How Christians Can ‘Outthink, Outlive, Outpray’ Today’s Many Small Gods

Ancient, false religion has been reinvented in our day. Early Christians' answers can guide us.

The House of Saint Ananias (also called Chapel of Saint Ananias), an ancient underground structure in Damascus, Syria, that is thought to be the remains of the home of Ananias of Damascus, first to receive and welcome Saul (Paul) as a Christian following Saul's conversion in Acts 9.

By Tom Gilson Published on July 22, 2017

Christians today could learn a lot from our earliest fathers in the faith. Overcoming great obstacles, they led the Church to explosive growth. They did it, many say, by outthinking, outliving, and outpraying those who opposed them.

Old answers are relevant in new ways now, as ancient religion has resurfaced in reinvented form. Western progressives have rediscovering the worship of multiple gods: millions of them, actually. Today’s progressives are too sophisticated to believe in supernatural beings, but they’ve deified themselves anyway. They may not be pagan like the ancient Greeks and Romans, and their gods are certainly smaller, but they’ve got just as many.

It’s a bizarre world we live in: We’ve never seen widespread self-deification quite like this before. Yet we can recognize something familiar in it, if we view it as a sort of re-invented polytheism. Christianity has plenty of experience with that, including the first few centuries after Christ’s ministry on earth.

Christianity grew like crazy during those first few hundred years — about 40 percent per decade, according to Rodney Stark. (It’s still growing rapidly — a fact too few people are aware of — in Asia, Africa, and South America.)

So yes, we could learn something from the first several centuries of the faith.

Then and Now

I wouldn’t want to overlook the contrasts between then and now. The old pagan gods were distant, living high above the mortals on Mount Olympus. The gods of self-deification, in contrast, work in offices with us, teach in our schools, produce our films, music and TV shows, and bring lawsuits in our courts.

They may not be pagan like the ancient Greeks and Romans, and their gods are certainly smaller, but they’ve got just as many.

Another difference: Sexual sin has marked polytheism both then and now, but for the early church it was an old, familiar decadence. Today we’re stunned almost weekly by the left’s newest inventions of immorality.

Still, while the differences are many, there are also many similarities between the Church’s experiences then and now.

They distorted Christian teaching then, just as many twist ours today.

The Greeks and Romans despised and feared the early Christians, as leftists often do with us today. They distorted Christian teaching then, just as many twist ours today.

Ancient polytheists’ top complaint against Christians wasn’t that they worshiped Jesus. It was that they refused to worship any other gods but One. That’s a lot like today’s complaint that Christians won’t tolerate other beliefs, other moral standards and other “truths.”

And there was a civil and political side to the unbeliever’s complaints back then. They feared that Christians were angering the gods, so that those gods would remove their protection from their cities and the Empire. Today’s self-deifying progressives imagine that Christians are trying both to run the culture and ruin the culture.

Outthinking, Outliving, Outpraying the Unbelievers

The obstacles Christianity faced then were at least as difficult than as they are now. Why then did the faith grow so fast? Knowing the answer to that question could help us grow in our own day. Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland, borrowing from historian Michael Green, lists three central factors:

  • The early church’s ability to outthink her critics;
  • The church’s transformed character and biblical compassion
  • The manifest power of the Kingdom of God among them.

Others have summed it up this way: The early church outthought, outlived and outprayed her opposition.

How They Overcame Pagan Polytheism

First, early Christians weren’t afraid to study, to learn and to engage in the intellectual fight for the faith. Much of their writings were for the purpose of defending the faith. Interestingly, a lot of it focused on the same kind of charge we face more and more every day: that Christianity is immoral, harmful and generally bad for people and for the nation. Christians took those concerns seriously and answered them thoughtfully.

The early church outthought, outlived and outprayed her opposition.

Second, Christians led in showing compassion. Tom Woods goes so far as to say they “invented charity.” I’m not sure that’s giving the Old Testament prophets their due, but compared to the Greeks and Romans he might be right. For example, Christians cared for their neighbors, both believers and unbelievers, during a second-century period plague. Some of them died; many of those they cared for survived. Meanwhile, the famed Greek physician Galen headed to the hills to save his own hide.

Third, they lived in close relationship with God through Jesus Christ, praying expectantly and seeing Him answer powerfully. The record of miracles in history does not end at Acts chapter 28. It still hasn’t ended. Though we hear little of miracles in the West, they still occur, and in even greater numbers around the globe.

Can We Overcome This Religion of Self-Deification?

This leads to the question, Could we follow those three steps to overcome today’s reinvented polytheism? The answer is certainly yes. We still have the same truth in Christ, the same Holy Spirit guiding us to live lives of love, and the same power of God through prayer.

How can we proceed in doing it? Each of the three factors I’ve named here deserves its own article; its own shelf of books, actually. (If it’s important to outthink our critics, doesn’t it make sense to put in some homework?)

I’ll recommend just one book for now, though: J. P. Moreland’s Kingdom Triangle. That‘s where I first read about these three ways toward growth. Aside from the Bible and some classics, I’d call it one of the five best, most important books I’ve read in the past twenty years.

I’ll return to these three factors in future articles, too, continuing the series I began last week.

There’s plenty of room for hope, if we will pray, live for Christ, and learn to outthink those who oppose us. The same God who brought new life to a spiritually dead, polytheistic culture twenty centuries ago can do the same again now.

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