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The Myth of the Perfect New Testament Church

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.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of the Perfect New Testament Church

  1. Lisa Barber

    Thank-you Ron for challenging the teaching that we need to image the “New Testament” (early) church. As I reflect on the reality that, because of context, we simply canNOT model ourselves after whatever “image” we have created in our imaginations of the NT church — but I am left with the questions: How do we allow the NT churches, and their leaders, to be our mentors? How do their experience, example, and wisdom help “form” us?
    Perhaps these questions seem “straight forward”, but personally I find the task of untangling the “principle” from the “example” a difficult one. Partially because I know that the nature of the Gospel assumes that we will not be formed to image our own culture — yet somehow we will be exactly what our culture needs to encounter its Creator. So what is that – exactly?

    1. Ron Johnston Post author

      Really good questions. I don’t think that anyone has the complete answers to them but here are a couple of things that have helped me.

      The first is that we need to distinguish between what is descriptive in scripture and what is prescriptive. Much of what we encounter in the Book of Acts is simply descriptive of what happened in a particular place at a particular point in history. We need to be careful when we use those descriptive passages to set the norm for the church for all time. It is particularly tempting when the descriptive passage seems to confirm something that we already believe. We need to use a great deal of caution when we use the Book of Acts to establish the norm for the church in any period. The account of the counsel in Jerusalem in Acts 15. It has been used to validate almost every type of church structure that exists in our churches today. In reality Luke did not record it in Acts to teach us how a church should be structured but to show how the church’s response to one of the most important theological issues that the early church faced.

      The second fact that has helped me is that contrary to what some would have us believe God did not work through the early church and then take twenty centuries off and begin to work through those who imitate the first-century church in our current era. God has been working in and through the church for twenty centuries. We need to learn not only from the first-century leaders but from those whom God has used in every century.

      Finally we are called to make disciples. That is the commission given to the church. The question that churches need to wrestle with is how they carry out that commission. God is more concerned with whether a church is fulfilling his commission than he is about the structure that a church might use.

      Having said all of this again I return to what I said at the beginning. Your questions are a constant challenge for anyone providing leadership in a church. Thanks for challenging my thinking. I will ponder your question long after I have finished giving these comments.

    1. Ron Johnston Post author

      Thanks. I think that we will wait until we are in eternity before we discover that pattern and even then I can’t help but think that the God who loves variety so much will allow for some even then.

  2. Owen Juhlke

    Thanks Ron for the excellent article you have written. I think you have summed it up well with your statement, “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.” This is what we are trying to do in our own small church, in our own small community. Grace and Peace, Owen Juhlke, First Baptist Beamsville.

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