21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians

Rome, Italy. Trajan Markets, built in 2nd century AD by Apollodorus of Damascus in the time of Emperor Trajan

The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:

“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”


“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”[1]

This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.

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The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel

Gen. Lew. Wallace, 1827-1905, he was an American lawyer, union general, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, and author, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration

John Ingersoll, the son of a Congregationalist pastor who shared a pulpit with the famous American revivalist, Charles Finney, was an agnostic. His father was mistreated by the church, suffering contentious charges for deviating from “Old School Calvinism”, and he left the ministry and the church. His son, John, who was young at the time, was so influenced that he became a lifelong agnostic, preaching as vociferously against faith in God as his father once preached faith in God.

Such was the great, negative influence of the tensions among Christian brothers New England in the early 1800’s. Though he unwittingly sparked one of the great Christian novels in American history, Ingersoll led a life of hostility toward God and religion for which he was well-known.

The schism between Old School Calvinism and New School Calvinism lasted about 20 years beginning in about 1837. That’s it. Only 20 years! (Wikipedia)

The tension pitted conservatives from the “Old School” against upstarts from the “New School”. The Old School adherents stuck close to the “Westminster standards” and didn’t support the “New School revivalism” championed by Presbyterian revivalists, like Finney, and New England Congregationalist theologians like Jonathan Edwards.

For those interested in history, Princeton Theological Seminary was the defender of the Old School, while Yale and Lane Theological Seminary became the champion of the New School. Looking back, it is with some wonder that Princeton was on the conservative side of this controversy, the same Princeton today that produced the great skeptic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

It is also noteworthy that the “renewed interest in religion” generated by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that took place in the early 1800’s inspired the social activism that energized the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, the father of the famous abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a New School Calvinist.

Revivalism and slavery were key issues in this schism. Revivalism divided the Old School and New School; while slavery divided both and eventually brought elements of the Old School and New School back together again into factions that were divided more along geographic lines – north and south – as the country teetered toward civil war.

I am struck that social and theological movements always stretch the wine skins and leave people divided, today no less than in the past. While conservatives entrench, progressives plow new paths. While old, brittle wine skins burst, wasting the contents on the ground, over eager revolutionaries might abandon the wine skins altogether. Either way, the wine (the very point of the wine skin) is often lost in the process.

I am reminded of the “proverb” spoken in Ecclesiastes: “It is good to grasp the one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forward with both ….” (Ecc. 7:18 NASB)

Throughout history we see God moving among people, emphasizing new things at different times. People react by resisting, holding back and becoming entrenched or embracing the new thing, letting go of the old and eventually tilting off the path in the other direction. Wisdom lies in grasping the new thing God is doing without letting go of the truth firmly established by God in the past. This is the stretch that requires the new wine skins!

But back to the story of John Ingersoll and his unwitting influence on the writer of one of the greatest Christian novels written by an American. Lew Wallace was a Civil War General who commanded Union troops at Shiloh. Ingersoll served under him in that great battle. It was their chance encounter that prompts this article.

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The First Fruits of Another World


I did a previous blog article on the radical nature of the Gospel Paul preached, a Gospel he received directly from Jesus, that was confirmed by the closest disciples of Jesus. I ended the article by noting that this Gospel was not primarily about cultural and societal change. Jesus didn’t come merely to transform culture and society, as the Zealots of the First Century supposed the Messiah would.

Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom into which we can be born again by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name. The paradigm shift begins here and now, in this world, giving us “the right to become children of God, … born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Though the reality of the kingdom of God begins here and now, the ultimate fruition of that new birth, that adoption as children of God, still awaits us. The Zealots didn’t understand that in the First Century. They wanted to overtake the Roman government by force and establish the reign of the Messiah then and there in the First Century. When Jesus died on the cross, not even the disciples understood what was going on. Paul understood, however, we he said:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)

Paul expanded on these thoughts in his letter to the Corinthians when he spoke about death coming into the world through the first Adam, while resurrection from the dead came into the world through Jesus (1 Cor. 15:20-28-42-55) First is the perishable, followed by the imperishable. What is perishable doesn’t beget the imperishable. We must be born again (the ultimate paradigm shift), from natural people into spiritual people.

This paradigm shift begins in this natural life when we are born again, but the seed of that new birth is spiritual, imperishable. When the last trumpet” will sound, “the dead will be raised imperishable”. (1 Cor. 15:52) We await in this life the fruition of the ultimate paradigm shift (from the perishable to the imperishable) in which those who have been adopted as children of God are ushered into the kingdom of God with “the whole creation” following behind in the transformation from natural world to an imperishable world where there are no tears, no pain, no sorrow – only the ultimate fulfillment of all that we could possible hope for.

We won’t see the fruition of these things in this life; rather we look forward to the resurrection from the dead and our inheritance of the imperishable life that swallows death up in victory. This is where I left off in the previous blog post: Paul… the Radical Countercultural? Picking it up from there, I want to begin here with second half of the passage quoted from the letter to the Galatians in that first article.

Paul spoke to the Galatians about the”adoption as sons” for all people who believe in Jesus. He alludes to the centuries old Greco-Roman tradition of adoption of men by men – the passing on of inheritance and legacy through the male line, which was the entrenched cultural structure of a long patriarchal society. But then, Paul did the ultimate mic drop when he said:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:27-29)

In one sentence, Paul eliminated the disparity between genders. And not only that, the differences between religious, philosophical, cultural, societal and all other things that divide people from each other.

But this was no cultural revolution. The rest of the story is found in the verses that follow in Chapter 2 of the letter to the Galatians.

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The Danger of Getting What We Want

We often choose earthly treasures that we can’t keep over eternal treasures that we can’t lose.


Tim Keller paraphrased and quoted a columnist back in the 1980’s in a recent sermon he gave. The columnist knew a number of celebrities personally. Keller paraphrased the columnist: “I knew them when they were working behind the counter the cosmetic counter at Macy’s, and I knew them when they were bouncers at the village clubs, and all that, and then they became famous, and they became movie stars, and then they became more unhappy then they were before.”

Keller paraphrased further: “That giant thing they were striving for, that ‘fame thing’ that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them personal fulfillment and with ‘ha ha happiness’, it had happened and nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.”

Keller then quoted the columnist, who said, “If God really wants to play a rotten practical joke on us, He grants your deepest wish and then giggles merrily as you suddenly realize you want to kill yourself.”

God made us for Himself.

Of course, the idea of God “giggling merrily” is obviously not biblical, but the rest of it is. God made us for Himself. He weeps at our choosing to follow after the things we want instead of Him. He weeps for us because it can never fulfill us.

I write this on the heels of my last article in which I reflected on celebrity Christianity. More accurately, celebrities who have recently become Christians. In the article, I also reflected on “celebrity” Christians, people who were thrust into the Christian limelight at an early age, before a firm foundation of spiritual growth and relationship with God.

And I wonder how those celebrities turning to Christianity will fair into the future. They are used to the warm (and sometimes harsh) light of public celebrity. That is where they live, but what they need is the nutrient rich soil of God’s word, prayer, relationship to God, fellowship and all the things God must do in us in the dark recesses of our hearts, well out of the light of public life.

Like the rich young ruler who was searching, but found it too difficult to leave behind all his wealth to which he had become accustomed, celebrity  fame and fortune may difficult to give up. Even though it doesn’t satisfy the deepest longings of the soul, it is still (likely) everything they thought they wanted.

Riches, and celebrity, and comfort, and recognition become a trap. We are lured in. Our own desires propel us hard in the direction of the sunlight. We strain our whole lives with all of our effort. All of our thoughts, hopes and dreams carry us along, and the things we gain along the way, even if they turn sour in our hands, are difficult to give up…. If it was all we wanted.

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Celebrity Christianity

LOS ANGELES, CA. November 9, 2016: Actor Brad Pitt at a special fan screening for “Allied” at the Regency Village Theatre, Westwood.

Following on the heels of public “deconstruction” stories (like Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson) and the suicide of a well-known pastor, Jarrid Wilson, come the stories about newfound faith in God by public figures like Kanye West, Demi Lovato and now Brad Pitt. I feel like we need to be careful here.

Our faith shouldn’t rise or fall on the stories of public figures. The human tendency to follow and be interested in people we admire (or even idolize) is strong. A little perspective should be maintained, though.

God is no respecter of persons.

Though we put stock in what other people do or say, people are not the standard. God, alone, is the standard, and we should be careful to focus on Him. As big and bold as a person might seem, he or she is as finite as we are, flawed by sin and limited by our individual perspectives, influenced by any number of factors, many of which we may not completely appreciate (or even be aware).

One writer surmises that our reactions to celebrities becoming Christians (or renouncing Christianity) says more about us than them.

We live in a celebrity culture in which fame equals validation and significance. When we hear news about a celebrity conversion, we usually don’t picture the lone individual standing before almighty God—stripped of all earthly trinkets and worldly success—on the same level as you and me and everyone else. We still see them in their celebrity form, as the avatar created by their promotional machine. And once someone professes faith, we tend to slip into the same worldly assessment of their significance.

This leads us to put too much emphasis (and faith) in the celebrity who becomes Christian, and that is dangerous for our faith – and theirs. We are quick to hold them up as examples and leaders, but faith, redemption, sanctification and growth in the knowledge and grace of God is a process. It takes time.

Joshua Harris wrote a book, Kiss Dating Goodbye, that catapulted him into the Christian limelight at the age of 21. Marty Sampson, the once Christian songwriter, became a worship leader for the megachurch Hillsong at the age of 20. Talent and fickle fame are not substitutes for depth and strength of character and faith.

We need to be careful not too put too much emphasis in the newfound faith of celebrities. We should not expect them to become overnight spiritual leaders. Neither should we be overly skeptical. They need room to grow and mature in Christ, like anyone else, and I fear that celebrity is not fertile soil for Christian growth.

Think of the rich young ruler.

Jesus described the way to follow him. It looks like taking up a cross. It involves learning the value of being last and adopting a servant of all perspective. Paul warns us that no one should think more highly of himself than he ought. Neither should we think too highly of others – for their sakes and ours.

Our rush to establish a celebrity as a leader in matters of faith does injustice to both the celebrity and also the church, requiring a sped-up sanctification process on behalf of the celebrity (because they’re already seen as a leader) and setting the church up for letdown when the movie star disappoints.

With said, I celebrate the newfound faith of any person, celebrity or commoner, like me. Let us pray for them and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith and ours.

The Hole In the God of the Gaps Argument

The fact is that all scientists are filling in the gaps with a model of reality they believe best those gaps in light of the knowledge they have. 


Most people who have entertained ultimate questions seriously abut whether God exists are familiar with the “God of the Gaps argument” that is made against the existence of God. It goes something like this: In the past, people couldn’t explain the rain, so they concluded that God must be crying. People couldn’t explain an earthquake, so they thought God must be mad at something they did. People invoked a divine perspective to fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how the world works.

From that observation (which is factually true as a simplistic statement), they add in the equally true observation that the progression of science over the centuries has been filling in the gaps and providing knowledge and understanding of natural processes that explain the things we didn’t know without having to resort to the conclusion that “God does it”. Thus, the argument goes, we should stop invoking divine explanations… and stop believing in God.

Scientists realized they didn’t need to invoke divine explanations at all to be able to study the natural world, and so the scientific consensus has concluded over recent centuries that divine explanations are not only not necessary, but not appropriate. Divine explanations are viewed today as anti-scientific. Many who are concerned with the purity of science would deem divine explanations as heretical.

The God of the gaps argument (an argument to prove the nonexistence of God), however, is pretty weak. The fact that we can do science (which is the study of the natural world) without appealing to a supernatural being or explanation isn’t surprising. There is an order to the natural world that we can study and know, but that order doesn’t preclude the existence of a super (other than natural) Being behind it all.

If we resign ourselves to nothing but the study of the natural world, how do we expect to know anything about the possibility of reality beyond it?  If we limit ourselves to naturalistic explanations, we have foreclosed any other possibility.

Frankly, there is a big gap between the fact that the natural world has order that we can study and the question whether anything beyond the natural world exists. I can turn the argument around and accuse the atheist of filling the gap with the conclusion that no God exists.

But all of this really misses the important point. Hugh Ross addresses the God of the gaps argument in a recent interview with Kahldoun Sweis. He says, “In science, there are always gaps. We will never learn everything. We are limited human beings.” However, when we “push back the frontiers of science”, we have to ask ourselves whether the gaps in our knowledge are getting bigger and more problematic? Or are they getting smaller and less problematic?”

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Though Every Man Be a Liar

The flaws of humanity that exist in the church negatively affect people and are a stumbling block for many.


In Romans 3, Paul asks whether a lack of faith nullifies God’s faithfulness. It’s a rhetorical question that Paul answers this way: “Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true.” (NLT)

Our faithlessness, of course, doesn’t make God faithless. Our actions don’t change God’s character. Though every man be a liar, still God is true.

This is the backdrop to this piece that is inspired by the interview of Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable? podcast.

Alisa Childers and Lisa Gungor both grew up with evangelical Christianity. They were both Christian musical artists. They both went through a period of doubt and “deconstruction”. Alisa Childers emerged from that period of deconstruction with her faith intact, stronger than it was before, while Lisa Gungor has evolved into a progressive Christian – holding on to the title “Christian”, while letting go of nearly everything that distinguishes Christianity from other religions.

Of her own experience, Childers says that the flaws and errors in her construct of God, scripture and doctrine were removed in that process of deconstruction and replaced. Instead of giving up on Christianity, she doubled down in her testing of the faith. What could not stand up to the scrutiny, she let go. What remains is a solid foundation.

While the church, and people generally, seem to fear doubt, and shy away from it, the Bible actually encourages us to meet doubt head on. Paul urges us to “test everything” and “keep [or hold fast] what is good”. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) This is the route Alisa Childers took when faced with doubt and challenges to her faith.

More to the point of this article, though, Childers observes that many people who go through “deconstruction” of their faith often cite the behavior of the church, and the people in the church, as a primary reason for leaving the faith. It might be hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, failure to live up to “Christian standards”, ignorance of modern science, an adherence to a blind faith that refuses to admit facts that are contrary to their understanding of Scripture.

Or worse – it might be experience with the ugliness of sin that we expect should not be present in the church. Church people can be cliquey and unapproachable. Church people can be greedy, petty, quick to get angry, lustful and worse – even church leaders. The evidence of sexual abuse and pedophilia that has come to light in Baptist churches recently reveals an ugly underside to quintessentially evangelical churches that hadn’t before come to light.

I would add that non-church people level similar complaints at the “the church” as former church people who have left.  The reasons they give for not going to church, or being “religious”, or having faith in God include apparent hypocrisy, negative personal experiences and bad behavior of church going Christians.

While people may give other reasons for “not believing” or not having faith, the examples of people who hold themselves out to be Christians is almost always one of the reasons given, if not the most compelling reason given by people who don’t consider themselves (or no longer consider themselves) “Christian” (at least in the sense of born again, evangelical (whatever that still means) Christianity).

To this point, I am reminded of what Paul says, “Though every man be a liar, still God is true!” Let me explain.

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