An Egyptian Coptic Christian friend once told me that Christians in Egypt have spiritual strength because they do not have political or social standing. This is what the early Church found. They faced discrimination and often severe consequences for their determination to follow Jesus. Of the eleven disciples that Jesus left with the responsibility to spread the Word, we only know of one that wasn't martyred--killed for who they were.
When Constantine first put out the Edict of Milan in 312 which made it legally acceptable to be Christian, and then in 323 AD when he gave the church imperial sponsorship and standing, it must have seemed like a dream come true. Legal recognition, however, was far from an unmixed blessing. What came with that was the tempation of power. The dream of unity and mutual care was shattered by disputes that involved struggles between the major church power centers, and even the Emperor himself got into the act. Where the church has power, it tends to attract people who want to use that power to further their own agendas. The Eastern, Greek-speaking church split into three major factions, and at least six separate organizations. Three hundred years of quarreling left them unable to withstand the challenge of Muhammed, who had known Christians--but his preaching shows that what he had heard was not the whole story; in fact, far from it. The Western Rome-based, Latin-speaking church also became very heavily politicized, to where it blew apart over a thousand years. We are still living with the fallout of those times; with a legacy of rivalry and exclusiveness.
And it still survives. Not only survives, but has spread to where a large part of the world (but still not all!) has heard at least a little bit of the Good News. There are Christians and churches today in a suprising number of places. In fact, there may now be more Christians worshipping God outside of traditional "Western Christiandom" that inside. This recent statement is from a Chinese Christian: "The paradox, as they [Chinese church leaders] all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church may become institutionalized, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen's churches in Wenzhou [a large, prosperous city in southeast China with many churches and one of the highest proportion of Christians]. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may be come a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe,'If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.'" *
After centuries where the Church in our part of the world has had power and acceptability, the real numbers in many of these countries are falling, and our influence is falling as well. Faith which costs nothing may not be worth much, if anything.
This weekend is the Internation Days of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We need to remember those who are suffering for their faith; that they will have strength and wisdom in witnessing to the Word of God, that they may continue following their call, and that their persecutors will be changed by their witness.