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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


16.2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative

16-2-1 Division In The Church

Sadly, things went wrong in the early church. And tragically, it was problems from within rather than persecution from without which caused the break up of what once was so wonderful. Alan Eyre in his classic study The Protesters concludes just the same; his study of groups who have revived the Gospel at various times over history finds that they too largely broke up for the same reason. And we cannot be so sure the same isn’t going to happen to us if the Lord remains away. One of the major themes of Acts is how right from the beginning, there was a struggle within the body of believers. And Paul’s letters repeatedly address the problem. The Jewish believers polarised around the Jerusalem ecclesia, and tended towards a keeping of the Law of Moses. They couldn’t really accept that Gentiles could be saved, and saw themselves as a sect of Judaism (“the sect of the Nazarenes”). They were called “the circumcision party” (Acts 11:2), and “the sect of the Pharisees-who-believe-in-Jesus” (15:5). The Lord had foretold that His true people would soon be thrown out of the synagogues and persecuted by the Jews, just as they had persecuted Him. But these brethren so accommodated themselves to Jewish thinking that this didn’t happen.  

On the other extreme, there were Gentiles who were baptized having lived immorally in the world, regularly worshipping idols, getting drunk and using prostitutes at the worship services. Sadly they continued to do these things, thinking that the grace of God enabled them to freely do this. The stage was set for division in the church. They thereby became corrupted by the philosophies of the other religions too. In between these extremes, many other believers were swayed towards one or other of these poles. For the legalists, grace was a dirty word. They proudly stressed their good works, and excluded anyone they thought was weak. The libertines went too far the other way: nothing mattered, because they had been baptized they felt free to just get on and live the life of the world like anyone else.  

Right, Left And Centre

It is my observation that these two extremes are to be found in the new Israel and the divisions in the church which she experiences. Our community tends to divide between groups of ecclesias and individuals who tend towards one of these two extremes. Although all of us claim to fellowship each other, there are, e.g., areas where two Bible Schools are organised in the same area- one apparently ‘stricter’, the other more ‘liberal’. I go so far as to say that on balance, each of us tends towards one or other of these two ways of thinking and being, whilst at the same time assuming we are balanced and everyone else is on the extremes. This tension also exists within us as individuals, as well as between us- on some matters, we may judge very liberally (e.g. our attitude to divorce), in others we might show marked intolerance (e.g. to brethren drinking alcohol). And our positions can change over time and according to the company we are in. In small groups of new believers, these differences become very marked. One sister, perhaps, is always talking about disfellowshipping others, and how weak they are, and what we ought to be doing. Another brother, cigarette between his fingers, talks of grace and forgiveness and how loving we ought to be. They discuss, e.g., the clothes some of the young sisters wear. “We ought to make a law that forbids them to attend church meetings with a short skirt”, stomps the sister. “Oh no, it’s better to see those sisters than not see them, let’s be tolerant and talk quietly to them, that’s grace hey” replies the brother, with no real intention of doing anything about the problem. And in the end, they find it hard to get along with each other. Which is why there are villages in Africa, Europe, Asia, where although there are only two or three believers, they don’t meet much together. This is such a widespread reality that I am writing about it. Division in the church is rife. But the same goes for many a town in England, North America and Australia, where two or three ecclesias exist and yet have little to do with each other. Our special and inexplicable unity ought to be converting the world; so our Lord mused, as He faced the cross.  

The legalists taught that unless believers kept the circumcision laws, “ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The very same Greek phrase is used by Paul when he calls out in urgency during the storm: “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31). Surely Luke’s record is making a connection; the legalists taught that it was time to quit the rest of the community unless they got their way, for the sake of their eternal future; and Paul responds by teaching that our salvation depends upon us pulling together against the desperate situation we find ourselves in. It’s as if the salvation of Christ’s body depends upon it staying together. As time went on in the first century, the gap between the Jewish and Gentile elements, the right and the left wing, the legalists and the libertines, got ever wider. The tension got stronger. But nobody won. The Jewish element returned to the Law, and forgot all about the saving grace of Jesus. The Gentile element mixed even more with the world and its philosophies, and forgot the  Jewish roots of the Christian faith. They ended up formulating blasphemous doctrines like the trinity, which nobody with any awareness of the Jewish foundation of the Father and Son could possibly have entertained. And so the faith was lost, until it was revived again in those groups who again interpreted Christianity in terms of “the hope of Israel”. And so with us, those villages which have believers in them who won’t reconcile with each other will one day have no believers in them. For love’s sake, brethren, for the sake of the Lord and His cross, “be ye reconciled”. Give and take from each other. Try to see yourselves from outside yourselves, realise where your tendency is, to the right or to the left. So much of the NT letter writing is designed to gender unity between these different factions.  We should approach these letters seeking for counsel for ourselves.  We must appreciate and apply our understanding that there is but One Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).