July 20, 2016

Back to the Early Church?

by Eric Davis
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You’ve probably heard it many times. “We just need to get back to the days of the early church.” “You know, things would be so much better in contemporary Christianity if we were more like the early church.”

While there were some great things happening then, I’m not so sure that I am eager to get back to the early church days. They, too, had their problems. Here are a few reasons why we might put the brakes on the glamorization of the early church.

  1. You were probably a slave.

History estimates that approximately one-third of the Roman Empire’s population was made up of slaves. Apparently, many of those slaves became Christians. So, as a Christian, one could not come and go as they please; grab their Starbucks and quiet time whenever they wished; or go to their single’s group when convenient. As a slave, the individual was another’s property and subject to their master’s will. That’s a different situation than many western Christians find themselves today, thus, making the early church days potentially challenging.

  1. Church facilities and gatherings would not suit most people today.

Church gatherings and buildings were not the same as those in the 21st century, western world. In the early church, one could not roll up to gathering in an air-conditioned vehicle, walk into an air-conditioned building, and stop by the coffee bar for one’s favorite morning pick-me-up and pastry. Also absent from nascent church gatherings were epic video displays, dazzling drama performances, and explosive, boredom-free youth programs.

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Gatherings in the infant days would have been dull and tedious to many. They were filled with Scripture reading, biblical teaching, exhortation, and prayer, with no glittering audio/visual stimuli. Services were often held at inconvenient, early times and in uncomfortable locations. You typically lost friends and acquaintances if you attended. And, you could get thrown in jail for being seen gathering with these despised people in society.

  1. Almost no one possessed a Bible or theological resources.

The New Testament canon was not complete until sometime in the early 90’s A.D. But that did not mean everyone instantly had a copy of the 66 books of God’s inerrant word on their shelf. A critical part of the church’s maturation was the recognizing, copying, and circulating the canon. This took years.

So, no one possessed a complete Bible during the first century. And, it’s likely that a complete Bible was not in anyone’s possession until sometime in the second century at the earliest. But even then, the printing press was about 13 centuries out from being invented, thus, the vast majority of believers for centuries did not own a copy of God’s word.

Consequently, the church possessed few theological resources in her earliest days. While some church fathers like Justin Martyr, Ignatius, and Irenaeus of Lyons put out some theological works, these could not be downloaded, printed, or reproduced easily.

Today, we can instantly access almost any theological resource. Whether a sermon, systematic theology, or anything in between, we can not only obtain these, but search them and store them on a single device that weighs about as much as one book.

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A scarcity of Bibles and theological resources made the early church a difficult time.

  1. Theological error existed in abundance.

During the early church, errors flourished. Errors existed over large matters such as the deity and incarnation of Christ (Colossians) and justification by faith alone in Christ alone (Galatians). People struggled with other errors. Did God’s people miss the resurrection of the righteous (2 Tim. 2:18)? Will dead Christians miss Christ’s return (1 Thess. 4:13-18)? Is it godly to be physical in marriage (1 Cor. 7)? And is marriage even OK at all? And who should be a leader in the church (1 Tim. 1:6-7, 3:1-7)?

From the New Testament letters, we can discern that error existed in virtually every church to whom the Apostles wrote. Some of the theological errors during early church days might seem bizarre due to the apparent theological simplicity on the issue. But, without the resources we have today, they are understandable.

Today, theological error still abounds. However, it is far less excusable. These days, almost everyone has a Bible. In the early church, no one did. Today, almost everyone has access to sound theological resources. Then, they did not. Today, the essential doctrines of the faith have been defined and tested over time. Then, they had not.

An abundance of theological error made the early church a difficult time.

  1. People struggled to love each other.

Often, the early church gets fairy tal’ed into a first century “happily-ever-after.” While some exemplary love and one-anothering occurred (e.g. Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37), squabbles were no less present. The Hebrews grappled with the Hellenists (Acts 6:1). Paul and Barnabas had their tiff (Acts 15:39). The Corinthian church scorned their apostle-pastor (2 Cor. 10:10) and had multi-faceted civil war (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Euodia and Synteche were chucking pews at each other to such an extent that their names were preserved in the canon (Phil. 4:2). The Galatian church considered Paul their enemy (Gal. 4:16). Timothy likely had some sort of feminist uprising in Ephesus, along with his Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander (1 Tim. 2:20, 2 Tim. 2:17). Titus was up against lazy, godless gluttons and stiff-necked religious people who needed severe rebuke (Titus 1:10-16). Philemon and Onesimus needed mediation. James dealt with local church prejudice (Jas 2:1-9). And even Paul and Peter scuffled a bit (Gal. 2:11).

Just as in churches today, the early church had sin, making love difficult at times.

  1. God disciplined people by death.
V&A_-_Raphael,_The_Death_of_Ananias_(1515)

en.wikipedia.org

On at least two occasions, Scripture records instances were professing Christians died due to sin against God.

Though they did what would earn them a plaque and a party in many churches today, Ananias and Sapphira were disciplined with death when they gave proceeds of their property (Acts 5:1-10). Notwithstanding a large offering, the taint of sin in the matter made it unacceptable and grounds for a true slaying by the Spirit.

Meanwhile, in Corinth, some of the church had turned the Lord’s Supper into a segregated frat party (1 Cor. 11:20-22). In response, God brought physical judgment on the congregation (1 Cor. 11:30). Some were struck with sickness. Others, death.

God’s message was clear: God is still a holy God to be revered in these exciting, new covenant days.

Don’t get me wrong. God was busy building and blessing his cherished church in her infancy days. Great and essential things happened for which we praise God. However, it will not do to romanticize the early church into something that is inherently superior to a church whom God has formed up for twenty centuries. “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” (Eccles. 7:10).

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • bill80205

    Great message, Eric. It is interesting to note that much of the church around the world is like the early church, especially in sections 2 & 3 and a bit in 4. On my last trip to northern Uganda I met with pastors in over 15 villages and eventually with over 25 village pastors. The number one problem they all faced was false teachers coming up from the capital stealing people away. That resulted from a lack of Bibles and of solid theological training. They meet often in the small buildings they build from brick they make, without windows, and often out under a mango tree. This is the way the church all over the world, from Africa to China and beyond, meets and experiences. In America we tend to think we build the church around facilities and programs. Many try to make the church into their perceiver new and better model or become basically community organizers tring to eliminate evil by their work. Jesus did not tell us to eliminate evil, he told us to overcome evil by being light and sowing the gospel far and wide. He will deal with the tares at the harvest.

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  • Jason

    You did a good job addressing the discomfort and issues the early church struggled against, but I’m sure you’re aware that most, when they say “let’s work on getting back to our roots”, don’t mean reinstating slavery (though it may help people understand the servant concept in scripture better!), losing all of our Bibles, forgetting a couple thousand years of theological discussion, or even trashing the air conditioner.

    You seemed to be advocating the position that we’ve lost our sense of what’s important in #2. If only we cared enough about one another to have the kind of contention mentioned in #5! Far from struggling to love one another, it’s all too common to avoid the inconvenience of such conflict all together (and teachers who do offer public rebuke are often those called “unloving”).

    Certainly, Christ has been building his church from that time to now, and losing any of that maturity for the sake of “the way things used to be” is foolishness, but we have picked up more than maturity along the way. I think mature believers are starting to realize how much of our own “church” we’ve built around Christ’s.

    Perhaps there are some advocating getting a new baby to go with the fresh bathwater, but I know some just don’t want to keep the same bath water for life (everyone knows kids pee in the tub…)

  • Johnny

    Very true. The fact that the first bunch of Roman emperors were bent on destroying Christianity and Christians makes for a very troubling timeframe to want to go back to. Plus there’s a lot of good to be said for modern medicine and antibiotics too… 🙂

  • 4Commencefiring4

    It’s one thing to want to have our churches be more like the “early church” and find it’s not exactly what we bargained for. You make a great point.

    But a related question is this: If you could have a “christian nation” instead of what we have, would you favor that? Would you like to have a government run strictly according to christian principles and a society that operated according to the ways that were in place in generations gone by?

    Many would quickly say, “Of course.” But would they? What brand of “christian” would that government be? Would it be the liturgical/”high church” kind, a “praise band/rock& roll” kind, or a Georgia-style snake handler/revivalist/sawdust trail with little old lady on the piano kind? Or something else?

    Would the average christian want a return of “Blue laws”, for instance, and not be able to even buy a hammer from Home Depot on a Sunday? Would anyone even own a TV if all that was offered was the lame shows we used to see in the 50s and 60s? Would “Dr. Kildare” or “Father Knows Best” get an audience nowadays? Would the internet go away? Probably–given what’s on it.

    As you said, some tend to think–erroneously–that if we did what the “early church” did, it would be an improvement. But I’m also willing to bet that even going back 50 years and living that way, we’d soon wonder what we were thinking.

    • Jason

      Nearly everything you mentioned in this post seems to make Christianity out to be the caricature of the faith that the world has created… The faith is not some backwater concept that keeps people from enjoying life.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Iran is truly an “Islamic country”–it’s not just that most everyone is a practicing Muslim, but the government itself is run on Islamic teachings. Everyone is on the same page, more or less.

        So what would be the equivalent for a “christian country”? That’s all I’m asking. And would the average christian want to live in that country as opposed to the one they’re in now? My guess is we wouldn’t.

        As for the “caricature”, I think it’s accurate to say we had a “more christian” nation 50 years ago than we’ve got now–by nearly every measure. So it’s a logical question to ask: would returning to that 1950s model–or one from even earlier when it was REALLY restrictive–be popular or preferred?

        How many of us say life in the 21st century could never be imagined by those of earlier generations, yet how many of us would be happier to return to those days? Keeping it simple, would anyone vote for a return of Blue laws–never mind its questionable constitutionality? I think not. We all say life was simpler and better back in the day, but I’ll bet we’re just as glad we can’t go back in time.

        • KPM

          You should read a bit on Two Kingdoms theory. The Reformers were clear and insistent that the Roman Catholic Church had severely abused its authority by wedding church and state. Certainly, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and even those who came after them, didn’t always apply the Two Kingdoms theory well once they (or the princes who supported them) had the reigns of government. However, the basic concept – that God rules the church through divine law and the gospel, but He rules the secular realm through natural law and justice – is essential to the shaping of the modern world.

          American Evangelical Christianity in general seems to be confused on this subject, and we have been since the Mayflower Compact. The Church is God’s Christian Nation. It is ruled by the Law and the Gospel. Christ is its King, pastors are his governors, in a sense. The civil world is God’s secular realm. He rules the secular realm as well because all rulers are ultimately under His dominion and they will give an account for how they have governed. Their responsibility is to rule by natural law (also established by God) and to carry out justice. Their responsibility is to ensure the safety of their people and the good order of society.

          If you want a Christian nation, look to the Church, and wait in hope for the time when Christ returns.

          • 4Commencefiring4

            There’s certainly a distinction to be made between life within the Body and life outside it.

            But, just like the point of the article was a good reminder that “the early church” might not have been as glorious in many ways as we might believe it to have been, so too a return to “the old days”–when we had a much more “christian nation” than we do now–might have less attraction than we remember.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    I believe when people say they want to be like the early church, they neglect the fact that the hardships the early church went through made them what we will never be.

    Let’s be honest, if we complain about folding chairs and drums in church, if we neglect studying the Word, but waste hours on the internet, if we skip church because of a football game, it’s pretty clear that our comforts have crippled us.

    Now of course, God can strengthen those whose hearts are fully devoted to Him, but I would suspect that number would be pretty small if we had to face what the early church did.

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  • Steve Rios

    Thanks for this article Pastor Eric. I will be preaching from Acts 4:32-37 this Sunday and I had similar thoughts here.

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  • KPM

    There was some really good theology in the early church, too. Clement of Rome, for example, is incredibly gospel-centered. He was trained by Peter for goodness sake! He wrote to the Corinthians to call them to repent when they removed their bishop without justification. Here’s Clement on justification:

    “And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men.”

    You find very similar statements in Ignatius & Polycarp who were trained by John, and Irenaeus who was a bishop in the following generation. Irenaeus wrote extensively against the heretics in order to protect the catholic faith.

    I would have gladly gone to church under Clement in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch, or Polycarp in Smyrna. The Reformation was all about recovering the catholic faith as it is contained in the scriptures and was taught by the church fathers. The Augsburg Confession, written in 1530 as the first official declaration of protestant theology, quotes extensively from the church fathers to show that it was the Roman Catholic Church who had departed from the catholic faith. The intent of the Lutheran reformers was for the church to return to its earlier teachings which had been slowly corrupted through the years. For example, the Real Presence in the Eucharist is clearly taught by Ignatius in 106 AD when he says “I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ.” All of the early church fathers who reference the Lord’s Supper are in agreement on this point. Shouldn’t that give us some pause if we deny it?

    The writings of the church fathers are not infallible, of course, but we ignore their testimony at our own peril. There are various Christian denominations today who are in essential agreement regarding things like the Trinity, the Nature of Christ (besides EFS, of course), the canon of scripture, etc. However, we would benefit a great deal if part of the interpretation process included historical reference. If our doctrine is at complete odds with the men who were trained directly by the apostles, then maybe we’re missing the mark. There are small seeds of error that grow with time over the history of the church (like Ignatius’ emphasis on the episcopacy), but if he was trained by the Apostle John and according to history even sat on the lap of Christ when he was a child, shouldn’t we have the humility to recognize that he might have some important things to say? The Reformers certainly took that approach.

  • KPM

    Nathan’s assertions that the early church was not liturgical, are also ridiculous. Has he not read the Didache?

    The early church, going back to 96 AD, had the following liturgical elements:

    1. Pray the Lord’s Prayer 3 Times Per Day (also advocated by Luther in his Small Catechism)

    2. Section 9 of the Didache gives us the earliest church liturgy for the Lord’s Supper

    3. Section 14 of the Didache teaches that corporate confession of sin was necessary before partaking of the Eucharist

    4. Section 10 of the Didache gives a set corporate prayer which was recited following the Eucharist and a simple meal

    5. Fasting was to be observed on Wednesdays and Fridays

    The baptist insistence upon baptism by immersion is also expressly refuted in the Didache, an early Jewish-Christian document. They make it clear that immersion is preferable, but not commanded. Pouring water over the head is given as an acceptable alternative.

    If Old Covenant worship was ceremonial and liturgical (corporate participation, call and response, prescribed prayers), and the Book of Revelation gives us a glimpse into the heavenly liturgies, why do we assume New Covenant worship is the only thing that isn’t supposed to be liturgical? Especially when we have evidence that liturgies developed in the very early ancient church.

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  • Christoph Koebel

    I’m not endorsing that article. Who are the “we” in this article? Would I be correct if it is “American evangelical Churches” with VERY LITTLE impact in our society? Just take the #1 waste of financial resources, church building. And Eric brings up that topic under point 2. I was in Turkey and observed what kind of “places of worship” they had. Not one of the 20 churches I saw in Istanbul qualified as a “Church building”. The most successful church in Vienna/Austria was a former bakery. What is really missing in USA/Canada is the question if we’re on mission or not? I could go through all points and show that these are major problem in our North American Churches. I saw a prediction how many Evangelicals we’ll have by the year 2100. Only one continent has a negative development, North America. Close your eyes to the facts and engage in earthly kingdom. For me the church in Antioch is a great example, grew out of persecution. And it happens today, USA/Canada excluded.
    “Go and build gyms, huge sanctuaries OR go make disciples where Christ is not known?”