01 November 2016
according to the Spirit
In his recent book, Destroyer of the Gods, Larry Hurtado explores the uniquess of early Christianity, specifically the oddities of this new movement in the context of the Roman Empire. In this post I wish to focus on one distinction in particular: a new way of life.
Among the 'cafeteria' of belief systems that made up the Roman world, one of the pieces that made the early church stand out is the emphasis on a collective commitment and a standard approach to living. There was an intentional focus on shaping social behavior that often went straight against accepted practices of the day – often in radical departures of typical society. This community was committed to a lifestyle that demonstrated the truth of the gospel in every dimension of life. This wasn't always a simple or easy discussion – often matters could quickly become complex, as can easily be seen in the New Testament and early Christian documents.
The Christian life was a demanding endeavor, at many times becoming dangerous for those who chose such a radical departure from their traditional culture (not simply martyrdom, but the harassment and social pressures that surrounded this emerging alternative culture of the church – see Hurtado, 184–186).
"Furthermore, I repeat that believers were to take on the demands of Christian behavior immediately upon their initiation as Christians, with the promise given that they could be enabled for this behavioral effort by divine gift" (171).
The message of the church is that discipleship is a challenging path, but also that each believer is given power by the Holy Spirit to take on the journey. There is no apology for the standards that are upheld by this church community, no timidity in the face of believers who fail to achieve them, and no accommodation considered when the pagan culture scoffed, threw stones, or walked away. Why not? Because the church based their moral standard on the Lordship of Christ Jesus over and against any philosphy, public opinion, or power that claimed an alternate truth.
This is what is entailed for the community of faith to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. This is one of the major distinctives of the early church, that they would hold out behavior requirements to their members, but to then also provide the basis of power to observe such requirements. It is the one decision that seems to underscore every choice that is given to humanity: to choose this day whom to serve. It is a choice of blessing and curse, obedience and disobedience, holiness and sinfulness, life and death, Christ or the world.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of human moral behavior is our own sexuality. This is an oft-discussed topic in scripture, and the world always seems to be filled with all sorts of conflict around this issue. Our nation continues to debate human sexuality and moral behavior, though often in twisted and politically-charged dialogue. And this has moved into the church, were increasingly believers are accepting worldly attitudes over biblical argument. In fact, much of the biblical message and its proper context is ignored for the simple mantra of "just love everyone no matter what" as the best the church can offer.
Of course, this can hardly be identified as radical behavior, and nobody in our world is going to think such a position is that odd – namely, becuase this is all that that progressive cultural voices tell us we should do in the first place. Oddly enough, those who shout JUST LOVE! to anyone who advocates moral standards frequently do not exhibit the love and acceptance and supposed-tolerance that they themselves demand. Those who have been paying attention for the last thirty–sixty years have noticed that the progressive agenda has marched right along, and the demands for JUST LOVE! are simply a means of disengaging the moral voices from legitimate reason and argument in order to give way to push forward their way of life without interference.
The present state of the church is showing that such an approach has indeed had its intended effects. Increasingly, believers are taking their cues for standards of moral belief from the standpoint of worldly acceptance rather than from the Holy Spirit and the written Word of God. It is no longer about discerning the Spirit's voice through prayer and study. Rather, it is about feeling as though we love everyone and have our society's approval for the message we proclaim. We do not need the Holy Spirit to empower us as believers, because we do not accept a standard of moral behavior that is demanding and radically subversive to our culture. To say it another way: we do not experience the Spirit because we do not walk in ways that require the Spirit's empowerment. It is a rather small faith that we exhibit in the midst of our culture – and we do not have because we do not ask.
Historically, the church has not always been a radical counter-cultural force determined to live gospel-centered lives in a radical manner. Of course, these are the times when the church also does not exhibit a dynamic presence of the Spirit working in and through the community of faith. We might tend to overlook this, though in our modern world there are many believers across the globe who are presently caught up in the Spirit's empowerment, giving them an effective witness through their counter-cultural lives, their distinct moral behaviors, and even at the great costs of harassment, imprisonment, disownment, and martyrdom. Yet, these are the believers who demonstrate what it means to participate in a kingdom not of this world, and to the rightful king who sits on the throne of the universe, presently enacting his reign.
Does the American church any longer have a new way to live, or are we simply looking to rubber-stamp the way we want to live anyway? Recent events have clearly demonstrated culture's influence on the American church culture, leading certain voices to declare 'holy' what scripture affirms as 'unholy,' for no other reason than we need to JUST LOVE! as though we've nothing else to offer the world. And yet we have in our midst the words of eternal life, and there still remains no where else to find them than in this gospel. Such is a transformative message that challenges the voices of the world and exposes their narrative as idolic mythology, shining the light of truth into the darkness.
Do we as the American church need the Holy Spirit to do what we are doing?
Is there more beyond the horizons of this world?