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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-5-7 Style Of Preaching In The First Century

The Gospel was presented in different forms by the early preachers, according to their audience. John the baptist set the pattern in this. Having quoted the prophecy about the need for the rough to be made smooth and the proud to be humbled in order for the to accept Jesus, John “said therefore to the multitude…ye offspring of vipers” (Lk. 3:7 RV). He used tough and startling language because that was what the audience required. He had set his aims- to humble the proud. And so he used “therefore” appropriate approaches. The early preachers as Paul became all things to all men, so that they might win some. They therefore consciously matched their presentation and how they articulated the same basic truths to their audience. I fear that we have all too often proclaimed the Gospel in a vacuum. We have forgotten that we are proclaiming good news to someone; not just stating propositional truth in intellectual self-justification to an imaginary, invisible listener. The Western way of equating ‘preaching’ with a Sunday evening ‘lecture’, presenting the same facts to an often imaginary audience, has done much to settle us in this way of thinking. Fortunately, we are at last changing our perspective, realising that we aren’t proclaiming good news if nobody is listening. Preaching means telling someone, not just talking to ourselves. Paul sought by all means to close the gap which there inevitably is between the preacher and his audience. Thus in Athens and Lystra he mixes quotes from the Greek poets with clear allusions to God’s word. His speeches in those places quote from Epimenides and Aratus, allude to the Epicurean belief that God needs nothing from men, refer to the Stoic belief that God is the source of all life…and also allude to a whole catena of OT passages: Ex. 20:11; Gen. 8:22; Ecc. 9:7; Jer. 5:24; 23:23; Is. 42:5; 55:6; Ps. 50:12; 145:18; 147:8; Dt. 32:8. This was all very skilfully done; surely Paul had sat down and planned what he was going to say. He tries to have as much common ground as possible with his audience whilst at the same time undermining their position. He wasn’t baldly telling them their errors and insisting on his own possession of truth; even though this was the case. He didn’t remove the essential scandal of the Gospel; instead Paul selected terms with which to present it which enabled his hearers to realize and face the challenges which the scandal of the Gospel presented. And Paul’s sensitive approach to the Jews is just the same. If we are out to convert men and women, we will be ever making our message relevant. If we tell the world, both explicitly and implicitly, that we don’t want to convert them, then we won’t. If we want to convert them, if we earnestly seek to persuade them and vary our language and presentation accordingly, then we will. 

Different Preaching Styles

First century preaching wasn’t merely bald statement of facts nor a pouty presentation of propositional Truth. A very wide range of words is used to describe the preaching of the Gospel. It included able intellectual argument, skilful, thoughtful use and study of the Scriptures by the public speakers, careful, closely reasoned and patient argument. Their preaching is recorded through words like diamarturesthai , to testify strenuously, elegcho, to show to be wrong, peitho, to win by words,ekithemi, to set forth, diamar, to bear full witness, dianoigo, to open what was previously closed, parrhesia, to speak with fearless candour, katagellein, to proclaim forcefully, dialegesthai, to argue, diakatelenchein, to confute powerfully. The intellectual energy of Paul powers through the narrative in passages like Acts 19: “disputing and persuading…disputing daily…Paul purposed in the spirit…this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people”. Sometimes there was simple, joyful proclamation of the good news (euaggelizein), sometimes patient comparison of the OT Scriptures (suzetein, Acts 9:29, paratithestai, 17:3, sumbibazein, 9:22); at other times there was the utter defeat of the listener by argument (sunchunein, 9:22). This is a far cry from the blanket attitude to ‘the world’ which our preachers so often show. There is a place for intellectual argument; belief is a matter of the mind as well as the heart. First of all there must be an intellectual understanding if there is to be conversion. Men were “persuaded”, not just emotionally bullied (Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8,26; 28:23,24). The intellectual basis of appeal is made clear in the way we read of accepting ‘truth’ as well as accepting the person of Jesus. Thus converts believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:10-13), acknowledge truth (2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 1:1), obey truth (Rom. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:22 cp. Gal. 5:7), and ‘come to know the truth’ (Jn. 8:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:3; 1 Jn. 2:21). Preaching itself is ‘the open statement of the truth’ (2 Cor. 4:2). And so it is perfectly in order to seek to intellectually persuade our contacts. It isn’t enough to teach or merely ‘witness’ the Gospel; rather must we seek to persuade men to embrace it. It is, first and foremost, a battle for the mind before the battle for the heart. The first century was a time of great intellectual quest and insecurity. The large amount of philosophy around meant that people were searching for something that made sense. And we can’t say that the 21st century is any different. If anything, it’s even more fertile. The early preachers witnessed primarily because of the doctrines they believed and the wonder of the grace they had experienced. They didn’t preach because it was the sensible thing to do; it was against the grain of any first century man to preach the message they did. And this was no doubt why there was such emphasis on reasoning and persuading others of their teaching.

There was an urgency to the early preaching of the Gospel. The preachers weren't worried about covering their backs, looking good and sound and traditional in the eyes of their watching brethren. They saw clearly humanity's need and Christ's salvation, and offered it to people, unashamedly persuading them to be urgently baptized into His death and resurrection. When this spirit was lost, the church went wrong. The urgency of the Gospel was diluted as time went on. The New Testament records baptisms being done immediately, the same hour of the night a person believed. But by the late second century, baptisms were supposed to be performed on Easter morning; it was more convenient and dignified to do them together at the same time rather than individually as and when the person who believed required it (1). And the same trend can be seen in ossifying churches and missionary organizations today; baptism becomes something which can be deferred, and the vital personal urgency of response to the Gospel is sadly lost, and soon the community becomes sterile and unfruitful. The simplicity of what Paul preached can be seen from reflecting how he was only three weekends in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), but in that time he converted and baptized pagans and turned them into an ecclesia. Given the long hours worked by people, his number of contact hours with the people would've been quite small. He then had to write to them in 1 Thessalonians, addressing basic questions which they had subsequently asked, such as 'What will happen to dead believers when Christ returns?', 'When will Christ return?'. The level of their instruction before baptism must have been very basic. It is rare today to see such focus upon the urgency of baptism. Yet I submit that if we have the spirit of the early church, we will be pushing baptism up front to all we meet. And this was one of the first century keys to success.

(1) Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming The Gospel (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2003) p. 51.