Friday, October 18, 2019 9:51 AM

The Early Church Thrived Amid Secularism and Shows How We Can, Too

Friday, October 18, 2019 9:51 AM
Friday, October 18, 2019 9:51 AM

The pre-Christendom church managed to avoid both isolationism and accommodationism. Their model gives us a map for post-Christendom challenges.

attended seminary in the 1970s. I had to take several classes in the history of Christianity, though in those days it was called “church history.” My professor taught the course largely as a history of Christian thought. We studied orthodoxy and heresy in the early Christian period, monastic and scholastic theology in the medieval period, the Reformation controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the evangelical awakenings of the eighteenth century, and the liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as its major twentieth-century critics (Barth and Bonhoeffer).

In general, we learned church history from a Christendom perspective. Questions of correct belief loomed largest, at least as I remember it. We studied it as a kind of history of the Christian family, which was our family.

In the beginning of my teaching career, I taught the history of Christianity in much the same way. My primary interest was Reformation theology and the evangelical awakenings, though I never totally neglected to tell the larger story. Students seemed interested enough, at least for a while.

But then students began to change, and their interests shifted. They started to question the attention to doctrinal precision that emerged during the Reformation period. They wondered about the emotion of the evangelical awakenings. Doctrinal faith seemed too abstract and narrow, emotive faith too fragile and insecure.

I was teaching a Christendom course, but my students were asking for something different. I discovered that they needed something different because they were (and still are) growing up in a world very different from the one that existed only a generation ago.

Together we—professor and students—found it in early Christianity.

They began to pepper me with questions. How did early Christians start and sustain a movement over such a long period of time (some 250 years) before Christendom began to emerge? How did the church maintain a steady rate of growth under such difficult circumstances? How did Christian leaders make disciples without the religious benefits and privileges we take for granted today? How did this minority movement influence the larger culture, even though the vast majority of people living in the Roman Empire did not assume Christianity was the one true religion, Christian ethics were the best way to live, and Christian institutions were worthy of special privilege?

The success of the early church was certainly not inevitable. Christians could have accommodated to the culture to win recognition and approval, which would have undermined the uniqueness of their belief system and way of life. Or Christians could have isolated themselves from the culture to hide and survive, which would have kept them on the margins—safe, to be sure, but also irrelevant.

Instead, Christians engaged the culture without excessive compromise and remained separate from the culture without excessive isolation. Christians figured out how to be both faithful and winsome. They followed what was then known as the “Third Way,” a phrase that first appeared in a second-century letter to a Roman official named Diognetus.

What made the Third Way so successful and fruitful? At the heart of it was the unique identity and mission of Jesus. Jesus Christ shaped everything that followed in his wake. No one in the ancient world had ever encountered the likes of him before. Romans had no categories for him and neither did Jews. Not even his disciples could make sense of him until after the resurrection. Jesus Christ summoned his followers to a new way of life because he was first and foremost the way to new life. In other words, it was his uniqueness that made the early Christian movement unique.

The Third Way spawned a new movement—new in theology, in story, in authority, in community, in worship, and in behavior. Christian belief was so new, in fact, that it required Christians to develop a process of formation in the Third Way to move new believers from conversion to discipleship, from outsider to insider, from observer to full-fledged member, which produced generation after generation of believers who, established firmly in the faith, were able to grow the movement over a long period of time.

What can we learn today from the church’s witness to Rome some 2,000 years ago?

At the center, of course, was Jesus Christ himself—human and divine, crucified and resurrected, suffering servant and triumphant King, Son of Man and Son of God. Early Christians believed that God had revealed himself as Jesus Christ. They claimed that this revelation showed the world who God is as well as what kind of people humans were created to be.

They viewed worship as a bridge between divine and human worlds, as if in worship Christians stepped into a liminal space between heaven and earth. They did not see themselves primarily as consumers who attended worship to hear a good sermon and sing a few familiar songs but as beholders of the unspeakable glory of God. Worship not only ushered them into the very presence of God but also prepared them to return to the ordinary life of market, home, and neighborhood as disciples of Jesus.

Christians embraced a new story, too. The story of Jesus opened their eyes to see history not as a narrative of the empire’s achievements—and atrocities—but as a narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world, which often occurs in quiet and mysterious ways. For them, Bethlehem and Golgotha occupied center stage, not the Roman court.

Jesus Christ reshaped identity. He promised to make people new creatures; he broke down dividing walls of hostility; he transformed how his followers saw themselves and treated “the other.” Primary identity in Christ changed all earthly and secondary identities—marital, ethnic, and economic.

Christians became a nation within a nation, a new oikoumene or universal commonwealth that spanned the known world, crossing traditional cultural barriers. Their primary loyalty was to fellow believers, not nation or race or tribe or party or class. Christians created a new oikos (house church), too, which established a different kind of family. God was true Father; they were all brothers and sisters. The Christian movement was therefore both radically global and local at the same time. Both oikoumene and oikos had the effect of undermining and transforming the traditional social order.

They lived differently in the world. Christians were known as the people who cared for the “least of these,” challenging Rome’s patronage system and culture of honor and shame. They lived this faith out with enough consistency and success to attract Rome’s attention, which is why Rome identified the Christian movement as the Third Way. Rome’s various responses—fascination, confusion, suspicion, opposition, persecution—only underscored how unique the movement was.

In the same way that it’s not easy to understand and to follow the Christian faith in our increasingly post-Christendom setting, it wasn’t easy to make sense of in a pre-Christendom setting. Which is why the early Christian movement established the catechumenate as a strategy of formation. This ancient Christian process of formation, which lasted two or three years, was both inherent to the faith and necessary for its survival and growth. It was inherent because discipleship was the only possible response to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And it was necessary because the church faced stiff opposition and competition in the ancient world. The difference between Roman religion and Christianity was so great that the church had to develop a process to move people from the old world of traditional religion to the new world of Christianity.

Can this ancient movement speak to us today? It depends upon how fiercely we cling to the old arrangement.

As long as Christians assume we are still living in Christendom, the church will continue to decline in the West, no matter how ferociously Christians fight to maintain power and privilege. If anything, the harder Christians fight, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price. Christians will either accommodate until the faith becomes almost unrecognizable, or they will isolate until their faith becomes virtually invisible.

Nothing short of a change of church culture will suffice—from a culture of entertainment, politics, personality, and program to a culture of discipleship. Such a radical change will require patience, steadiness, and purposefulness.

The good news is, we are not alone, and the story of early Christianity reminds us of this fact. Faithful Christians have gone before us, bearing witness to the truth of Christianity, the power of the gospel, and the high calling of discipleship. Calling out across the centuries, they tell us that it is possible now, as it was then, to live as faithful followers of Jesus the Lord in a culture that does not approve of it or reward it.

Two millennia ago, Jesus Christ—his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—set in motion a movement that turned the world upside down. He is the same Lord today. It can happen again.

Gerald L. Sittser is a professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University. He is the author of eight books, including the best-selling A Grace DisguisedThe Will of God as a Way of Life, and Water from a Deep Well.

This essay is adapted from his latest book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. Used by permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group copyright 2019.

Trick or Treat: Should Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot Also be Afforded Judicial Grace and Forgiveness?
Monday, October 7, 2019 12:56 PM

Trick or Treat: Should Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot Also be Afforded Judicial Grace and Forgiveness?

Monday, October 7, 2019 12:56 PM
Monday, October 7, 2019 12:56 PM

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed belong solely to the author. They are not and do not necessarily reflect the opinion(s) or position(s) of the organization, board of directors and/or any other individual(s) or entity (ies) affiliated or unaffiliated with Christians in Public Service.


Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot (Photo:

State District Court Judge Tammy Kemp (Photo via AP)

If the history of murder trials in Dallas County were to be written, the Amber Guyger case would certainly rise to the top.

The trial of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was watched around the world. It gained international attention because it was unthinkable that a young, innocent, salt-of-the-earth, unarmed professional black man relaxing in his apartment in Dallas, Texas, could be murdered there by an intruder who was a Dallas police officer.

The white female Dallas police officer all along maintained she thought she was in her apartment. She said she felt justified in firing two bullets into the chest of Botham Jean, one bullet piercing his heart because she was "scared" thinking he was an intruder. He was eating a bowl of ice cream in his apartment. 

Botham Jean was only 26 years old. Living his dream of graduating from high school in St. Lucia, being accepted into a Christian college in the United States, he leaves an indelible mark for such a short time on earth.

He mesmerized classmates, professors and executive staff with his infectious smile, a heart for serving others and a spirit of excellence. He did the same as a young professional accountant, employed by one of the largest and most prestigious accounting firms in the world. Settling into a life that was sure to be nothing short of successful.

Botham came from a good family. A loving mother, loving and present father. A sister and brother who talked of their love and admiration for their brother and the unbearable pain of his death.

Botham Jean's hurting mother and father (Photo via The Dallas Morning News)

The black community and many in the faith community in Dallas were outraged; demanding justice from a judicial system that historically in America, gives accused officers a pass.

Surely in Dallas County, with a younger, more progressive majority-minority population from which to select jurors of her peers; and, a trio of black leadership in key criminal justice positions, Amber Guyger would be judged more fairly.

After all, the Chief of Police is a black female. The District Attorney is a black male. And the presiding Judge, Tammy Kemp, has a reputation as a well-regarded, fair, no-nonsense judge. 

All are Democrats. All are Christians.

Sidebar - Why mention their party affiliation and faith? Because of the false narrative in this country among way too many that white Republicans and white evangelicals somehow have the market on Christianity and sense of fairness. They don't. And to show that these are people of faith and goodwill. There was no racial bias in this case on their part as many whites tried to insist. None.

Judge Tammy Kemp is not a "wild-eyed black liberal progressive judge" as hosts on Dallas area conservative talk radio stations and most of their callers had surmised - stirring up needless anger and hardening the racial divide. But hey, that's what keeps these guys in business. 

The jury was comprised of eight women and four men - five black, four Hispanic and two white. Many whites complained that Guyger would be crucified because she is white, female and law enforcement.

As it turned out, Guyger only received a ten-year sentence and will be eligible for parole in five. She will be able to continue to live life as a young, free, 36-year old white woman in America. An ex-police officer whom to many never should have been found guilty of murder.

Convicted murderer Amber Guyger (Dallas County Sheriff's Department via AP)

Odds are good she will be given gainful employment, if not a book deal; and, the opportunity she took from Botham - the opportunity to live.

The Dallas County judicial system did what many thought would be impossible. The team won!  From arrest to conviction.

But only in Dallas could such a win be marred by infighting which to many looking on, including me, can only be chalked up in my humble opinion to nothing less than an egotistical show of power. 

This is not an indictment of Judge Kemp. I do not know her. But I would like to. She demonstrated incredible grace and compassion at the end of the trial in that breathtaking and never-before-seen moment when she retreated to her chambers, came out with her Bible, strode over to Guyger and in a magnanimous Christlike gesture, gifted Guyger with her Bible, as she patiently explained the love and forgiveness of Christ.

In one poignant moment, Judge Tammy Kemp became to many of us, even Christians around the world, even to many white evangelicals in America, a heroine in the faith.

Such a public display of faith by someone in her position was awe-inspiring and affirming to so many of us who daily fight for Christian space in public space.

So Why This?

Given all of that, I and many others are left scratching our head as to why, only two days after showing convicted murderer Amber Guyger such grace, that Judge Kemp would come down hard on Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot - slapping him with an order to appear before her on Halloween to answer the charge of Contempt of Court.

Judge Kemp issued a gag order in January prohibiting any attorney or personnel of the district attorney's office from talking publicly about the case.

However, the order reads, statements regarding "the general nature of the proceedings" are permissible.

Kemp has come under fire from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a pro-atheist advocacy group who has filed a complaint with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleging she overstepped her judicial authority and "transmitted her personal religious beliefs as a state official in an official proceeding of the gravest nature, a setting that imposed on everyone in the courtroom: attorneys, staff, family members and the convicted..."

To his credit when asked if anyone should file a complaint against Judge Kemp for her actions, the District Attorney, himself a former longtime state district court judge, told a local TV news station, "I would do everything I could to support the appropriateness of it (giving Guyger the bible). I can't tell you I've done the same exact thing, but I have spoken to defendants, have I given them a hug, perhaps. Not a bible, that's not me, but I don't think there's anything inappropriate about what she did."

All should have been well. A hard case decided in favor of the family. Judge Kemp hailed as a heroine. District Attorney Creuzot and his team won an improbable murder conviction. Even the murderer got something from the deal - forgiveness. 

What more could we ask? Then bam! The District Attorney and all of Dallas were blindsided by Judge Kemp's Contempt of Court Order demanding DA Creuzot appear before her court on October 31st to make the case why he should not be held in contempt of court for this clip from an interview that aired the day before the trial began. 

The gag order clearly states that statements regarding "the general nature of the proceedings" are okay. I am not an attorney but having watched the short clip several times, there is nothing I see the DA said that wasn't of the "general nature of the proceedings." 

According to the Contempt Order the actions of DA Creuzot in that seconds-long clip "did obstruct the administration of justice and impair the ability of the court to conduct its business with dignity and in an orderly and expeditious manner." Really? Really? 

How could there be any obstruction when all twelve jurors and four alternates, when questioned by Judge Kemp, said they had not seen the interview? Judge Kemp was not even aware of the interview until it was brought to her attention by the defense in their quest to use it to convince her to declare a mistrial. She rightly did not; and, but for the few exceptions when someone dared allowed their electronic devices to go off, there was absolutely no disorder.

I, along with thousands, watched daily the live stream of proceedings and I was consistently impressed by a no-nonsense Judge Kemp who was nothing less than flawless in impressively running a tight ship, demonstrating fairness while judiciously exercising remarkable restraint with both sides.

There appeared to be no impairment of the ability to conduct the business of the court "with dignity and in an orderly and expeditious manner" because of that interview, and after the first day, no one except obviously the Judge held it in their mind and heart. 

The defense now certainly if the case is appealed, will use this gag order to strengthen their case. 

Trick or Treat?

I am neither defending the District Attorney's actions nor attacking Judge Kemp's. But again, I ask the question, why?

Can't we as a community begin to heal from this case as leaders are pressed on more important issues such as working with Chief Renee Hall as she reviews the practices of the Dallas Police Department? Partnerships and leadership are what's needed now.

Come on Dallas County team - you scored a BIG win! To me, this is nothing more than one elected official trying to prove a point over another elected official.

Who's the badest? Yes, Judge Kemp has every right under the law to drag the DA down to her court for him to grovel and give cause as to why he should not be held in contempt and not be ordered to spend up to 180 days in the County jail.

To me, as a Christian and as a Dallas County taxpayer, this brother and sister in Christ could have settled this matter with a simple private phone call after the trial whereby Judge Kemp could have expressed her dismay. As a fellow Christ-follower, this is all so disappointing to me.

The gag order clearly states that statements regarding "the general nature of the proceedings" are okay.

Grace is a wonderful thing to which I am sure Amber Guyger would testify. But the unintended consequences of Judge Kemp's actions in issuing this Contempt of Court Order, unfortunately, further divide an already fragile community.

I along with many are asking the question, with all things being equal, does the Dallas County District Attorney deserve the same judicial grace and forgiveness shown by this judge that she showed towards a City of Dallas former police officer convicted of murder?

Come Halloween, we shall see.

Trick or treat Dallas.

Dorothy Burton is the founder of Christians in Public Service and is a popular conference speaker and author of the book, Why We Fall: The Power of Self-Awareness. Follow her new Podcast, "Making Sense with Dorothy Burton" for provocative discussions on life, liberty and the pursuit of truth in culture, Christianity, public service and leadership. Contact Dorothy:

Out from Beneath the Shadow of Neutral
Sunday, September 29, 2019 4:11 PM

Out from Beneath the Shadow of Neutral

Sunday, September 29, 2019 4:11 PM
Sunday, September 29, 2019 4:11 PM

Calm down and understand that if Trump were a Democrat and Pelosi a Republican, given the same set of circumstances we would be witnessing the same circus. Same clowns, different clown suits.

It's raw, gutter politics people! It's not about the people or national security or public policy. This is utter gutter politics and I absolutely refuse to defend any of it. Republicans know if it were Clinton or Obama or Carter or Kennedy, they would be doing the same as the Democrats.

Christ followers, not Christians, because I don't even know what the hell a Christian is anymore because so many have adopted the ways of the Adversary... but Christ followers, it is up to the body of Christ to change this.

Only by the power of the Holy Spirit, not the pseudo power of the ballot can we change this. BOTH parties have gone rogue and are leading us not only astray but worse, turning brother against brother and sister against sister.

I have SO not wanted to go here but God will give me no peace until I start doing what He has given me to do, equipped me to do and stop hiding behind things like and neutrality. Jesus nor the disciples nor the Apostles were "neutral." Neither can I be any longer.

I have tried to write. Can't write. I have tried to podcast and nothing will come out. I have got to be obedient and some will hate me. But the Holy Spirit said, "some already do." Some won't support me. But the Holy Spirit said, "some already don't."

I am without excuse and I would be lying if I said I was without fear because I'm not.

My upcoming podcast will be entitled, "When People Look at Your Life and Mine, What Do They Think About God?"

I have not wanted to talk about God. I wanted to talk about politics and governing and leadership. But God has not given me the grace to do that apart from Him. Maybe that's what that whole recent week and a half of seclusion was about. Readying me for something I never saw coming.

They May Not Have Done What You Did, But They Did Something!
Thursday, September 19, 2019 12:16 PM

They May Not Have Done What You Did, But They Did Something!

Thursday, September 19, 2019 12:16 PM
Thursday, September 19, 2019 12:16 PM

The Christian life in public service is not abstract theology or adhering to one political philosophy or the other - unconnected to all of life.

But it has practical implications that will affect how we choose to behave each day, in every encounter, with every human, whether friend or foe, hostile constituent or trusted colleague.

First things first. Only God is morally perfect, just and fair. Because He is, only He can sit in judgment. Not you, me or our harshest critic.

Be mindful that we all sin just in different ways - every day - without exception. This is such a freeing thought. It frees us from kissing rings, pretending perfection and tripping over our ego.

It is also why people can't sit in judgment of you. They may not have done what you did, but they've done something! They may not sin like you, but make no mistake, they sin just like you and me.

Never hold anyone in such high esteem that you forget any of this - lest they become your God and that is the makings of a people-pleaser!

Sowing for Success
Monday, August 26, 2019 1:46 PM

Sowing for Success

Monday, August 26, 2019 1:46 PM
Monday, August 26, 2019 1:46 PM
Some people look for points of disagreement so they can sow seeds of discord, discontent and doubt. Be the exception and do the opposite. Look for points, points not personalities or people, but points of agreement.
The biggest hindrance in getting things done is giving in to the temptation to make arguments against the person, rather than the point. Arguing with a person rather than arguing the point.
Arguing the point without personal attack is a lost art and leaders who learn to master and remaster this art will be the leaders who make things happen for those they represent.
Such leaders will develop a reputation of making the corn pop! And, if a director or manager, one known for how to work well with people and can get things done - which will bode well for your career.
Citizens are looking for leaders who know how to sow seeds of agreement rather than those of perpetual disagreement to move initiatives forward.
Right now too many are at a standoff, are standoffish or argumentative. None of these will make an impact or bring about substantial change.
Sow seeds of agreement when possible and when not, disagree without ripping apart the other person. You will get more done and in the long run, you will be glad you took such a mature approach.
We indeed reap what we sow. For good and for bad. Sow for success!

< view previous