Saturday, August 18, 2018

Evangelism in the Early Church: Part 2

This is part two in a series on "Evangelism in the Early Church."

Adapting Without Compromising

 "Their sanctuary was empty; their mysteries meaningless" Tacitus speaking about Pompey entering the temple and not finding "anything" (no images, especially).

As so often happens, we humans have a very difficult time understanding the concept of adapting without compromising. To our ears, adapting has an odor of accommodation and that is a word that brings all kinds of negative thoughts to our minds. But one of the issues that Green discusses is the fact that the early disciples sought to find where their audience was and then went about speaking to them with terms they understood. It is of little value to tell someone what the theory of relativity is if they’re not going to understand the basic physics that underlie it. At the same time, however, when we speak of being uncompromising we mean just that. In the end, we must present a choice, not another way to tolerate. People should know that they are lost and need to come to Christ; the gospel should not be presented as just another "god" to be added to the pantheon of gods, as Green points outs using the example of the Romans and their even increasing lineup of deities.

But there is a deeper matter at issue here. The people of the first few centuries of the church’s existence instinctively understood that the gods that had been conjured up by Horatio and others were no more than perverts who could not have a relationship with men. It was not the gods that were abandoning man, but man that abandoned the gods whom they saw as worse than them. In our present day, idolatry of the sort that prevailed in first century Rome is not outwardly present. But the “gods” that people worship have always been prevalent, whether power, prestige, money or whatever other guise they may come dressed in (and that is increasingly the garb of sexual "liberation"), they are still with us. But it is those very gods that people have increasingly rejected. Why? Because, as with the gods of old, they promise much, but provide little. Their promises are but a vapor that vanishes with the slightest wind and once they are gone, nothing but devastation is left in their wake.

It is to that deep need that the apostles directed themselves while at the same time using the language of their day—the birth of the emperors was hailed as a wonderful omen; the emperor was seen as the only one in whom there was salvation. Witness then how Luke speaks of the birth of Jesus and what Peter declares about Christ and His power to save in Acts 4. They understood, as we read in Romans 1, that man is not only religious by nature, but has an innate understanding that there is one true and eternal God with whom they have to do. In our day, with secularism and atheism becoming increasingly popular, it behooves us to understand that man’s need continues to be the same: he needs to worship and serve God. “You have created us for thee. And our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” said Augustine. No doubt your atheist neighbor will not likely admit his need. But armed with the knowledge that he does, indeed, need God and that no one but He will fill that void, we can go about presenting the solution to their sin problem.

There is also the fact that the message of the gospel is a message about one person: Christ. Men are accustomed to believing that the message, not the messenger, is the thing that counts. In Christ, however, the messenger was the message. It was because of who Christ was that the message made the difference; furthermore, faith is emphasized because without it, nothing else will make sense. Again, we channel Augustine, "We must believe, in order to understand."

In discussing the effort of the early church to adapt the message to the Greek ear, Green tells us that “It is all too easy, for us with the benefit of hindsight to fault the early Christians’ ethics and their Christology, their failure to preserve the balance between adaptability and conservation. But it would be good to be able to feel confident that the churches of our own day were succeeding half as well, and were displaying anything like the same courage, singleness of aim, Christ-centeredness and adaptability as those men and women of the first Christian centuries.” When you consider that people such as Justin Martyr, Ignatius and others did not have access to many of the books of the New Testament, it is remarkable to see how faithful they were to the revelation. Theirs was a mission directed by God and, if it is true that they may have strayed at times, they were amazingly successful in their efforts.

The bottom line here is that it was, and is, imperative to demonstrate that the knowledge of the world is the knowledge that comes from God, all that man knows he knows because God leads him to it. God’s laws form the basis for science, history and every other intellectual pursuit. When we go about trying to accommodate the world (a good example of which is the insistence of many that so-called theistic evolution is compatible with Christianity), the world will sooner or later swallow us up: in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, heathenism was allowed to continue within Christianity under the misguided theory that Christianity would sooner or later exert control over it. Instead, paganism continued to flourish "decked out in Christian dress."

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