It is a claim that is made a lot in our fellowship but what does it mean? This statement has meaning on several different levels.
It can have a sectarian tone to it – “We are the first century church…as opposed to those other guys.”
This saying can also be a genuine attempt to show that we believe what God wants matters and that scripture matters and that we are doing our best to practice the ancient faith going back to its very roots.
It cannot mean that we are the first century church in that we mirror the churches that we find in all that they were doing. I say that because those churches had so many problems that there is no way we would actually imitate them in terms of the actual behaviors and even teachings of some of those early Christians. Remember, Paul wrote every single one of his letters to address problems in the churches. Remember how Paul wrote the Corinthians on at least 3 occasions? Why is that? Because even after multiple letters they still didn’t get everything right! So there is a sense in which we attempt to be the ideal first century church that would follow all of Paul’s teachings and examples to the “t” but again, even they didn’t get that perfect.
The idea that we are the early church because we imitate their practices only takes us so far because we see how many issues they had in getting it right even back then. Now, this brings up a major point in the discussion.
Our intent to be the ideal first century church is something that even the first century church didn’t live up to.
Next, we go to the New Testament itself and what it has to say about worship. Paul and Acts actually don’t say that much about corporate worship when read in context. That certainly say some things about corporate worship but they were not written or intended to be used as they are sometimes used in our fellowship – as a law book for proper worship methods. You can find proper worship methods in there but not everything we do in our worship today comes directly out of a “thus saith the Lord” even if we say we “have a verse for that.” We certainly should go to the New Testament to understand the worship God desires. It turns out it is more than form, it also has to do with the heart (it is a both/and there). But our approach of going to the New Testament (particular Acts and the Letters) to authorize worship practice can be a bit sketchy at times because we end up finding exactly what we are looking for even if Paul never meant us to get that point from that text.
Let me repeat what I think is a main point here just to drill down on it a bit. If we go looking for things the text doesn’t intend to supply,
we will find what we are looking for but we will miss the point of the text.
Just to give you an idea about how we have missed the point (at times) let’s look one of Paul’s letters to understand its occasion (why it was written) and its purpose (its intended result).
1 Corinthians – written to a church divided to bring them reconciliation with God and each other. They were divided over leaders (Paul vs Apollos vs Peter, etc). They were divided socio-economically. They were divided in the assembly, which does result in some instruction on worship in order to bring them back into unity (1 Cor 11-14). They were divided on spiritual gifts (speaking in tongues, etc) which were used in worship, resulting in some instructions on orderly worship (1 Cor 14). They were divided on pagan practices being incorporated into worship and the every day lives of Gentile converts. So we do find worship instructions in 1 Corinthians and along with that, we have to understand the context of the problem that provoked the specific issues Paul addresses (usually identity issues that led to unity issues). I hope you also see that Paul didn’t sit down to write a worship manual when he wrote 1 Corinthians…or 2 Corinthians…or Ephesians…or Colossians…or Romans. I think you get the idea.
Look at Acts…maybe they were good for a few verses…maybe Acts 2:42-47 is the ideal model of the first century church before things got messed up. Even if we take that to be the ideal then we should be selling possessions and meeting daily. Is it our example or do we pick and choose? So what does it mean to be the first century church if we take their example in some places and discard portions that don’t fit our tradition or comfortability level like in Acts 2:42-47? I know of no congregation that meets daily. It only takes 3 more chapters before Ananias and Sapphira goof things up. It only takes 1 more chapter after that before the widows are complaining and the seven were appointed to help them. No church is perfect and no church gets it right every time. There is no actual perfect congregation in the entire New Testament or today because people are involved in this thing we call church!
So what do we do with this? I think we still chase the ideal. I think we pursue righteousness and holiness. I think we still go to scripture to find approval for our practice. We just need to be humble about this and make sure that we are understanding scripture first (in context) and then move to apply what we find there to our practice today rather than forcing our traditions back on scripture to find approval for what we have already decided to do and then parade scripture to make a case for what it doesn’t actually say.
The perfect example of that is the offering. How many times before the offering have you heard 1 Cor 16:1-2a read?
“Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up,“
That’s our verse to show God’s approval for weekly offering/collection. But did you notice 2a instead of just 2? What does the rest of the verse say?
“so that when I come no collections will have to be made.“
That is exactly why no one keeps reading. If you keep reading it tells us that Paul intended the collection to be for a set amount of time and if you read 16:3 you would also see that particular collection was set for a particular purpose,
“Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.“
We don’t read that either. If we took it seriously we would be taking up limited time offerings to send to Jerusalem.
Here is my point. This is a prime example of using scripture to justify our tradition. The offering is tradition. It is a fine tradition. It should be continued and elders have every reason to continue this practice. People may be hesitant to teach those verses in context, maybe for fear people will stop giving? I don’t think that is warranted. We are still called to give, to support each other, to assist those who minister to others, etc. We are called to follow the direction of our elders and if this is how they have determined to meet the perfectly biblical needs of the congregation then we need to follow along and give in this manner. Just realize that is not what 1 Corinthians 16 is talking about. Hijacking a verse 1 time or 5000 times doesn’t make it mean something it never meant. We have selected the way in which we give people the opportunity to give on a regular basis that has no biblical precedent…and here is the point…that is tradition…and it is good even though we don’t have it taught in the New Testament in the form in which we have decided to do it! This doesn’t make us any closer or further from being Christians just as they were Christians.
Are we the first century church?
I think the better point to make is this – we are Christians just as they were Christians and “Christian” should be enough.
There was a church established in 30 AD (those plaques need updated!). That church lives on today in all who are the children of God and the basis begins in our faith in Jesus Christ, our connection with the resurrection of Christ and deliverance from our slavery to sin in our baptism and in our receiving of the Holy Spirit. We live in unity with all of the believers who have gone on before us, not matter what century they were a part of.
We are not defined by what century we belong to but by WHO we belong to, Jesus the Christ. In the words of Rubel Shelly, “I just want to be a Christian.”
In that sense, we aren’t just the first century church or the 21st century church. Being Christian should make us particular enough and peculiar enough. Being Christian means we are the people of God and that we are acceptable to God. Since we are Christians and part of the gathered/assembled people of God (church), let us then do the best we can to do what we know pleases God in our churches, our worship, and even in our morality. If you pay close attention to Paul he was more concerned about their morality than he was about their worship practice and yet I see more fear in Christians of going to hell over improper worship than I do over moral lapses in their lives. Both are important. Let us just keep things in proper perspective!