Were First Century Christians That Much Better?
One of the most interesting words in the English language is hagiography. One of its definitions is the one I have in mind, an “idealizing or idolizing biography.” The idea is that once someone has died, we remember the individual as being better than he or she actually was. This adjusting of memory and idealization of those who lived before us is common throughout the human race.
But people “back then” were really not as wonderful as we think they were.
This is universally done with the folks who made up the very early church. Although the very early church had its strong points (the Apostles were around to teach and lead, God worked some unprecedented miracles like raising the dead, etc.), the people who made up the early church community were far from wonderful.
The case of Corinth
Consider the words of the New Testament itself about the believers who made up the family of faith. In Corinth, we notice a man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1) while fellow Christians in the church accepted this brother as someone in good standing. The Corinthian church was divided into factions, each following the unique perspectives of a famous Christian leader (1 Cor. 3:4-5).
Things were so bad at Corinth that during their carry-in dinners members were consuming all the food before all arrived; some even became drunk while they waited (1 Cor. 11:21). The Corinthian Christians invented the “happy hour.”
If you look at the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus was pleased with only two of those churches. The others tolerated bad doctrine, immorality, and perhaps even idolatry.
We know that many—we might say most—followers of Jesus lived moral lives, embraced solid doctrine, and were fine Christians. Still, it seems most churches were riddled with problems, conflicts, splits, and desertions.
Doctrinal erros, shallow commitments
The writer to the Hebrews addresses the problem of folks who professed faith in Jesus but then turned away from him (see Heb. 6:4-8). Jude talks about false teachers who had crept into the church and were propagating bad doctrine (Jude 1:3-4). Peter warns of the same (2 Pet. 2:1-4), as does Paul (Acts 20:29-31). I personally hold to the early “crash and burn” theory of church history—that the church got off target in some areas pretty early.
But even among godly believers—men and women who were moral and embraced sound doctrine—not all were fully committed. The truth is that none of us attain to a completely dedicated lifestyle all of the time. Such dedication was rare even among Paul’s choicest ministry partners.
Philippians 2:19-21 reveals how dedicated Timothy was, but let’s ponder the lesser degree of dedication of the others. Paul comments:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
Do you see the import of Paul’s words? Other team members—such as Titus, Luke or Silas—were dedicated and concerned about others, but not to the degree Timothy was. Even in the first century—and within the best mission team the world has probably known—team members were not fully dedicated. Some of these men may have given their lives for the Lord. Nonetheless, they were not constantly and completely dedicated to the Lord.
Consider Paul’s last written words, the epistle of 2 Timothy. Near its closing, in 4:9-13 and 4:16-18, the Apostle writes:
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments…. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Note first of all this man Demas, a man who had been one of Paul’s assistants. In Philemon 1:23-24, Paul writes, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”
But in 2 Timothy, Paul reports that Demas either deserted Paul’s mission or deserted the faith (we cannot be sure) because he loved this present world. How that must have hurt Paul!
If that were not bad enough, all his other close associates deserted him when he stood trial in the Roman courts. Perhaps they feared for their own well-being? We may not know the reason they deserted Paul, but it seems clear that he was hurt by this abandonment.
Paul could have become bitter that he had been deserted. His spirit could have soured when trusted friends defected. The compromised testimony of some of Paul’s converts could have made him throw up his arms in frustration. What did he do? Although Paul was about Kingdom work, he loved people as individuals, not merely functionaries. Although broken-hearted, he carried on.
Paul turned matters over to God; God is the ultimate judge who calls all into account. Paul prays, however, that God will not be too hard on those who did such things. The truth bears repeating: Paul viewed people as human beings, not just as means to an end.
Paul also moved forward with those who were willing to go forward. He asked for Mark to be sent to him, the man who had been undependable and unsteady in the past (Acts 15:36-40). Mark was now rehabilitated; perhaps those who deserted Paul at his trial would mature also and one day even become pillars as well.
Luke was perhaps in the process of writing his Gospel, which is why Paul requested the parchments. (It is probable that Paul had input into Luke’s Gospel). Thus, rather than resigning, Paul increased his influence.
Paul’s approach was to move forward, refusing to be distracted. He did not stew over the losses in personnel, though he was obviously pained by them. Yet because God’s kingdom only advances with the willing and active, he sought new persons to fill the slots once occupied by those who turned away. He felt the brunt of the losses, but did not allow them to take him off course.
The early church was not utopian; human nature—even regenerate human nature—is pretty much the same as it has always been. So let’s not take the stance of, “it was wonderful back then but it’s terrible today.” It may be terrible today, but it never was that wonderful.
What matters, is that we are faithful to God, whether we be many or few. The song puts it well: “Though none may join me, still I will follow. No turning back. No turning back.”
Ed Vasicek Bio
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.
The early church was not utopian
The 1950’s church was
You’ve written a good article here. As one of my favorite preacher’s likes to point out, “if we could loose our salvation we would!” The church has always been and will always be filled with “sinners saved by grace.” Great points all around. Prayerful your summer is encouraging.
Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;
[Jim]The early church was not utopian
The 1950’s church was
No, definitely the 70s.
Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.
Interesting article, Ed.
- I don’t think Paul ever intended the Church of Corinth to be held up as a model church.
- He used the abuses there as teaching opportunities on the purity of the church, church discipline, spiritual gifts, the Lord’s table, et cetera.
- The NT does have examples for us to follow:
- The liberality of the Macedonians (2 Cor 8). I haven’t arrived to their standard!
- The missionary reach of the Thessalonians: “from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything” (1 Thess 1:8)
- The faithfulness of the persecuted church of Smyrna (Rev 2)
- And also some noted personages like Epaphroditus (Phil 2:29-30)
It’s striking that the 1st century church thrived despite:
- Apparently few property assets
- No government support (property tax abatement, parsonage allowances, non-profit status, tax deductible giving)
- And they managed to train their people for ministry without the benefit of Christian day schools, Bible colleges or seminaries
Thanks, Joel. But pray harder for me and my summer!
"The Midrash Detective"
If you thought I was saying that early church had nothing to commend it, you misread me. I am saying that it was far from the near-utopia it is often presented as being. I think the church of our age has many positives, but we focus so much on the negative that we do not see them. We have creative outreaches and our missionary outreach has been so effective that some authorities project that evangelicalism will be the leading form of Christianity in the world in a few decades. So yes, the early church had some strong points. But it wasn’t wonderful. Most of the first century churches had serious problems to confront WITHIN as well as without. Good thing they did, because those problems produced many of the epistles. Whether it be the Galatians with a legalism issue or some of the Colossians flirting with a pre-gnosticism, it was far from just the Corinthians, as I mentioned above. The Thessalonians had problems with eschatology and mooches, Timothy was trying to straighten stuff out at Ephesus while Titus labored against false teachers on Crete.
The materials assets is not an issue to me, other that perhaps our current excesses. Do you not agree that the early churches had many problems? Do you think that the glamorization and idealization of the early church is warranted and greater, say, than the persecuted church today? I thought I argued a pretty tight case.
"The Midrash Detective"
Re: Aarons picture
The sideburns are coming back. If I grew them now, I would call them Lamb chops, not Pork chops, because I am into Jewish roots :)
BTW, when I press reply, it acts as though it was a new post.
"The Midrash Detective"
Who asked (w my answers):
- Question: “Do you not agree that the early churches had many problems?” Answer: Absolutely! False teaching in particular. (eg 2 Peter 2:1 ; 1 John 4:1 ; 2 Cor 11:26. ) I still regard false teaching as an issue (and I don’t mean something like disagreements about the 2nd coming … say Amill. vs Pre-Mill / Pre-Trib)
- Question: “Do you think that the glamorization and idealization of the early church is warranted?” Answer: I’m not sure that I see it very much in my small circle. But I have seen it.
- Question (2nd part of above): “… and greater, say, than the persecuted church today?”. Answer: My opinion: I don’t think the US church knows much about the sufferings of the persecuted church. I read about it myself but I don’t feel it! (because I don’t know any of them personally! Or even 2nd or 3rd hand!).
In God’s legal sense we are declared righteous , but this side of eternity we still have the Old Man to deal with ( Romans 7, “Oh wretched man that I am” ) in addition to the New Man.
I liked this article.
Considering why the Epistles were written ( for our edification and learning, Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11 and several others I’d have to dig out ), I think the early church very much was as it is today. Paul himself ( via the Holy Spirit ) said even back then ( Acts 20:29 ) that grievous wolves would come in…He knew that it was only a matter of time before the purity of doctrine would be compromised ( and it already was ), and we clearly see that…especially in the churches at Corinth, Galatia, and the seven churches in Asia later on.
I believe these are examples to be used not only to warn of false teaching, as Jim has said, but to make us aware that every church, whether traditional or house-type, still consists of sinners saved by grace…legally righteous saints who nevertheless still inhabit fleshly bodies stained and tainted by the stink of sin, and have the ability to either feed the flesh or feed the spirit. My own life is much like the Prodigal Son, and I am grateful that the Father took me back in after I’d squandered my inheritance in the far country.
Quench not the Spirit…it’s a life lesson for all of us.
Well put, Dave. One test of emotional maturity is how people act when they don’t get their way. A lot of nastiness in our churches is really about power, ego, and pride; it often masquerades as debates over God’s will. Human nature has not changed one bit, and we are all infected with the human sin virus.
"The Midrash Detective"