Excitement over what miracle effectually sealed Jesus’s fate? (John 11:45-54)
To whom did Paul likely write a prior epistle that is now lost?
Who was the prophet that accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey? (Acts 15:32)
A portion of what group of religious leaders converted as the gospel spread in Judea? (Acts 6:7)
What church in the province of Asia received a now lost letter that was to be read by the Colossians and vice versa? (Colossians 4:16)
What event marked the first great persecution against Christians in Judea? (Acts 8:1-3; 11:19)
Who was the cause of sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas and was Barnabas’s cousin? (Acts 15:36-40; Col. 4:10)
What was the requirement the 11 apostles imposed in selecting Judas’s replacement? (Acts 1:21-22)
Who was the first apostle martyred? (Acts 12:1-2)
What four languages might Jesus have spoken?
†the raising of Lazarus; the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9, 11; 2 Cor. 7:8); Silas; the priests; the church at Laodicea; the martyrdom of Stephen; Mark, writer of the Gospel; the person must have been an adherent of Jesus’s ministry from his baptism at Jordan to his ascension; James the Greater, brother of John; Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek (most likely), and Latin (possibly)
Do not be hastily critical of Christianity as religion. It is the door by which we enter faith. We are to blame, however, should we not walk along far enough and discover relationship, for it is the heart of the house. What do you seek? If religion is what you seek, then religion is all you will get. But if it is Christ whom you desire, then he will surely be found by you—and your religion will lead you to him.
There are the passionate believers who gripe that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship—and then there’s me.
Trust me: I’m not looking for a fight or trying to be right; I just need to add some depth to the discussion. After all, in a purely superficial way, none of us would be Christians if Christianity wasn’t a religion, its earliest defenders having fought to the death for its doctrines and orthodoxy.
So there is more to be said about what is meant by these comments and still more that some of us need to understand about the worth of religious practice.
My first task here is to pare down the word “religion” to emphasize the practice and ritual aspects of the word, which is broad and encompasses far-ranging elements, like culture, belief systems, and deities; and focusing on religious practice, enjoin it with our faith and beliefs in the Christian God.
Being so mindful then, what any of us will learn about all religions is that they entail personal and corporate rituals that connect adherents to a deeper reality, spirituality, or divinity. What Christians may find surprising is that their disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and the like are very much the same practices found in other religions, although they may be performed differently and toward a different end.
Spiritual disciplines (or practices, habits) are tools of the interior life that usher a person into a deeper and more meaningful experience and interaction with his or her value system or divinity. They achieve this by introducing behaviors that eliminate vice, produce virtue, develop restraint, and refine sensibilities; personal results can be highly transformational. Such ardent practice will achieve its purpose whether one is Christian or Hindu.
Christian Spiritual Habits
Christian spiritual formation uses religious habits to develop a loving fellowship with Jesus Christ. Christians practice a catalog of spiritual habits to achieve this: (more common ones like) study (devotional and academic) to know God through the Bible and theology; meditation to fill the soul with God’s words and thoughts; prayer and fasting; confession; worship; (and less common ones like) hospitality and secrecy.
These are very much aspects of religion and an essential part of Christian faith.
Spiritual habits, however, do not guarantee that the one practicing them is connecting (in this case) to God. We all should seek to be very devout persons, but not all will be because, truthfully, they don’t care to be. We should be more concerned, however, about those who do go through the motions…pray, read their Bibles, church, yet their lives evince little evidence of Christ. Either way, there is always more waiting for us.
The beleaguered Christians I referenced earlier are really insisting against being caught up in a system of rules and legalistic injunctions that would extinguish a vibrant faith rather than enhance it. I understand this. But religion and religious practice, although we can personally make it tedious and false, is not the problem.
I find that we skip to the relationship aspect of Christianity so quickly that we largely miss the depth and range of Christian religion, in general, and certainly its practice. Ask most people in our churches today anything about classic Christian spirituality, and you may both stand there embarrassed. People convert to Christ with excitement then predictably grow stale and frustrated because they don’t know what living a Christian life entails.
Many of our churches have altogether missed the point. Our purpose seems to feverishly get people saved, an important thing, but we have often not produced a clear picture of discipleship, which encapsulates everything we do, from conversion to converting.
I believe the spiritual habits rest at the very center of a vibrant relationship with Christ and a wholesome church. Furthermore, I think it is imperative that we do more looking back to our moorings and earliest practices to not only avoid sin, but also to ward off the spiritual frothiness of this generation and the proliferation of Christian pop culture that characterizes very many churches.
Means to an End
Jesus was a Jew and practiced the rituals and habits of Judaism. His denunciation of the Pharisees and religious leaders was not an attack on religion, but their legalism.
Christ is indeed the heart of Christianity, but the way we acquaint him is through conscientious religious practice. It is the corridor leading to where he reposes. Remember, the presence of God was at the heart of the Temple, but there was a (God-ordained) manner in approaching it.
God’s message to us has always been “Be ye holy, as I am holy,” but to answer the question of how we become holy, Jesus says things like, “When you pray…when you fast…”
“Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” I think it’s both.
The following was originally an academic paper. I encourage you to incorporate this rich information in your study of Acts, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, and the Johannine writings. It is longer than most posts you read, but it won’t disappoint—promise!
The apostle Paul assigned his young protégé Timothy to Ephesus to oversee the affairs of the church there (1 Tim. 1:3). Paul was aware of threats opposing the gospel, and he sent Timothy to fight against an onslaught of heretical teachings. His primary concern was that Timothy guard the church by maintaining the truth of God’s word. He was to do this by carefully concentrating on its internal affairs.
Throughout the Pastoral Epistles (1&2 Timothy, Titus), Paul affirms the church’s presence in a spiritually dark world. If Timothy’s war within the church was difficult, the thought of confronting the sin and mindset outside the church was more daunting. Paul himself had spent three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31) and knew that the spiritual climate there was rife with paganism, immorality, and relativism. This was the field of evangelism for the Ephesus church.
City of Culture and Pleasure
In the mid-first century, when Paul and Timothy ministered, Ephesus was the first and greatest metropolis of the Roman province Asia Minor. Little is known about its exact origin or the origin of its name. Grave relics place the founding of the city between 1400 B.C. and 1300 B.C. The story of Ephesus’ founding is legendary, its roots being traced back to the mythical Amazons, a race of female warriors. The city grew to become the premiere commercial, political, and religious center of Western Asia. The population ultimately rose to 250,000 by the third century, placing it third in size in the Roman Empire behind Rome (800,000 to 1 million) and Alexandria (300,000).
Ephesus was located on the western coast of Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea, and, as a leading seaport and the resulting trade, it swelled into a cosmopolitan metropolis. The city was the capital of the slave trade—the backbone of the Roman economy—from 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. The slave trade made Ephesus wealthy.
The city was also the meeting place for ideas from both the Eastern and Western cultural traditions of the empire. The scholarship of Ephesus was vast. Richard Oster and Markus Barth say, “It was well-known for its philosophers, artists, poets, historians, and rhetoricians. Ephesus made distinctive contributions to intellectual and religious history from the pre-Socratic period down to the philosophical revivals of the later Roman Empire.”
Ephesus was a city of culture where the people were distinguished by their amiableness, refinement of manners, luxury, music and dancing, and seductive arts that lead to vicious indulgences. The city hosted numerous festivals that attracted participants from other cities. Additionally, there was located there the world-renown Temple of Artemis, the library of Celsus, a 25,000-seat theater, temples dedicated to deities and cults, and numerous gymnasia and baths.
At the city’s center was the agora, or marketplace, a rectangular area 360 feet long surrounded by pillared halls, shops, and rooms. A sun and water clock was set in the open space. This environment entertained a multitude of hedonistic pleasures and philosophical ideologies that served to corrupt the moral consciences of the people.
Paul and Timothy’s Challenge
The ministry of Timothy and the Ephesian church cannot be perceived as anything other than doubly difficult. Paul and Timothy fought a battle on two fronts. One was definitely outside the church but the other was inside. Paul writes the two epistles to Timothy because he was well aware of the trouble Timothy faced at Ephesus having Judaism-loyal Jews right within the church (Acts 20:19).
Persecution by the Jews was prevalent at the time as well. Kenneth Scott Latourette says, “At the outset…the main persecutors of the Christians were those who held to Judaism and were antagonized by the fashion in which what superficially appeared to be a sect of Judaism was undermining institutions and convictions cherished by that religion.” This persecution was fueled by the church’s success in converting Jews and did not dissipate until there was further separation between the two religions.
O.P. and Barbara Reid provide an image of Paul and Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. They explain that it is generally an unquestioned assumption that Paul was everywhere successful in ministry. Yet he must have found Ephesus challenging. Any success that he did have was most probably among ethnic Jews rather than the pagans of Ephesus.
What did the spiritual landscape look like then? Ephesus was home to the flagrant worship of more than seventeen deities and other cults. Dr. James Jackson explains what made this so difficult for the Ephesian church and other churches like it. He says that most pagan religions in Ephesus were either Greek or Roman, and Greco-Roman religion was without dogma. Any practicing priest at that time functioning in such a polytheistic setting would never make a claim to a unique validity of one set of rites or beliefs.
In addition, there was no religious prosecution. Just as there was no dogma, there would have been no need for heretics or martyrs. Religion was personal and unorganized, and there was no thought of denying the cults of other gods. The Greco-Romans viewed foreign gods as being like their own gods, although with other names. It would have been ill-mannered for one to assert the supremacy of his god above a neighbor’s “false” god. Such religious relativism provided the seedbed for a niche teeming with myriad forms of religion, cult, and superstition.
Artemis and Her Worship
The greatest of the Ephesian deities was undeniably Artemis Ephesia (of the Ephesians). She was first identified with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele who was worshiped prior to the arrival of the Greeks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Her worship was great, being called by Eugene Peterson “a pastiche of stories, superstitions, and systems of thought endemic to the ancient East that served Ephesus’ religious need.”
Artemis (Diana, her Roman name) functioned mainly as a city or local goddess, like most other gods and goddesses of the time. She undoubtedly contributed to the high feminism of the city, after all, a city founded by female warriors. Artemis served to protect (as a tutelary goddess) the safety and wealth of the people and their social institutions of justice and democracy. The wealth and security of Ephesus so attested to the power of Artemis Ephesia that other cities adopted her as their goddess. In fact, artifacts from her cult have been found as far east in the empire as Palestine and as far west as Spain.
Ephesus was the site of the world-famous Artemision, or Temple of Artemis, deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple in antiquity, and the apostle Paul and Timothy would have seen it regularly. It was constructed on a huge concrete platform 238′ x 418′ (l) upon which sat the marble temple itself, 163′ x 342′. The roof was supported by 127 Ionic columns six feet in diameter and an astonishing sixty feet high. It is believed that the women of Ephesus sold their jewelry to help fund the project and that kings presented gold and furnishings to the temple. In 356 B.C., however, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist leaving only the four walls and a few columns. It was later rebuilt (completed in 323 B.C.) to match the splendor it had previously known.
The Artemision was Ephesus’ symbol of wealth. It served as a safe deposit of people’s personal wealth and offered loans to the public at a profitable rate of interest. The temple also boasted its own band of priests who were automatically and simultaneously officials of Ephesus and the sanctuary. Their job, however, was accompanied with ceremonial prostitution and other indecencies streaming forth from the temple center.
Artemis was depicted by an idol that supposedly fell from heaven. The upper part of the image’s front body was covered with rows of what appeared to be breasts that labeled Artemis as a fertility goddess, although this is uncertain. Coins that have been found bear this image of her, and it is with regard to this that Paul experienced the frenzied loyalty with which the Ephesians protected their goddess. Acts 19:23-41 is called the “revolt of the silversmiths” passage and refers to the trade derived from Artemis. Paul’s troubles come when silversmiths become alarmed that their trade is being diminished on account of the apostle’s preaching.
Other Deities of the Ephesians
Artemis was the main deity of Ephesus, yet there were a few other notable gods and goddesses there as well. Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of love. She was associated with phallic mysteries that usually resulted in the loss of virginity. Prostitution was common in her cult, including festivals honoring prostitutes and sacred prostitution. She was also celebrated as the goddess of hermaphrodites. In fact, there were several divinities that symbolized Aphrodite’s powers and were revered together. These included Eros (Love), Himeros (Longing), Posthos (Desire), Peithos (Persuasion), and the Horai (Seasons, Youths, Beauties). The personifications together contribute to a picture of erotic seduction all around Aphrodite.
Apollo, the Sun god, was the most famous and celebrated of all the Greek gods. Prophetic powers were associated with him, and his oracle at Delphi was world-renown for the counsel it produced on commercial ventures and political issues. Apollo represented order and discourse. Dionysus was Apollo’s opposite. Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of lust and debauchery. His worship was associated with great festivals of wine, wild dancing and music, ecstatic revelry, and orgiastic excess, all too common in Ephesus.
Cabiri, a Phrygian god, was another ecstatic religion that had its roots in the primitive religion of the mother goddess from whom derived Artemis. It was also orgiastic in nature and involved scandalous obscenities. The cult of Asclepius was known for its miraculous powers of healing. As the Christian message of Jesus’s miraculous healings spread, his virtues were paralleled with the powers and wonders of Asclepius.
Other gods and goddesses worshipped in Ephesus included: Zeus (king of the gods and god of the sky), Gaea (goddess of earth), Hestia (Vesta, goddess of the hearth), Hecate (goddess of horror, witchcraft, and darkness), Hephaestus (Vulcan, god of destructive fire), Athena (Minerva, goddess of war), Demeter (Ceres, goddess of harvest and fertility); and the Egyptian gods and goddesses: Serapis (wonder-worker and protector), Anubis (Anpu, god of the dead), and Isis (goddess of family and motherhood). The Egyptian gods arrived in Asia Minor with Egypt’s merchant and military presence.
Then, there was always the imperial cult of Caesar and hero veneration. Hero veneration happened in Greek cities when certain individuals were worshiped for reasons that might have included benefactions, miraculous interventions, extraordinary civic or political contributions, or unique roles in the founding and history of the city.
This was Timothy’s field.
The city of Ephesus was a bastion of paganism, magic, and religious tolerance. The people gave themselves over to pleasures, revelry, and unimaginable sexual grossness. The authoritative words of Paul were challenged at every point, and even demon counterfeits seemed to rival any true spiritual manifestation of the Spirit. Timothy had to refute damnable teachings within the church, then look into the culture and preach the exclusivity of an inclusive God and kingdom. How was he to bear the task?
A Gospel Legacy
It is proper to think of the ministry of the Ephesian church as difficult but not impossible. The words of Paul to the Ephesian church the last time he would ever see them are befitting:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on alert remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).
Paul knew that after his departure teachers would attack the fledgling church from all directions. Any other person looking at the situation might have questioned the survival of the church. Nonetheless, Paul trusted the power of the grace of God, and it is with those hallmark words, that benedictory blessing, that he could count on the survival of God’s work in Ephesus.
John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, relates that Timothy died in Ephesus in A.D. 97 at the hands of pagans celebrating the Feast of Catagogion. This feast was held annually in Ephesus on January 22. Men would run about the streets in a frenzy dressed in outrageous costumes with clubs in-hand carrying images of their gods. They would rape women they encountered and beat or kill the men. Foxe says that Timothy met the procession and rebuked them for their “ridiculous idolatry” so enraging them that they beat him severely with their clubs. He died two days later of his wounds.
Novelist Anne Rice explains that she has lived as a Christian for 12 years and publicly so for four of those years. But on July 28, 2010, in three Facebook entries, she “quit” Christianity—“In the name of Christ…Amen.” Her I Refuse entry laments her broad assessment of the Christian religion that she can simply no longer be part of. Some have said that Christianity draws fire from her due to treatment she has witnessed in the life of her gay son.
I think I know where she’s coming from. She is upset that much of the love and moral uprightness that she cherishes about Christ in the New Testament is either not evident or altogether spurned by those who claim to know him, as she deems it, in their views on science and philosophy and their position on socio-political issues.
She’s right to bring rebuke to a Christian community that may be blinded by its own righteousness. History such as the Crusades and the Inquisition all the way to modern-day radical, Christianized ideology should teach us as much about ultra-conservative idealism.
The Historical View
Allow me now to respond to this issue by stepping back and taking a comprehensive view. One of the greatest tasks of the Church Fathers was their fight against heresy, particularly about Christ, finalizing the canon (the Bible), and explaining the doctrines and teachings of the faith. Their work helped convert a Christian sect into a more developed religion by systematizing its thought and showing those who attacked it that Christianity was philosophically viable and apologetically defensible.
Their work continues to (and will always) help answer the moral and ethical issues that crowd out generations in countless cultural circumstances, which is an amazing thing to ponder. Yet culture is the one thing that makes the issues and questions so difficult to answer in strictly Christian terms—that is, to answer them in a way that coherently and thoroughly responds to an ever-evolving culture and honors and esteems God’s holiness at the same time.
In light of the solid groundwork that has been laid and an almost tangible picture of God’s holiness gathered from the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament writings, Christians still do not always fare well at interpreting God’s heart and character, if only by showing too one-sidedly a God of love or one who loves justice a little too much.
So with Ms. Rice I agree that Christians should be present at the forefront of these issues, especially after 2,000 years of developed thought, standing firm in their convictions, yet open to dialogue and not castigating, close-minded, or stranded of thoughtfully deep analysis.
All Other Ground…Sinking Sand
Still, I take issue with her “I quit” proclamation, the old organized religion is full of trouble argument. Anne says that she is not quitting Christ (a good thing), but she is quitting his Church because she can no longer be part of a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” If by these adjectives she means what I have already attempted to say, then I understand, although I find her reasoning faulty.
She must understand—and why don’t people?—that the true Church of God will always oppose sin, plain and simple. The church will always struggle within itself with the questions of society and come up with responses not to please but to say, This is how best we see God answering this. That will always be a clear and firm ‘No’ to any (new) social immorality and what has already been shunned by scripture. Religion with changing convictions is not worth keeping.
Why do people lose their faith in God when they see ministers fall and Christian institutions being less than reputable? Peter walked on the water with Jesus until he took his eyes off Christ. This is what happens when our faith isn’t grounded in the person of Christ despite the imperfections of his Church.
I believe Anne Rice loves Christ and loves what his Church represents and is existentially, not only in America, but also around the world. As usual, however, error often comes with an overcorrection to abuse. Is she now siding with culture against the church she loves? (Yes, you hear me correctly. You cannot love Christ and think yourself divorced from his Church. To be so is to be at odds with your faith and maybe even outside of it.
There is no way to read the scriptures and not find Christ represented as the “head of the body” [Eph. 1:22-23] and the groom of “the bride” [Rev. 21:2-6].) And why is it that people think Christ would be any more lenient against sin than his Church has been in holding the guard? Surely there would be no Church—it would have died in the first century. Ms. Rice cannot jump ship because Christ is aboard the ship and all else is chaos.
Stay in the Fight!
This reminds me of desert monasticism that arose in early Christian history. Many fled into the deserts to flee persecution and to live out their Christian faith distanced from the immorality that abounded in the cities. It led to spiritual revival and some of the saintliest personages and literature in all Christian history.
Yet that approach to living the Christian life is not one to be quickly emulated. Christians have to live in this world just like anyone else, and we will have to deal with very un-Christian institutions and situations. Jesus’s high priestly prayer to his Father says it all: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).
We should count Christ’s prayer a promise of safety to us in our lives and evangelical mission since we trust that his Father heard him. We will get it right some of the time and not so right at other times. Still, we will press on in Jesus’s name and for his honor. But we are not to get fed up amongst ourselves despite inconsistent faith and differing viewpoints and abandon it all. Peter expresses this sentiment when he remembers the glory of Christ’s transfiguration (2 Peter 1:12-19).
There is also no place for Me-and-Jesus spirituality. In Christ there is no looking back to sin or looking away for isolation. Anne Rice should not flee any error she notices but rather engage it with a call to repentance.
I think this is the higher message to be dealt with, as opposed to other social issues she may actually be supporting. Christians should see Ms. Rice’s situation for what it is: a rebuke where we may be insensitive and less than Christ-like in our attitudes to some. But she need not now lead the army of devils that hate the Church and all religion but work to open dialogue and to transform.