A First Century Church

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It is not uncommon to hear modern Christians say that they attend a New Testament church. Making all due allowances for what they might mean, my first reaction is along the lines of why would you want to do that? Drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper? Controversies about bacon, idolatry, and circumcision? Now if the intention is simply an affirmation of sola Scriptura, then there is nothing really exceptional about the sentiment – although they would do well to include the Old Testament.

But the water is usually far deeper than this. A certain romantic, golden age set of assumptions about revelation and history are driving the sentiment. In this view, the Church in the first century was pure, uncorrupted, well-governed, and mature. As the apostles started to die off, corruptions started to flood in. Modern Christians differ about the rates of corruption – some say that apostasy set in rapidly, within the first century itself. Others say that this did not happen until Constantine wrecked everything by making the Christian faith the religion of the Roman Empire. In this, we see the typical evangelical assumption about church history. There was a golden age lasting from one hundred to three hundred years, and then a thousand years or more of darkness.

Now all heirs of the Reformation acknowledge that such corruptions of doctrine and practice did in fact occur – otherwise, why have a reformation at all? – but the classical Protestant position places the real trouble much later, and sees it as a very gradual process that infected some portions of the church far more than others. Certain fundamental corruptions did come into the church by the eighth century in the adoration of images, but even here it was not as though someone bumped the light switch, leaving us all in the dark. Wonderful things were happening in the court of Charlemagne, and through the high middle ages, we find faithful saints, laboring in the work of the gospel. Dissatisfaction with the way some things were going is what made the Reformation happen – a movement from within the church, to reform that same church. But this is not a problem because the Church was established in order to grow up into maturity, which takes time.

Now this takes us back to the first century. Our views on that century are a good litmus test for modern Christians. One view is that the modern church is in fact a restoration – the original church all but disappeared, and God has brought it back into being. When did that happen? The answers vary, but still have a great deal in common. The cultic form of this is seen in the assumptions of the LDS church, but orthodox forms of it are very common with evangelicals throughout North America. This restorationist mindset sees the work of God on this continent in the last two centuries as God starting over. In response to the question, where was your church before (insert date of your denomination’s founding)?, the answer is to point to the first century. But for the classical Protestant, when asked where his church was before the Reformation, he answers with another question. Where was your face before you washed it?

The contrast is between a view of history that sees leaven working through the loaf, and a view which sees the kingdom of God coming in fits and starts. With this latter assumption, because the first century church was complete, what we have must be complete. It is an all or nothing mentality. The former sees room for development, regression, reformation, creedal advance, and so on. It is not perfectionist.

But the all or nothing assumption is perfectionistic, and this accounts for the defensive dogmatism about the most indefensible things. Consider some problems with our forms of worship, with our traditions. Because of our a priori commitment to be “the New Testament Church,” we tend to understand our practices anachronistically. Because of massive historical illiteracy, the first century is a blank screen on which we may project our notions of ecclesiastical spirituality. And thus it is that forms of worship invented on the Kentucky frontier are thought to be the practices of Peter, James and John. This whole area is a fascinating study. A chorus with three chords accompanied by the guitar seems far more spiritual, simple, plain, and godly than, say, a wall of pipes for an organ. The problem is that the Temple where Jesus worshiped in had an organ (no kidding), but no guitars. And there are people who actually believe that the wine of the New Testament was grape juice through and through, and they think this because someone started insisting on grape juice somewhere in Missouri a little over a century ago. And this freshly-minted tradition is read back into the first century as though it were part of the faith once delivered to the saints. But in the light of history, to insist that Paul served grape juice at the Lord’s Supper is as silly as maintaining that he wore a neck-tie. To think he sang happy, happy, happy all the day choruses is to think thoughts, as Dr. Seuss might put it, that shouldn’t be thunk.

Some forms of medieval church tradition did drift away from the standards set in Scripture in the first century, and this drifting was culpable and called for reformation. The Reformers rightly wanted a return ad fontes, back to the sources. But the sources they appealed to were not limited to Scripture, although Scripture was the final and infallible norm. The Reformers were the finest patristic scholars in the Europe of their day, and understood the faithful patterns which the Church had followed for centuries.

In contrast to this, rather than seeing our era in the light of revelation and subsequent history, the Scriptures are placed in one cultural context – ours – and it is read and interpreted accordingly. By the grace of God, many elements of the gospel have still been accurately read. But in numerous other ways, our evangelical traditions are just plain silly, and this is because in many ways the last thing we would want to have is a first century church.

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