The church’s resilience belies its dysfunction. It is hard to imagine any other kind of organization as successful as the church, yet as plagued by infighting and schism.
Under the umbrella of Christianity today is an odd mix of old and new, and of unity and division. Even our boundaries are fuzzy—are Mormons really Christians? Oneness Pentecostals? Roman Catholics? Depends who you ask.
Despite all this, we might also say that the church’s dysfunction belies its resilience. The Christian religion has, after all, been around for two thousand years, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon. Against all odds, the church grew through the persecutions of the first few centuries of the Common Era, and against all odds, the church perseveres today in a world in which the West has all but abandoned its gods, and the developing world clings dearly to its own.
Outsiders might disagree, but as a disciple of Jesus, I believe the church has persevered supernaturally. I believe God has been with us at every step and every misstep. I believe he was there, rejoicing, when Francis of Assisi dedicated his life to the poor; I believe he was there, weeping, when Calvin burned Servetus. I believe he is here today, with us, with me, with you.
I believe God has led the church to this point in history in spite of itself, and I believe God is doing something extraordinary in the church today.
From my background in conservative evangelical Protestantism I inherited a narrative in which the church is at war with the culture of the West. As the values of those around us seem to drift further from our own in each successive generation, the church has seen its members react in disparate ways. Some have retrenched in the theology and practice of the distant past, a movement typified by the apparent resurgence of Calvinism and Catholicism. Others have attempted to evolve toward some imagined future; the very different approaches of the evangelical megachurches and the dying mainline Protestant denominations both represent this tendency, with a betrayal of traditional worship styles in the first case, and of traditional theology in the last. (Perhaps it is telling to see which of these approaches has enjoyed more success.)
All of these reactions testify to the reality that the church is perceived to be in need of change—or, to be a little more presumptuous, that God is moving to change it. Yet these variegated responses appear to be pulling the church apart rather than pulling it together. Conservative and progressive, liturgical and contemporary—these expressions are not mutually exclusive, but the movements that have embraced them often are. Can the neo-Reformed movement and the Catholic faith against which it protests each enjoy a resurgence powered by the same divine source?
In fact, though it is clear to many that God is prompting a movement, it seems unclear what the church is moving away from and what it is moving toward. Unfocused movement in the church is just as unproductive as unfocused movement in your career, in your daily schedule, or in your personal spiritual walk; when we lack focus and direction, we can expend a lot of effort and get nowhere.
Back to the Future
As different as these disparate movements appear to be, they do have something in common: their adherents all believe that their respective restorations bring them closer to the theology or to the practice of the early church. The megachurches’ combination of large weekend services with weekly home groups is thought to mirror the practice of the early church as described in Acts 2, whose members met all together in the Temple and then broke bread from house to house. The Reformation (and its more current daughter movement) has always seen itself as a restoration to the principles of early Christianity. The ancient liturgical churches each claim the primacy of their liturgical and theological tradition.
Perhaps this common thread represents the direction in which God seems to be pushing the church. Perhaps the authentic heart of each of these movements is the desire to do what the apostles did, to live how they lived, to be more like the very first disciples of Jesus.
If this is the case, we should be aware that there is a theological and liturgical tradition that predates that of any extant Christian denomination. There is a venue that looks far more like the Acts 2 church than does any megachurch. A reformation is currently underway, and it has the potential to dwarf Luther’s in scope.
If the only way forward for the church is back, then we must consider the possibility that the logical next step for Christianity today is to go all the way back to the very first generation of disciples, who practiced their religion as a sect of what we now call—brace yourself!—Judaism.
Depending on your background, this idea may seem counterintuitive. Yet the past century of New Testament scholarship has demonstrated conclusively that the early disciples of Jesus were Jews, through and through. They saw no conflict between the unveiling of Jesus the Messiah and the values, principles, theology, and practice of Judaism. Jesus gave them no reason to believe that God would undo two thousand years of history and revelation in one afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem. Instead, they saw Jesus as bringing new life to Judaism—as bringing renewal, restoration, and reformation within the structure God had already built, within the corporate life of the Jewish people. They saw the inclusion of Gentiles in the Jesus movement as a prophetic sign and validation of their sect of Judaism; in no way was it taken as a sign that Judaism itself had come to an end.
Scholars disagree on just when Christianity and Judaism definitively became separate religions, but any consensus on that fuzzy date has been pushed further and further forward by post-Holocaust academia. Far from the distant cousins they are today, we now know that these two expressions of faith in the God of Abraham were, in the early days of the church, so tightly entwined as to be nearly indistinguishable in practice.
If God is leading his church back to its roots—back to the future, so to speak—then this pilgrimage will remain incomplete until we arrive at Jerusalem. If where we are going is where we came from, then our destination looks a lot more Jewish in theology and practice than we might have expected.
As a disciple, I’m fine with this; I’ll go wherever my Master leads me. As a pastor whose church looks nothing like the Temple and synagogue in which our faith was born, I sometimes struggle with the details of what the church’s return to her first-century roots might look like in practice. Certainly the apostles didn’t intend for us all to become Jewish; in fact, Paul forbade it (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Not to mention that in all of its expressions the church already mirrors Judaism in uncountable ways.
But questions over details shouldn’t stop us from recognizing and embracing the big picture of what God is doing in his church. What scholars have uncovered about our Jewish roots gives us a secure foundation in history and a clear destination to move toward: the apostles’ dream of a Judaism that encompasses all nations under heaven. A Judaism for the Messianic Age. This dream, this ideal, is our formative impulse, and it is the ideal to which we must eventually return.