Deeds define Christianity more than words

Preach less and do more, early Christian example suggests

Commentary | By Bruce Manners

Preach less and do more, early Christian example suggests

We now live in a post-Christian world -- at least that's the case in the West.

The post-Christian world is a place where Christianity no longer provides the guiding philosophy for society and there's no expectation that you will be Christian.

For about 1500 years, from the time of Constantine declaring the Roman Empire Christian, there was pressure to be Christian by government compulsion, to qualify for office, or to conform. That pressure has gone.

This was something celebrated by historian Herbert Butterfield in his 1949 book Christianity and History. He wrote: "We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity, and those early centuries afford some relevant clues to the kind of attitude to adopt."


Before Constantine, Christians were out of step with society. The second century Letter to Diognetus second century said Christians lived "in their own countries, but as resident aliens." Aristedes second century, called Christians a nation -- an ethnos -- in their own right. Even their enemies ridiculed them as a "third race."

They may have been out of step, but they were changing the world and growing at a rate of 40 percent per decade over a period of nearly 300 years. That's impressive. Unmatched.

As an underground movement and often persecuted, these Christians used no public evangelism, no doorknocking and no seeker services. From the second century a non-Christian who turned up at a church meeting would most likely be turned away by deacons acting as bouncers to keep them out.

With good reason. Spies and informers could bring persecution and death.

To become a Christian you had to be recommended, be screened by church leaders to find if you were worthy in lifestyle and occupation, and study for three years before baptism. You could attend church, but until baptized you would be dismissed before communion.

So what made Christianity attractive? Christians. In terms often used to describe church community -- believing, behaving and belonging -- behavior.

They were taught appropriate behavior. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, in A.D. 258, in his precepts urged: pay just wages; don't take usury; and when wounded, don't retaliate. Nowhere did he speak about faith sharing, but instead, "We must labor not with words, but with deeds."

On Justin Martyr's writings in A.D. 165, Alan Kreider, author of The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, says: "The Christian community was knit together by its search for ways of dealing with sex, the occult, wealth, and violence that would be in keeping with the teachings of Jesus."

Christians in this era became known by how they lived. They took the teachings seriously. They were seen to care for the needy within and outside Christianity. They visited people in prison. They empowered the weak. They gave women unusual freedom to do significant things. They treated people as equals -- seen particularly at communion services.

Finally, these early Christians had courage. Pliny the Younger preferred to call it "inflexible obstinacy." They have "boldness wholly inappropriate for a people of their truly humble status and situation," he wrote to the emperor, Trajan.

It was the boldness of a people convinced that their Leader had conquered death. Some were willing martyrs. Many more risked -- and sometimes lost -- their lives caring for the sick. The confidence they had in their Lord gave them the freedom to live for Him.

So what are the clues from the pre-Christian world? Here's the major one for a successful future for Adventism in the post-Christian world: labor less with words and more with deeds.

--Bruce Manners is a pastor of the Avondale College Church, in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia