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What the early church can teach us about political engagement

In these days where new church plants springing up all over the UK, there is a great deal of emphasis on modelling church rhythms and culture around the early church.

The idea of breaking bread together, sharing possessions, being of one mind and spirit – all of these things are immensely attractive and present a radical way of living to the outside world, which is undoubtedly attractive to those outside looking for genuine community.

However, in our efforts to recover the vigour of the early church, we often miss one of the most crucial characteristics which marked out those earliest Christians: the way they were involved in the political process and the institutions around them. And not just in a minor way – according to Professor Nancy Pearcey, ‘the early church went on the offensive against the dominant intellectual systems of the age’.

In her book Saving Leonardo she describes how the challenges Christians face today are parallel to the issues the early church grappled with.

One of those issues was secularism. The Roman Empire, spanning several continents, incorporated a large variety of different ethnic groups with a panoply of religions and gods to boot. Then there was the intellectual class – great thinkers and philosophers of the time, rich with ideas that often butted heads with the Christian faith.

What was unique about the Christian faith in the Roman world is that it didn’t accept the pluralism of the secular society it encountered – it made the radical claim that Jesus Christ was the only God – not one of many. What is more, Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord – leading to increasing persecution as they were branded traitors of the Empire.

“Any person brave enough to consider and accept the claims of Christ faced a pluralistic society with a wide diversity of secular and religious options—just as we do today.”, Pearcey notes.

So how did the early church set out to counter and uphold the radical claims of Jesus Christ in the face of hostility and opposition? Yes, they modelled authentic Christ-like community and character. But they also engaged with the ideas and worldviews around them. They didn’t retreat to a corner, resolving to only spread the gospel through personal evangelism. Instead, Pearcey says they ‘studied, critiqued, argued against, sometimes adapted, and finally overcame’ the hostile ideas they encountered.

In his book How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt outlines some of the victories Christians achieved through their influence in government. These include outlawing the practice of human sacrifice, infanticide, child abandonment and violent gladiatorial games.

In more recent times, Christians have been at the helm of many other prominent developments, such as ending slavery, achieving a prohibition on burning widows in India, and making waves in the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, leading to the end of racial segregation.

What will be the changes we see in our generation? If we want to be like the early church, we need to engage with gracious words and lovingly confront the views we see around us. This means we need to engage with the political process and the institutions in authority. Who knows that we might see radical cultural shifts like our ancient Christian brothers and sisters did?

God has called us all to be salt and light in our culture. That was true 2000 years ago and it is true today. And, right now, our flavourless and bitter political climate could use a little salt.

Naomi Marsden

CARE Communications Officer