This is half of an essay from Michael Craven, of the Center for Christ and Culture:
Beginning in the first century, it was Christians gathered together into a community distinct from the surrounding culture that God used to bring light into the darkness. These communities adopted conduct and values that bore witness to God’s reign come into the world. Their lives, in community, radically challenged the social norms of the day. Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female lived in a new kind of relationship with each other, in which those distinctions that formerly divided people were nullified in Christ.
These people established common treasuries, mandating the sharing of all earthly resources so that those in need were cared for. They did not take each other to court but instead managed their disagreements internally and disciplined each other for the sake of their witness. The church, throughout history, has been the sign of God’s kingdom that has come and is coming into the world—setting to rights what sin has set wrong.
Beyond being called together, Christians are also sent into the world to press and proclaim these kingdom values whenever and wherever they encounter pride, selfishness, injustice, suffering, and depravity. There is a social, cultural, and personal dimension to the kingdom that the church is called to represent and assert in the world. In addition, the church proclaims the message of the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter and partake of the kingdom of God. When taken all together, it is the missional church as community, servant, and messenger of the kingdom that reshapes the surrounding culture. Compromise any one of these three expressions of the gospel mission and the witness of the church begins to fade.
Certainly, many Christians still embrace the responsibility to confront evil, but the modern approach—all too often—is severed from any demonstration of these virtues within a particular community that is not all that distinct from the world.
The early Christians did not succeed in transforming the evils of the ancient
world through political activism and grassroots efforts. They succeeded by first demonstrating a radical and ultimately superior alternative to the surrounding culture within their respective communities. The church was a community characterized by love—people who were, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, willing to “risk being peaceful in a violent world, risk being kind in a competitive society, risk being faithful in an age of cynicism, risk being gentle among those who admire the tough, risk love when it may not be returned, because we have confidence that in Christ we have been reborn into a new reality” (Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations, [Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1992], 210–11). Hauerwas eloquently describes the upside-down nature of the kingdom, as revealed in Jesus’ kingdom parables, that we are called to follow faith through grace.
Historically, Christians better understood the implications of the kingdom—that following their conversion they were to live under the rule and reign of God and no longer for themselves.