One of the oldest criticisms of Christianity is that, from the beginning, it has always been largely made up of the lower classes of society, somehow proving that it is not a religion to be taken seriously by the wealthy or educated. The famous historian Edward Gibbons made this charge when he wrote that this new sect was “almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace — of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves.” Of course, given the fact that the lower and middle classes are always the greater percentage of a society, it is only logical or this demographic to show up in the church! However, even with this understanding, this caricature of Christianity is bogus.
The fact is that, from the beginning, the gospel did overpower people from all strata of society. As we read the Gospels, we encounter women supporting Jesus out of their substance, disciples who owned fishing businesses, Zacchaeus who gave a large feast when he was converted, Joseph of Arimathea who was a rich man, and the rich young ruler who was attracted to Jesus. As we read the book of Acts, we meet believers who had property and possessions which they sold to help the poor. We also read of Lydia the affluent seller of purple. Far from only reaching the “dregs of the populace,” the gospel has constantly penetrated the hearts of people from every walk of life. Subsequently, the early churches were made up of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy.
One particular proof of the gospel’s influence even among the wealthier class of Rome is the catacombs. In most cases, these were private burial grounds in the gardens of the wealthy. In many cases, these tombs were decorated with elegant extravagance. Other proofs of the gospel’s power among the wealthy and intelligent are available in the writings of early church literature such as Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans and Hermas’ Shepherd, each of which mentions wealthy church members in second century Rome. One cannot help but also notice in the various letters of church leaders over the next few centuries all the warnings against extravagant living and vain attire: poor people do not have such temptations.
If I wanted to keep Christians in their place and see to it that they had very little influence outside their churches, I would convince them that their faith was an inferior faith, only efficacious with the poor and ignorant. What better way to keep you quiet than convince you that, should you publicly declare that the man Jesus is God, you will be thought a philistine by every member of society’s upper class. How brilliant a tactic to lead you to believe that you will be laughed off the stage for saying Jesus is the only door to truth and reality. What? The gospel has no power to save the educated or wealthy? And even if you were scoffed at, are the wealthy and educated the Final Arbiters of Truth?
To this programmed presumption of embarrassment, add the half-baked notion that material blessings, higher education, and cultural refinement are ipso facto signs of having compromised the gospel — or, worse, that they are impenetrable barriers to the gospel — and the game is over before the first move has been made. Christianity remains a “grass roots” religion, never attaining any significant influence among a culture’s ruling elite. In fact, this watered-down gospel is antithetical to all that would equip an individual to be influential within the ruling elite. Game, set, and match.
A Comprehensive Gospel
The good news of Christ is that there is redemption, reconciliation, and restoration: Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins, reconciled us to God the Father, and restores us to the original intention of our creation. Every aspect of our lives is to increasingly reflect these realities, bringing praise and honor to the God who saved us. Salvation is not simply an issue of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, but also includes restoring our humanness to what God had in mind when He said, “Let us make man in our image.”
How does God the Holy Spirit effect this process of restoration? There are many ways. For example, there is prayer, fellowship with other believers, and eating the Lord’s Supper. There is also the reading and obeying of Scriptures. Gratefully, we do not have to guess or intuit what God had in mind for us humans. We can go to the Bible and read what sort of behavior, attitudes, and virtues we are to adopt.
Somewhere along the line, many Christians adopted a belief that they were expected to be angelic rather than human. The body began to be thought of as anything from an impediment to “true spirituality” to a jackass that should be beaten (as we witness in the medieval monkish practice of self-flagellation). What God declared “good,” these people decided was “bad.” Many today believe that the human capacity for pleasure and the enjoyment of life — capacities created by God — are essentially so evil or potentially dangerous that they should never be indulged. Those who adhere to such beliefs fail to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work to restore their humanity with all of Its capacities and potential.
Our capacity to smell, hear, taste, feel, and see, our intellectual capacity, our ability to produce and to create — all of these are gifts from God Who expects us to so manage these gifts as to give Him a return on His investment. While Jesus promises abundant life, many people all too often refuse His promise. For these people, the Christian life is to be summed up in self-deprivation, suffering, and hatred for any sort of personal refinement. Further, they believe it a badge of spirituality to be poor, ignorant, and antisocial. And, when these people’s voices are Ignored at the office or in the market place, they see it as proof that they are truly spiritual rather than as result of their failure to properly reflect the transforming power of the gospel.
While there are other factors involved, I suspect the main culprit for our general failure to influence people and our culture is the fact that so many Christians refuse to embrace the Biblical message of salvation. Instead, they have unwittingly adopted a bastardized gospel that ensures their inability to experience life in all of its fullness. Salvation is about forgiveness and heaven, but has little to do with their finances, their health, or with any social concerns. Consequently, nothing about their lives will be even remotely attractive to those who are seeking answers to concerns about this life, as well as concerns about eternity.
Is it our message that is ignored, or is it that people have no desire to hear the thoughts of someone who is so...so...un-human? Is it our message that is being rejected by the gate keepers of society, or are our words overshadowed by a belligerent spirit — rooted in our fear and insecurity — which insists that our message is only powerful with the poor and uneducated? Is it that the ruling elite arrogantly reject our ideas, or can it be that we have not taken the time to educate ourselves so as to know what in the world we are talking about? Are we never invited to the “head table” because of anti-Christian conspiracies, or could it be that we need to learn to dress and speak appropriately? Is our lack of converts to the Faith due to the offensiveness of the Cross of Christ, or is it all too often due to how dull and boring we are as human beings?
Imagine millions of Christians whose lives comprehensively reflect the restorative power of the gospel. Imagine the testimony of all these people who are intimately aware of the gospel’s power to transform. Imagine all these believers seeking to increasingly glorify Christ by doing all they can to expand and utilize their senses, capacities and gifts, becoming more fully human. Imagine the influence of thousands upon thousands of Christians who are considered the best at what they do — skilled technicians, honorable statesmen, wise philosophers, brilliant artists, outstanding educators, successful entrepreneurs, highly competent artisans, etc. Imagine millions of Christians — poor, middle class, and wealthy — whose demeanors are consistently infused with grace, love, and wisdom. Imagine millions of Christians embracing and enjoying life as the gift it really is. Game, set, and match.
- Monte E. Wilson, III