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Laura: Welcome back to another episode of Risen Motherhood. Today we’re chatting with Dr. Michael Kruger about a topic we love: church history. Even though that might feel a million miles away from your everyday life and motherhood, we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and encouraged by God’s work in that time period and its impact on us today. We discuss how women can have important work and influence for the Kingdom in seemingly ordinary ways, how the gospel brings us together in the midst of external differences, and how knowing the scriptures helps us discern and live counter-culturally in the world around us. We think you’re going to love this interview with Dr. Kruger. He’s the president and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. His recent book, Christianity at the Crossroads, expands on this topic. He currently serves as an associate pastor at his home church, Uptown PCA. Some of you guys might recognize his name, because he’s married to Melissa Kruger. She’s a Board member here at Risen Motherhood. Okay, let’s jump into today’s interview with myself, Emily, and Michael.
Laura: Hi, Michael! Thanks for joining us on Risen Motherhood today.
Michael: Great to be with you both!
Laura: We’re thrilled you’re here. We gave a little bit of an intro a couple of minutes ago, but we’d love for you, in your own words, introduce yourself, your family, and what your daily life looks like right now.
Michael: Thank you! My name is Mike Kruger. I’m currently the president and New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. I teach the Bible—mainly New Testament courses—and help run this particular campus. I’m married to my wife, Melissa, who many of your listeners may know. She’s the Director of Women’s Content for The Gospel Coalition and has written a number of books. I’m blessed to be married to her. We have three children—Emma (18), John (15), and Kate (12).
Emily: That’s great. We’ve loved getting to know your wife; she’s been a huge blessing to us and our ministry. We really appreciate a lot of the wisdom you two have shared on parenting. For the listeners’ sake, Laura and I really wanted to invite Michael on, because we sat through a really excellent break out session at TGCW on the topic we’re diving into today. It was one of our favorite things we came away with from TGCW. So, we’re really excited to hear more.
Michael: Very good. I’m glad you guys were there. That was a fun time.
Laura: Why don’t we start at a base level here? We love talking about church history on Risen Motherhood, and we love encouraging all our listeners to study it. Can you help us understand why this might be important? Especially for a mom—how might it be useful in her daily life?
Michael: That’s a great question. For the average woman whose wondering, Why should I listen to this podcast?, I’ll mention two reasons out of many. I think women—like any believer—are always wondering, How do I fit into the Church? What’s my place? What can I do to contribute? How can I be involved? And maybe even more than that, Does anything I do matter? We typically answer that by looking around us in the present and asking, What are other people doing? What’s my church like? and so forth. When we look at church history, we get a bigger and broader perspective. And what I hope people take-away is this realization that women have played a critical role in Christianity long before the modern day. In fact, they played a role in the founding of the Church, one of the most critical roles in the founding of the Church. In that sense, I think this will hopefully be encouraging to women listening that there’s a great, long heritage in history of women being a part of the ministry of Christ and they can be a part of it too. That’s one reason. I think the second is also important. There’s a myth out there that Christianity as a religion is somehow hostile to women, or maybe not a place that welcomes women, or women can’t find a home in, or what have you. Those are comments we get from the world that sound like somehow there’s this conflict between women’s interests and the Christian faith. I think when you look at church history that wasn’t what the early Christians thought. Women flocked to Christianity in droves in early centuries, and I think that’s a great lesson for people too.
Emily: I think you got right to the heart of what many moms feel and face: does this stuff I do everyday matter? Where do I fit in this Kingdom work? That’s so helpful to know it’s not just dishes, but we’re swept up into this greater story throughout history with a broader purpose. That’s really helpful.
Michael: I think the average person out there—male or female—doesn’t know what happened in early Christianity. In the talk you were apart of, I highlighted many different dynamic ministries women were involved in. It should be exciting for people, and hopefully, motivating.
Laura: Your work has been mainly focused on the second century church, and we’d love for you to give us more of a background. We know you wrote an entire book on it that’s really helpful, so can you help us understand why these years are so important to the life of the Church as a whole and Christian faith as we know it today?
Michael: Yeah, that’s a great question. A couple things to note about the second century. One, it’s an overlooked century. Most scholars—and even lay folks—just don’t think much about it. Usually when we think about church history, we think about fourth, fifth century church councils and big events; the second century kind of gets neglected. It’s even been called by some, “The Cinderella Century of the Church.” There’s a sense it’s bypassed and not noticed. But the other thing to note is how critical it was to the life of the Church. It’s the first century where Christians had to make their way in a hostile Roman world without the help of a living apostle. The apostles had all died by the time the second century came around. The Church was on its own, trying to figure out how to make it in the world—kind of like a newborn animal on the Serengeti plains looking around thinking, “I was born in a very scary world, and I’m not very strong, and I can’t run very fast. What’s going to happen to me?” I think people forget how frightening that must’ve been for the earliest Christians; how tenuous things were.
Emily: I think that’s really helpful. As moms, we can feel like some of the issues we’re struggling with in coming together in community with other women with different views or backgrounds are hard; we have a lot of fear and anxiety about the world we’re raising children in; we want to raise them up in the Lord with Christian values, but we can feel like there’s a terrifying culture and we don’t know what to do. But we’re not the first people to face this. We can go back and look at what the second century was facing, which can give us some comfort about what God did in that challenging time for them: growing and expanding the Church. I like that you drew that out.
Michael: Yeah, well a lot of people who are watching our current cultural moment—and it’s a scary cultural moment when you look around and see all the trends—think it looks like everything is spiraling out of control. We’re envisioning for the first time being in a world that’s a post-Christian world. When you look at the second century, you realize this isn’t a new scenario for Christians; we’ve been here before. In fact, what’s the unusual scenario is how good we’ve had it for the last two centuries in the United States; that’s actually the anomaly. I think we’re kind of back to status quo now, or at least getting there.
Laura: That’s really insightful and really interesting to think about. Okay, so in your book, you highlight the value of women; can you walk us through some of that core evidence that you bring up? You highlighted it in the talk we listened to and in the book. How did women play a major role in the growth of Christianity? And what were some of their significant contributions?
Michael: I think I’d begin that Christians in the early centuries were very much misfits; they didn’t fit in very well for a lot of reasons. They were an unusual bunch. The Greco-Roman world looked at the Christian community and found them to be odd. There’s a lot of things that made them odd, but one of the things that made them particularly unusual was how many women were around the Christian communities. The reason that was unusual was because in the Greco-Roman world, women made up about one-third of the population, meaning in the average scenario it was two-thirds men, one-third women. There are a lot of historical reasons for that but I won’t get into that here. Women were definitely in the minority numerically. But then if you were to go to a Christian gathering—from what we can tell statistically—it seemed to be the inverse that most of the Christians were women; about two-thirds of them. So it seemed to be an almost complete flip-flop from the Roman world. Scholars noted this as fascinating. Apparently Christian women were around in great numbers and represented a large number of the earliest Christians we have on record. There are so many things that show the prominence of Christians within the early centuries; I can walk through some of that evidence if we want to. I’ll just give one example and we can dive deeper if you guys want to. One example I think is particularly intriguing is hostility of one of the Roman governors, Pliny. Pliny the Younger had Christians in his province that were driving him crazy, and he was looking for relief. He wrote a letter to the emperor—at this time was Trajan—and complained about all the Christians. He said he found some to torture for information. And when he said that, he says he found two female Christians to torture. So it looks like, from Pliny’s perspective, when he wants to find a Christian to talk to about what Christians really believe, the first two examples he found were women. I think that’s indicative of the larger scene. So I think step one in this conversation is to recognize—numerically speaking—Christianity was very popular among women. Now in terms of what they did, we can get to that in a second. But I hope this is an encouraging point in its own right apart from what women were doing in particular. The fact that they found it to be such a comfortable and inviting place is certainly noteworthy historically.
Emily: Jesus is good for women. [Laughter]
Michael: Well apparently the early Christians thought so! I always envision a scenario where someone might walk up to a Roman woman whose become a Christian and say, “Don’t you think Christianty oppresses women?” And they would probably look at them like, “Are you kidding me? Christianity is the solution to the oppression of women in the early centuries—not the problem.”
Emily: What an important countercultural word for us today. Some of the popular messages that moms run across on Instagram from influencers tell them the answer to their problems is to pursue their own dreams, and to break free from their own mold, and to follow everything the world has to offer. In contract, it makes it look like Christianity and obeying God is what’s oppressive. But really, as we know, the Kingdom flips everything upside down. So that’s a breath of fresh air to hear that in the early church, this was a very free and life-giving thing for women to know Jesus and be apart of his Church.
Michael: I think in the early centuries, they found Christianity very refreshing. It seemed to be a place of safety, comfort, and relief from many of the problems they faced in the Greco-Roman world. It’s curious to note some of Christianity’s harshest critics often mocked them for having so many women around. What’s funny is our modern world says Christianity should be mocked for being anti-women, but what I want to point out is that in the ancient world, they were mocked for being pro-women. I think that’s something people need to hear. That’s not the way it was then. Christianity had so many women around they were seen as the place for women.
Laura: You mentioned a little more evidence for some of the reasons women were flocking to Christianity. Can you give a little bit more? We have some time here, and I think that’d be so interesting to dive a bit deeper.
Michael: Yes! We have all the evidence for the prevalence for women, and the evidence I gave of Pliny is one. But even in the New Testament we have numerous examples as well. I mentioned in my talk Paul’s letter to the Romans. At the end—chapter 16—he mentions all the people he’s thanking for their involvement in ministry. A large chunk of that list—nearly half—are the names of women. When he goes through that list, he thanks them for the many ministries they’re involved in. We see they’re doing all kinds of things in Christianity: they’re involved in mercy ministry, helping orphans and widows; financial support, a lot of wealthy women are patrons; some of them are hosting churches in their houses; some are missionaries traveling and evangelizing. There are so many things women were doing. You can see even in that letter, there’s sense that Paul’s already hinting at a number of those activities. We have other sources later that confirm the same thing later: women were involved in a multiplicity of ministries that were all central to the health and life of the early Christian movement.
Laura: I love that. All those women were doing different things and fulfilling their gifts in the roles and places that God had them. That’s so encouraging as a mom, because we all look really different in our day-to-day, but we can still do Kingdom work right where God has placed us and make huge impacts in furthering the gospel mission. That’s really helpful. And I love that it’s not just in the second century church but we see it in the Bible.
I’d like to switch our focus for a moment. Our theme this year at Risen Motherhood is unity in the gospel. We’re talking about all these people coming together, a mash-up of different backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities; even different socio-economic statuses. Can you draw out what the second century church can show us about how the gospel makes us one in Christ? Where do we find that unity?
Michael: There are so many different examples, wow. You’ve touched on a few. One of the things that was peculiar about Christianity was the way it brought despair-groups together. In the ancient world, there was a very strong stratification of society—usually along socioeconomic lines but also in other ways. You just didn’t mix classes in the way we think of today. When the Christian church came around, suddenly you’ve thrown in the “same pot” all these people from different backgrounds—cultural, economic. There was a bringing together of people in an unprecedented fashion in the early Christian movement. This was perplexing to the Greco-Roman world that you would reach out to people who were in a social status different than yours—in particular, lower ones than yours. Early Christians were known for the way they’d care for the poor in their midst: widows and orphans in need. That wasn’t what you did in the Greco-Roman world; you didn’t care for those in need, you just looked out for yourself. The idea that disposition was what set Christians apart. It’s what made it clear they loved each other and were unified and drawn together. The Bible is very clear on this, “They know us by the way we love one another.” Jesus himself taught that in the garden discourse. You could see it play out very plainly in the second century.
Laura: I think that’s such a good picture for today, because we all want to be in our own tribes of like-minded people. As moms, we can create little camps that no one ever knew existed by things we identify with. But what a picture we can be when we lift our eyes from women who do things the same as us, look the same as us, or are in the same class as us. I think that’s a great word to all of us to recognize we don’t need to have this tribalism among mom camps or that “mommy wars” don’t need to exist if we were all imaging Christ to all the women around us. If we really reached out, we could be a light like the early Christians were. We could be a bridge to women in other stages of life and other life situations.
Emily: Yeah, and I was thinking about, “They’re known by the way they love one another.” How countercultural and what message it would send to the world if moms in other spheres outside of Christianity really battle over these issues of choices and the way you parent, but in the Christian church, all these different moms are gathering and getting along and loving one another, even though they parent differently. They’d ask, “How is that? What’s the answer to that?” Maybe we could give an answer for the hope we have in Christ.
Michael: Absolutely. And I think from a historical perspective, people forget tribalism is a luxury during a time period when you’re not struggling with persecution. In the ancient world, they didn’t have time for tribalism. They were in survival mode. There’s nothing that binds a community together more quickly than suffering together. Honestly in America, in the last two centuries and more, we’ve had a situation where there hasn’t been any serious persecution at all. So we can all fight and bicker about all kinds of things. In the ancient church—not that they never disagree—it was more core and serious issues of survival that knit them together. I think this new phase we’re in culturally may end up blessing the church in a paradoxical way by knitting us together in ways we never have before.
Laura: So in your book you talk a little about how different version of Christianity were competing for the right to be the authentic version of the faith. As we’re talking about different things we can be divided over, one main thing is true orthodoxy. There can seem to be a lot of division around what it is and who’s saying what. Are there some lessons we can see from the early church as they navigated how to hold onto that truth orthodoxy that we might be able to apply to ourselves today?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Wow, you guys have read the book! I’m impressed. [Laughter] You’re pulling in some of those other chapters, and that’s great. There are a number of lessons we can draw from that. One lesson I’d start with is people need to realize false teaching is not a new problem in the Church. In the early church, they faced it too. There were people who were leading the Church astray and teaching things that were not faithful to scripture. The Church took that very seriously back then and worked hard to make sure people stayed on course. We can translate that into the modern day: we shouldn’t be naive about the seriousness about maintaining truth and keeping an eye out for people who would lead us astray. I think there’s a sense in the world—even in the Christian world—that theology doesn’t matter that much or let’s forget about our doctrinal positions and all just get along. Certainly we want unity, but we have to realize those theological truths really do matter; there will be people who want to pull us away from them. I think that’s step one: realizing we have great lessons to learn from the early centuries about fighting for good theology. That needs to still happen today.
There are other lessons too. One of the things the second century church did repeatedly when it faced these theological challenges is they continued to point people back to scripture and the core truths of what we believe. The Bible has to be central to everything we do as Christians, and that was true of the earliest Christians. They disagreed over extraneous things, but there were core things in scripture they had to be united on: the core elements of the gospel message. They always pointed people back to the Word of God. It wasn’t simply opinions winning the day; it was ultimately about what scripture taught. The only way to survive in the modern day is to keep ahold of God’s word like that.
Emily: I know your wife, Melissa, gave a great talk on discernment at TGC, which is also something we talk about at Risen Motherhood. To build on what you’re saying, in order to be able to separate good theology from wrong theology—or even self-correct over the years because we’re all growing and changing—we have to know scripture better. We have to have those discussions within a gospel-community of believers who also love scripture. That helps us so much over time to be able to hear the truth in something and also spot the lies more easily, because it doesn’t necessary come from evaluating bad sources; it comes from knowing the true source really, really well.
Michael: I think in our modern day, people—if they’re honest with themselves—make their decisions about what they believe based entirely on what they feel at the time. It’s easy to do that; we all struggle to do that. The early centuries remind us you can’t let that be the determining factor; you have to anchor into scriptural truth even if it’s hard, even if it’s not what you would pick. I tell people all the time, “If you read the Bible and find yourself in immediate agreement with everything in it, you need to ask yourself if you’re really reading it.” God is going to challenge you. You can assume all your views are what the Bible says. What if the Bible has a view you don’t have? You have to be willing to submit to it. That is the heartbeat of the Christian life: following God’s word even if doesn’t always make sense to us.
Emily: Praise the Lord he is sovereign. We can look back at the struggles happening in the second century church up to now and know he preserves his word. Over time, over the course of history, as people ebb and flow, push and pull, and form their theological thoughts, God’s word stays true. He really does preserve his church. I’m encouraged by that.
Michael: I think anyone who studies scripture or church history has that as a main take-away: God’s perpetual faithfulness to his people over the years. It’s particularly acute in the second century. On the human level, it looked like at a couple of points, the whole thing was going to end. It looked like it’d be snuffed out, like they wouldn’t make it. But God was true, and he didn’t let the Church fail. He’s going to keep it strong. Even when it looks down and out, it’s going to make it. That reminds you we’re not the first to do this thing called Christianity. We stand in a long line of people who’ve gone before us. That’s a humbling and encouraging thing for us.
Laura: Amen, that’s good. The last thing we typically do with anyone who comes on our show is we allow them to say a word to a whole lot of moms—most of them with young children in the throes of early motherhood. We want to give you some space to share. We know you’re a dad and you’ve been through raising children, so we’re curious if you have anything you’d like to say to our listeners?
Michael: Wow, that’s a generous opening there. [Laughter]
Laura: Yeah, maybe a little dangerous. I don’t know. [Laughter]
Michael: You may want to pull that invitation back depending on which route I go. Wow, there’s so much to say. Yeah, we’ve all been there. Melissa and I have been there, and we still have kids at home, even though they’re older now. But we can remember the younger years in particular. I can remember days and weeks—if not months and years—where you feel like you’re just barely coming up for air. Life becomes a blur. But I want to return to a point we made a minute ago: in the midst of that crazy life, always be looking for ways to anchor yourself in scripture again and again. I know for women listening in, the show does that; other mediums do that in helping people get back to the world. And I think sometimes in the world of parenting, you can think you’ll just put that off for awhile because you don’t have time for that or you don’t need to dive deep into the Bible and theology until your kids are grown. I’d encourage people to rethink that. Being in the word and taking theology seriously is like eating. You don’t say you’re not going to eat for a few years and see how you do. You need spiritual food. It’s as important as any meal. It’s as important as anything else. And here’s the big payoff: when you do that, you’re going to be a better parent. I think people think it’s going to steal time away, but never is time with the Lord at odds with time with your kids. It’s going to reshape you and help you be what God calls you to be with your children. And if nothing else, it shows the example to your children that God is number one, not them. Your children are not number one, God is number one. Your children need to see that, because if they begin to think they’re number one, that’ll put an unhealthy burden on them to live up to that. They don’t actually want to be number one, despite what we think. They want to know God is number one in our lives as parents. That is actually relieving for children in ways we probably don’t understand. So stick with that commitment to scripture. That’s my biggest advice.
Laura: That’s really encouraging. When I first entered motherhood, I was gobbling up the motherhood books—every single one I could find. As I have progressed through motherhood, I’ve realized more and more how God’s word holds everything that I need. All those extra books and resources are wonderful and can be so helpful, but ultimately, scripture is the only thing I can rely on and the only thing I can love and adore. As I grow in understanding his word, I think it pays off in so many ways. I see God provides all I need for conversations and raising my kids and training them and discipling them. I see it filter well. It doesn’t always feel like a direct application to parenting as I study God’s word, but I can see it is changing me, growing me, and molding me as a mom. Again, I don’t want to say resources aren’t helpful. But just like you said, God’s word is sufficient and we shouldn’t be distracted by all the flashy things that seem a little more direct or applicable to our exact situation. God will use his word faithfully in our lives.
Emily: Well thank you so much, Michael, for your time and coming on our show today to share about this topic. We hope many of our listeners are now very interested and curious to know more about this. And thank you for sharing a little bit of your heart for parenting, the Word of God, and God’s sovereignty throughout history. It’s been a blessing to us. We really appreciate it.
Michael: Thanks so much. I enjoyed talking to both of you.