Part 4: The Early church. Lesson 6 of 7.
Chapter 24. Living among other faiths
Through this lesson, we hope you will not be overwhelmed by the traditional religions you see all around you, but be bold to bring the message of God’s love to them, as you see how Christians succeeded in replacing the traditional beliefs of Greece and Rome.
1.Popular religion. In this lesson, we will see how Christianity differentiates itself from the popular religion of the day. This is important because as in the past, today’s church also exists in the context of a popular religion. The age-old beliefs of traditional Chinese religion motivate people to perform rituals to make them worthy of their god’s favor, or to manipulate gods to meet their needs. Christians can bring them a message of love from the creator of the universe, who can take away their fear of death. The world defines religion as man’s acts, whereas Christ is God’s gift. Christianity is submitting to God, not manipulating God; and morality is a part of Christianity.
2.Roman Empire. As believers spread out into the Roman Empire, they encountered people who believed in the gods of Rome, Greece, and the Middle Eastern religions. All these religions involved worship of idols. The Christians had to be careful so these false ideas would not influence Christianity, and had to find ways to lead these people to Christ. The success of the early Christians gives us confidence that we too can help bring people from idols to Christ. We can get ideas for this from the Bible.
3.Old Testament. God’s people had faced this problem already in Old Testament days, so there were already resources to meet the challenges. The prophet Jeremiah listed the differences between the idols and the God of the Bible: the idols cannot speak, cannot walk, cannot do harm, cannot do good, God is living, idols are made of materials. The Old Testament records the disasters that fell upon the Jewish people when they fell into idol worship. During the time of judges, the people worshipped the nature-gods of the people of Canaan. They believed these gods would help them have good harvests and many children. God was angry, and allowed their enemies to harass them, so that God could purify Israel. 2
4.Kings. During the time of the Israelite kings (about 900 BC to 500 BC), some of the kings allowed idol worship. King Manassah promoted worship of the stars and of the false gods Asherah and the Baals. 3 and also did forbidden activities: he sacrificed his son, practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spirits. 4 God finally brought disaster on them, let other nations destroy the nation of Israel. 5 Have you seen worship that is similar to the sins committed by the Israelites?
5.Separation. During their 70 years of exile in Babylonia, the Israelites discarded idol worship and dedicated themselves to the one true God. When they were allowed to return to Israel starting after 539 BC, the Jews used the method of “separation” to avoid falling into the same sins again. They were very strict about keeping their identity distinct from the non-Jews. Their practice of circumcision and their dietary laws and their laws about the Sabbath served to keep them separate. Ezra did not allow intermarriage with the non-Jews, because he didn’t want the Jewish people to do the detestable practices of the other people. 6
6.Keep pure. In the New Testament, the Gentile Christians used other approaches. They were not required to keep themselves separate. The new way was to follow Jesus’ teaching, to be “in the world,” but not to be “of the world.” 7 This teaching about keeping in touch with the world is also found in Paul’s writings. 8 When the pressures of the evil world become too great, we have Jesus’ promise that we can have peace in this world because we know Jesus has overcome the world. 9
7.Find starting point. Since the problem of popular religion has already been faced by the people of the Bible, we can have confidence that God will also give us the strength and wisdom to face this problem. The Bible tells us to make contact with the people of this world. The reason to make contact with idol-worshippers is so we can witness to them. Paul shows us how to do this without ridiculing the idol-worshippers when he was in Athens, according to Acts 17:16-28. Paul was distressed because the people had so many idols. In Paul’s speech that follows, we can learn from Paul how to build connections with idol-worshippers. Rather than criticize them, Paul complimented then by saying that they were very religious. Rather than regarding their religion as too full of error to even talk about, Paul found something in their religion that he could build on. Instead of laughing at them because they thought there was an “unknown god,” Paul started with that belief, and offered to add more information. Paul approached them by talking about something they already wanted to know about. Paul then quoted one of their Greek authors. Paul knew enough about their culture so that he could say things that were already familiar to them. In this way, they would feel that the message he would bring was not totally unrelated to the beliefs they already had. All these approaches are useful for us as we speak to people who worship idols. Our purpose is not to make fun of their present beliefs. Our purpose is to show that Jesus can meet their needs. After they become Christians, they will realize that they no longer need to worship the idols.
8.Conflict. Paul also came into danger from idol worshippers. 10 In this case, his teaching caused anger because it was not good for their business. This type of conflict between Christians and their neighbors was constant for the first 400 years of Christianity. One reason that Christians were persecuted was that their neighbors would accuse them of causing disasters or economic problems because they refused to worship the traditional idols. In fact, some people even thought Christians were atheists, because they did not worship a god that could be seen! We too will meet objections when we share.
9.Strategies. Even after Christianity became legal in 313, there were conflicts. After 313 most of the Roman emperors claimed to be Christian, but in 361 11 a non-Christian emperor oppressed Christians, using the power of government to promote idol worship. After he died in 363, the problems with the idol-worshippers decreased. One strategy to diminish the influence of the idol worshippers was to put Christian holidays on their important religious days. For example, by 336 Christmas was put on December 25 because that was the date on which some Romans worshipped the sun. In this way people who became Christians would not stand out from their neighbors for not having a religious holiday on that day.
10.Continuous problem. The Christians had to face the same problems all over again whenever they evangelized a new country. For example, the Germans worshipped idols before Christian missionaries came to them in the 600’s. A famous story tells about a missionary 12 who chopped down a sacred tree in order to show the Germans that Jesus was stronger than the spirit of the tree. Again, Christian holidays such as the birthdays of famous martyrs were put on the same day as the non-Christian religious holidays. In South America, some Catholic churches hold festivals on the same days that the American Indian gods were worshipped. The images of saints or angels that are carried around in the processions look suspiciously like the old Indian gods who used to be worshipped on those days.
11.European religion. The old religions of Europe never died out completely. In the twentieth century there was a revival of the old idol worshiping religion. The people worship the moon and the earth as goddesses. They cast spells and hold magic rituals. Of course, in Asia, the idol-worshipping religions are still widespread. Christians in Asia can take comfort from the fact that the early Christians also had to face idols, and through patience and love the number of Christians increased. The same thing can happen in Asia. The situation in Asia today is similar to the time of the Book of Acts. It is not unusual for Christians to run into situations like Paul did in Acts 16:16-19 when he met a girl who was able to fell the future because she was possessed by an evil spirit. Christians who must face the power of idols and spirits can rely on the promise of Jesus: John assures us that we do not need to fear a confrontation with evil spirits because Jesus is stronger. 13
12.Principle. As the Christians faced their differences with the idol worshippers, a very important principle became clear. The word “religion” usually means the acts that people do in order to get the gods or the spirits to obey them. In this sense, Christianity is not like other religions. Our God already loves us. It is a valuable principle that when we study another religion, it will help us to be more alert to avoid accidentally adopting the same attitudes as the false religion.
13.Similarities. The religions of the Roman Empire and the Middle East had some practices that were similar to Christian practices. Scholars are still researching three possibilities: 1. Did they copy these ideas from Christianity? 2. Did Christianity copy these ideas from the other religions? 3. Is the similarity just a coincidence?
For example, some religions had ceremonies that involved the use of blood. Others had a savior, and sometimes there were stories about this savior having a miraculous birth, or rising from the dead. However, these saviors were not people who really lived in history, as Jesus did. These similarities caution us to be sure to be Jesus-centered when we do any religious practice, because otherwise it might not be differentiated from other religions that use a similar ceremony. We can use this same principle when approaching other religions today. Since some of their ceremonies might be similar to ours, we need to be sure that we put Jesus at the center of our ceremonies.
14.Examples. For example, Judaism practices prayer, and so do we. We need to be sure that our prayers are always in the name of Jesus, which means we are depending on Jesus’ merit, not our own. In Islam, there is submission to God, and Christians also submit to God. We need to make sure that our submissions comes as an act of gratitude for God’s love, and not as a work to try to gain God’s acceptance. Buddhism has good works, and so do Christians. But our good works are not done to gain God’s favor, but rather are expressions of the new life that God has given to us. This distinction between works as a way to God and works as a result of belonging to God is very clear in the following Bible verse. “By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works.” Paul then continues that God has savied us in order that we may do the good works that He has designed for us to do. 14
15.Mormonism. People becoming God. The idea that God was once a person is a basic teaching of Mormonism. In 1830 Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church. One of his slogans was “As you are, God once was; as God is, you can become.” Rather than regarding God as the creator of the entire universe, Joseph Smith taught that each planet has its own God. Those who follow Mormon rules can hope to become a god and have their own planet to fill with people. Therefore they are very zealous to do good works but do not have assurance of salvation. On the other hand, the Bible clearly shows that there is a difference between God and people. God is the eternal creator; people are things that have been created. Isaiah writes that God says, “I am the first and the last. Apart from me there is no God.”15
16.Today’s world. But popular religion today includes more than belief in traditional gods. Some people have placed their faith in materialism: for many, “making money” has become the goal of existence. Some people expect science to provide for their religious needs, going beyond its sphere of studying material things. Besides that, we all have “common sense,” but it is sometimes in conflict with scripture, which makes it another part of popular religion. We will always be tempted to be part of the surrounding value system. We may be able to resist idols that are wooden objects. But we must constantly beware of worshipping other idols. Anything that takes the place of God in our life is an idol. God is our source of identity, meaning, and security. If we look to money, or high position, or relationships to meet these requirements, we have made those things into idols. .God wants us to keep away from every kind of idol. 16
1 Jeremiah 10:2-11
2 Judges 2:8-23
3 2 Kings 21:1-5
4 2 Kings 21:5-6
5 2 Kings 21:10-12
6 Ezra 9:1,2,10-15
7 John 17:13-18
8 1 Corinthians 5:9-11
9 John 16:33
10 Acts 19:23-34
13 1 John 4:1-4
14 Ephesians 2:8-10
15 Isaiah 44:6
16 1 John 5:21