I have been reading a book by Frank Viola and George Barna entitled Pagan Christianity?. The basic premise of the book is that for two thousand years Christians have been doing church wrong and that they need to get back to the way in which people “did church” in the first century.
According to Viola and Barna almost everything that we do in our churches today is derived from pagan customs.
“The normative practices of the first-century were the natural and spontaneous expression of the divine life that indwelt the early Christians. And those practices were solidly grounded in the timeless principles and teachings of the New Testament. By contrast, a great number of the practices in many contemporary churches are in conflict with those biblical principles and teachings. When we dig deeper, we are compelled to ask: Where did the practices of the contemporary church come from? The answer is disturbing: Most of them were borrowed from pagan culture. Such a statement short-circuits the minds of many Christians when they hear it. But it is an unmovable, historical fact, as this book will demonstrate.” (preface, p. xix)
Years before Viola and Barna wrote their book Peter Wagner also pointed to the church of the first century as the ideal model for today.
“A model church in the New Testament is the one in Jerusalem which was founded on the day of Pentecost. On that day the nucleus of 120 added 3,000 new members. They were baptized, they grew in their understanding of Christian doctrine, they worshiped together regularly, they developed fellowship groups, they shared their material goods with one another, they exercised their spiritual gifts. As a result the church continued to grow and “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). This was a healthy church. And one characteristic of healthy churches is that they grow.” (Leading Your Church To Growth, 21, 22)
I have spent all of my adult life working in the context of the Plymouth Brethren Churches. One of the weaknesses of that group of churches has historically been a belief that they have discovered what it means to be a “New Testament” church. From their perspective the goal of every church should be to imitate the church of the first century and fortunately for them, they discovered how that early church functioned which enabled them to be the one denomination that had it right. Sadly that belief has led to an ecclesiastical pride in Brethren churches that has harmed their broader ministry in the evangelical world.
The first-century church
Whenever I come across anyone who suggests that we should follow the example of the first-century church, I want to ask them which of the first-century churches they are following. Each and every church described in the New Testament is different from the others.
The Jerusalem church was unique in its makeup. Its broad leadership base consisted of the twelve disciples, James, the human brothers of Jesus and a number of other exceptional leaders whom we read about in Acts. I don’t know about you but I have never been part of a church with that kind of leadership team. Most of the people who responded to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost had personally witnessed the ministry of Jesus and were responding not only to the sermon but to everything that they had seen and heard over the past three years. At the death of Jesus miraculous events occurred. People had experienced an earthquake, unusual darkness, dead people walking in the streets of Jerusalem. How can anyone expect that a church in the twenty-first century Canada would have the same response as that church experienced?
The church in Antioch was the first intercultural church with both Greeks and Jews playing an important role. They too had exceptional leadership with Paul and Barnabas among their leaders.
The church in Rome probably consisted of a number of house churches and considering the size of the average house in the first century, those churches were probably quite small. We don’t know how the leadership functioned in those churches, whether there was one leadership team over all the house churches or whether each church had its own team but the circumstances in Rome would have made it different than the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch.
We don’t know how large the church in Philippi became but we do know that when Paul left the city, he left a rather small church behind. From the account in Acts we only know of two families. We come across several other names in Paul’s epistle to the Philippians but when we put all of the names together it still amounts to a rather small church.
Finally we come to the church in Corinth. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is his answer to massive problems in that church. I don’t think that anyone would want to be part of the leadership team in Corinth. Divisions, incest, members going to court against each other, impropriety in worship, and misuse of spiritual gifts were just some of the issues facing that church.
Should we try to imitate the first-century church? If we are going to try to do so, which church will we imitate? The early church was just like the church today – a combination of failures and successes as God worked through fallible human beings.
The danger of trying to imitate a church of our own imagination
God worked in the first century, often in spite of the people who made up the first-century church. Like us they weren’t perfect but they did serve a perfect God.
When we look back in church history, even when we look all the way back to the first century, we are in danger of two serious mistakes.
The first is that often in looking back we turn the church of whatever period we might consider into a mythological church that can never be matched. The danger of looking at the first-century church is that we create in our minds the perfect church that is a figment of our imagination. A fantasy church is a dangerous thing.
When we create a perfect church in our minds, we can never achieve that level of perfection. No matter how hard we might work and how much God might bless, we will always fall short because in this life perfection isn’t possible. Having an impossible vision for what the church should be leads to discouragement and even despair.
The second danger is that a belief that a church has somehow captured the first-century way of doing things can lead to spiritual pride. I always become concerned when someone tells me that they have finally after two thousand years come to understand how God wants them to do church.
God did not allow his church to flounder for two thousand years so that he could reveal his plan for the church to an individual or group today. God has been at work down through the centuries using different means and different people but he has been working through his church. He was not helplessly waiting all this time for the right person to be born so that he could bring the church back to his way of functioning.
On the way to my daughter’s house there is a church with a sign that proclaims that it is the full gospel church. It bothers me every time that I drive past. I can’t help but feel that it is a very prideful statement for that church to make. They have the full gospel which suggests that everyone else only has part of it.
Pride is an insidious thing. It creeps in without us even knowing that it is there and there is no place where that this is more true than in churches and denominations. Whenever we start to think that we have a monopoly on truth, we are in danger of spiritual pride.
Diversity is at the heart of God
I don’t know what the church was like in the New Testament. I know that it had its problems because solving those problems takes up more space in Paul’s letters than positive instructions on how he wanted the churches to function.
I think that Paul wanted each church to be shaped by its culture so that it was able to communicate in the context of the world in which it was placed.
Creating a myth from the little that we know of the first-century church will result in feelings of failure and a loss of effectiveness in your present reality.
God wants you to be effective today as a twenty-first century church impacting your community and helping people become more committed disciples of Jesus Christ. He is not asking you to live up to someone’s fantasy church that he has created out of an incorrect understanding of the New Testament.