Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 2

Today Christianity has exploded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In his classic book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins writes: “…the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”

He goes on to say that “by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.’”

China has become a hotbed for Christianity, particularly house churches. It’s believed there may be as many as eighty-million Christians in unregistered churches. According to Operation World, independent Christian congregations, mostly evangelical and charismatic, are growing at a rate of 9 percent annually. That’s a huge growth rate since China’s overall population (1.3 billion) is growing at only about 0.6 percent annually.

What’s more, Christianity has radically changed the culture in ways that I think most of us are unaware. At least I was. Again, my view, my understanding, of the Church was very, very small and provincial.

For instance, it was Christianity that changed the world’s view of women. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only males are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His now-revered pupil Aristotle said that women were no more than birth defects. In the footsteps of Greece, the Roman Empire simply didn’t want baby girls. Not long ago, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of infants less than a week old in the sewers of the Roman baths. They had been literally flushed down the drain.

In his book Reasons for God, Tim Keller writes, “It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to.”

He continues: “. . . the pagan double standard of allowing married men to have extramarital sex and mistresses was forbidden. In all these ways Christian women enjoyed far greater security and equality than did women in the surrounding culture.”

The fact that Jesus had women who followed Him and were included in His expanded circle of disciples and teaching times—as in the Mary and Martha account—was incredibly shocking to both the Roman and Jewish cultures of His day.

Even more, Christianity was first to methodically argue against slavery. In the early Church, Christians would buy slaves to set them free. It came from the revolutionary notion that all were made equal in Christ; or as the apostle Paul writes in Galatians: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:26, 28 (New International Version).

That was an extremely radical idea for that culture, and sadly, the Church hasn’t always lived up to it.

The story of the Good Samaritan that raised the question of who is my neighbor was shocking to say the least. And the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount created a servant culture in the early Church that was absolutely breathtaking. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, the one that persecutes us.

When decimating diseases and plagues struck towns and cities, it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns so they could take care of the sick…even when the doctors would flee for their lives. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian—who hated Christianity and wanted to rub it out—wrote angrily to a friend that the Christians “feed not only their poor but ours also.”

Our ways of viewing people and their intrinsic value has been so shaped by Christianity that we don’t even realize it…it’s such a part of our culture. When all the stories of the pagan gods were about them creating people so that they—the gods—may be served, the story of a God who comes to earth in the form of a servant in order to “serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.

So many of the ways we think about life have been deeply affected and influenced by this movement called the Church. We’re not aware of it any more than a fish is aware of water. We just don’t realize it because Christian ethics are so submerged in our culture.

So again, my picture of the Church and its influence was way too small. And if that’s where you are, it only means that we have to go back one step with this simple but basic idea: God is big. I mean, Really Big.

He’s not the Man Upstairs. He’s not your Good Buddy. And He’s certainly not your co-pilot in your little Honda looking for a parking space. He’s God…there is No Other. That’s why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of real knowledge. It just means that we really have to get that He’s a Big God.

I find it amusing when people say things like, “When I get to heaven, I’ve got some questions God needs to answer…”


If you’re not sure if you even believe in God or you got burned by some church experience, play along with me for a minute and use your imagination: if a twenty-something artist named Michelangelo could create something as spectacular as the Pieta five-hundred years ago, think of the
Ultimate Artist, one who’s imagination spans the gazillion light years of a universe we can’t even fathom to the sub-atomic world of quarks and neutrinos. Just give Him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If God exists…and if He had an investment in His incredibly complex piece of art called the human being…and if He wanted to use those human beings to bring about His overarching purposes for a world that’s gone haywire…and if He created an organization—a movement—that would be made up of these creatures to do that, wouldn’t it be a pretty amazing thing?

That’s a Big Idea. That’s the Church.

Let’s talk about how He might do that in Part 3…

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