That Old-Time Religion


By David A. Fiensy

I grew up in southern Illinois where the appeal to the old-time religion was almost a weekly observance. It seems like we were always trying to get back to the “old Bible days” when they had church on Sunday nights, sang hymns composed by Fanny Crosby, and held revivals in tents. If some infraction occurred in the community (such as a public official being arrested in an illegal activity), we blamed it on modernism. What we needed, we protested, was to get back to that old-time religion.

And, of course, we thought every Christian should identify with the right-wing political agenda. It just seemed obvious that we wanted whatever the conservative politicians were preaching. Did they want to spend more on defense? So did we. Did they decry welfare? We did too. Did they suspect an enemy was lurking behind every rock? Ditto!

Since then I have matured a bit in my understanding of the earliest Christians (now I sing Bill Gaither choruses). Seriously, what we called the old-time religion was really a version of Christianity from the 19th-century American frontier mixed with a little post-World War II paranoia. But more things were different back then than just the hymns and other practices. The heart and soul of the church from the first 300 years was also absent. Maybe it still is.



Religious persons—well, let’s just point to ourselves here, evangelical Christians—can appear mean-spirited at times. We often forget about the one who brought us to the dance. The teachings of Jesus often are neglected in favor of the words of right-wing talk radio hosts.

Many evangelical Christians listen to Rush Limbaugh more than they read Jesus. They can quote the Second Amendment verbatim but do not have the vaguest notion about the second Beatitude. They can really get worked up over the so-called Marriage Protection Act but seem unmoved by families living in poverty or unable to afford health care for their children. Jesus’ teachings about loving our enemies and helping the poor are muffled behind the noise of right-wing (and left-wing for that matter) political agendas.

The characteristics and great works of Christians in the first 300 years of the church’s existence go largely ignored. The church of that day was known for peace, helping the poor and sick, elevating the lives of women and children, and even ministering to criminals.

Is it possible some of us have constructed an idolatrous, political right-wing god to whom we pay homage to the neglect of the incarnate Son of God?

Most evangelicals seem to think their political agenda is biblical. What this country needs, they opine, is to get back to that old-time religion. What they mean is we need to legislate our country back into the 19th century.

Some of the issues so precious to us (remember how conservatives loathed the old Equal Rights Amendment?) are not really biblical but cultural. Even when we are acting on biblical principles (e.g., regarding homosexuality), we lose our witness when we try to force people to accept our views. The result is that those on the receiving end of our legislative efforts come to view Christians as bullies.



But what is real Christianity? What was the old-time religion really like? Consider the following:

• Christians in the ancient world were known for their acts of compassion toward the poor and the weak. One Christian author (Tertullian) wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.”1 Even one of the enemies of the Christian faith exclaimed, “The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours.”2

• The ancient Christians behaved in a way that was both puzzling and admirable to their pagan contemporaries. When there was an epidemic, they cared for the sick even at the risk of their own lives. It was common for pagans to leave their sick relatives in the street to die. But Christians habitually cared not only for their own sick but those who had been abandoned by their families. A third-century Christian bishop wrote that many Christians “in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves.”3

• Ancient Christians had a profound reverence for human life because all persons are created in God’s image. Every life to them had value and worth. They were forbidden to kill under any circumstances. Further, they could not even watch someone being killed in the arena or at an execution. As a matter of fact, a Christian monk in ad 391 surrendered his life when he entered the Colosseum in Rome to stop a match between gladiators.4

Women of the ancient world achieved a higher status among Christians. For example, although drowning or abandoning female infants was common, Christians did not practice infanticide. Abortions, which often resulted in the death of the mother and the fetus, were prohibited by Christians. And Christianity, unlike the pagan culture, demanded monogamy and faithfulness for husbands as well as wives. Thus women were more respected. Finally, women were allowed to hold leadership roles in the church (e.g., Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia). Christianity elevated the condition of women.5

• Pagans considered children as not fully human and lacking in both reason and courage. It was common for children to be aborted, or killed as infants, or sexually abused.

But Jesus’ admonition to “let the children come to me” (Matthew 19:14) and for his disciples “to become like a child” (Matthew 18:3), as well as the general Christian respect for all life, led Christians to value children. Both infants and adults were considered equal before God since both needed salvation. In fact, children became a paradigm for the Christian virtues of simplicity, gentleness, and innocence. Under Christianity, children “became people.”6



The Christians who did these things were devoted not only to the risen Lord as a personal Savior but also to his teachings. They lived by the words he left with his disciples: “I was hungry . . . thirsty . . . a stranger . . . not properly clothed . . . sick . . . in prison . . . and you (helped) me” (Matthew 25:35, 36). “Love your enemies, do good things to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27, 28). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

Of course, the contemporary church still performs many of these same acts of kindness. We have food banks, orphanages, and hospitals around the world. We teach that every human life has worth because that person is created in God’s image. These are good things.

But some Christian attitudes and viewpoints today suggest tone-deafness with respect to suffering people. Some say, “Just because you are religious doesn’t mean you are good.” I suspect they’re saying, “Just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you are compassionate.” Tertullian wrote that Christian acts of loving-kindness branded the church in his day. What brands our church?

Let me be clear. Most of the slander spewed forth by the antireligious is from a twisted view of what faith does and is. We cannot be totally responsible for someone’s skewed and even hateful view of us. But we can make sure we do not contribute to the caricature. It is time for the church to rediscover the teachings of Jesus and put aside for a while the books and bywords of our beloved, politically conservative gurus.


1Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 87.

2Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 129. 

3Stark, Rise of Christianity, 82.

4David A. Fiensy, “What Would You Do for a Living?” in A.J. Blasi, J. Duhaime, and P.A. Turcotte’s Handbook of Early Christianity (New York: Altamira, 2002) 

5Stark, Rise of Christianity, 95-128.

6O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).


David Fiensy is dean of the Graduate School of Bible and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson.

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