First-Century Thinking (part 1)

When I hear the term "that old-time religion," I don't think of the way things were fifty years ago. I don't think of the two churches I grew up in—the city church with the huge pipe organ or the nearly two-century-old country church with the big picture of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb painted on the wall behind the pulpit. I do not think of the churches as they were when Billy Sunday preached his great crusades, or even of the days of the circuit preachers, of Edwards, and of Spurgeon. No. I think of the first century. I think of pure Christianity, before heresy and hypocrisy overcame Christ's fledgling churches. I think of simplicity—not that life was simple, just that they didn't have hundreds of years of tradition, pretense, and lethargy to keep them from their Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Once they understood that this thing—the church—was totally different from the religious systems to which they were accustomed, they were freed to shape their churches within the loose framework given in Scripture and progress in their purpose.

By "loose framework," I do not mean to say that there aren't rules. There are. That's why I used the word "framework." We have a framework for the operation of our churches. But it's not so meticulous that there is no room to adapt to changes in circumstance. It's a framework, but it's loose. Let me give you an initial example of what I mean by "loose," before we get into this further: the Bible clearly teaches that Christians ought to stick together, but it never requires Christ's people to meet in buildings—let alone own property. In the first century, Jesus personally led His church, which often met outdoors. In later times, church history tells us that some churches met in systems of cave-tombs, known as "catacombs," under Roman cities. If buildings are not even required for churches, then it follows that there must be no prerequisite architecture, decoration, ornamentation, or furnishing that is saddled upon the churches by the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians may meet in buildings, or they may not. If they choose to meet indoors, they may meet in rented facilities, living rooms, restaurant lounges, prison camps, or underground sewers. They may use pews, collapsible chairs, cots, bean bags, pillows, sofas, stools, or the floor—or they may choose to stand the whole time. They may choose to use a sign to identify to the public their meeting location, or they may not—signs would certainly not be a good idea during times of serious persecution and martyrdom. They may choose to build a steeple on the peak of the roof of a building they own, or they may choose to use all available roof space for energy-collecting solar panels to save on their electric bill. There are a great many things that God simply leaves to our discretion, as guided the wisdom he continues to give us as we grow.

I often think of the first-century churches when I seek an answer concerning how a church should operate today. There is tremendous value in this exercise—something I call, "first-century thinking." Apart from the example given above, what other observations may we make, from the New Testament and church history, about the operation of churches in the first one-hundred-or-so years of the existence of the peculiar thing we call Christianity? How might persecution alter the way our churches operate or the way we perceive what things are important? If the claw of persecution were to clamp down upon your community of Christians tomorrow (as it did in the first century), how would things have to change, in order for your church to not only survive, but to continue pressing on loving people and showing the light of Jesus to the world?

I'll leave these three questions to you to ponder for a time. Give me your thoughts, if you wish, and look forward to "First-Century Thinking (part 2)."

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