An ad in a church bulletin recently caught my attention. It was advertising an upcoming ‘Self-Esteem Seminar’. Nothing unusual about that. There must be zillions of such self-help seminars being run in churches throughout the Western world. They have become a very common feature of contemporary church life.
What got me thinking however was what the early church would have thought about all this. Don’t get me wrong: I know absolutely nothing about this particular seminar, and I am sure that it is a most helpful and profitable course. There are certainly plenty of believers out there with flagging self-esteem, and a course like this can provide a valuable service indeed.
But still… Such courses simply highlight the very real gulf between spirituality in the early church and that of today. One simply can’t imagine such courses being offered in the early days of the church. It is unlikely that there would have been a notice circulating back then advertising a self-help seminar each Thursday night at Catacomb 47.
Sure, things were much different back then, and persecution was a big part of the life of the early believers. It is amazing how persecution, like imminent death, so focuses the mind. One’s priorities are very quickly sorted out in such circumstances, and majoring on the majors becomes much more common.
But even without the persecution, it seems that the early church had a clear sense of its calling and mission. It really did not need so many of these how-to courses. It did not offer seminars on discipleship or evangelism, for example; it was too busy simply doing these things.
The early Christians did not have ‘kingdom finances’ courses, or ‘how to strengthen your marriage’ courses. They certainly did not have ‘divorce recovery’ courses. They were just too busy with the work of the Kingdom. They knew what mattered, and did not have time for trivial pursuits and worldly concerns.
Of course I do not mean to imply that finances, marriage, and the like are unimportant or worldly. But they tended to fall into place, because the overriding passion of most believers back then was the glory of God and the good of the Kingdom. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you”.
All these various issues are of course vitally important, but they tend to look after themselves in a sense, when we are living lives 100 per cent sold out for Jesus. When one sees oneself as God does, and one takes seriously the injunctions to die to self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus in a radical way, then things like self-esteem seem to take care of themselves.
Indeed, consider just one character in the early church who surely would have been an ideal candidate for a self-esteem seminar. Peter, as we recall, had just renounced and betrayed Jesus, denying him three times. After three years of walking with his Master, he betrayed him during a difficult and crucial period.
If anyone was a major candidate for healing of memories and long-term therapy, it would have been Peter. Yet when we next read about him he seems to be a changed man. It is clear that he has repented of his actions (we are told he “wept bitterly” about what he had done), and has resolved to go on with Christ.
Thus when Jesus next encounters Peter, he asks him three times if he loves him (presumably matching the three denials of Peter), and he is ordered by Jesus to “feed my sheep”. He is given his marching orders as a disciple of Jesus. He is not sent to a twelve-week twelve-step program, or put in some remedial course to deal with his inner demons.
Peter gets on with the job, and is known the world over as a pillar of the church and one of the great leaders in early Christianity. The same with the other disciples. They all went through traumatic times and suffered much. Their fragile egos and self-esteem would also have taken a battering. Yet it was their total dedication to their Lord, and the recognition that the servant is not above his master that kept them going. And we know that they turned the world upside down as a result.
And we could also mention an even more worthy candidate for self-esteem training: Jesus himself. He was misunderstood by his own friends, rejected by his own disciples, and hated by the world. Yet he went on about his Father’s work. And we are all so very thankful that he did.
Indeed, he pressed on unflinchingly to do the will of the Father. And we are called to do the same. Sure, we are all wounded, broken and needy followers of Jesus. And many quite helpful courses and seminars can bring real healing and growth to many of us.
Yet I sometimes wonder: just how much of all these various courses would we really need, if we were as passionate and dedicated to Jesus as the early disciples were? If we were sold out for Christ just as the early church was, perhaps many of the “extras” in the church today would not be as pressing or urgent.
Again, I am thankful for all those who do offer these courses, programs, and seminars. They can do a great amount of good for many, and deserve our support. But I keep coming back to the early church: why did they do such extraordinary things for Christ and the Kingdom? Why did they seem to get along just fine with basic Christianity? Perhaps there are important lessons to be learned for all of us today, as we reflect on the life, vitality and vigour of those early followers of Jesus.