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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


16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century

Slaves and women were treated not as things but as people. Indeed, the Truth appealed for individual repentance and offered individual relationship with God and personal salvation. In doing so, it affirmed people as individuals, for who they were. Those who endured were to be given a white stone with a name nobody else knew apart from them and their Lord. This was a far cry from the ‘you’ll all get to Heaven or wherever’ offered by other religions. We too need to affirm others as people; not seeking to prove ourselves right and them wrong all the time. We want that person to be saved; that person who has blue eyes, that one over there who has only one leg, that one over there who is smoking. We want to affirm them as people, to get over to them that God wants them personally in His eternal Kingdom, that He really knows them and  loves them and wants them for who they are. 

Our early brethren preached a person, even a personality cult- based around the man Christ Jesus. They preached a Christ-centred Gospel, to the extent that the preaching of the entire Gospel is sometimes summarised as “preaching Christ” (Acts 8:35; 5:42; 28:31). They preached a Man, a more than man, who has loved us more than we loved Him, and more than we ever can love Him. In this there is an imperative for response. It’s not the same as demanding obedience merely for the sake in a good time to come. This is a motivation; but in our spiritual dysfunction, we don’t always find the Kingdom a sufficient motivation. Yet the Kingdom is not only ahead of us as a carrot; we have the love of Christ behind us too, to which we must respond. Jesus the man, Jesus crucified, Jesus risen, Jesus exalted to the highest place in the universe, the Jesus who will return in inevitable and insistent judgment to begin His eternal Kingdom here, raising and saving the dead in Him, the Jesus who meantime is present amongst us His people, urging us onwards in our witness and mission for Him…this was the burden of the Apostolic message. Paul, with his back against the wall, facing death, could triumph that he knew who he had believed; not so much what  he had believed, as whom (2 Tim. 1:12). And we must ask whether our witness hasn’t lost something of this Christ-centredness, becoming too apologetic, more Bible-centred than Christ-centred, more reward orientated rather than seeing the Gospel as also an invitation to serve this Man… 

We have seen that the moral standards of Christianity were attractive to the 1st century world. The height and seriousness of the demand of Christ in itself attracted men and women. It is possible to discern within the NT letters the beginnings of a body of teaching about moral behaviour. The same outline themes are discernible in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Peter and James: 





1 Peter

The new birth [baptism]   





The things of the old life that must be left behind   





The image of God and Jesus; the new life that must be put on   





The theme of submission to Jesus as Lord of our lives   




2:13; 5:19

Exhortation to stand strong against temptation / the ‘devil’   





Watch and pray, endure to the end   





All too often our preaching has been simply stating the errors of others and our own correct doctrinal position. This is right and proper that our witness includes this; but the insistent moral outcome of those doctrines really must be stressed. The insistent stress by Paul on the need to live lives worthy of our beliefs is really powerful. He knew that this was the main drawing power for the community. It has often been pointed out that sections of his letters seem to have strong links between them. Consider:

1 Thess. 5   

Rom. 12


Respect elders


Don’t think too highly of yourselves


Peace among yourselves


Peace with all men


Care for weak and unruly(14:1); Receive the weak


Not evil for evil, but good to all men


Not evil for evil, but good to all men


Rejoice always


Rejoice in hope


Pray unceasingly


Continue in prayer


Don’t quench the Spirit


Fervent in spirit


Don’t despise prophecy




Test all things, hold fast to good


Cleave to good


Avoid evil


Hate evil

The conclusion from this could be that there was in fact a common document to which Paul is referring- a kind of practical guide to true Christian living that was expected of converts. If this is the case, then the early community would have been committed to being joyful, prayerful, tolerant, peaceful, loving, humble, Bible based, as a fundamental principle. These were what accepting Christ in baptism would have required. These things as well as the doctrines we know relating to God, Jesus, the Kingdom etc. , these would have been seen as the message of the Gospel of Christ. One wonders whether our presentation of the Gospel, and subsequently our own belief, has not been all too phlegmatic and theoretical, and perhaps therefore our community has lack the evident spirituality which is the greatest attraction to a world lost in sin and selfishness. 

The Power Of Truth

A real forgiveness was offered. There were men and women like Saul of Tarsus who felt they were kicking against the pricks of their own consciences, longing for cleansing. Of course there were concepts like grace, mercy, forgiveness floating around in the 1st century world. But they were abstractions. The grace of God, His real and personal forgiveness and salvation, were ideas given personal shape in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And further, that historical man, whom many had never seen, was given shape and reality in the form of the community who bore His Name and witnessed to Him. There, in the first century ecclesia, the grace and salvation of God became credible in that society of mutual love and care. The word became flesh in them as it had done in their Lord. We too must capitalise on the fact that men and women out there have consciences. They want forgiveness. They may not want a church to join and attend on Sundays- because they would say they get nothing out of organised religion- but they do need, desperately, reconciliation with God. And we can introduce them to it. Our own examples will prove the credibility of all this. If we act in anger and hatred and self-justification all the time, all our wonderful theories of rightness with God will have no credibility. Yet if we live out the calmness of good conscience with God, we will make them see that this can only be because we believe and understand the one and only Truth itself.  

There was a confidence exuding from the early preachers that they had arrived at Truth. They ‘had the Truth’ in that what they knew and had experienced was enough for salvation. Unlike the surrounding philosophies and religions, they knew whom they had believed; they weren’t going somewhere in vague hope, they had arrived. They had something concrete to offer others. They preached from a basis of personal hope and conviction and experience, quite unlike the more ‘political’ methods other religions used to recruit members. The philosophers and teachers of the 1st century had little conviction about the value or truth of their position. But the Truth came “not only in word but also in power…and with full conviction (Gk. plerophoria)” (1 Thess. 1:5). This conviction was not mere dogmatism and self-belief; and likewise our witness must carry with it a “full conviction” that contrasts with the uncertainty about faith, doctrine, hope etc. which many professing ‘believers’ of other faiths reveal when they are probed in any depth about their positions. Paul preached the seriousness of the issues which there are in the Gospel; and yet people flocked back to hear more (Acts 13:41). The preaching of truth involves the message of something being exclusive, and compellingly so. In the first century, “no pagan cult was exclusive of any other and the only restriction on initiation into many cults was the expense”(1) . We must show in our lives that what we have is true; that no other person in the office, in the street, behaves like we do; because we have something they don’t. Our examples will show that all roads don’t lead to the same place. We won’t need to tell others of the superiority of our faith over others’; it will be self-evident, the world in which we live will make this judgment for us. And in the work of converting others, their judgment / opinion on this is what is important, not our own statements that we have the Truth and all others are wrong. This is in fact the case, but the power of it is only if others perceive this for themselves and on their own initiative. The Lord Jesus said that He Himself was the witness that what He said was true. And what was true of His witness is true of ours.  

The early preachers were out to make converts. They had a sorrow and grief for the lost, to the extent that Paul could say (after the pattern of Moses) that he could wish himself accursed for Christ if this would mean Israel’s salvation. They weren’t shy, as we can tend to be, about the uniqueness of their religion. They weren’t just offering good advice or how to read the Bible effectively. They made no secret of the fact they wanted to convert people. The idea of ‘conversion’ in the radical sense they preached it was unknown to the world of the 1st century. The other religious cults required attendance at meetings, offering some sacrifices, but belief in the cult wasn’t so important. Likewise, many religions and sects of Christendom may talk about faith, but it has little meaning; the most important thing in practice is that you attend their meetings, and give some material support. How you privately lived, your own ethical position in your heart, wasn’t important in 1st century religion. And, for all appearances to the contrary, neither is it in many of the groups we appear to have to compete with. The very height and depth and seriousness of the call of the Truth is powerful; men and women, women and men, see that  their innermost lives and ethics will be affected by the message we ask them to believe. So radical is the moral imperative of what we preach that they see that accepting it requires a real break with the past- radical conversion. It isn’t just shifting churches to one a little bit better, trying out a new social set or another philosophy. The radicalness of our demand upon men and women, or rather the demand of the Gospel we teach, of itself impels them to action and conversion. There’s a radical in every one of us, even if our years in this world have worn it away somewhat. And the Gospel, in all its scandal,  is the ideal appeal to this element in us. I can recall several times explaining to a young man the implications of his baptism in terms of his need to refuse military service soon. Or explaining to a soldier how very difficult it will be for him to leave the army, and suggesting he delays baptism. And yet in all these cases, the more I outline the difficulties, the more I stress the moral imperative of belief of the Truth, the more earnest and demanding these young men become. The height of the demand of itself impresses them with the need to rise up to it. People are desperate, morally. And they realize it. Subconsciously they realize that they must make that radical changeover to a true, tight, demanding, difficult system of Divine morality. And the same factor was at work in the first century. The religions then as now didn’t make the exclusive claims on a person which true Christianity does. Jesus was to be their Lord and master, their despotes, and to be accepted as having an exclusive claim upon them. No other religion was that exclusive in its claim.


(1) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967)  p. 25.