I’ve been reading through the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers” recently. These works, some pastoral letters in the same vein as St. Paul’s epistles, others sermons, others accounts of martyrdom or histories, have one things in common: their connection to the Early Church, the Christians in the time just after the time of the Apostles. Even though they are not part of the recognized canon of Scripture there is something enlightening about reading from and about the first people who carried on the living and preaching of the Gospel in the days right after the ones who had beheld Christ in the flesh had departed. These are the first ones to take the baton from the Apostles, trusting in their word, their account that what had been said about Jesus was true. Beyond this they trusted not just in what they heard, but what they experienced. The Apostolic Fathers did encounter Christ in the lives of the Apostles and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Their encounter was no less real than the ones who had seen, and even touched the Risen Christ in the flesh.
The question when reading texts like this must always be, however, what is the application to life today? What can we learn from the technique, the strides, the training of those who held the baton two millennia ago? Today we run, not in ancient Corinthian or Roman streets, but in the highways, sometimes even electronic ones, of the 21st Century. The way of applying ancient texts to today requires discernment and a certain “middle way,” extremes are to be avoided. I don’t believe in “Museum Christianity”, the idea that if we could just transplant the exact practice of the time right after Christ to today everything would be perfect. I also, however, don’t believe in an idea that we are evolving, as a people, spiritually or doctrinally. Christ is Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. God is God. God, the Holy Trinity, does not change. I believe those who received the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost received a full, not partial revelation. To think we are advancing is hubris and doesn’t really meet the critique of history. But to think the only way to live in this fullness is to live in a ‘preservation’ model, seeking only to restore what is most ancient, is, I believe. to miss the point. The point is that we have been handed the baton and must run with it. It is a grave mistake to simply stand and declare “we have found the true baton!” looking backwards while those in the next stations of the race wait to receive the baton from us. Furthermore, I think Museum Christianity denies that God is still actively, fully at work in His Church. It risks being almost gnostic, that the Apostles received something once that has to be ‘unlocked’ by study of antiquity. That ignores what the Apostles actually did with what they received. They preached. They healed. They encountered their culture. They made disciples and passed what they had on. They were alive in their faith, not secure in their preservation.
What the Apostolic Fathers give us, at our point in the race, I believe, is a perspective on what to focus and spend our energy on, and how to live our faith in a world often at odds with how we are called to live. We need to remember that the Early Christians faced real persecution. They could be arrested simply for being Christian. They could be unfairly tried and jailed. They could be displaced from their homes. They could be killed. The society around them actually did worship other Gods, whether pagan deities or Emperors. Sexual immorality was rampant. Things were much worse than they are today, at least for 21st Century Christians in America. Christians in places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, or any number of nations where Christians face real persecution are the ones who can claim a kinship with the early Christians. American Christians, however, are wealthy, privileged, and, despite all the chicken little reports (from places that are often quite aware that Christians are also a big market to tap into) have unparalleled rights to assemble and worship freely, all 20,000 or so denominations and “non-denominations.”
However, it is American Christians (myself included) who seem to react the most to their culture and situation in society. This certainly happens on “both sides” of most issues. One lesson that I think we can learn from going back and reading not only the Holy Scriptures, but the writings of those who directly followed the Apostles is precisely how to navigate living in a non-Christian culture. You may not find direct opinions about specific issues we face now, but you will find examples of what spirit a Christian should operate from. What did the Christians do when faced with real persecution? What kind of citizens were they? Did they protest publicly? Did they concern themselves with protecting their wealth, property, or rights? I think the witness of the Early Church is a challenge to what we have come to value and identify with as American Christians. I certainly think that the tone and tenor, and the guidance given by the leadership should cause us to take a close look at how we speak and react, especially in the public sphere.
Do we show the fruits of the spirit or the spirit of the age when we argue about the culture wars? Are we standing for Christ or for Mammon when we believe that protecting wealth and security are moral issues? Are we being persecuted or are we persecuting when we judge and lash out with ugly words against people and ‘groups’ we believe are threatening the moral fabric of our nation? Are we imitating Christ or Satan when we value power and pride? Do we place our ultimate hope in the Resurrection or in Political Change as the solution to the human condition?
I’ll share more from these writings in future essays. But to begin, consider the advice given by St. Clement (died 99AD) to his flock:
“Therefore it is right and holy, brothers, that we should be obedient to God rather than follow those who in arrogance and unruliness have set themselves up as leaders in abominable jealousy. For we shall bring upon ourselves no ordinary harm, but rather great danger, if we recklessly surrender ourselves to the purposes of people who launch out into strife and dissention in order to alienate us from what is right. Let us be kind to them, in accordance with the compassion and tenderness of the one who made us….Guard innocence and observe righteousness, for there is a remnant for a peaceful person.”
“Therefore let us unite with those who devoutly practice peace, and not those who hypocritically wish for peace. For somewhere it says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
“Let us therefore be humble, brothers, laying aside all arrogance and conceit and foolishness and anger, and let us do what is written. For the Holy Spirit says: “Let not the wise man boast about his wisdom, nor the strong about his strength, nor the rich about his wealth; but let one who boasts boast in the Lord, to seek Him out and do justice and righteousness.” Most of all, let us remember the words of the Lord Jesus, which spoke as He taught gentleness and patience. For He said this: “Show mercy, so you may receive mercy; forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you do, so it shall be done to you. As you give so shall it be given to you. As you judge, so shall you be judged. As you show kindness, so shall kindness be shown to you. With the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
I would invite anyone reading this to investigate the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (especially the works of Ignatius, Clement, and the Didache), and to re-read the Acts of the Apostles, not to try to apply a false retro-fitting of practice, but to ask whether the baton we are running with is the same one handed to the Apostles, or whether we might have dropped it somewhere along the way, or exchanged it for a counterfeit.