First Century Church?

What do we really know about the first century church? In some respects, quite a lot. There is good evidence that all the books and letters which would become “The New Testament,” the scriptures of the New Covenant which completed and fulfilled the Old, were written and in circulation by the end of the first century. These books and letters allow us to see into the minds of the Spirit-filled apostles who led the early church, under Christ. They provide insight into some of the early church’s practices, the problems they faced and the solutions the apostles advised. But in other respects we know very little about the practices and way of life of the early church and how it might have differed from community to community. And is it legitimate to say that those practices of which we are aware, unlike the doctrinal statements and imperatives of the scriptures, are normative for the church in all ages since? To what extent should we be aiming to imitate the first century church, if that is even possible?

The Christadelphian community purports to be “the modern revival of the apostolic faith,” the faith and practice of the first century church. According to Christadelphian tradition, the early church rapidly went astray in doctrine and practice almost as soon as the last of the apostles passed from the scene, around the end of the first century [1]. Ergo, very little of the doctrine and practice of the church from the second century onward can be relied upon as a source of Christian truth, and so the church remained apostate for some 1800 years until the apostolic faith was rediscovered and reinstituted by Dr John Thomas in the mid-nineteenth century. Although  this exclusive claim to truth has been toned down and even discarded by many Christadelphians, it nevertheless was and remains the traditional and conservative Christadelphian position. Furthermore, it is claimed, the Christadelphians’ distinctive claim to practice original Christianity is because they, uniquely, draw on the Bible alone as their source for doctrine and practice.

The Christadelphians are a small religious group of people who follow the faith and beliefs of the first century Christians as recorded in the Bible. We believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God and is our only guide.” [2]

If some of the early followers of the apostles in the first century could attend such [Christadelphian] meetings, it is believed that they would immediately recognise what was going on, for it is patterned on New Testament worship” [3]

What then, would be expect a “modern revival of the apostolic faith” to look like? What would we expect a community modelled on the first century ecclesia to look like? The apostles left both an oral/exemplary tradition and a written tradition to the church. During the apostolic and immediately post-apostolic period, the oral/exemplary tradition was understood in terms of a “Rule of Faith” which defined the essence of the Gospel and how Scripture should be interpreted. Although the New Testament documents were circulating along with the Hebrew scriptures, there was as yet no single compendium of works called “The New Testament.” If a first century believer were to define the “New Testament” they would doubtless think of the new covenant in Christ’s atoning blood (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Co3:6; Heb 9:15; 12:24; Jer 31:31–34), enshrined in the Gospel, and the apostolic Rule of Faith (Gal 1:6–12). Individual communities would have had variable access to the actual apostolic writings, but we do know that they were available in the first century (1 Tim 5:18 citing a gospel; 2 Peter 3:15–16) and in fairly extensive circulation in the second, cited extensively alongside the Hebrew scriptures by the early church fathers. It was apostolicity that eventually framed the corpus of Scripture, not the other way around. So the first century church followed the apostles’ teaching but it did not follow “the whole Bible” and nothing else. It didn’t yet have the whole Bible.

The first century church began as a new branch of Judaism, recognising in Christ the fulfilment of God’s plan for Israel and the nations, as prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures. The church was the new “Israel of God” (Gal 6:15–16). Initial preaching began among Jews and spread to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles (Acts 8:25; 11:19–21; 13:46; Rom 9:24). Many early Gentile converts were already “God fearers,” attracted to Judaism and frequenting the synagogues (Acts 8:27ff), but soon Christianity spread through the pagan community (1 Cor 6:9–11; 12:3–11). Although not without some conflict, it became a welcoming, diverse but inclusive community (Gal 3:28) and eventually Jewish Christians were in the minority. Moving into the second century the Jews denied that the Christians were part of their community and “religio licita.” The Romans recognised this too, not granting this new upstart breakaway group the tolerance accorded to the ancient tradition of Judaism. Nor did the Christians see themselves as mere extensions of Israel. Israel was not the church and the church was not Israel. If Jews were to be saved they must join Christ’s body (Acts 4:11-12).

The Christian message was Christocentric, built on the foundation of the apostle and prophets fulfilled in Jesus. First century Christians were not a political body and initially had few members with worldly influence (1 Cor 1:26). They did not seek to found a Christian state, but simply to be allowed to worship God and spread the Gospel to all without distinction. They honoured the emperor but did not worship him (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17). They would by no means worship other gods, which were regarded as demons, nor pay homage to the emperor as a deity. They did not participate in Roman social, political, sporting, community and religious events, which were associated with paganism (1 Cor 10:19–21). This meant they came to be viewed as atheists, antisocial, obstinate and “haters of mankind.” They looked to the future consummation of the kingdom, which they believed was imminent. They shared everything and had structured systems for the care of the poor and destitute among them (Acts 4:34–37; 6:1–6; 1 Cor 5:1–16). To this end they gave generously of their means for the welfare of “the least of these.” They met in private homes; it was only in the late second to third centuries that dedicated church buildings were used. Although there might be hundreds of Christians in a church community, they met as small house churches (Acts 12:12; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 1:1–2) .

Doctrinally, it is anachronistic to say that the first century Christians based their beliefs solely on the Old and New Testament scriptures, because they didn’t yet exist as a complete package. They based their doctrines on the apostles’ teaching as circulated orally and (eventually) in writing. They also had direct instruction and influence from the Holy Spirit, including gifts of “prophecy” and “discerning of spirits” (whatever those actually meant) (1 Cor 12:3–11). Converts were baptised on profession of faith in Jesus’s lordship with apparently no extended period of instruction or catechumenate in this period (Acts 16:13–15; 18:8; 19:4–5; Rom 10:9–13). That there was some instruction necessary where converts were not already familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and their application to Christ was evident, but this could evidently be accomplished quickly (Acts 16: 30–33). This may largely be due to the relatively scant influences of what would become the major heresies of the second to fourth centuries. Later, when most converts were drawn from pagan society, a formal catechumenate was established prior to baptism, the emphasis apparently not being on doctrinal instruction but on lifestyle reform.

The earliest extant confessions of the Rule of Faith outside the New Testament come from later periods, but preserved within the text of the New Testament itself are a number of early Christian hymns and doxologies based on confessions of belief. The early Christians sang “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in their worship (Eph 5:8-20) and this practice is attested in very early second century writings. [4] The New Testament era Christians clearly worshipped Christ, his worthiness of worship a prerogative clearly reserved for God alone. For example, Hebrews 13:20–21 is a doxology that both praises God and ascribes glory to Christ. Christ is glorified alongside God in such doxologies as 2 Peter 3:18 and Rev 5:12–13. Philippians 2:6–11 is widely regarded as a fragment of a hymn to Christ, written or at least cited by Paul, which describes Christ as having the form of God but taking on the form of a servant and after his exaltation receiving the descriptor of God from Isaiah 45:23–24. An early expression of a rule of faith is 1 Timothy 3:16; “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He [God] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

Early pagan testimonies described the Christianoi as superstitious worshipers of a crucified Jew. Christians as a group were allegedly singled out by Nero in 64 AD as scapegoats after the fire of Rome.[5] We know that the early Christians met in closed meetings to worship and to break bread. We don’t know how often they did it, but it seems to have been associated with a larger community meal. In the second century we have descriptions in the Didache (an early church manual) and the writings of Justin Martyr which tell us about these agape or “love feasts,” which were misconstrued by outsiders as incestuous and cannibalistic rites. They practised baptism for initiation. There is no direct statement in the scriptures regarding the mode of baptism. The Greek words derive from root meanings of plunging, washing, change and renewal and the method most congruent with this would be immersion, however there is some evidence that pouring (effusion) was also used quite early on. There are no New Testament references to queries or disputes about the mode of baptism so it is impossible to say if there may have been variants. The Didache commends baptism in running water, although pouring is permitted. [6]

Individual church communities were led by elders (presbuteroi), appointed by the laying on of hands (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 4:13–14; Titus 1:5–6). There were also diakonoi, or servants (Rom 16:1; Phil 1:1; Col 4:7; 1 Tim 3:8–13). The elders were also referred to as overseers (episcopoi or “bishops”). From the late first century one elder seems to have been singled out for a leadership role as overseer of a local community. This bishop’s primary duty was to keep the church united according to the apostolic deposit or rule of faith. [7] Although the eldership and episcopacy were male, it seems that women played a role as hosts of house churches and their associated communities, in organisational and service roles (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15). Women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:5) and ministered (Rom 16:1, 6, 12, 13, 15; Phil 4:2–3; 2 Tim 4:21) and, at least as husband and wife teams, taught and evangelised (Acts 18:26). Were ministers paid? It seems that full time ministers were supported by the church, at least for necessities, although Paul voluntarily declined this support (1 Cor 9:1–17).

We also know about some of the disputes and problems within the first century church, because Paul’s letters were written to address them. These issues included Judaizing tendencies (Galatia) schisms and slander, immorality, idolatrous associations, lawsuits between believers, impropriety in worship, discrimination, class distinction and greed, misuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection (Corinth) misinformation (Thessalonica) threat of false teachers (Timothy, Titus, John’s epistles) slavery (Philemon) and persecution (1 Peter). How widespread were these problems and issues? Judaizing ceased to be a problem after a few decades, but problems due to transition from pagan society continued. Persecution stepped up, but was not continuous and was mainly local and “non official” until the mid third century. Did all churches fight about who had the best spiritual gifts and which apostle they would follow, or just Corinth? Were the Thessalonians the only ones confused about the second coming? What other problems were there for which we don’t have inspired written solutions? Perhaps there were many local variants of “the” church.

These questions and a socio-cultural comparison beg an important overriding question. Without disputing the inspiration of Scripture, the authority of the apostles and their actual teachings, to what extent was the first century church normative for all Christians, in every age? In other words, must we imitate the first century church (warts and all) in detail? In other words, a first century church transplanted to today would consist primarily of the lower classes, would have few possessions and meet only in homes, would share its resources to the point where luxury was eschewed and priority given to support of the poor, would meet in the early mornings before work, support its full time ministers, allow women to pray and prophesy in church, allow time in the service for orderly speaking in tongues and prophecy, not dress up for church, include the Lord’s supper in a communal meal, encourage grandparents and other elders and widows to live with their wider families and be supported by them, sell land and goods to give to the poor, not participate in secular social gatherings, sporting and entertainment events and baptise on the simple confession of faith in Jesus as Lord.

This is problematic on several levels. House churches in places like China probably fit this pattern very nicely and doubtless a transplanted first century Christian would feel very much at home in one. But what about the ecclesia of John Thomas’ or Robert Roberts’ day, fighting its battles on complex doctrinal points and encouraging an intellectual apprehension of the Gospel that denied any relevance to spiritual gifts or apostolic tradition? Whose gatherings were formal, proper and Victorian in style and whose members espoused imperial and enlightenment world views? Or a modern Christadelphian meeting in Australia, the UK or the USA? Would they encounter a largely prosperous middle class congregation, dressed in suits and ties or nice dresses with fashionable hats? Would they find a Spirit-filled congregation heartily worshiping and ascribing glory to Christ, or one espousing a legalistic doctrinal stance that relies on works, not grace, for salvation? Would our first century Christian “pass” a typical baptismal interview? Would they see a blessed congregation of the poor who did not acquire for themselves the trappings of prosperous western society, but sold and shared as much as they could manage in order to feed and clothe the poor and welcome the stranger? A community known not just for its anti-social moral stance but for its good works to all?

Before the reader puts forward a number of objections to this comparison, we need to decide what aspects of the Bible are permitted to be relativised. Maybe circumcision isn’t an attraction today, but does the ecclesia desire its converts to conform to some other type of social norm or set of rules? If women are to cover their heads, are they permitted to pray and prophesy whilst doing so? Does an unwritten expectation of an appropriate “standard” of dress on a Sunday deter an unkempt person who shows up out of curiosity, seeking love and hope? Many of these criticisms apply to mainstream churches too, and they certainly do not apply to every Christadelphian ecclesia. But most other churches do not make the exclusive claims to truth and first century practice that Christadelphians traditionally have.

If it is legitimate for a denomination to insist that it alone interprets the Scriptures the way the first century Christians did, we would expect to see a Christ-worshiping, community meeting in homes and led by the Holy Spirit’s direct workings and apostolic tradition. It would be evangelical, unworldly, not enamoured with money and possessions and comfort, seeking only to save the lost and help the poor. Women would play an active role in ministry, and it wouldn’t be limited to catering and playing (selected) musical instruments. Conversion would focus on the work of Christ, not the works of men, and would be based on simple confession of faith. It may not be possible to fully transplant a first century Graeco-Roman lifestyle into the twenty-first century, so some aspects would have to be relativised. But what things? Bible-believing Christians have wrestled with such issues for centuries and may or may not have got it right, but it seems illegitimate to dismiss 1800 years of history and theology and mount an exclusive claim to live the first century apostolic faith in contrast to broader Christianity.

 

1. Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray from the Bible (Repr. West Beach SA: Logos, 1984) 21–23

2. Australian Christadelphians http://christadelphian.org.au/

3. Fred Pearce, Who are the Christadelphians? Introducing a Bible-based Community (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, n.d.) 2

4. such as Pliny AD 111–115 “[Christians] declared that… they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by an oath…” (Epistle 96).

5. Tacitus, Annales 15; Seutonius Lives of the Caesars, Nero 16.

6. Didache 7 c. early 2nd century. We do not know how widely the manual was followed or how representative of practice it is.

7. Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, 42–44, 59; c.95–97 AD, Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians, Magnesians and Smyrneans in particular.

 

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