The early disciples in Jerusalem were respected by their neighbors, but socially they were shunned. The book of Acts says, “…they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico [a public meeting place in the Jewish Temple]. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.”1
To the average Jew of the time, this group was strictly off-limits, no matter how moral its members were or how much good they did for others. After all, their leader, supposed to be the Messiah, had been condemned by the Priests and Rabbis and teachers of the Torah as a blasphemer — one who curses God. He had been turned over to the Gentile authorities with a demand that He be executed, and the Romans had taken Him outside the city and crucified Him along with common robbers. Since then, a number of the group’s leaders had been jailed. There was no telling what might happen to them next, and being linked to the group might suddenly become as dangerous as it was scandalous.
The disciples, however, expected such treatment. The Master Himself had said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you”2 and, “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul [the prince of demons], how much more the members of his household?”3 They were reminded that their Master’s crucifixion resembled the way carcasses of sacrificial animals were disposed of:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:11-14)
“Outside the camp” was where the disciples ought to be, because that’s where their Master was. But what was “the camp”? According to their Master’s teaching, it was a religion full of hypocrisy (pretending), marked by well-advertised charitable donations, long public prayers, and showy religious acts.4 People in “the camp” honored God with their lips while their hearts were far away.5 Their religion was based on the traditions of men rather than the commands of God.6 They were careful in their rituals but neglectful of the people around them.7 They looked good to other people, but inside, where only God could see, they were full of self-indulgence, dishonesty, and lawlessness.8
The most striking picture of “the camp” was one the Master Himself gave:
Hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! (Matthew 23:29-32)
That was the ultimate hypocrisy — they traced an unbroken religious heritage back through history while pretending not to have inherited the sins of their fathers. As most Bible readers should realize, it doesn’t work that way, because God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me.”9 And, as just about everybody knows, the people He was addressing went on to kill both Him and many of His followers, proving His point.
But what really proved His point, His ultimate point, was the life that His disciples lived “outside the camp.” It wasn’t just that they got reviled and persecuted and killed for the sake of His Name. It was that they actually lived a radically different life from those who were inside “the camp.” They actually obeyed the Master’s teachings and did the opposite of what the hypocrites were doing. They did their good deeds and prayed their prayers in secret. They drew near to God in their hearts and lived to please Him, rather than men. They emphasized love and justice and mercy and loyalty rather than tithes and offerings and traditions and ceremonies. They concentrated on their character and let their reputation take care of itself. And most importantly, they loved each other the way He had loved them — without reserve, not holding on to their time or their possessions or their opinions or their own agendas. They contributed all they had to meeting each other’s needs. They were abandoned to the Spirit of Love (which is the Spirit of God) and dedicated to seeing His Kingdom established on the earth.
The effect was galvanizing. People called them “these men who have turned the world upside down”10 and “this sect [cult] that is spoken against everywhere.”11 Yes, they were being spoken against, just like the head of their house had been called the prince of demons. And who, mainly, was speaking against them? Why, those “inside the camp,” of course — the ones whose false religious game was being shown up for the empty shell that it was. The disciples were hounded from town to town by religious pretenders — slandered, and beaten, and killed. But everywhere they went, people were being saved, becoming disciples, and learning to love others just as their Master had loved them.
Now we come to a difficult point in the story. It is a turning point, one marked by many passages in the New Testament, but especially by the book of James and the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. All along, the disciples had found insincere people in their midst. The Master Himself had picked Judas Iscariot to be an apostle, but the man had chosen to be a traitor. Ananias and Sapphira had been hypocrites, pretending to give all, while holding back a portion for themselves. Even some of Paul’s co-workers had deserted him when difficult times came. But, sooner or later, the light of the “life outside the camp” had exposed the insincere.
When we come to James and Revelation, however, we get the picture of a faithful few, surrounded by many who had subtly compromised and lost their love and stopped caring for widows and orphans and had become stained by the world. In some places, the whole group of “believers” had stopped loving and had become self-satisfied and complacent and unaware of their spiritual bankruptcy. Rich guests were preferred over poor ones, and there were apparently even rich “disciples” and poor “disciples.”12
Some people might read these things and say, “What’s the big deal about that? All down through Christian history there have been rich and poor in the Church, and the rich and important have had places of honor.” Well, the “big deal” is this: that’s what life “inside the camp” had been like. The rich religious men had made long public prayers to show how much they loved God while “devouring the houses of widows” who were made in God’s image. And the Son of God had cried out in warning about the judgment that was going to fall on such pretenders. Those who heard the call had gone out to Him, outside the camp, where there were no rich and poor.13
By the time the book of James was written, life “outside the camp” had all but vanished, and it had been replaced by “the camp” — only it was called by another name. It was the “Christian camp” instead of the “Jewish camp.” The “new religion” had become focused on various “teachings and traditions of men” that were different from the “old religion,” but they had stopped paying attention to “the commands of God.”14 What followed was nearly 2000 years of “camp life.”
Now, this is where just about everybody gets overwhelmed. Trudging through 20 centuries of Church History can be pretty overwhelming, and we are not going to do it here. But even just a casual acquaintance with the famous people of Christian History causes people to protest, “What? 2000 years of nothing but empty religion? What about the great theologians like Augustine, or the great reformers like Luther and Calvin, or radical groups like the Anabaptists of the 16th Century? And what about Billy Graham or Mother Teresa or the Jesus Movement, for goodness sake?”
Well, the “what” about all of them is that none of them brought back the “life outside the camp” that the Son of God established in the beginning. Augustine wrote many persuasive arguments about the nature of God and sin and so on, but his writings don’t produce disciples with fervent love for one another. On the contrary, they portray an unknowable God who predestines some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation based, not on their choices, but on His own cosmic whims. Augustine was preoccupied, not with loving people in the same way that our Master loved, but with refuting “heretics” and working out neat theological arguments to justify the use of physical force to change people’s religious opinions.
Luther and Calvin were both Augustinian monks before they became reformers, and they brought Augustine’s horrible doctrine of “just persecution” into the churches they established. Calvin was the driving force behind having Michael Servetus burned at the stake for the “sins” of questioning the doctrine of the Trinity and rejecting infant baptism. Luther wrote several pamphlets vehemently calling for the death of Anabaptists and the persecution of Jews. They were very concerned about moral principles and the stability of the societies they lived in, but not about the teachings of the Son of God, like turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, loving one’s enemies, etc.
Probably someone will say, “Well, those men were just products of their age. Don’t be too quick to judge them because religious persecution was common back then. Roman Catholics had been persecuting people for centuries.” But that’s exactly the point. That’s all Luther and Calvin were — mere products of their age, and nothing more. By contrast, Saul of Tarsus, 1500 years earlier, was a rabid persecutor of the early disciples, but when he repented and received the Holy Spirit, he never persecuted another soul but devoted his life to loving people. He was a product of something greater than the age he lived in. He went “outside the camp” into a radically new life and then spent the rest of his days spreading that life everywhere he went. Calvin and Luther merely re-formed the Roman Catholic church, establishing another form of the same “camp life” they had been raised in.
Contemporary with the heretic-hunting Catholics and Reformers was a different movement, the Anabaptists. This movement arose among disillusioned people, many of them young, who were dissatisfied with the empty rituals of the established church. These non-conformists burned with zeal for liberty of conscience and freedom to determine their own forms of worship. They were a loose and spontaneous movement whose bold rejection of infant baptism quickly drew persecution down on them from every side. But they were convicted that they should obey the commands of Jesus in the Bible. So, rather than fight for their rights, they let their Protestant and Catholic enemies torture and kill them by the thousands. Their defenseless slaughter by the Christian authorities caused many of their neighbors to reject Protestantism and Catholicism and join the Anabaptists. The fire and zeal of the movement flourished in spite of persecution (and, perhaps, because of it) from around 1525 to around 1560. Meeting in secret, fleeing from place to place, they took care of each other, shared all they had with each other, and refused under the most inhuman torture to betray one another. For a while it seemed that the same self-sacrificing life of love that the early disciples had lived was being restored. At the very least, they were outside the camp, and they were definitely bearing reproach.
But less than 35 years after the movement had begun, they started disintegrating. One leader disagreed with another, and instead of resolving their differences, they wound up dividing from one another. Their followers divided from each other as well, and each group refused to have anything to do with the other. Before long, each of those factions split too, and soon all that was left of the Anabaptists were little splinter groups with strange names and rigid customs — the countless Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterian sects.
As for the world-famous Christian icons, Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, much could be said (and is regularly) about all they have done. Dr. Graham has preached a message acceptable to nearly every Christian denomination for half a century. He has perhaps done more to bring Christianity together on common ground than any single human being since the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine required the quarreling Christian bishops to hold ecumenical councils and subscribe to a standard set of beliefs. And Mother Teresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her charity work, has done much to make the Catholic Church acceptable to Evangelicals, who half a century ago viewed the Roman Church with suspicion.
These two Christian figureheads have a vast reputation for integrity, but have they obeyed the command of the Son of God to do their good deeds in secret and to “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them”?15 Are they “outside the camp” bearing the disgrace the Master bore? Or do all men speak well of them?16
The Jesus Movement of the 1970s was a little like the Anabaptist movement in that it was loose, spontaneous, and made up mostly of young people who were dissatisfied with mainstream religion. They also wanted to do what Jesus had said in the Bible. Many of them started living together and sharing their possessions. But there the resemblance to the Anabaptists ended. They experimented with different forms of worship and alternative lifestyles, but they didn’t separate from the mainstream, and they weren’t persecuted. Within a few years almost all the Christian communes had disbanded and the people involved had either given up on Christianity altogether or settled into some congregation somewhere, quietly listening to the preacher or teacher. They didn’t go out to the Master, outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. There have been many Christian movements in the last 2000 years that broke away from the status quo, and many stirrings within Christian congregations, but they all wound up having one thing in common: they didn’t recapture the vibrant, self-sacrificing life of love and oneness that was present in the first disciples. It’s almost like the story of the traveler who got hopelessly lost in the back roads of New England and finally pulled up to an old farmhouse to ask directions. The aged farmer listened silently to the man’s story for awhile, and when the traveler finally named the destination he was trying to reach, the old man began to thoughtfully stroke his chin. Finally he replied, “Can’t get there from here.” Many people have reached this conclusion, that there is no way to get to that place “outside the camp” where the first disciples bore the disgrace of their crucified Master, the one to whom they belonged, heart and soul, body and possessions. It was just for that time back then, they say. The world is different now.17
But that’s not the whole story, either. 2 Chronicles 16:9 says, “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” We who write this paper think that this means that all down through history God has been stirring things up on the earth to see if He could find people who would turn themselves over to Him completely, ready to do nothing but His will. We think that when there is a “stirring,” He tests people to see what is in them. And He is still stirring, still looking, still ready to strengthen, because His will has not been accomplished yet. Satan’s tyranny over mankind has not been brought to an end. War, terrorism, crime, poverty, immorality, hypocrisy, greed, broken families, etc., all point to the grip that the evil one has on the earth.
The best efforts of the best people in the best positions to do the most good on earth have only managed to slow down the pace of the destruction. Only the triumphant return of God’s Messiah is going to bring the end. And the end will only come when the Good News that He preached (not some watered-down version) is proclaimed everywhere. And it will only come if that message produces the same witness of the coming Kingdom that was seen in the love and unity of the first disciples in Jerusalem.18
We have felt the stirring, we have heard the call, we have been through a little of the testing, and we know there’s a lot more to come. But we invite all men everywhere to join us in being devoted to the life of love that our Master gave His blood to establish on the earth, outside the camp.