Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A New and Right Spirit

Rick Barger

The people of the infant church in essence understood themselves to be both the embodiment and the continuation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. As such, they lived as a contrast society. The world had one story. They lived out of another and organised their life together as a witness to their story. The story was their currency. Their witness included both investments in protecting the integrity of the story and the appropriation of their lives as consistent with the claims of the story. Their relationship to the story was thus dialectic. The story shaped their life together, and their life together reflected and solidified the integrity of the story.
As a window into the life of the infant church, the work of Yale professor Wayne Meeks, in his book The First Urban Christians, is especially helpful here. Using the Pauline corpus in the New Testament and other first-century texts, Meeks is able to put together a portrait of the life of the infant church. As one enters into the world of the infant church, one will see that some of the kinds of things that occupy the church’s imagination today are not in any way at stake in the early church. Recruitment of members, designing new programs, rescuing people from hell, enlisting people in causes, and providing spiritual self-helps to accommodate cultural lifestyles are not concepts within the infant church. What is at stake in the infant church and how it is ordered is authenticity – being who they understand themselves to be.

One of the issues that Meeks takes on is the claim made by some of the earliest people to attack Christianity. Attempting to discredit, they claimed that the first Christians came from the most illiterate and lowest class of people. Meeks’ textual evidence concludes that such a claim is a lie. Christianity was also not some Marxist-like movement among the proletariat. The social fabric of the infant church was essentially middle class. There were certainly people of poverty involved, and there were people of wealth, both men and women. The social status of the first Christians – determined by profession or trade, ethnicity, family reputation, urban or rural location, ability to read or write, and other considerations of more than wealth – discloses that they were neither a powerful group nor a collectively repressed group. As the title of Meeks’ book suggests, the people who made up the first two decades of the infant church ‘generally reflected a fair cross-section of the urban society.’ It’s the same today. The church is made up of all kinds of folks.

From chapter 4 of A New and Right Spirit – creating an authentic church in a consumer culture, published by Alban Institute 2005
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