Church in Lockdown: Weary and Burdened? A 4th Century Prayer for Refreshment.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus spoke these words of comfort to a weary, struggling people in great need of a Saviour. He was a Saviour who promised rest, satisfaction and comfort to a world that desperately needed true fulfilment. He promised those who trusted in Him an eternal rest; a room prepared in His Father’s house.

As lockdown drags on, however it looks in our own contexts, church life can become a burden. The longer the church cannot function normally, the longer we are kept apart from corporate worship in the local church, the wearier we can become. It can be easy to feel the burden of a local church on pause, yet we have a Christ who offers comfort to His weary, struggling people.

We were created for relationships, with God and with one another. Scripture calls the church a body, a family, a unit. Lockdown is jarring and uncomfortable because the church can’t function properly; we can’t be together when we can’t meet together. And it is still going on. Even if a few of us can meet together on a Sunday, or throughout the week, for many of us, our churches won’t be back to normal for quite some time, possibly not even until a vaccine is found.

But like all things in this life, this lockdown will be temporary. Our great hope is in a Saviour who has promised an end to our weary struggle. That end will come. Relief will come when the local church can meet together again, and lasting delight will come when Christ gathers His true church to Himself at last.

But our Saviour does not abandon us to our locked-down lives in the meantime. Scripture urges us to bring our concerns to God in prayer, the Spirit convicts our hearts and works within us. So let us pray with confidence even as we long for normality. Below is an ancient prayer of Augustine, a prayer for refreshment for weary, locked-down souls. The end of lockdown may not be within our sight, but it is within the Lord’s, and even the freedom to gather together again is nothing compared to our ultimate end.

O Lord our God, under the shadow of Your wings let us hope. You will support us, both when little, and even to grey hairs. When our strength is of You, it is strength; but, when our own, it is feebleness. We return unto You, O Lord, that from their weariness our souls may rise towards You, leaning on the things which You have created, and passing on to Yourself, who has wonderfully made them; for with You alone is refreshment and true strength. 

Amen.

Attr. to: Augustine of Hippo

Let us commit our weary hearts to the Lord, now and everyday, for with Christ alone is refreshment and true strength.

Continuing and Creating: Church Community in Covid-19

In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is church.png
Cartoon credit: davewalker.com

In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.

“The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.

Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.

Celsus’ Accusation

So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.

But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.

This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.

He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.

Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.

Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities

Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.

But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.

As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.

The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.

So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?

The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships

We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.

These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.

Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.

We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.

Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.

*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.

Partnership at a cost: Philemon

In his short New Testament letter to Philemon, Paul asks for something absolutely outrageous.

Philemon is all about partnership. Paul celebrates the encouragement his friend has been to him (and others) in the past “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), and looks forward to being with him for a time of fellowship again soon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (vs22). But in between these two clearly tender remarks, which illustrate their close brotherly relationship in the Lord, Paul asks of his friend an outrageous request.

It is a request, an appeal. Though Paul says he could pull rank and order him to obey (vs8), he appeals, vs9, out of love. And the appeal is for the slave, Onesimus.

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

Philemon 10-11.

Paul is appealing on behalf of this slave Onesimus, who clearly belongs to the well-off Philemon. Onesimus has fled from Philemon’s house, clearly he has wronged his master (either by running away or perhaps some other misdemeanor – the letter doesn’t make that clear). But somehow he has ended up with Paul, and now, wonderfully, he has come to a saving faith in Christ. Paul shows this in calling him “my son” – and we are told in Colossians 4:9 that he is a “faithful and dear brother.”

So Paul makes this appeal: formerly this slave was useless to you Philemon, he wronged you, but now he is in right fellowship with me and before God, and he is of use to you again, accept him back into your household. And accept him not as a slave (vs16) but as a brother. In fact, Philemon, receive him as you would receive me (vs17). 

This is an outrageous request, because Philemon and Onesimus couldn’t be more different, and in real terms: they couldn’t be more estranged.

They were not two friends who had a falling our, or siblings who had a row. This is two men at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, and Paul asks the ‘greater’ of these two men to accept the ‘lesser’ as though they were brothers! It’s the Queen accepting the beggar as a brother, or the CEO promoting the secretary to be her partner. But more than this: Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he’s a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights to have him put to death! In Roman times the slave was the ultimate possession of the master, and if that slave fled, crucifixion was a perfectly acceptable (and common) punishment. Onesimus had wronged his master in a serious way, there was no worldly coming back from this. And yet Paul appeals. Forgive and embrace him, says Paul. Not as a debtor, not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul is asking the important Philemon to ask a criminal social outcast to be his equal. It’s a radical call to working out his heart of partnership in a costly situation. In the social standing of the day this was the utmost folly. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s only interested in these men enjoying and living in a successful partnership for the Gospel.

Onesimus is, in a worldly sense, next to nothing. He was a possession, and one that needed to be destroyed for his crimes. Philemon was a big deal, he was a homeowner, a slaveowner, clearly a man of social standing. It’s a radical plea from Paul, but it’s made on one qualification only

Onesimus is useful to Paul, and to Philemon. How? Because Onesimus has come to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of that one fact, he was useful. Paul is making a pun here – Onesimus’ name means useful: in his crime he was useless, but now, made right in Christ, he is useful. And his use is incredible.

Paul thanked Philemon for the way his love “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), likewise Paul hopes that if Philemon obeys his appeal here he will “refresh my heart in Christ” (vs19). The Christian refreshes his or her brother and sister by displaying a Gospel-centred Christ-like love towards them. Any Christian, from the slave to the master, the PhD to the sixth-form drop out, can encourage their brothers and sisters, can be useful to them. God is merciful to use each and every one of us. In our church, our ragtag bunch of Christians from all walks of life, every single person is useful. Because every single person can point us back to the Gospel.

And clearly, from the outrageous nature of Paul’s request, that is the thing that matters most for any and every believer.

Was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?

It was only a few months ago that I realised: I’d never stopped and thought about the point in time when ‘the Church’ became ‘the Catholic Church’.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself claims its ordination of papal authority in Christ’s designation of Peter as “the rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16:18). This blog doesn’t want to engage with the ideas of Catholic theology predicated on this verse – if that’s a question for you may I recommend one of the blogs below:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-did-the-pope-come-from


https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-dont-protestants-have-a-pope/

Rather, this blog is asking: was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the Pope’s titles is the Bishop of Rome. He is seen in Catholic belief as the one man with supreme authority over the Earthly Church. Such authority, however, only arose in the fifth century. Up until then, the Bishop of Rome was merely another high ranking Church official writing and speaking into Church debates of the day. Other notable episcopal sees included Antioch and Alexandria, indeed, the Coptic Church places its papal authority in the Alexandrian see in a manner not dissimilar from those of the Roman Catholic tradition. (See my recent blog on Clement for an example of how Alexandria was a major centre of Christian teaching and learning.)

For the first few centuries of its existence then, the Church was not Catholic. But it was catholic. Or at least, it strove to be. Groups of Christ followers meeting together as small parts of the universal body of Christ here on earth. It’s why we still use ‘catholic’ in our creeds today and why we can partner with Christians all over the world in prayer and mission.

Often we approach the Early Church with the fear that we are really studying the Catholic Church, and the possibility of learning in a conservative evangelical context is simply impossible. We musn’t let the terminology of ‘catholic’ put us off for the wrong reasons. Many of the so-called Church Fathers ( such as Justin or Polycarp), who are claimed as Catholic saints and teachers, were writing simple Gospel truth for their peers.

Whilst many later teachings of the Catholic Church are hinged on an interaction with and interpretation of the writings of these Early Church Fathers, the reality is there was no Catholic Church when they were writing. Rome was not the authoritorial centre of the Christian world. In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian faith, but even after this it took over a century for Rome to come to the fore. We must not fear these formative years of the Church. Because there is so much we can learn from godly men and women who lived out their faith under the Roman Empire. Nor must we surrender the writers and writings of this period because of the terminology with which we discuss them in the twenty-first century.

The word ‘bishop’ is another that can confuse us. But this again is a simple matter of language and terminology. The word comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος; which literally means overseer or supervisor. We find that Paul uses the word many times, notably in his description of the overseers Timothy ought to select to help lead the church in 1 Timothy 3:2. The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not the lofty ceremonial positions we have today in many denominations. They were pastors, elders and church leaders. Some, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, had significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century, in it he wrapped up the ideas of bishops, ‘catholic’-ness and the church in one another.

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

Whilst he uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, he is mirroring the picture of Biblical church order. An overseer (or overseers), leading a body of believers, under the authority of Christ, as a local part of the wider Church of Christ. A beautiful picture of the church as ordained by Scripture.

This is the terminology we use to discuss the Early Church.

So we shouldn’t be scared of the Early Church. We should recognise their sinfulness and their error. But there is also a lot we can learn from reflecting on the Early Church as they sought to live for the Gospel in the Roman world.

Find out more on why we should bother with the Early Church.