Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Prototype

It is common to see the early church as the example of perfect spirituality. I do not see a clear basis in Scripture for this. There were the Corinthians, who were splitting into factions, involved in immorality and litigation, and were misusing spiritual gifts. There were the Thessalonians, who were convinced the Second Coming was upon them and had quit their jobs to wait for it. The Galatians and Colossians were deserting what they had been taught and returning to some form of revised Judaism. Even the Philippians and Ephesians were struggling with problems of unity. Of the seven churches in Revelation, only two come out without rebuke, and this seems to be not because they were unusually spiritual, but because they were not caught up in blatant false teaching or worldliness. Where then does the idea of the perfection of the early church come from? It comes largely from the impressive results and miraculous gifts evidenced in the early church. But these things are the result of the power and will of God and not the exceptional spirituality of the people involved (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; 13:1-3; 12:11).

What then is the problem with this idea? It makes spiritual perfection an attainable goal. But Scripture pictures us as people in process who have not yet reached this condition (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:14-25). However,  if the Early Church had this extraordinary level of spirituality, then it is something we can obtain and should have. This leads to all manner of quick fixes or gimmicks to reach this spiritual plateau. It also can lead to pride if you can convince yourself you have arrived there (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Proverbs 16:18). And you can sit in judgment on others who (in your opinion) have not (James 4:11,12; Romans 14:4; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Further, this can lead to discouragement for those who are not able to convince themselves they meet the standard.

This idea can also lead to turning historical descriptions into commandments. Now I am convinced that God commanded what He intended to command and that it is wrong to add or take away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5,6; Matthew 15:1-14). But once we start to see the Early Church as the example of a near perfect church, it becomes easy to take every historical example as the way it has to be done. This can even stretch beyond the things actually recorded in Scripture to those practiced during the early centuries of the church. Now I do believe we should have respect for the great teachers of the past. But I do not believe we can conclude that simply because something is early, it must be right. Also, God often commands only broad principles and allows flexibility in how we carry them out in practice. And I am convinced the standard needs to be God's commands and not some theoretical perfect church that never existed.       

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