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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


16-6-3 Legalism In The Church

The doctrines of the Truth began to be spoken of in a cold, legalistic sense in the church. The warmth, the Christ-centredness, the deep and obvious concern for people which marks the pages of the Gospels and Acts gave way to an aggressive and arrogant battering of the opposition. The breaking of bread was turned into a mystery; the actual waters of baptism were thought to hold the power of forgiveness. In all these changes one sees a retreat from the reality of the fact that baptism and the breaking of bread are our personal encounter with the living Christ. They became shrouded in mysticism and abstraction; their simple power and reality were lost. They became important as rituals in themselves, rather than as being pointers to the real Jesus who is the Saviour. The Jewish basis of the Gospel was likewise downplayed; the solidarity of the New Israel with the old was an embarrassment after the Roman persecution of the Jews. And yet this rejection of “the Hope of Israel” led to the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism in the 2nd century. Legalism led to immorality. A series of documents were discovered in 1945 in Egypt, called the Gnostic Gospels. These were writings which had been suppressed as heretical by the early church bishops. One of the repeated themes in them, especially in the scroll known as The Testimony of Truth, was that the most legalistic, strict leaders of the church had nearly all fallen into moral error, and this was leading to the spiritual break up of the church- even though numbers of members kept growing(1).

And we must ask whether we don’t have the same tendencies. The personal reality of Jesus tends to be replaced by abstractions; the urgent need for grace and forgiveness has in some quarters been reduced to a mere intellectual acceptance of the faith of our fathers; and legalistic, academic definitions have abounded rather than personal experience and testimony to forgiveness and reconciliation. And the over formalism of some memorial meetings and baptism services suggests we likewise may have become caught up in the ritualism to the exclusion of the real, suffering, saving Christ who lies behind them. And we must ask whether we truly perceive ourselves as the New Israel, a people with no inheritance in this world, wandering as lights in the darkness of a Gentile world…or whether we see ourselves as British, Russian, Indian, American… rather than the Israel of God.Of course, we need true doctrine and must defend it. Once the Christian movement lost a clear doctrinal understanding, the number of true converts of course decreased. But the warnings from the apostacy of the first Christians stand written for us.


(1) See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).