Back when I was in Rome, my husband and I had a chance to see the Temple of Vesta, home to the ancient vestal virgins. The virgins were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, charged with keeping the sacred flame of the city lit. They were tasked with a heavy duty, but in exchange granted a great deal of privilege: vestals could own land, vote, and marry after their thirty years of service. They held a remarkable amount of power and privilege for women in their society, and to even touch them without permission was considered a crime punishable by death.
Imagine my surprise, then, when we came upon busts of some of the virgins and a sign that informed us that one of the virgins had been expelled and her name and statue defaced upon her conversion to Christianity. When I tried to do some research on who this vestal virgin might have been, I couldn’t find a lot of solid information. There is however, a legend that holds that one of the earliest Christian martyrs – Saint Daria – was indeed one of the vestal virgins.
True or not, the story is a vibrant reminder of the eclectic mix of people in the early Christian church. Some Christians were aristocracy or well-off citizens who were able to host gatherings in their private homes and provide financial support to believers traveling to share the Word. Still others were business-women and men, merchants and working-class folks. Others would have been a motley gathering of those considered disposable by society: freed and current slaves, the disabled, the ill, the dispossessed, the outcasts. All were welcome to Christ’s table. All belonged.
Because of that, the fissures in the church were at times deep and profound. Many of Paul’s letters can be paraphrased as “Paul trying to keep sundry churches in one piece.” Churches in various cities fell victim to teachers who taught heresies and blasphemies, believers who squabbled over various insignificant matters, and who frequently attacked each other over issues of interpretation. (In some sad ways, not much has changed.)
And yet the church endured.
That it endured we must credit to the blessing of God and the work of the Holy Spirit (and we must credit God and the Holy Spirit still that we endure!). I also suspect that sheer necessity made it a little easier for the fragile early church to stay alive, too: believers worked together because they were the only ones who could work together. With so much holy ministry to be done, any hand was welcome on the till. Differences of opinion or socio-cultural background paled next to the simplicity and urgency of the mission: spread the good word! Regardless of their own struggles, the early church seemed to have grasped the notion that the responsibility to share Jesus was theirs alone and that working together, regardless of a host of other issues, was absolutely required.
But we live in an age now that is quite different. In a five-mile radius from my house I have access to at least five churches, and with my car I have access to at least three times that. I can travel to find a church body that most suits me, that is most like me, that I most like, and that “feels right.” And some of our local churches are so big that, even within them, I’m hardly obliged to deal with difficult people or different people or even people much unlike me. My options are so varied that I’ve never had to “make it work.”
Philip Yancey has written before about the temptation of going to a church full of people exactly like him, and how it can deaden us spiritually. It’s our instinct, he wrote, to go to church and sit, work, and praise alongside people that share everything we consider important. It’s our instinct to choose the comfortable and the familiar. But when we choose the comfortable and familiar, we lose the chance to exercise Christlike love and service to those unlike us. To learn what it means to work alongside people we find difficult or confusing or hard to tolerate. To gain the richness of blessing from working together with a jumbled, eclectic body of God’s believers to share the good Word.
I am distinctly aware of this lately in my own church, which is profoundly suburban and tends to attract similar sorts of families. As a result, in a recent Bible study that was topic-based, I was pleased to find myself in the midst of a group of very disparate people: a mother and daughter from a heavily rural area, an elderly husband and wife, a single woman my age, a middle-aged mother of three, and others who wouldn’t “fit” together in a group based on any demographics sheet. It was a rich and rewarding study, making our connections all the more so because – well, frankly, none of us ever would have connected or tried to connect otherwise.
So I encourage you to look for the “unlike” in your church body. Don’t get in the habit of falling into groups of people exactly like you, who all feel and think and do roughly the same things. Get to know people whose family setup is not like yours, in different age categories, with different types of careers. Reach out to a mix of young and old, singles and couples, and different types of families. And in doing so, I suspect we can regain a bit of the spirit of the early church: those who worked together for Christ because necessity demanded it.