What can we learn from the Early Church in the Divided Age of Trump?

During my college and graduate school years, I spent many years in close fellowship with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. For those who may not be familiar, the Coptic Church was started by the Gospel writer Mark two thousand years ago in Egypt, and it is one of the oldest churches in Africa and the world. In the mid 1990’s, together with close Egyptian friends, I had the privileging of helping to create one of the first contemporary worship albums in the Coptic Church. As a highlight, we even played for the Coptic Pope!

One of the big things I learned from my Egyptian brothers and sisters is that, as a follower of Jesus, I don’t live in a theological, geographical, or historical vacuum. I may go to a local Latino Nazarene church in Southern California in 2019, but I live my faith in profound spiritual union with the global church today, as well as with all Christians who have walked with Jesus over the past 2,000 years. This is known as the “communion of saints.” We are the Body of Christ, and we need each other and belong to one another (1 Corinthians 12). Moreover, as we run the race set out for us by God, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, those who have gone before us are worshipping in Heaven and probably also cheering us on (Revelation 4:10-11, 5: 6-14; Hebrew 12: 1-3).

In the pain and trauma of this divisive historical moment, I fear that many of us have lost sight of this communion of saints, past and present. Our individual and collective trauma has led us to “silo” ourselves off as a protective mechanism. For those of us who carry deep trauma inflicted by the church in the United States, the creation of safe spaces and time away from a specific local church which has wounded us, can be vital. Simply put, we need time and space to heal from those who have hurt us. This is one of the main functions, for example, of Jesus 4 Revolutionaries—the creation of safe spaces for Christian activists to find community and heal. We cannot be agents of God’s healing in the world unless we first allow God to heal the trauma within ourselves ( a lesson I learned from Rev. Dr. Alexia Salvatierra). This process of healing is essential and non-linear, and is greatly facilitated by counseling, spiritual direction, and community. I myself have benefited from Christian counseling since 2001 and meet regularly with a spiritual director.

Sheltering ourselves, however, is not an effective long term strategy, nor is it a destination in itself. We need the Body of Christ, global and local, past and present, in order to find our way out of the current mess. For all of our flaws, we the Church have lived in dialogue with the Holy Spirit and relationship with Christ for more than 2,000 years--through empire, dictatorships, persecution, racial division, sexism, classism, wealth, poverty, psychological trauma, colonialism, slavery, abolition, the civil rights movement, familial dysfunction, and every expression and permutation of personal and social brokenness one can envision. A treasury of spiritual wisdom and experience, which spans two millennia and seven continents, is there for us to learn from and build upon if we are willing to engage the messy, yet life-giving task.

The Early Church (origins of Christianity-325 A.D.), for example, offers an abundance of wisdom which will both inspire us, as well as confuse most of our 2019 political boxes.

The earliest followers of Jesus were defined by their love and concern for the poor. Love and justice were not a peripheral part of their agenda. On the contrary, love for the dispossessed of society was what made them stand out from the rest. Their rallying cry was not “you’re poor because you’re lazy,” or, “equal opportunity, but not equal results” as many Christians in America might say today. Instead it was, “Jesus commands us to love the poor and our neighbors as ourselves, and so we will do.”

In fact, as Henry Chadwick states, love for the poor was likely the single most important factor which accounted for the rapid spread of Christianity in its early years:

“The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success [in the early church]. The pagan comment ‘See how these Christians love one another’ (reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and in social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.”

Moreover, according to Chadwick, the early church recognized that the primary role of church finances was to provide for the special needs of the poor! As a pioneering force for social justice, moreover, the early Christians even protested the institution of slavery in the fourth century.

Ebherhard Arnold fills in this amazing picture of the early Christians by describing how they used to go street-by-street in search of the poorest and most destitute:

“[E]ven in the smallest Church community the overseer had to be a friend of the poor, and there had to be at least one widow responsible to see to it, day and night, that no sick or needy person was neglected. To inquire into and locate poverty and to impress on the rich the need to do their utmost was the deacons’ service, which was combined with the service at table. Nor was it an excuse for any other Christian that he had not learned to do this service or was unable to perform this task. Everybody was expected to seek out, street by street, the poorest dwellings of strangers, with the result that the Christians spent more money in the streets than the followers of other religions spent in their temples. Working for the destitute was, then, what distinguished the first Christians…What struck and astounded the outside observer most was the extent to which poverty was overcome in the vicinity of the communities.”

Did you catch that, “everybody was expected to seek out, street by street, the poorest dwellings of strangers” in order to minister to the poor! What an incredible and inspiring witness! Forgive us Lord for how far we have strayed from the early church’s example.

As a way of closing my brief discussion of the early church, I hope that you might be inspired by the following quotations taken from historical primary source documents. In the words of the early church itself, and its observers, these passages remind us of how important love for the poor was to those who were most closely connected to Jesus in both time and space.

“Happiness does not consist in ruling over one’s neighbors or in longing to have more than one’s weaker fellowmen. Nor does it consist in being rich and in oppressing those lowlier than oneself. No one can imitate God by doing such things. They are alien to His sublimity. On the contrary, anyone who takes his neighbor’s burden upon himself, who tries to help the weaker one in points where he has an advantage, who gives what he has received from God to those who need it, takes God’s place, as it were, in the eyes of those who receive it.” "Letter to Diognetus" (130 A.D.-late 2nd century).

"…If anyone among them is poor or comes in want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs…Their life is one of consecration and justice.” Aristides, “Apology.” Circa 137 A.D.

“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another and did not even share our hearth with those of a different tribe because of their customs, now, after Christ’s appearance, live together and share the same table.”

Justin, “First Apology.” 155-157 A.D.

“My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it… Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered.” “Didache." 1st century A.D.

“And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.” "Didache." 1st century A.D.

And in the ancient words of the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church:

"Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for He has covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us to Him, spared us, supported us, and has brought us to this hour. Let us also ask Him, the Lord our God, the Pantocrator, to guard us in all peace this holy day and all the days of our life.”


P.S., the beautiful picture is from the FB page of St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Sydney, Australia. https://www.facebook.com/StMaryStMinaCathedral/?tn-str=k*F. Shokran.