In the book, The First Thousand Years, church historian Robert Louis Wilken describes many of the most important events that shaped the growth and direction of the Christian faith in the first millennium. Through Wilken’s description of the historical flow of Christianity and the Church from Europe to Africa to Asia, two great struggles of Christianity were apparent — the struggle of Christians to fulfill the words of Jesus to “love one another” and the never-ending struggle of Christians to be in this world and yet not of it. Some things never change.
One can see that the challenge of loving one another was already apparent in the first- century churches. Paul scolded the Corinthian Christians for their fights for prestige and begged the Ephesian churches to maintain unity. In the same way throughout history, Christians have squabbled and divided. Some issues were truly important, such as the Arian schism concerning whether or not Jesus was truly divine. Other divisions appear completely trivial through the lens of history, such as which Christian city should receive the most honor. But it all feels so familiar. Two thousand years later we continue to expend countless energy justifying our own practices and theology as the “true faith.” Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4 continues to resonate today:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
The second great struggle of Christianity appears to be the challenge of living a life worthy of the calling of Jesus Christ. In the past, our failures have led to the pursuit of temporal power, as seen in the unification of empire and church in the Eastern Roman Empire, or the forced conversion and baptisms of pagans by the early rulers of the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. Today we are often more tempted by the desire to not be perceived as judgmental by society, or perhaps by our own pride in having fewer vices than our neighbors. In any case, molding our lives to the pattern given to us by Jesus Christ has never been easy, and our pursuit of holiness is as difficult today as it was in centuries past.
As you begin a new year full of optimism and opportunity, don’t forget that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The struggles you have this year will likely be familiar ones. But let us take encouragement from those who have traveled this road before us. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
May you be blessed as you pursue holiness and unity in 2019!