In the early Third Century A.D., Constantine became the emperor of Rome. Claiming to have seen a vision of the cross in a dream, he emblazoned the shields of his legions with the sign of the cross. After his decisive victory, he consequently attributed this victory to Christ and eventually made Christianity the official Roman state religion.
Constantine gave much to the Church, most notably the Council of Nicaea which in turn gave us the Nicene Creed. Peace & safety poured through empire for the Christian masses. From the fourth century A.D. on, and up until the last century (20th) the western Church existed in a very safe bubble called ‘Christendom.’ Christianity simply enjoyed a privileged status in western civilization.
In the last hundred years, this privileged status has eroded. The world grows more and more like the world into which the apostolic Church was birthed. The Greco-Roman world was both secular, but spiritual. Every day our world becomes more like that one. Ask any folks today if they are religious, and the majority will answer, “no I am not a religious person, but I do consider myself spiritual.”
This effectively works out to:: Religion = bad; Spiritual = good.
ADAPTATION OR ORTHODOXY
In this climate, the Church has not known what to do. One of the key responses has been adaptation.
What do I mean by “adaptation”? That is a technical social-scientific term meaning when a group “adapts” its message to be more palatable to the ears of those who may disagree.
This has been the path that most mainstream Protestant denominations have taken. Chilled by the potential blowback of maintaining the prickly thorns inherent to the historic Gospel, Protestantism began to file down the sharp corners of orthodox doctrine. The Protestant Episcopal Church here in the US of which Church of the Apostles was formerly a member, is a prime example of ‘adaptation’ in action.
THE PROBLEM WITH ADAPTATION
The problem with adaptation is simply a matter of degree. When you begin to compromise on one small thing, it may seem innocuous enough at first. But this undermines the authority of Scripture as a source of truth. In time, all doctrines become up for debate.
Many of Scripture’s ideas seem out of date, antiquated, and perhaps simply out of touch. But at the heart of them is wisdom—the wisdom of God that alone understands his creature, mankind.
The more one adapts the message, the more this historic message is chipped away at. If we cannot trust the Word of God on this point or two, why should we trust it on this one too? And so it goes.
THE LOSS OF IDENTITY
Adaptation ultimately blazes a direct path to a loss of identity. People are shaped in community by the belief system of the social group. This is a universal principle. People normally learn their values in a primal community called the family. If a young person moves away from this system, it comes from two fundamental reasons: (1) they were accepted into another community (peers, school, college teachers, etc) that presented an alternative, and (2) that their family’s values had self-contradictory elements that demanded questioning.
As a belief system is adapted, it over time ceases to have the identity it once had. In fact, the inevitable outcome of adaptation is for it to eventually become what it is adapting too. Any group that surrenders its founding principles also surrenders itself.
This reminds me of a conversation I once had in a Starbucks with a young Ivy League Math professor. In our chat, after indicating to me that she was “spiritual” and not “religious,” I asked her that if she were to look for a church, what would she be attracted to? She thought for a minute and said, probably the Unitarian Universalist Church. But then she paused and made a great concession admitting that however was really contradictory because the Unitarians don’t really believe anything! Well put! The Unitarians do not believe anything because they adapted their entire belief system to popular sentiment during the age of Romanticism.
THE CHRISTIAN DISCIPLINE OF LOVE
The question that remains is this: How do we as orthodox, bible-believing Christians, reach out with a Gospel that has edges on it? How to we bring a Gospel to the world that is often offensive and unwelcome to the warm and empty platitudes of pop-spirituality?
We reach out with an expression of Jesus’ message and ethic in action!
First, anyone can say love your neighbor. But Jesus told us to love our enemies. This remains a radical message, still today. Jesus calls us to love those who hate us, those who reject us, and those who abuse us.
Second, we apply this ethic in the context of christian community. One of the great things lost during Christendom was authentic Christian community. The Church always lives between two poles, according to Roberta Hestenes, the institutional and the relational. When she gets too institutional she becomes stale, rigid, and cold—like a fireplace with no fire. This is how the medieval Church of Christendom became a mere peddler of services rather than a purveyor of grace!
On the other hand, when the Church abandons reasonable institutional structures, she becomes like a raging fire out of control that knows no boundaries.
The beauty of Christian community is that it is not only where the Gospel of Jesus is most beautifully defended, it is also the place where almost all evangelistic work is accomplished. People are not converted to the Church—they are converted within the Church.