Tag: Early Christianity

Early Church Minus the Spirit?

A recent Christian History post triggered deeper conviction about the more visible displays of the Spirit in our churches. With all the current emphasis on being a “NT Church” (an overblown and theologically problematic phrase), where are the displays of the Spirit, i.e. healings, resurrections, God-honoring prophecy? Chris Armstrong notes that: “When we teach about the early church, we frequently omit the story of spiritual gifts.”á Perhaps this is one reason we do not see the visible displays as much? To be sure, the invisible work of the Spirit, manifested in faith and works, is present and a priority; however, the following statements by the Early Church Fathers cause me to pause and reflect:

1st century

Writers of the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas [two inspirational books used widely in the early church] witness so much charismatic activity they find it necessary to distinguish between true and false prophets. At about the same time, the writer of Pseudo-Barnabas suggests prophetic ministry is normative in the church.

2nd century

[Christian apologist] Justin Martyr argues that God has withdrawn the Spirit of prophecy and miracles from the Jews and has transferred it to the church as proof of her continued divine favor.

Irenaeus of Lyon describes the gifts of prophecy, discernment of spirits, and exorcism in his Gallic church, and even mentions that individuals have been raised from the dead. He warns against certain false Gnostics who fabricate spiritual gifts to win favor with the na´ve.

3rd century

Origen of Alexandria says healings, exorcisms, and validating signs and wonders continue to be experienced in the church. Just as miracles and wonders added to the credibility of 1st-century apostles, so they continue to draw unbelievers into the Christian fold.”

4th century

Augustine [of Hippo], in The City of God, reports contemporary divine healings and other miracles. These he links directly to the conversion of pagans.

It wasn’t just the New Testament church that experienced these things; it was the post-apostolic church. Moreover, genuine displays of the Spirit’s power abound in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One could argue this is because they are power-encounter cultures, but that would be a hyper-rationalization, something that has contributed to the dearth of genuine Spirit displays in North America.

What do you think? Are we doing something wrong? Are we “not teaching the charismatic portions of the Early Church experience? What would happen if we did?

Converts or Proselytes? The Nature of True Conversion

We hard-pressed to find a better missiologist in our day than Andrew Walls. Though Walls has not written prolifically, he makes up for it in the profoundity of his work. He has written two landmark books that explore the relationship between history, missions, and theology: The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History along with a number of articles.

Former missionary to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Walls later served as director of the Centre for the study of Christianity in the Non-Western world, at the University of Edinburgh. In an article appearing in IBMR 2004, Walls explores the difference between proselytes and converts in the Early Church.

The Great Commission or Cultural Commission?

Given the fact there were a remarkable number of hits on my entry Two Great Commissions: Cultural and Evangelistic, I thought I would follow it up with a few more thoughts. In that post I simply raised the question: Are there two great commissions–the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1.27-28) and the disciple-making mandate (Matt 28.18-20)?

There are, of course, both mandates in Scripture, but various theologies have neglected one or the other. One could argue that mainline liberal theologies, and perhaps liberation theologies, have neglected the command to make disciples of Christ, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded, by focusing on social justice, environmental issues, and family (fruitful, multiply, have dominion). On the other hand, there are soul-centered theologies and movements that have advocated spirit salvation to the neglect of the salvation of body, creation, and culture.

This practical division can be resolved by addressing interprerations of the commissions from various angles. One particular angle has been advocated by Andrew Walls. In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith Walls makes the simple but profound observation that the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. We get the word “ethnic” from the word for nations, indicating that Paul was not thinking in modernist geo-political terms, but instead of distinct cultural and ethnic groups. Jesus leaves his Jewish apostles and the Church with a command to make disciples of these non-Jewish ethnic groups.

In the Early Church, there was a tendency to make Gentile disciples into Jewish disciples, that is for them to take up all the cultural trappings of Judaism (circumcision, dietary codes, etc.). This is akin to early Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary attempts to Westernize indigenous peoples. Walls points out that Jesus did not command us to make disciples from all nations–that is to extract people from their culture and conform them to our “christian” culture. There is no single chrisitan culture, certainly not a sanctioned christian culture. The beauty of the Great Commision is that it presupposes the diversity and creativity of the cultural mandate. We are to make disciples of not from all ethnic groups. As Walls writes:

Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship: it produces distinctive discipleship, as diverse and variegated as human life itself. Christ in redeeming humanity brings, by the process of discipleship, all the richness of humanity’s infinitude of cultures and subcultures into the variegated splendor of the Full Grown Humanity to which the apostolic literature ponits (Eph 4.8-13). The Missionary Movement, 51

This means that to a significant degree, one’s culture should be preserved as a Christian. In fact, the teachings of Christ should lead to a person becoming an agent of cultural renewal, not out of hand rejection.

The original text of Matt 28.19 does not have an “of” or a “from,” but the construction lends itself to an of interpretation. Grammatically, a from interpretation is not a possiblity, hence the English translations–make disciples of all nations. To make disciples of all nations is to redemptively reaffirm the pre-fall cultural mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill, rule and subdue the earth. The gospel renews culture and remakes its citizens to become a redemptive, creative, and culturally diverse influence in societies all over the world. This unique and diverse expression of the gospel of God throughout history and time redounds to his glory with each new encounter.