Jesus movement: a flash in the pan?

I’ve gotten some interesting (mostly positive) responses to my article in 850 Words of RELEVANT earlier this week.

Toby had this to say:

I realize I’m a day late in commenting, but I have to wonder about your statement about Christianity upending the known world.

I realize it did, but only for a short time. Because it seems, from history, that Christianity because much like it’s culture, and Romanish after the first century and it’s progress was stunted and lamed much.

So, was the Jesus-cult a flash in the pan? Did it have it’s time in the first and early second century and died off becoming what we know it is today through Romanism? Do you see first century Jesus-cult being revived any time else in history? Now?

It’s true that sometime around the 4th century A.D., Christianity started looking more like Rome and less like Jesus. This had a lot to do with Constantine, emperor of Rome from 280-337.

Constantine was famous for legalizing Christianity in 313—after years of on-again, off-again state-sponsored persecution. But this move had more to do with politics than piety, and it had major implications for the Jesus movement.

First, under Constantine’s influence, some pagan elements were blended with Christianity. It just so happens that in the Roman imperial cult, Constantine was often associated with Sol Invictus, the sun god. In the Roman pantheon, Sol Invictus was synonymous with Mithra. And it just so happens that around this time, people began celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25, the date previously recognized as Mithra’s birthday.

Second, after A.D. 313, the church got its first taste of political and military power. And in some ways, yes, the church has never been the same since. A movement that once drew thousands by undermining society’s power structures and hierarchies now became intimately connected to these power structures. As a result, the church often traded the natural appeal of Jesus’ message for conversion by coercion.

I believe the church is at its best when it serves from a position of weakness, when it chooses the power of love and rejects the love of power. So yes, I think that in many ways the church has lost much of its early power… except for one thing. And perhaps only one thing.

Jesus hasn’t given up on the church yet.

Jesus promised that not even the gates of death would overcome the church. Elsewhere the scriptures describe the church as Jesus’ body. And however much we may abuse his body, it is still just that—his body.

Another idea found in the scriptures is that of a remnant—that no matter how bad things get with God’s people, there’s always a group that stays faithful to him. This is Israel’s story more than once in the Hebrew scriptures.

So while some of the church may lose itself in the pursuit of power, there are remnants of hope—pockets of redemption, where we see God’s kingdom breaking through even today. I think churches like Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan are examples of this. (Full disclosure: my wife and I belonged to Mars Hill for three years before moving to Seattle.) These are churches where that same subversive, inclusive spirit is alive and well, inviting all to come and experience Jesus. Places where the poor are taken care of, the oppressed find refuge, and justice is central to the gospel.

The reason I wrote the article for RELEVANT was because I feel like we spend so much time arguing for what we believe and holding on to what power that we think we have that we forget that arguing and fighting for power cannot change the world. If we want to do that, we need to remember what it was about the early church that changed the world… and that was, I believe, a God who is for us and a church that is for everybody.

4 thoughts on “Jesus movement: a flash in the pan?

  1. Thanks for the article and your other posts. They are a great challenge and encouragement. I never knew of that history. Appreciate the learning. God is too big for our boxes.


  2. Ben, this is awesome. To have friends like you, who form a common ground based on love, and having the passion to help show the world that the Jesus message boils down to one thing:

    God loves us. God is for us. God will not give up on us.

    Jesus took our place out of that love.

    It’s not about power or prestige or dominating. It’s about love and sacrifice and helping others and passing along the blessing.

    I also really appreciate how you are able to give a history lesson and a heart lesson at the same time.


  3. I appreciate the answers to some of my questions, as I respect your opinion and writing. Your post from which you quoted my comments has brought out some needed and honest discussion between me and some friends! Thanks!


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