I first read the following words a number of years ago. They were written in the second century by the Roman lawyer Aristides, who was attempting to explain to the Emperor Hadrian what this new “Christian” community was all about. Who were they? What set them apart? The words have stuck with me ever since.
“Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs — if it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs… This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them.”
Is this how the world views Christians today? Do we live this way? Do we believe that it’s important to live this way?
In St. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he battles against what he calls false (or “different”, literally “hetero”) teachings which are cropping up in the churches. This is a reference to teachers who were preaching doctrine which was “different” from the teaching of the apostles; who, of course, received their authority from Jesus himself. You’d expect Paul to counter the idea of ”hetero” teaching, which he says causes confusion, speculation and leads the faithful in circles (1 Tim 1:3-4) with “orthodox” teaching, or “correct” teaching. He does not. What he counters false teaching with, is–in Greek–”healthy” teaching (Titus 1:9). Why healthy? Why not “correct” or “orthodox”? Because at the end of the day, for Paul, the Church is not a mere institution of organization. It is a body. When is a human body at its healthiest? When it’s not fighting a sickness or disease. When we have the flu, our body is occupied battling against germs, thereby hindering it from operating at its full potential. As long as our body is fighting with itself, it can never truly do the things it’s supposed to do. It is weakened by battle. In this way, Paul tells the Church that we need to try to resolve our family bickering, because until we do, we cannot truly love one another–the ultimate call of the Church. As Paul says,
“…avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile” (Titus 3:9).
When Aristides looked at the early Church back in the second century, what did he see? Was it the same thing that the secular world sees when they look at us? At the end of the day, the Church is a family, headed by God. Families will always bicker; families will always get annoyed with one another. This is merely a reality. The question however is, do we treat one another like family, or do we see each other more as deadbeat roommates? Christians need to ask themselves, do we really believe that the Church is God’s family? If we look at the Church and simply see a mess, are we willing to concede that perhaps this is God’s mess; that he’s okay with acknowledging that those who lead and occupy his family are sometimes steeped in sin? Could it be that that’s why we need the family in the first place?