by Daniel Vestal
During the Christmas holidays I read Glenn Hinson’s book, “The Early Church,” which offers a concise history of Christianity from its origin to the beginning of the Middle Ages. One takeaway for me (not one Hinson necessarily intended) was that there has always been a struggle to define what constitutes a true Christian.
The first Christ followers were Jews, and one of the earliest controversies had to do with how much Jewish law and ritual should be required of non-Jewish Christ followers. As the gospel expanded into Greek-Roman culture all kinds of debates followed: Should a true Christian eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols? Can a true Christian learn anything from Greek/Roman philosophy? What is essential belief for catechesis and baptism? When a Christian recants in times of persecution can they be restored when persecution ceases? And if so, what should be required of them?
Waves of severe and brutal persecution engulfed the early church. State sponsored attacks on Christians were cruel and vicious. They resulted in great suffering. They also resulted in elevating heroic individuals who bore their suffering with courage and nobility. Almost immediately after their deaths, martyrs became synonymous with ideal Christian discipleship. They were the ultimate example of what it means to be a witness to Christ. Soon their birthdays were celebrated. Their names were remembered with honor and reverence. These were considered the true Christians.
Contemporary to the martyrs were other individuals who devoted their lives to the spread of Christian beliefs. They felt constrained to preach and teach the gospel message to those who had never heard. With fervor and zeal they crossed all kinds of barriers and suffered all kinds of hardships to make disciples and alleviate human suffering. Some of the missionaries themselves became martyrs, while others experienced a living martyrdom because of severe suffering. One result is that they became the greatest examples for others to emulate. These were considered the true Christians.
The first few centuries of Christian history were turbulent and trying, but they were also dynamic and explosive. Without a canon of Scripture or well defined creeds the early church expanded and grew. Many contend that such growth was because of martyrs and missionaries who made the ultimate sacrifice and endured unbelievable hardships.
As the early church grew, not only in numbers but also in status, Christians increasingly found themselves in places of influence, wealth and power. As the apostolic, as well as the post-apostolic age, was ending the Church adapted to pagan culture. And with that adaption came compromise and corruption.
So much so that many Christians fled into remote places to escape a compromised church and pagan culture. They went into the deserts of Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Greece (and beyond) to separate themselves from the world to pray and wrestle with demons. They practiced strict ascetic disciplines, denying themselves bodily comforts and human interactions. Down through the centuries these desert fathers and mothers, followed by a multitude of monks, have been counted as the true Christians.
But what about the rest of us? If we are not called to any of these vocations, what does it mean to be a true Christian? A danger in idealizing and idolizing martyrs, missionaries and monks as the apex of Christian commitment is that we miss our own vocation, i.e. the place and way for us to live out our life in Christ. We not only risk losing our own identity, but we risk the greater danger of making Christ himself much like the martyrs, missionaries and monks. He only becomes a religious hero or moral champion to be held in high esteem, perhaps the highest esteem of all exemplars. But Christ is more than an historical personality to be admired and analyzed. Christ is a living, personal Presence to be experienced, loved and obeyed. Now! Christ is not just in the past or in the heavens (although he is in both “places”). Christ is in the present and in us. And through our faith, hope and love in Christ, He is made manifest to each of us and through each of us in the particulars of where we live, work and play.
The context and calling of each Christian is unique and different, yet it is the same. The true Christian is one in whom and through whom the true Christ lives. Our connection with Christ results in personal transformation into Christlikeness and communal bonding with others. The true Christian is not morally perfect or intellectually superior to other humans, but the true Christian partakes of and participates in a mystical and mysterious reality. The reality is Christ among us and within us. The reality is a relationship, a communion, a union with Christ, both now and forever.
Do we need some modern martyrs, missionaries and monks? Of course. But even more, we need true Christians, human beings of all kinds, who are captured and compelled by the Presence of Christ in their everyday lives. I resonate with another book that Glenn Hinson wrote, “Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership.” The last chapter is entitled, “What the World and the Church Need Most.”
“The Church and the world needs saints. They need saints more than they need more canny politicians, more brilliant scientists, more grossly overpaid executives and entrepreneurs, more clever entertainers and talk show hosts. Are there any on the horizon now that Mother Teresa is no longer with us, either of the extraordinary or of the ordinary kind? I think there are. Maybe I should say that there are saints “aborning” by God’s grace, who seek not to be safe but to be faithful, who have learned how to get along in adversity, who are joyful, who are dream filled, and above all, who are prayerful. That is what the church and the world need most. It begins with you.”