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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
A scarcity of Bibles and theological resources made the early church a difficult time.
- 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.
- 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.
- God disciplined people by death.
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).