Missing the point on why the early church condemned and abstained from certain pagan and civil practices, prostitution, and entertainment
I don't smoke cigarettes . . . I don't go to the movies or the theater . . . I don't attend secular concerts . . . don't drink coffee . . . go to the beach . . . go dancing . . . fill in the blank.
These lines and words are familiar to most evangelical and, especially, conservative Christians. Somehow these lines have been incorporated as a part of our idea of sanctification and how we take a stand against the world–in reality how we define ourselves and the world we oppose. For most of my Christian life I had understood some certain behaviors and places, some types of entertainment, and of course houses of ill repute were sinful, evil, and down-right ungodly–and no Christian should go or participate in such.
There is a temptation, however, without some careful thought, biblical understanding, and wisdom, to identify certain activities and venues as evil, ungodly, and "pagan" (unChristian) in and of themselves–almost "just because" (and then attach a Bible verse). There is a tendency among us to simply think the early church condemned certain pagan and civil practices, prostitution, and entertainment because, somehow, such places and behaviors were inherently evil and ungodly.
Don't worry, I haven't changed–much–on this thinking, but . . . consider where we might be missing the biblical (i.e., the gospel) point. I won’t dispute the notion entirely, but we need to ask why, what makes them evil and ungodly?
In early Christianity, Nero (54–68) had accused Christians of being haters of mankind. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian (c. 56 – c. 120), reflecting on Nero's post-Rome-burning activities, wrote in his Annals (c. 116):
Nero's indictment of the church caught on. The gathered-church and Christians were accused of being haters of mankind and antisocial (i.e., did not participate in the approved and appropriate Roman social activities). However, it wasn't just because there was something inherently evil, pagan, or sinful in pagan temples (of course idolatry is bad in any form), Roman theaters, religious brothels (there were no other at that time–really), and after-supper symposium entertainment (which included orgies, dancer-strippers, prostitution, and, as well, sexual encounters between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys). The accusations had more to do with who was welcome at their table (literally), who made up the gathered-church, and how their faith (the gospel and the work of the cross) now defined the concept of being human. These "pagan" practices and venues were antithetical to the nature of the church and who was welcome to participate at the common meal, the Lord's table, and in baptism. The Christian community began to abstain from such activities–and their abstention and their gathering together as church was a challenge and a display of condemnation–because in the gospel and as a result of the cross, the leveling of humanity began to be practiced by the church (i.e., its habitus as a gathered-people). Children (boy and girls), women, slaves, and individuals of differing social, economic, and work classes took on new meaning, new intrinsic value, new dignity to each other "in Christ."
Not all human beings were considered equally human or human at all. There was most definitely tiers of human hierarchies that placed a vertical understanding of people, human caste, occupations, age, gender, and ethnicity. When Christians were accused of repudiating and eschewing religious and pleasure practices and institutions of its day—i.e., the theater, temple prostitution, races, gladiator combat, household symposium entertainment—they did so primarily because these venues supported, displayed, and maintained the social and cultural tiers of human hierarchy (now that was and is evil)—not simply because somehow these things were inherently evil. They were venues and practices that supported and maintained social and cultural habits that were inherently racist, misogynistic, de-humanizing, child-abusive, women-abusive, enslavement (i.e., slavery), and thus maintained the evil and ungodly tiers of human hierarchy. All this was challenged by the gospel revealed in the cross and displayed by the gathered-church. This is why the early church was hated. They were accused of hating mankind and of being antisocial because the gathered-church by its very nature and habitus (i.e., how a church practiced being church and how that translated into daily, mundane life and human associations) challenged the status quo of the tiers of human hierarchy. This scared, frighten, and unsettled the gate-keepers, definers, and powers of the social order.
I think, today, we're missing this element of a church's presence because of our Christendom-dependent, politically-aligning, homogenous, building-centered church experience doesn't create church in the same way the New Testament and early church was formed and acted. Through who we are as church and how we do church (in much of Christendom today), we have no power to challenge the very places and practices of racism, misogyny, child and women abuse, slavery (of any kind), and any form of de-huminzation of any gender, age, class, or person. Perhaps, it is time and appropriate to reconsider how we do church.
For a thread on the nature of the gathered-church as God's platform for addressing and challenging the tiers of human hierarchy >> The Seditious gathered-church.
Why suburban and exurban churches tend not to acknowledge the link between the gospel and a neighborhood’s flourishing
It is understandable that suburban, exurban, and affluent church congregations, typically, do not see the link between the gospel and the flourishing of their neighborhood. Here’s the problem: Which neighborhood? Whose neighborhood? And, O by the way, our neighborhoods by definition are flourishing.
Suburban and exurban congregations tend to be a mix of like-minded, demographically related, geographically similar people who travel various distances away from their own neighborhoods to a building in an incongruent neighborhood (to most of the congregation), the place of gathered, weekly worship—the building they call “our church.” This is the habitus of Christians within suburban congregations each week. A habit that teaches, forms, and qualifies an understanding of the gospel.
The neighborhood is a space we leave for church, more a concept of social structure rather than a concrete place or association; a place where my house is located, but detached from my church experience and faith. This offers a building-centered church experience that more easily relates to the command to love the Lord your God, but has no real, concrete relationship to love your neighbor(s) as yourself.
In a real way, a suburban church congregation is without a neighborhood—at least without a specific one. There is no neighborhood for the church to ultimately be identified with, for the members are mostly transported from their actual neighbors and family in real neighborhoods to a one-size-fits-all neighborhood that is stuffed inside a building. Rather than a public faith that engages a neighborhood, practicing the second-which-is-like-unto-the-first-command to love one’s neighbor, more affluent and suburban/exurban congregations form a more privatized, truncated, thin faith (i.e., Christian experience) and, as a result, there is a bent toward more cognitive (knowledge-based) and behavioral outputs (i.e., activities) and outcomes. Thus, the church, the gospel, and discipleship are all aligned with a neighborhood-less social grouping, separated from the day to day realities of life in a neighborhood.
Unexpectedly, the early church grew, not because they verbally witnessed, had an outreach program, or held bible studies; but, because they lived their daily lives in contrast to the world around them—their habits were different and their habits were noticed by their neighbors. And, not just in cultured, acceptable behavioral ways, but in concrete, intentional actions. Their discipleship included helping the poor, rescuing exposed (abandoned, thrown away) babies, adopting orphaned children, rescuing prostitutes (temple slavery), and meeting the needs of the widows (who were the most vulnerable and under-resourced population in the empire). This is how the body of Christ, the church, grew. The presence of Jesus was experienced in concrete intentional action through the church—practicing the presence of Christ amid neighbors.
Typically for the non-urban churches, evangelism and mission is understood, not by kingdom righteousness, advocacy for injustice, and social action on behalf of a neighborhood, but by numbers of people funneled into a building for a worship service, a bible study, or special fellowship event—a head count of conversions or transfer growth. Church leadership institutes activities and behaviors to draw the unchurched out (and away) from their neighborhood (without actually going into those neighborhoods) and into the building (they call church), which is neighborhood-less (or at least in a neighborhood that is not their own).
When the liminality of church life is separated from the daily life of a neighborhood, the gospel and its associated outputs (i.e., activities) and outcomes are disconnected from the life of their neighbors. When one’s own neighborhood consists of those who have had the privilege of flourishing and a church congregation is detached from a neighborhood, the Christian experience affirms a gospel unrelated to the flourishing of a neighborhood. Christian behaviors, then, are limited to relationships and social associations that affirm “traditional” cultural values (within that building) rather than including behaviors that understand the dynamic relationship between structures, systems, and people’s well-being within the context of a neighborhood. The gospel of the suburban church is a limited, one dimensional gospel. A one-dimensional gospel indicates solely a person/God dynamic relationship; whereas a multi-dimensional gospel includes the person/God dynamic and, also, creation/God, person/creation, and person/person. The habits of the suburban and exurban church makes it difficult to see the link between the gospel and the flourishing of a neighborhood.
For a more comprehensive study on the relationship between the gospel and social action, please take the time to read through my Wasted Evangelism, an exegetical commentary on Mark's Gospel. I am also working on another volume on Church Growth from an exegetical study in Ephesians, hopefully titled, Not (just) By the Numbers: Getting Beyond Building-Centered Church Growth in Search of Other Biblical Outcomes—a Thesis on Biblical Temple-Church Growth; see some posts related to these studies (evangelism and Not by the Numbers).
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.