When you look back to the Wesleyan/ Booth era you see a more solid Christian witness to social progress than we have today. Sure, they had their enemies too, within the Christian establishments. But the movement had a far better eschatology than we have today, somewhat like that depicted by N T Wright’s current expression. It was more “Post-millennial” (not that I subscribe to that), but at least it was social facing.
So, they had a cohesion between their eschatology, their pneumatology and their social program. These were the early “Pentecostal movements,” in that the Spirit was strongly emphasised, not just in personal experience, but in social transformation. This contributed significantly to warding off revolution in Britain. With the economic injustice we see growing sharply today, we are probably heading for some kind of ideological revolution at least. So, we need now what Britain had then.
The Wesleyan/ Booth movement was also more holistic in its concerns. It wasn’t just social reform, but also personal reform, especially in moral matters. These weren’t separated, like they often are today. I think if we can’t bring these two back into one Christian witness, we may not be able to unify Christians very easily in that witness.
At CFM, we have tried to build our moral witness on the same platform as our social witness: self-giving in the image of God to renew personal life, social and environmental care. This is a platform that may be able to bring together more of the concerns of the broader base of Christians. It takes painstaking work to clarify and communicate.
- An eschatology that unites heaven and earth in a future of hope
- A theology of the Spirit that is empowering towards this same future
- A moral theology of community, not of self-identity
Each of the above points moves us away from the Gnosticism/ dualism of the Greek (that suits our culture today in its emphasis on the individual), towards a community/ holistic faith, even one that unites the rich and poor in one family. Beautiful to consider.
I think the matter is urgent.
The early church formed its unity around the concepts of apostolic faith. This stemmed from God revealing himself in Christ. That is, God had humbled himself in human flesh, to die a slave, for our good, even while we were his enemies. And God did this to restore us by his free grace and to restore the creation. The scriptures call this the reconciling of the creation, bringing the entire creation to renewal in Christ. This action of God becomes the ethic for our own actions.
- God humbles himself to serve others
- He shows self-giving love to his enemies
- His action is restorative, not punitive
- His action is creational, he is restoring this material world
From factors like these, the apostolic community lived a creational faith. We could say this had two simple aspects to it. First, it meant a care for creation, for life and for all humanity. Second, it meant a respect for the moral life the creation installed, particularly in a life commitment to marriage and its offspring, in which the creation was nestled for protection. The family teaches us the principles of care we extend to the whole creation.
We have since moved away from these Hebrew moorings. Our faith is more Greek orientated today, which denies the creation, focuses on a separated spiritual heaven and on the individual, instead of the community. This dilutes the factors that build our human identity, especially as custodians of this creation, bringing confusion and sickness to us all.
The early church was pro-life. This was a consistent part of their faith. This was not debated in the first 200 years of the church. It was universally accepted by the church leaders. There was to be no taking of life, whether one’s own life, the life of another in capital punishment, war, infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, or in any other way. Life was not ours to take. It was ours to serve. Instead, the early church held to a positive eschatology, in which it saw itself as the people of Isaiah, restoring the creation through a refusal to take life.
This creational faith locked the church into a holistic faith that was consistent across the board. And there was to be no “relative ethics” applied to it: like, the “lesser of two evils,” “a bit of killing may save a lot more killing.” Once we start on that line, we lose the plot. Rather, they were to give their own life to maintain life, like Jesus did.
It also locked them into their care for the poor and for each other. A creational faith meant we are all created in God’s image and all humanity has infinite worth. This Genesis faith is the basis of humanitarianism, not the “humanist ethics” more common today. We can see the importance of this Genesis faith. If we lose in it one way, the whole value system is at stake. If that system is weakened, humanity itself caves into brutality and evil.
We can see that the ethics of the early church reflected their belief that God had restored them to continue the Adamic (which means Adam and Eve) calling to oversee a flourishing, good creation. This meant sustaining the values of morality, environmental care and care for the weaker members of the community: the poor, foreigner, refugee, child, elderly, sick, disabled, prisoner, homeless, no matter their faith or ethnicity.
A comprehensive creational faith must include all these values. Our identity is not found in our self, but in our Adamic calling as humanity, to care for the other. A renewed moral life is part of what sustains the community and the environment. That’s why we can’t choose between these values.
And of chief importance, which the incarnation and cross of Christ brought to stunning realisation, was that this sustenance of creation, this Adamic stewardship, would be carried out through our own self-giving. This self-giving would define our service.
- How would we solve marriage issues? By giving of our self.
- How would we solve the abortion debate? By giving of our self to forgive and serve those affected by it.
- How do we solve violence and need for peace issues? By giving of our self to be peacemakers.
- How do we solve the gap between the rich and poor? By giving of ourselves to restore family between us all.
The Sermon on the Mount calls us salt and light. Salt preserves. It was added to the Old Testament sacrifices. The sacrifices preserved God’s covenant promises, but not in the way that Old Testament cultures thought. God’s promise to forgive and restore was preserved through Christ’s self-offering: there he forgave us our crimes against him and there he restored our heart with his compassion.
Christ preserved God’s promises by the laying down of his own life. We have tried to preserve godliness by our conservative institutions, but these put electric fences around our “godly culture,” which only serve to punish the weak. Instead we preserve godliness through the giving of ourselves to the weak. This was how the early church mimicked the cross, to salt and renew the Roman empire. We are to follow this today.
Jesus also taught us what freedom is and this is fundamental to our faith. “Fundamental” means that this is what it means to be Christian, Christlike. Freedom isn’t found in protecting our own “entitlements.” The gospel teaches us we don’t have any entitlements. We are saved by grace, just as the next person, or enemy. Freedom is rather the freedom of soul that enables us to give up our entitlements to serve and restore the world. Freedom is washing the feet of our enemy. Israel looked for political freedom, Christ offered them the washing bowl, towel and cross instead.
We can build unity in our Christian witness today by restoring our Hebrew founded apostolic faith. It is a pro-creational faith, which calls us to lay down our lives for the common good, and in so doing, bring to the world a true revelation of who God is. This restores the neighbour, the environment and restores faith to the world, but it costs us our own lives to do it. This giving of our lives is the central pillar of our apostolic faith. Maybe that is why the faith has been somewhat lost. The way to get it back is clear.