Afflictions of the 'Body': The Early Church’s Opponents and Its Prescriptions against Heresy; 1. Mission and Opposition
The Church was born in the midst of great controversy. The Body of Christ, the Church, continues to face external and internal afflictions. As a messianic movement, its first two representatives, John the Baptist and Jesus, were put to death. Other very early proponents of Christianity were put to death: Stephen the deacon and James the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ close disciples. Such opposition came from outside the faith. Beginning with Judas Iscariot, disciples of Christ have experienced internal afflictions as well. In these studies, we intend to examine the external and internal afflictions of God’s people in the days of the early Church as well as in our day.
God’s Afflicted People:
Any such study needs to begin with the observation that the early Church did not see itself as a new religion without a history. Believers saw themselves as the fulfillment of centuries of history and prophecy that were recorded in the Scriptures (the Old Testament). Whether they were Jews or Gentiles, the history of God’s people in Scripture was their history. That history was a history of God calling out his people from the other nations (the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons), out of Egypt (Moses); separating his people from the nations in and surrounding Canaan (Joshua, Judges, and the history of the kings of Israel); living for God among idolatrous nations while in exile; and returning to the land of Israel from captivity but only to find themselves more often than not under foreign rule. God’s people were ‘wandering Arameans,’ a wilderness people, a righteous remnant, sojourners in the world whose citizenship was in heaven. Such a history is chock full not only of external opposition and persecution of God’s people but also of betrayal, misguidance, and rebellion.
No wonder, then, that the early Church could read her own experience of opposition right out of Israel’s own history. Jesus began his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel with a warning about the opposition that his followers would face because the unrighteous have always opposed God’s people. He said,
Matthew 5:11-12 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As he faced his own arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem, Jesus predicted that his followers would also face tribulation. Speaking in particular regarding the scribes and Pharisees in Israel, Jesus linked the opposition his followers would face to that the prophets of old had faced from other Jews:
Matthew 23:31-35 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….
Jesus repeated this as a warning to his disciples, noting that the threat would be internal as well. The Church itself would be harassed and persecuted by false prophets and supposed disciples who, in reality, rejected God’s commandments (lawlessness) and who had grown cold in their love of God and of faithful believers:
Matthew 24:9-13 "Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10 Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
In speaking of the horror of persecution, Jesus used language from the book of Daniel. Daniel had predicted a ‘desolating sacrilege,’ a desecration of the altar in the most holy place of the Temple in Jerusalem. This prophecy was fulfilled in 167 B.C., when the Syrian ruler, Antiochus the IV ‘Epiphanes’ entered the most holy place and had a pig sacrificed on the altar. During this time, Jews were compelled to sacrifice to other gods or be put to death. Moreover (and this is crucial to understand), Jewish religious authorities would compromise the true faith in order to accommodate themselves to the new situation. They would attempt to retain power: the office of the high priest was even bought by the highest bidder. Many Jews chose to adopt Greek morals, right down to an operation to remove the signs of circumcision (so-called ‘epispasm’) so that they could exercise naked and appear to be Gentiles in the newly built Greek gymnasiums! The story of the righteous martyrs who remained faithful to God and withstood the lure of their new, cultural context can be read in 1 and 2 Maccabees. These two books in the Apocrypha, like such books as Daniel and Esther in the Old Testament, recorded heroic stories of resisting culture in order to stay faithful to God. They were deeply ingrained stories in the narrative identity of faithful Jews in the time of Jesus.
Such a history was the Church’s history. Jesus warned his disciples that his crucifixion would inaugurate a period of tribulation that would define the Church’s existence in the same way that Israel’s existence under Antiochus IV was defined: persecution, martyrdom, false teaching, grasps for power in religious institutions, and compromise of the true faith. Once again, God’s people would find themselves facing a time of ‘desolating sacrilege’ as Daniel had predicted. Jesus’ warnings were fulfilled within the lifetime of his disciples, yet their experience would also be the subsequent history of the Church to our day: the Church regularly—sometimes more, sometimes less—faces persecution, martyrdom, false teaching, grasps for power in religious institutions, and compromise of the true faith.
The history of the Church’s afflictions, however, would not be the history of a godly nation surrounded by oppressive, idolatrous nations but of a godly people sent out to the nations to bring them to God. However much we can speak of Israel’s mission in the Old Testament, its primary focus was on being God’s righteous people to which the nations would stream (Isaiah 2.2-5). Matthew 24.9-13 was quoted above; in the very next verse, Jesus tells his disciples that mission would now be to the nations:
Matthew 24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
The church’s history of persecution is a history of its mission in and to the world. When Jesus predicted suffering for his disciples, he did so within the context of a message regarding their mission to the nations.
Mission with Opposition; Opposition with Mission
In his Missionary Discourse in Matthew 10, Jesus describes the mission of his disciples in terms of persecution and suffering: mission and suffering go together. Jesus’ message is not an ascetic message, where people give up the pleasures of life for some monastic or solitary existence, protecting themselves against the evils of society. He expects his disciples to engage the world and warns that, as they do so, they will find opposition. Opposition without mission turns the Church into a self-pitying community whose primary goal is to avoid suffering or even to gain control within society, if possible, in order to exercise its own version of righteous rule. Mission, on the other hand, gives purpose to the Church. The Church’s mission engages the world and therefore God’s people experience persecution. Like Jesus, the Church steps forward to present God’s reign in a sinful world, offering forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and hope.
One of the great ‘dangers’ facing orthodox Christian communities—groups holding to historic Christian doctrine and ethics (whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or certain Protestant denominations)—is that they might affirm orthodoxy without engaging in mission to the world. In particular, the danger is that they maintain their orthodoxy and experience persecution for this without engaging in mission. Indeed, persecution might lead some to withdraw from the world and pull back from mission to the world. Neither a bunker mentality nor a posture of power and dominion are acceptable options for the Church in its mission to the world. Thus, Jesus’ teaching that opposition and persecution is a result not only of following the faith but also of engaging in mission is a word on target for the Church today. How many churches have little or no missions budget, put inordinate amounts of money into maintaining their buildings, campuses, and programs without supporting the Great Commission of the risen Lord? One of the primary purposes of the Church is to participate in God’s sending labourers (missionaries) into fields ripe for harvesting (Matthew 9.37-38). Jesus’ missionary disciples go into all the world with the authority of the risen Lord in order to make disciples of all nations and teach them to obey Jesus’ commandments.
Evangelical churches that bemoan the wayward direction of society and the increasing persecution they are experiencing should stop and reflect on whether they are only experiencing this struggle because of who they are or also experiencing it because of their missionary engagement with the world. This is the time to focus the Christian mission according to the Great Commission (rather than make mission mean everything and therefore nothing). It is the time to engage more and more in mission. This is the time to tell the world why it needs a Saviour. The instinct of some during increasing persecution is to try to show the world that the Church is not a threat but a positive factor in society. In many cases in the West, the urge to be liked by tolerating, even affirming, diversity ends in Universalism—the teaching that there is no hell, there are many ways to God, and all will be saved in the end (if there is such a thing as sin at all!). Such a theology undermines and typically rejects a mission to the nations that proclaims Christ’s death on the cross to take away the sins of the world. It seeks only to have a positive acceptance in our diverse society.
Of course the Church is a positive factor for the world. Of course it is a loving community. But it is so because it opposes the forces of darkness, proclaims the rule of God over all of life, and turns the world upside down with the message of Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world. Such a message courts controversy, especially in an ‘I’m OK, You're OK’ society.
Mission as Extending God’s Rule
The nature of the disciples’ mission entailed curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, and proclaiming the good news that God’s reign has come near (Matthew 10.7-8). While we have no reason to limit the Church’s mission today to this (we can speak of holistic mission), we should note that this mission is not about our good works for a needy world but about the coming of God’s good reign to a needy world. The mission of the disciples was a demonstration of the fact of God’s rule, His overcoming evil through His power and authority. Mission is not first about how good God’s people are but about how good God is. It is about His activity in the world.
Churches that hold to a Cessationist theology—the teaching that miracles ceased after the apostolic age and do not occur today—have completely missed an essential teaching of Christian orthodoxy: Jesus inaugurated the reign of God, and the Church continues to proclaim and present the powerful rule of God (not its own institutions!) to the world until Christ comes again. Evangelical churches that teach Cessationism are unorthodox (and therefore should not be considered ‘evangelical’). Worse, they no longer proclaim God’s rule for the world. They offer a ‘theology’ (more a philosophy) of God’s sovereignty without understanding much about God’s authority. The opposition they face from the world is from persons who wonder how a sovereign, all powerful God could allow suffering. Their static understanding of theology cannot explain the dynamics of Christian life and ministry: the power of prayer, the active ministry of evangelism, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous rule of God in our day.
On the other hand, the Prosperity (‘Health and Wealth’) ‘Gospel’ has equally misconstrued the Scriptures and the truth of Christian life and ministry. It understands nothing of the ongoing struggle of life in a sin-ridden world. Its overrealized understanding of the coming of God’s rule leads people to expect nothing but a good life (health and wealth), whereas, in fact, Christians face all the struggles of humanity plus persecution in this time before Christ’s return. (The theology of the ‘righteous sufferer’ in the book of Psalms is still relevant to the Christian life!) Extending the reign of God in this world does not mean prosperity. Healing is not a ‘state’—as though no one gets sick or suffers again; it is rather a demonstration of God’s reign that awaits the complete rule of Jesus Christ when He comes again. The Christian life is about experiencing God’s reign in a suffering and sinful world, not about being extricated from this world before Jesus returns. Christian life and ministry are about extending God’s reign in a suffering and sinful world, not about enjoying the good life on some island while the rest of the world suffers on its way to hell. The Prosperity Gospel is antithetical to the mission of the Church. Churches lured by a message of prosperity (and this extends far beyond those associating themselves with the Prosperity Gospel itself to many if not most churches in the West today) will find a prescription for their affliction in Jesus’ call to mission. And, be warned, as they do so, they will be less prosperous, experience greater opposition, and yet see God’s reign not for their own pleasures and amusements but for the world for which Jesus Himself died.
The early Church understood the opposition it faced in terms of the opposition God’s people had always faced in the world—whether from outside or inside. For Christians, opposition and mission go together: a separation of these is probably a sign of bad theology and mission practice. Opposition and persecution came not only because God’s people stood out as different from a sinful world (as particularly in the Old Testament) but also because they engaged the world (as particularly in the New Testament). Jesus made the connection between the righteous sufferers of the Old Testament and the opposition and persecution that He and His disciples would face. Yet He more closely linked the opposition and persecution of God’s people, his disciples, to their mission in the world. Jesus inaugurated the reign of God in this world, and this is what mission continues to be all about. A right understanding of this mission in the face of opposition will keep believers from unorthodox, heretical teachings, such as Universalism, Cessationism, the Prosperity Gospel, and a self-indulging notion of Christian life and ministry.