I often hear church folks state a frustration that goes like this: “if only we could be more like the New Testament Church!”
This lament usually follows a number of observations. The church isn’t as unified as it should be. The church isn’t as generous as it should be. The church isn’t as tight-knit as it should be. The church doesn’t disciple people as well as it should.
And so, as a corrective to these blemishes, preachers and lay people alike exhort us to get back to our roots. To go back to “the early church”, or “the new testament church”, and there find inspiration to change.
But there are several problems with this perspective. And they’re not just academic problems, either. They are the kind of problems that can lead us to pursue the wrongs things as we seek to follow Christ.
Here are a few of the errors in this line of thinking:
1) There is no such thing as “the new testament church”.
When people say that we need to be more like “the early church”, they assume that this concept can be represented by a single, unified entity. However, this simply isn’t the case. It would be more accurate to speak of “New Testament churches” (emphasis on the plural).
If ever there was a single entity like the one people romanticize about, we see it in the book of Acts just after Pentecost (a Jewish holiday when the Holy Spirit came over the disciples for the first time; see Acts 2). But that church lasts a grand total of two chapters! By Acts 5, we see deeply disturbing sin taking place in the church. By Acts 6, we see widows getting into arguments over food distribution. By Acts 9, the church is scattered, leading to increasing diversity and geographical spread.
This diversity also takes center stage in the letters Jesus writes to seven different churches (Revelation 2-3). These churches are in different locations, and each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses.
In this way, variety describes the early churches better than the concept of a single, unified entity.
2) Most of the early churches were extremely dysfunctional.
For those who exhort us “to be like the New Testament church”, I sometimes want to ask, “have you read the New Testament?!” Yikes. There is some scary stuff going on there. Do you mean we should seek to sleep with our father’s wife (1 Cor 5:1); or, to use an example from our beloved book of Acts, that we should deceive others about property we’ve sold in order to appear more generous than we are (Acts 5)? Because “the early church” did all of that!
The New Testament does not allow us to think of the early church as a utopia. It was a complicated, sinful mess just like every other church.
3) We are not only a New Testament church, but also one emerging from the Old Testament.
The story of the church did not start with Jesus. It started with Abram from Ur. If that sounds strange to you, that’s because many accounts of the church ignore the Old Testament. But without Abram from Ur, who becomes Abraham, without his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob, who is re-named Israel—we have no context for understanding Jesus or the church in the New Testament. We need to embrace the entirety of the Bible, not just the last third.
4) We are not a church in the first century, but the twenty-first century—and the Holy Spirit wants to do a unique work in our time.
When we hold up the book of Acts as our only picture of church, we do a disservice to the Holy Spirit. In fact, if you study Acts closely, you quickly discover that one of the reasons that theological debates exist about church structure, the Holy Spirit’s role in the church, and speaking in tongues, its because the Holy Spirit is not very consistent! As it turns out, the Spirit did not intend to be bound and sold in nicely packaged systematic theology books for eager seminary students. He is a dynamic person! An active member of the Trinity! He wants to do a unique work in our time, just as he has done at every other time in history.
When we limit the Spirit’s activity to the shape and scope of the first century, we miss out on opportunities right before us. Let’s spend less time agonizing over what the Spirit did “back then” and more time listening to what he’s up to now.
When we look at the actual New Testament church, we find it is not so different from our own. It is immensely diverse, spread out geographically, shot through with glimpses of hope and redemption, yet also marked by failures, shortcomings, quarrelling, and strife.
We should not seek to whitewash this history. It confuses us about our past, which then confuses us about our present. It makes us think that, perhaps, we should be something we are not, and will never be.
Our hope as followers of Jesus is not that we will become a New Testament church. Our hope is simply that we are a church. Period. We are the gathered people of God, chosen and highly favored, purchased by the blood of a perfect and spotless lamb, the Son of God made flesh, crucified for us and raised to life on the third day. In this life we will falter and stumble, and our churches will with us.
But we believe a day will come when Jesus will be our victor. He will wash us clean. He will prepare us for a new creation. And we will dwell with him forever.
Then, and only then, will God’s church be all we wish it to be. And far more.