The first century was an age of pluralism–every bit as much as this twenty-first century. How did the fledgling Church survive and, indeed, thrive in such a context of competing voices? How did they become “These men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6)? What can we learn from those who lived most closely with Jesus?
William Ramsey was an expert on first century life. He describes the scene in this way:
“An easygoing Christianity could never have survived; it could not have conquered and trained the world. Only the most convinced, resolute, almost bigoted adherence to the most uncompromising interpretation of its own principles could have given the Christians the courage and self-reliance that were needed. For them to hesitate or to doubt was to be lost.” (The Letters to the Seven Churches, p.220, italics added)
Ramsey was not a preacher. He was a classical scholar and archeologist. He was reporting to us as a historian. He had no theological ax to grind; nor was he seeking a soapbox. He was not peddling ideology, but reporting the facts as they stood in that intensely pluralistic age. He penned his words in 1904, well before the cultural shifts of the 20th century which had such a profound influence with regard to a resurgence of pluralism in our nation.
His words when read through our current cultural grid may seem to promote an isolationist mentality. That would be to misread the facts. The earliest Christians wore their insistence upon the exclusive claims of Christ in a missional way that thrust them out from holy huddles and into the mainstream of their society. Their pagan contemporaries wondered aloud about their selflessness and love for the disenfranchised and marginalized of their age. They held their stubborn orthodoxy with profound love toward both Christ and those around them. They proved that resolute faith in the exclusive truth of the Gospel is at the heart of transforming love, not its enemy. May the Lord who held the balance of “grace and truth” so beautifully enable us to do so in our day and may He find us such ready channels for His love that once again the world might label us “These men who have turned the world upside down.”