul of people who spent years preparing to join the church!
I think I am getting at, how do we combine the best of the earliest church’s notions of high ethical expectations with a grace that welcomes all people? Honestly, I think there is some value in giving people space to live a bit differently, with different “tracks” of discipleship. It would take a smarter or wiser person than me to imagine what that looks like. I think any decent, wholistic and healthy way forward will combine the wisdom of the pre-Nicene church with its emphasis on patience with the flexibility of the medieval church which recognized, this side of eternity, not everyone is going to be able to live that way.
Finally, I would LOVE a version of this book which included some of the key works cited such as Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine’s works on patience and the Didascalia Apostle (or whatever). Maybe not the full text as it would be super long, but big chunks to get a good feel for those primary sources.