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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


16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church

We have observed that the extraordinary unity between rich and poor in the ecclesias must have been something which arrested the attention of a divided and unhappy world. And yet 1 Cor. 11 shows how things went wrong here- the rich ate huge meals at the breaking of bread, whilst the poor brethren went hungry. Remember that the memorial services were usually held in the home of a wealthy brother. It was common for wealthy people to hold banquets which were occasions for the conspicuous display of social distances, even for the humiliation of the clients of the rich, by means of the quality and quantity of the food provided to different tables. Pliny describes such a banquet: “The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories…”(1) . So we can imagine a person like Gaius, who hosted the meetings of the Corinth ecclesia, coming to be influenced by the world around him, with the result that the memorial feast became a time of drunkenness for the wealthy brethren and humiliation of the poorer majority. In Corinth, there were a number of households converted (Chloe, Stephanas, e.g.) who came together “in ekklesia” as “the whole church” for larger meetings (1 Cor. 11:20; 14:23). Yet there was tremendous potential here for disunity; each household could remain isolated from the others, even at the larger memorial meetings. And tragically, it seems that the separatist, household culture wasn’t broken down in the long term by ecclesial life as it should have been. The concept of “the household of God” being the all important unit wasn’t allowed to have the practical power which is latent within it. The exclusive nature of baptism should have meant that a totally new identity was formed; Christianity was exclusive in a way that none of the pagan cults were.

We have to ask whether the divided secular world in which we live is not having its effect upon us; whether there are not real divisions along social, gender and ethnic lines in our meetings; and whether the spirit of the world is affecting how we relate to each other in the ecclesia. Even if we feel this is not the case with us, the Christian community of the 21st century cannot comfortably face the question: Do we allow the memory of the Lord’s sacrifice to bind us together, or are we allowing the very thing which ought to unite us to disunite us? Do family and other groupings still persist amongst us even before the emblems of the Lord’s selfless, all-inclusive sacrifice?

Attitude To Women

Just as the freedoms assigned to women enabled the dramatic growth of the early church, so in my opinion the demonization of women by the “church fathers” led to the church ceasing to make real cutting edge conversions in society. There is reason to believe that the Lord’s command to go into the world and preach-and-baptize was understood in the first century as meaning that this was the duty of every one who believed- male or female. Thus Tertullian’s tractate on baptism [Section 17] refers to women baptizing in the early church, and he mentions a sister claiming that the writings of Paul justified her baptizing of people; it was only the apostasy of later times which led to a class of brothers being empowered to administer baptism. Indeed, Tertullian’s writings imply that only at his time [around 200 AD] were sisters deprived of the right to perform baptisms. In my own mission work I have seen the power of encouraging all baptized to in their turn go into their worlds and preach-and-baptize. This kind of working one’s own network was widespread in the first century and was evidently a reason for growth, just as it has been in many areas today; yet once the Tertullians enter and demand that only they have the right to baptize, the dynamism is suddenly lost, and real growth ceases. The early church fathers progressively came to blame Eve and thereby women in general for the present world situation; the uninspired Gospel Of Peter makes this point repeatedly, arguing that no women prophets should be allowed. By contrast, Paul’s writings clearly recognized female prophets in the early church. The Syrian Didaskalia describes the hierarchy of the established church in the third century disciplining and excommunicating female house churches- the very structures which we have seen were at the root of early Christian growth.


(1) Betty Radice, The Letters Of The Younger Pliny   (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969) p. 63.