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Early Church History Seminar

September 22, 2008

This past weekend, I attended a seminar at the North River Church of Christ with keynote speaker David Bercot, author of Will The Real Heretics Please Stand up? The seminar was titled “Early Church History / AIM Weekend” and was organized by the Athens Institute of Ministry (AIM). In addition to Bercot, three others spoke on aspects of early church history: Douglas Jacoby, Joey Harris, and Steve Staten. These three speakers primarily addressed three early church writers, respectively: Clement, Ignatius, and Irenaeus.

The main events of the seminar were three messages delivered by David Bercot. Bercot’s messages focused more on the core beliefs and lifestyle of the early Christians, and the contrast to modern Christendom. I was able to attend only the first two of the three, since I needed to be back at my home congregation for Sunday morning service.

Bercot demonstrated that the core beliefs of the early Christians focused directly on the person Jesus Christ: his life, death, burial, and resurrection — and on his teachings about life (rather than on things like forms of worship and theology.) In particular, the sermon on the mount was a definitive basis for their beliefs and their lives. According to Bercot, the early Christians looked first to the teachings of Jesus, and used those to guide understanding of the Pauline letters and other subsequent writings. In contrast, he said that modern ecumenicals tend to go first to Paul’s writings (particularly to Romans) and then interpret the teachings of Jesus from that framework.

In his Saturday message, Bercot challenged the sectarian spirit of the churches of Christ. He told us that this is the weakness that everyone else sees in the churches of Christ, which we traditionally have not seen in ourselves. To prove his point, he directed our attention to the two greatest commandments:

Matt 22:35-40 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

We all know those verses. But Bercot suggested that churches of Christ generally don’t act like they believe them. When presented with a person like Francis of Assisi who had an evident and surpassing love for God and his fellow man, even the most open-minded members of churches of Christ are likely to say that just maybe there is a chance that God might forgive such a man despite his (presumably) erroneous understanding and practice of water baptism. But ask the same question in reference to the spiritual condition of the average member of the church of Christ, who has been (presumably) baptized correctly but who, relatively speaking, lives his life primarily for self interests, the nearly unanimous verdict would be, “Of course God will forgive such a person.” So it is demonstrably true that those who hold such views consider the accurate understanding and practice of water baptism as a more important matter than loving God and loving your neighbor. Bercot pointed out that Thomas and Alexander Campbell would have answered that question much differently from how the typical church of Christ member today would answer.

Bercot showed that the early Christians did not see salvation as a one-time event in a person’s life, but as a process that is only completed when God says “Well done!” How we live and how we serve is part of the story. Jesus taught about acts of service — giving cups of water, visiting the sick and those in prison, providing clothing — as decisive factors in salvation. Salvation is not primarily about having correct doctrinal understandings, but about a relationship with the Savior and a life of obedient faithful service.

After his Saturday afternoon message, the room was buzzing with conversations about baptism, love, and service. We all had a lot to think about.

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9 comments

  1. It was great finally meeting you in person, Alan. Good review. On Sunday morning, David added more buzz to our conversations as he presented some of his take on living set apart from the world. He talked about wealth, materialism, employment, media entertainment, war and military service, politics and voting, and modesty and clothing. I imagine members are returning to their states and countries this week with a lot to reflect on.


  2. It was good to meet you also!I’m looking forward to receiving my DVD so I can hear that last message.


  3. It was a privilege to meet face to face with you at the conference. Douglas took time to encourage us not to take an easy route of accepting / rejecting everything we had heard, but to carefully consider and experiment, keeping the good and rejecting the bad. Phil


  4. Phil,I was delighted to meet you also. We’ve communicated online for a couple of years or so, and finally we meet!Anyway, I was glad that Doug and the others didn’t get into a debate with David. My impression was that Doug was in agreement with David to a greater degree than he said publicly.


  5. I did not get to meet you but I think I saw you.I too really enjoyed Bercot’s talks.It did give me a lot to think about. I had wanted to ask him what he thought of headcovering, but he answered it without prompting.After doing much research on the internet this week, I am seriously considering it. (i was glad to read your 2 cents on your blog too). I feel encouraged to love my brother and challenged to not slip into the old church mindset, that we are the only ones going to heaven. My father and stepmother while catholic, serve the poor, invite the mentally ill to their holiday parties and give all they can to people, I appreciate the idea, of going to church with them (when visiting), and then you might get a leg into a discussion of how things are different, but not getting into a fight or feeling so torn that I must convert them immediately. Also I appreciate Bercots challenge to love people into Christ and not beat them over the head with bible. I think we could work on loving people and being warm (I think at one time we used to be better at it, however contrived it might have been). Anyways, look forward to keeping up with your blog.YSIC at NRCOC.PS I would like to read a thread on your thoughts about separatists (i.e. the amish or biblical agrarians)? Even after reading about their biblical reasoning I can’t seem to wrap my brain around how that is Jesus like? From what I can tell the early christians were out in the world and yes they had a tight fellowship, but they were out in the world. As I recall in Will the Real Heretic (not sure which version), he spoke of how when the plagues came, families would throw their own members on the streets but the christians would scoop them up. How could they have done this if they were separatists? Thanks!PPS Are you considering getting baptized 2 more times?-Robin


  6. Hi Robin,I think the separatist question would be an interesting topic to explore. I’ve done a bit of reading on the roots of the Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, etc. When you look at what their ancestors suffered under the state churches in Europe, you can understand a bit better how they came to be as separate as they are today.


  7. oops– forgot a question:> PPS Are you considering getting > baptized 2 more times?No. Matt 28 does say in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit, which I presume is where the three times comes from. But Acts 2 only says in the name of Jesus. So it seems to me that once is valid, and three times might also be valid (if that is what Jesus meant in Matt 28).I think David's main point is that he doesn't think we should be parsing those things so legalistically anyway. We certainly do have a tendency in that direction.


  8. Two couples here went down and came back encouraged. One brother mentioned David’s challenge to our churches, but didn’t go into much detail. Thanks for your reporting on it.


  9. PPS Earlier I said I didn’t understand the separatists.But as time goes on, especially recently my heart is more scared of the worldliness in our “mainstream” culture/media which filters into the current attitudes of most of America today. Sure you can turn off the TV, but then what about the billboard I saw of 2 women for Remy Martin Cognac?With the caption “Things could get Interesting”. I think I spoke too soon wondering why people separate.As a mother I started studying the Amish, mennonites too. Yet I felt their evangelism was compromised by their separatism.But perhaps either because I have been getting closer to God or maybe because I finally gave birth a baby girl, I feel a fear for my children’s future if we don’t draw up some lines now. I want them to live in a world of purity, not sexuality. I mean I don’t want feed them to the wolves.



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