The False Promises of the Early Church

Make no mistake: the early church was glorious! She was glorious like a child is glorious. She was but a babe. She breathed, moved, and had her being in God. She was a nursing infant. She had to trust in God from the beginning. But it has become almost a common practice to look to the early church as some paragon of perfection. “If only we could go back!’ The nostalgic sentiments echo through the corridors of sentimentalists. The truth is the early church was a relatively unstable body. Paul strives to offer detailed instructions. Sometimes these instructions are simple: love one another. Sometimes Paul bombards them with rebuke, as in I Corinthians. But if the early church was such a model, why then did Paul chastise and treat them as little children again and again? The answer couldn’t be simpler: because the early church was never meant to be an example to be followed in all ages. She was meant to be a foundational model. She was meant to give us the essential ingredients of life together (Acts 2:42), but not a detailed account for how the 21st century church ought to function.

James Montgomery Boice summarized well this sentiment:

Whole denominations are founded upon the idea that the prime duty of contemporary Christians is to be as much like those who lived in the age of the apostles as possible. But this is a false idealization; it is an attempt to make the early church into something it never was. It is an attempt to escape the problems of our day by looking back to something that exists only in the Christian imagination. a

This prevailing idea opposes strongly the maturational intention of biblical revelation. We were not meant to remain infants, but to grow into mature men, as Paul says. To be sure, Acts provides helpful themes of charity, mercy, communion, and more, but she was a seed, not the tree itself. The tree itself is what God is accomplishing through all ages: to form one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The Spirit of God, who has hovered over the church throughout the ages, continues to hover even today bringing the Church to greater glory and might; strengthening and building her to be that indestructible rock that will shatter the heads of the enemies.

We are not called to put faith in the Church of the past, but in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, who reigns over his Church now, world without end, Amen.

  1. An Expositional Commentary, Boice, 56  (back)
Share Button

4 thoughts on “The False Promises of the Early Church”

  1. The danger on the other side is using the maturation theme to get around those very essential principles which we don’t like (we tend to be uncomfortable talking about the beauty and importance of mutual sharing, for instance – Acts 2:44). Abraham was less mature than even the early Church, and yet great honor was given to him.

    Also, how does one prevent the maturation model from becoming a justification for innovation? The later ecumenical councils began drifting into Mary worship, adoration of images, etc. But on the maturation model, at least in the way you phrased it here, would not be able to effectively counter such things. The one ascribing innovation could simply say that they were simply following the maturation of the Church, a “new thing” that could not have been anticipated before but is in keeping with the “trajectory” of the Church’s development. This is, of course, precisely what the Roman Church teaches.

    I like and agree with the maturation model. I’m just not sure how it can effectively keep such things in check.

  2. Adam, good words. Simply, I would say the church matures upon the foundation of the early church. That was my main point. We don’t abandon it, but also we do not seek to emulate or romanticize it, which is precisely what the home church movement has done. Still, some of your concerns are valid and worth considering.

Comments are closed.