Christ raising Lazarus, from 3rd Century CatacombIn my recent reading of writing by and about early Christians I started thinking (again) of connections to the modern state of affairs within Christianity. This time it’s over the sheer number of variations on Christianity. This is, of course, the case today; we have the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the SBC, ABC, UMC, and on and on and on. What strikes me, though, is that we define ourselves as Christian, but we also define ourselves in the terms of the type of institutional Christianity to which we belong. “I’m a Methodist!” We also define others in similar terms, as if it’s obvious that we are Christians anyway, so that doesn’t need to be said when identifying another: “You’re Methodist? I had always thought you were Catholic!” (I get this a LOT, by the way.) What is interesting to me is the identification we have with the denominational institution of “the church.”

Backing up 1800-1900 years or so, however, there was every bit as much diversity then as there is now, and possibly more. But the really interesting thing is that there was no real institutional “church” by which to define Christians. Christian identity was far less tied to institutions and their requirements for memberships, like belief, creeds, and so on (these did in fact come, of course, but not in the 2nd and 3rd centuries) than it is now. I’m tempted to say they were lucky that way.

The modern and postmodern church can learn from this. Forget the institution for a minute, forget the dogma and doctrines, forget the “rules” for “being Christian” as established for the last 250 years. Focus instead on the gift of its diversity. Focus instead on the fact that every ekklesia was a local community nourished by its understanding of the gospel messages in their own situation in the Empire, without being concerned with whether or not their understanding fit in with the authoritative, universal party line. Focus instead on praxis, on practice, on people being far more concerned with living their lives in imitatio Christi within that community and less concerned with whether or not their lives conformed with political positions or Churchly standards of conduct.

Sigh. Recovering the memories of this is a task worth undertaking, but it sure is exciting.