The New Testament Church Did It Differently Than You—And That’s OK

Central to my own fellowship, the Restoration movement, is the desire to emulate the first century church—the original Christians.

This ambition, often called Christian primitivism, is not unique to the Stone-Campbell movement and has been sought by dozens of Christian groups throughout the centuries, including the Hussites, Anabaptists, Puritans, and Waldensians. All of these groups believed to some extent that in its infant stages, the church existed in a golden age under the leadership of the Apostles, and that the church today ought to be more like the Christians we see described in the pages of the New Testament.

There are countless ways we have attempted to align ourselves with the church in Acts. We have tried to mirror the theology of the ancient church, adopting the motto sola scriptura to do so, which lead to a reemphasis on believer’s baptism among other things. We’ve also adjusted our ethics and church practices to better mirror the first century church. This has manifested in the removal of instruments from worship settings, participating in a weekly Lord’s Supper,  and greatly limiting the names that can be used on the church sign. Congregations have also implemented a rigid hierarchy in church leadership of elders, deacons, and ministers.

However, there are also numerous ways restorationist Christians have either ignored the precedent of the early Church or failed to imitate it. Some minor examples include the construction of church buildings, donning their Sunday-best, and institutionalizing altar calls. Moreover, Christians who have sought to recreate the church they find in Acts have failed in more important ways: not emphasizing the care of widows and the elderly, condemning alcohol and dancing wholesale (though this is fading), not giving freely of their resources, or reinterpreting the Lord’s Supper as symbolic.

These failures are fairly serious if one accepts the premise of Christian primitivism—that the first century Christians were closer to the unadulterated teachings of the apostles and (more importantly) to Jesus, thus making their example and the directives given them infinitely more important for us. This posture toward the early church demands that we mirror them to the best of our abilities, chalking up modern traditions to “wisdom of the world made foolish by God.”

Yet I think this way of thinking is fundamentally flawed. There is of course the issue that recapturing that golden age is impossible. Beyond the stark differences in culture and technology, it almost goes without saying that we no longer have the apostles to lead us. Moreover, we have something that those Christians did not: the completed canon, the holy book of our faith, the Bible.

Still, even more important is the problem that Christian primitivism makes no room for the church to improve. We like to think of our faith in universals and constants, yet Christianity—and Judaism before it—are saturated with progression and advancements. Even within our closed canon of Scripture, written in a relatively short amount of time, there is an evolution of belief—from dynamic leadership to formalized hierarchy, from apocalyptic thinking to Christian realism, from the imminence of Christ’s return to prolonged hope.

The Apostolic Age was a catalytic era delivering divine revelation and ushering in God’s Kingdom. But we must capitalize on the tools God gave us to continue establishing his kingdom, never content to remain static, and ask ourselves in every age, “What does it look like to be a Christian today?”

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  1. One of the best tools we ought to use to restore the primitive church is the Holy Spirit. More or less at odds with the idea of “sola scriptura,” the Holy Spirit is our God-given guide in so many things–especially the infinite about of things that aren’t found in Scripture.

    I like what you said about the progression and advancements of the church. Consider deacons. When the church was first established, deacons did not exist. It wasn’t until there was a problem in the church that the apostles developed the role of a deacon to meet that need. Even the apostles saw that the church should progress and advance in ways that solve problems, meets needs, and combats sin. Of course, in all things, the apostles showed us by their example that there aren’t many things more important to the development of the church than the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.

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  2. It seems there is a disconnect or maybe misunderstanding between command and example. There are some excellent examples for us to learn from from the early church, but we do not necessarily need to emulate those things. One thing is certain, the church may not need to fully copy all that the 1st century did in practice, but we can sure improve on the intimacy and overall mission that the early church did so well. While the focus remains on worship practices or buildings or budgets, we will forever be distracted by this minutia and not stay faithful to God’s call for the church.

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  4. Although your premise is good in seeking a restoration of the early apostolic era, you are still looking through the prism of church models without the discipleship process. Also because of your viewing angle, you are missing the total restoration of apostles and their ministries in the earth. There are so so so many of them today.
    Another strong consideration for you to add to your mixture of analysis is the outright lack of signs wonders and miracles in today’s church models. This is significant of the missing discipleship style that Jesus previewed to the world in Acts 2. Christianity 101 starts at the Wedding at Cana. Wrap your brain around this. There is no more wine at the wedding (John 2). Jesus mother directs the servants to do what Jesus tells them and 180 gallons of water (potentially) are standing there. Well not really, it’s already wine. The called followers witnessed that. Before you continue reading me, go get a glass of water and put it on the table in front of you. Now turn it into wine. You need to understand the magnitude of what these disciples actually saw. They know what water looks like and tastes like, now it’s a fine fermented wine. They were also familiar with the difference and that was also recognized. Wrap your brain around that. This is Christianity 101. Introduction to Christianity… Christlikeness. The poverty within the church today comes from not recognizing that this is the roots and foundation of Christ-like living. Some will say that Jesus is the son of God, he has all power and we are regular people. Well the truth is that is partially true. Jesus referred to himself as the “son of man”continuously. To the disciples Jesus was a serious and dedicated believer in God. Also, the Old Testament is loaded with outrageous miracles. Here is another brain boggler, go and stand in front of a river or lake, now part it and turn the ground dry. You see Jesus by the age of 30 already understood where power comes from. He told us that it was the Father in Heaven. Mary, Jesus mother knew it and like any invested Mom, she launched Jesus to get going now. It’s time. Mom’s know these things. Jesus entered his ministry as accomplished believer and his disciples had to be exposed to this right from the beginning. You see Jesus wants us to recognize the Father in Heaven and through our lives display all the power of heaven right here in the earth (Matt 6). By the time Pentecost came the early apostles were fishermen, tax collectors, businessmen who witnessed the works of the Father so many times that guess what they did? If you get this that I am saying here, then you have work to do and works to do. You see, the Beatitudes, Sermon on the Mount, and Parables have greater significance when after teaching on it you display the power of the Fathers heaven. Want to have some fun, do a word search on Holy Spirit, Power, Signs and Wonders and observe the results the apostles, disciples and believers were getting. All of this is the generous provision of the Father in heaven given to us because Jesus came and perfectly resolved SIN so that we could become sons and daughters of God. People who believe (John 14:12-14). Selah

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  5. Good words in this post. The church, without a doubt, struggles to care for widows and the elderly. It stems from a societal problem and the church is not separating itself from the issue. I am all for primative approaches to keep things pure, but can appreciate people implementing safety precautions to avoid flirting with temptation and being overly conservative in order to guard oneself as long you as you don’t be divisive over it.

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