One of the most interesting words in the English language is hagiography. One of its definitions is the one I have in mind, an “idealizing or idolizing biography.” The idea is that once someone has died, we remember the individual as being better than he or she actually was. This adjusting of memory and idealization of those who lived before us is common throughout the human race.
But people “back then” were really not as wonderful as we think they were.
This is universally done with the folks who made up the very early church. Although the very early church had its strong points (the Apostles were around to teach and lead, God worked some unprecedented miracles like raising the dead, etc.), the people who made up the early church community were far from wonderful.
The case of Corinth
Consider the words of the New Testament itself about the believers who made up the family of faith. In Corinth, we notice a man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1) while fellow Christians in the church accepted this brother as someone in good standing. The Corinthian church was divided into factions, each following the unique perspectives of a famous Christian leader (1 Cor. 3:4-5).
Things were so bad at Corinth that during their carry-in dinners members were consuming all the food before all arrived; some even became drunk while they waited (1 Cor. 11:21). The Corinthian Christians invented the “happy hour.”
If you look at the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus was pleased with only two of those churches. The others tolerated bad doctrine, immorality, and perhaps even idolatry.
We know that many—we might say most—followers of Jesus lived moral lives, embraced solid doctrine, and were fine Christians. Still, it seems most churches were riddled with problems, conflicts, splits, and desertions.
Doctrinal erros, shallow commitments
The writer to the Hebrews addresses the problem of folks who professed faith in Jesus but then turned away from him (see Heb. 6:4-8). Jude talks about false teachers who had crept into the church and were propagating bad doctrine (Jude 1:3-4). Peter warns of the same (2 Pet. 2:1-4), as does Paul (Acts 20:29-31). I personally hold to the early “crash and burn” theory of church history—that the church got off target in some areas pretty early.
But even among godly believers—men and women who were moral and embraced sound doctrine—not all were fully committed. The truth is that none of us attain to a completely dedicated lifestyle all of the time. Such dedication was rare even among Paul’s choicest ministry partners.
Philippians 2:19-21 reveals how dedicated Timothy was, but let’s ponder the lesser degree of dedication of the others. Paul comments:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
Do you see the import of Paul’s words? Other team members—such as Titus, Luke or Silas—were dedicated and concerned about others, but not to the degree Timothy was. Even in the first century—and within the best mission team the world has probably known—team members were not fully dedicated. Some of these men may have given their lives for the Lord. Nonetheless, they were not constantly and completely dedicated to the Lord.
Consider Paul’s last written words, the epistle of 2 Timothy. Near its closing, in 4:9-13 and 4:16-18, the Apostle writes:
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments…. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Note first of all this man Demas, a man who had been one of Paul’s assistants. In Philemon 1:23-24, Paul writes, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”
But in 2 Timothy, Paul reports that Demas either deserted Paul’s mission or deserted the faith (we cannot be sure) because he loved this present world. How that must have hurt Paul!
If that were not bad enough, all his other close associates deserted him when he stood trial in the Roman courts. Perhaps they feared for their own well-being? We may not know the reason they deserted Paul, but it seems clear that he was hurt by this abandonment.
Paul could have become bitter that he had been deserted. His spirit could have soured when trusted friends defected. The compromised testimony of some of Paul’s converts could have made him throw up his arms in frustration. What did he do? Although Paul was about Kingdom work, he loved people as individuals, not merely functionaries. Although broken-hearted, he carried on.
Paul turned matters over to God; God is the ultimate judge who calls all into account. Paul prays, however, that God will not be too hard on those who did such things. The truth bears repeating: Paul viewed people as human beings, not just as means to an end.
Paul also moved forward with those who were willing to go forward. He asked for Mark to be sent to him, the man who had been undependable and unsteady in the past (Acts 15:36-40). Mark was now rehabilitated; perhaps those who deserted Paul at his trial would mature also and one day even become pillars as well.
Luke was perhaps in the process of writing his Gospel, which is why Paul requested the parchments. (It is probable that Paul had input into Luke’s Gospel). Thus, rather than resigning, Paul increased his influence.
Paul’s approach was to move forward, refusing to be distracted. He did not stew over the losses in personnel, though he was obviously pained by them. Yet because God’s kingdom only advances with the willing and active, he sought new persons to fill the slots once occupied by those who turned away. He felt the brunt of the losses, but did not allow them to take him off course.
The early church was not utopian; human nature—even regenerate human nature—is pretty much the same as it has always been. So let’s not take the stance of, “it was wonderful back then but it’s terrible today.” It may be terrible today, but it never was that wonderful.
What matters, is that we are faithful to God, whether we be many or few. The song puts it well: “Though none may join me, still I will follow. No turning back. No turning back.”