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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


16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace

Not only did the early church become harsher in their view of the world; they likewise became graceless in their view of each other. Hermans (Man. 4.3.6) wrote: “After the great and holy calling, if a person be tempted by the devil and commit sin, he has one repentance; but if he sin and repent repeatedly, [repentance] is unprofitable”. This is in direct conflict with the Lord’s teaching about forgiving the repentant sinner 490 times / day, i.e. without limit. Raymond Brown comments: “In the first centuries it was ecclesiastical discipline not to forgive the sins of adultery and apostasy”(1) . Soon, the writings of the early church were linking salvation with good deeds- whereas the New Testament clearly links salvation with pure grace. Consider The Shepherd Of Hermas, 2.3.2: “You are saved by not having broken away from the living God… if he refrains from every evil lust, he will inherit eternal life” (3.8.4). These graceless attitudes led to hypocrisy, as church leaders had to live in denial of their own humanity and sinfulness. The early Christian leaders such as Paul and Peter constantly alluded to their own weaknesses of faith; and the Gospel records, transcripts of the disciples’ own preaching, are shot through with reference to their own weakness of faith and understanding. Tertullian even went so far as to write that "The basis of salvation is fear". This is such a very far cry from the spirit of the New Testament, where John wrote of the perfect love which casts out fear, and the Lord Himself continually comforted His flock: "Fear not".

The lost emphasis upon grace was reflective of how church leaders personally felt no need for it. Sin became effectively defined as crossing the line on a few public, visible issues. The de-emphasis of personal sin and the sins of the heart, of which the Lord spoke so powerfully, was especially seen in the early theologians of the Eastern Roman empire. "Cyprian aside [their theology] precluded the existence of sin among the baptized. Confession had little place in their life or prayer. Confession played no part in their liturgies..." (2). The obsession with fellowship / separation issues has marred the true church. Yet it's evident that Paul and the earliest Christians weren't so hung up about them- thus Paul can refer to non-Christian Jews as his "brethren" (Acts 22:5). His grace-led spirit was inclusive rather than exclusive.

And despite the unparalleled emphasis upon ‘grace’ in Christian thinking of our age, it would appear we are heading the same way. ‘Sins’ involving adultery and divorce are often seen, in practice, as unforgiveable. ‘One sin and you’re out’ became the rule of the early apostate church, despite their theoretical understanding of grace. And there is no lack of evidence that in our own beloved community, leaders likewise have come to live in denial of their own sins, misjudgments and inappropriacies.


(1) Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982) p. 238.

(2) Carl Volz, "Prayer in the early church", in Paul Sponheim, ed. A Primer On Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).