Salvation is free. It costs you nothing.
Following Jesus, however, comes at a cost. Sometimes it costs you personal comfort. You may get made fun of. You may get passed over for a promotion. You may find yourself excluded from a social gathering. Here in America, the costs are relatively low.
For others — in other places or times — following Jesus cost their very lives.
By the end of the first century, the baby church had gotten up and started walking on its own. But it did so without the direction or leadership of the original friends of Jesus. All of the eyewitnesses were dead. Most of that band of disciples had been martyred. John, the last living of the 12 Jesus had called, wrote the Book of Revelation (probably between AD 90-95). Then he died.
Church history — as an academic study — picks up where the Bible leaves off. It is a glorious story but not an easy one to tell. For the next several months I am going to attempt to tell it to you, but I should make some disclaimers here at the beginning.
First, this will not be very scholarly. I won’t include a ton of footnotes or technical language. I want regular people to understand this grand, epic story. Also, I will not be completely balanced. I will give more attention to certain eras and people than to others. I cannot be exhaustive. I will not spend a lot of time on the Eastern Orthodox Church. Their story is a valid part of this whole story, but I just don’t have time or space to tell the whole thing exhaustively!
Because I will have to summarize some events and people, there is a high probability that at least one person or event will come out looking more like a caricature than a real sketch. I’m going to do my best to summarize 2,000 years of history. Caricatures are inevitable.
Oh, and I should just go ahead and admit that I am biased. I am American. I am male. I am Protestant. I am Evangelical. I was raised and educated mostly within the American Restoration Movement. All of these perspectives contain certain imbedded biases — both good and bad. I will try to affirm all theological heritages that are within the framework of historical, orthodox Christianity. I obviously have some differences with the Roman Catholic Church, but I will attempt to affirm them in what follows.
I believe we have a shared history — particularly before the Reformation. Growing up in an Arminian tradition, the name Calvin was frequently used negatively. As an adult theologian I still have some problems with some of John Calvin’s fundamental assumptions, but I believe he is one of the most influential theologians of history — and I mean that positively. I may have differences with Alexander Campbell, too, but I try to assume the best about his motives and his legacy.
We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Augustine. Irenaeus. Polycarp. Aquinas. Luther. Calvin. Zwingli. Spurgeon. Campbell. Stone. Moody. Rice. These are all great men (and there are some great women as well), and we are in their debt. We should not cast them aside completely without carefully examining why they believed what they believed the way they believed. Everyone comes from somewhere.
But to return to my original thought in this post, there is a cost to following Jesus. All of the people I have mentioned thus far paid a steep price — not for their salvation — but for their faith. Their trust and obedience had a pricetag attached, and so does yours.
In the early centuries of the Church, many Roman Emperors, whose names probably mean little to you, caused the deaths of thousands of believers who would not conform to the laws of the emperor cult. Every year, the government demanded every citizen to pledge allegiance by burning incense and saying, “Caesar is lord.”
Obviously, Christians could not say this. Ironically, by not saying it, Christians were accused of not being religious enough — of even being atheistic. All irony aside, this created a big problem for Christians, as they were routinely rounded up and put to death in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. Those who were not put to death were tortured — again in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable.
I know it sometimes feels like the tide is turning against us Christians here in America. I have read most of the same news stories you have read. I know it may feel like we’re being persecuted, but let’s please calm down. What we face is nothing compared to our ancestors. Let us not insult their memory by comparing our lot to theirs.