In our final installment of our Disciple Identity series, we have struggled through the various changes in culture and how best the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) might meet these challenges. Change is inevitable. Whether or not the change is slow as new chapters are written in our history and identity or fast as some would support a more radical approach to identity and culture, it happens often when we do not even know it. As a movement that finds much of its identity in the traditions of the early church, our contemporary movement can learn much from a focused look back.
Throughout the first and second centuries, the know world power began to loose ground. As the Empire deteriorated, the structure of Christianity gained strength in the third century, as it moved away from the looseness and democratic administration of the first and second centuries. Christianity began to appeal to the entire spectrum of society. Prior to this transition, except for a few, most Christians identified with the suffering servant as they struggled against their own problems of poverty and persecution. Soon, the aristocracy as well as the peasant and merchant classes, sought a more personal relationship with the God they had heard so much about as revealed in Christ Jesus. Up until that point, congregations were rather autonomous with elders appointing one of their own who would serve a coordinator for a geographical region. The role of bishop was crucial to Christian administrative reform: bishops were still chosen by the community in the second century, but assumed more authority as they served as leaders, with elders and deacons subject to the bishop's authority. The Church had created a hierarchy for several reasons. The spiritual overseers defended the teachings of the church (contained in the universally accepted creeds), attended to the ministries of the church beyond local congregations and mentored those who would eventually take their place.
The Roman Empire was changing. New religions were crossing paths more and more as travel became easier. The economy was much less oriented around the village and was beginning to find its growth in a global market. Trade in spices, silk and precious metal would lead to the first “world bank” run by monks. Universities were being founded as those in education were looking for new methods to prepare young people for the changing world.
Does any of this sound strangely familiar? Maybe its not an issue of writing a new chapter or a new book. Perhaps, it is simply the changes that must take place as we, like the first and second century church, changed to meet the needs of a changing world with the unchanging message of God’s love through Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is the Disciple identity. The ability to model what it means to be a true community with all of the challenges in diversity, doctrine and service. As Disciples, the issue isn’t so much how we are different from other denominations doctrinally or in practice, but how we allow for adaptation and change. We model a church that is true church, aware of our sectarian history and our universal call. The bottom line is not that we believe different things ABOUT Jesus, but that all of us, no matter our opinion, recognize that we are FOLLOWERS of Jesus…Disciples.