A few weeks ago I posted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about the ideal church. It doesn’t exist, it’s idolatrous to pursue it, and it’s an ultimately oppressive quest.
We were discussing the first generation church in class today and noting how Luke tells the story in Acts. He writes of the sharp dispute between the church leaders in Antioch and the visitors from Jerusalem in Acts 15, giving rise to the Jerusalem council.
We go on to read of the split between Paul and Barnabas over the inclusion of John Mark on the journey later in that same chapter.
And surely there were many Christian Jews (being misinformed about the nature of Paul’s ministry to the nations) among the group that tried to kill Paul in Acts 21-22. After all, he speaks of Jesus in his defense in v. 8 with no objection arising from his hostile audience. They only object and go after him when he speaks of Jesus sending him to the nations (v. 21).
These are just a few of the things to keep in mind if you ever hear someone complain that the church today isn’t like the early church in Acts.
Well, if you’ve got arguments in your church, splits and factions, and perhaps even some folks who have tried to kill one of your leaders, then your church is an awful lot like the early church in Acts!
8 thoughts on “Was the Early Church the Ideal Church?”
Oddly, a few hours ago I sent off an article for Seedbed (a Methodist blog) on Acts 15. When I told the editor what I was going to address I said Acts 15 and I wanted to look specifically at how the interplay between Scripture, Spirit, and the Church’s leaders function in the narrative. By the time I submitted it I was saying what you say here: sure, Acts 15 begins well w. the Church being unified at the Jerusalem Council but then immediately afterward there is schism between Paul and Barnabas. It is as if the narrator wants us to know that while the Spirit is guiding the Church this doesn’t mean things will always go smoothly. In fact, the Spirit may be leading us at the same time we make a mess of things! Great to see this post today.
I totally agree, Brian. It’s amazing how messed up the church communities are and how unembarrassed Luke is about revealing it. And I’m not sure he endorses all of Paul’s decisions at various points. It’s just a very interesting story, one that reveals that being the church in the world is NEVER a straightforward proposition.
Enough of these upbeat, inspirational Pollyanna posts!
HA! Hopefully this is ultimately comforting in that messed-up churches in perfect position to be loved by Jesus, so long as they’re set on redemptive trajectories.
The church started getting ‘messed-up’ right from the git-go.
Only because people were (are) a part of it.
The Lord is more than capable of using earthen vessels to accomplish His will.
I grant that a church of imperfect people will be imperfect, yet I have always succumbed to the idea that the New Testament church in the Bible that we read about had lives and convictions that make me envy their fellowship.
If they were able to put into practice even a small bit of the teachings they had received from Jesus and the apostles, it would have been a remarkable phenomenon to witness. I’m not referring to miracles but the expectation that fellowship was both holy and wholehearted and the holy and warm and abiding fellowship of the spirit that would have arisen out of that expectation.
Of course, the relational challenges they faced, far more than doctrine in my opinion, would be why so many problems emerged in the church, problems of contentiousness and ego and leadership and lukewarmness that plague the church to this day.
But I can understand the urge to restore the New Testament church. I was in such a church for 17 years. There was, at times, close fellowship. I left because it was evident that it was an authoritarian sect that gradually found I could not support in the zealous was that was expected of me. There were abuses of power and a hierarchy of power that was, ultimately, damaging to my faith.
So I’m not unmindful of the pitfalls of the restorationist impulse. However, I still yearn for the burning of heart that the disciples walking to Emmaus felt in their fellowship with the Lord. Such fellowship is not easy to find, a gift from God that I feel I must humbly wait for while I am watching and praying for it.
Well-said, John. I think that’s what we all hunger for! It’s just that it’s always mixed in with fallenness. Such communities are wonderful and usually quite precariously held together.
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