Naturally, this did not encourage other people to join the movement. All this meant that for the first three hundred years or so, the members of the Church had to be totally committed to the cause. The concept of the Church as the place just for hatch, match and despatch, such as exists nowadays, was entirely unknown in those days. From this point of view, all those early Christians were indeed saints, and they showed their love for Christ every day of their lives.
This situation changed at the time that the persecution of Christians by the State largely came to an end, under the influence of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. It now became fashionable to be Christian, and all of a sudden there were many new recruits. The problem then arose that not all these new recruits took their responsibilities as Christians as seriously as those earlier members of the Church. The word, “saint”, stopped being used to describe ordinary believers, since many them were no longer worthy of the name. It is a state of affairs that has continued through the centuries wherever Christianity has been an accepted religion, and it continues today. There are those who have no links with the Church at all; but there are also those who worship occasionally, give a little of their time and money when it is convenient, and even maintain a fair standard of behaviour in daily life, but who nevertheless remain uncommitted. In what they do, they are often more concerned with what the neighbours think than with what God thinks. However, apart from people such as these, there is still a faithful remnant, a core of real believers, whose commitment to worship, witness, giving, and work for God keep the faith alive. These are the people earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints.
Some two hundred years ago, religion in England was at a very low ebb, as it is today. Then there was a great revival in the form of the Oxford Movement and the reawakening brought about by John Wesley. We can pray that a similar revival may take place in our time. If not, there is the possibility that there will be a return to the state of affairs that existed before Christianity became the principal religion of European countries; a time when Church membership was really small, when people were laughed at, persecuted and even killed for their faith, and when heavy demands had to be made upon them for work and giving in order to keep the faith alive and flourishing. It seems that we have already begun to face this situation.
Thoughts like these can easily make us down-hearted, so it is worth recalling to mind the Old Testament story of Gideon. He was the Israelite who undertook to drive away the Midianites who were raiding and plundering the whole country. He called together a large number of volunteers, and from these he chose just a few tried and trusted men. He felt that the rest would only handicap him, since many of them would probably be half-hearted. With his small band, he outwitted and defeated the Midianites. In this, and in the small numbers through which the Early Church accomplished so much, there is a lesson for our situation today. We are not saying that the Church does not need more members, for it is always our task to increase the numbers of those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. What is needed in our day is better Christians, those who love OL implicitly and are members of His Church, not in name only, but in deed as well.
With every blessing,
‡ Michael Windlesham