The Deceptive Allure of the Past: Or why we should NOT seek to emulate the early church

For some reason, humanity seems to feel a deep and profound regard for earlier times. We often reflect back on the good days, when children were obedient, life was manageable, societal evils were few, and times were simple. We remember our childhood with nostalgia, marked in equal measure by our disdain for the current situation. Look at Congress (or Parliament), utterly gridlocked, lazy, useless. The job situation these days, growing debt, economic stagnation, ever-falling standards of media and entertainment, the evils exposed to children at a young age. Theology, especially on a popular level, has not been immune to this tendency. I have heard countless times a sentiment like the following: if only we were like the early church, because the early church was the best church. They were the most passionate, fully sold out to God. In the face of persecution, opposition, and difficulty they pressed on to serve Christ, doing great miracles and signs and wonders. Today, Christians, especially in the West, are weak, passionless, dedicated to pleasure and entertainment and growing more spiritually feeble by the year. Truth is falling by the wayside and the church is dying, infected by the cancer of an ever more rapidly decaying society.

This can be a compelling narrative, obviously with some elements of truth, but I would like to set out to debunk the fundamental assertions of this line of thought. I would argue instead that the early church, indeed even the church of the New Testament, was a deeply flawed group of individuals, with just as many negative examples for us to avoid as positive examples for us to emulate. I would also argue that the situation of the church today is not as dire as some would herald, and that many churches, around the world and even in the West, are vibrant communities that are growing, discipling many, and building the kingdom of God in their neighbourhoods. Evangelism is taking place across the globe, and the church has been growing faster in the last two or three generations than it has ever grown before. Social justice and areas of ministry sorely neglected in the past are now being engaged by ever increasing numbers of Christians. Bible translation is proceeding at a blistering pace, and people who have never heard the gospel before are being reached in ways that would have been inconceivable even 50 years ago. There remains much to be done, and the church is still lacking in many key areas, but please let’s give credit where credit is due. But let me move to the heart of my argument today, which are the flaws of the early church.

One of the great temptations in Biblical interpretation is to apply a more ‘prescriptive’ than ‘descriptive’ approach to the text of scripture. Paul travelled from city to city, so we should focus on urban areas. Paul departed from and returned  to Antioch on his major missionary journeys, so we should also have a sending church to periodically return to. The apostles held a council to deliberate on issues in Acts 15, so we should have councils. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus never travelled very far from Israel as far as we know, so we should also remain to do ministry in our home country. Jesus didn’t write any books, so we also should not write books. Jesus made wine from water, so we should also seek to turn our water into wine. You see the limits of the prescriptive approach. Acts, for example, is a narrative: the story of what happened in the early church. It can and does help in missions work today, but it is not written as a guidebook for how to do missions. Narrative must be understand as a story first and foremost. I am deeply skeptical that the message of Esther is that we should all send our young daughters to spend a night with our ruler if he would to call for a nation-wide competition for a new wife. Genesis is fraught with terribly negative examples of manipulation, deception, murder, and sexual misdeeds committed by heroes and prominent figures of our faith. The early church is no exception. The next time you are disappointed with the failings of the church today and desire to be like the pure church of old, consider the following:

1) The early church was a mess. Some of them couldn’t even make it to take communion without getting drunk, and other were left out and didn’t get anything. (1 Cor 11:17-22)

2) Some couldn’t figure out even something as basic as whether Christ was coming back, or if he had already come back. (2 Thes 2:1-10)

3) The church of Sardis is described as being ‘dead’. That’s doesn’t sound good. (Rev 3:1-3)

4) The church in Laodicea is described as being luke-warm and content in their own riches and prosperity. Hmm sounds like some churches today. (Rev 3:14-18)

5) Some in the church were really caught up with materialism and tried to look pious by claiming to be more generous than they actually were. And this resulted in their death…sounds like a scandal to me… (Acts 5:1-5)

6) There were false teachers. (Jude 3-4)

7) There were fakers, and one new convert who even tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:20)

8) One church openly allowed a guy to be sleeping with his mother-in-law. That’s disturbing… (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)

9) Another church rejected the gospel, not that long after they had heard it, from Paul himself, and were tempted by other teachings. (Galatians 1:6-7)

10) The church today is often divided by factions led by charismatic leaders, following these leaders with an almost obsessive devotion…oh I meant to say the early church. (1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:1-9)

11) Some church leaders argued among themselves, to the point of being unable to continue together in ministry (Acts 15:36-41)

12) The earliest Christians did not have the Bible. It took many years to collect and recognize all the canonical books, so that is a great advantage the church has today.

13) The church today has a great history to study and learn from (even if this history is often neglected or misunderstood).

All this to say….let’s not try too hard to be exactly like the early church. Rather let’s learn from them, both the positive and negative examples, and instead of trying to recreate a long-lost time that will never return, seek to follow Christ as best we can in the time in which we find ourselves.

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