First-Century Thinking (part 3)

Again—and for the final time in this series—let’s ask ourselves, "What 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 institution of the local church?" and "How might persecution alter the way our churches operate or the way we perceive what things are important?"

In light of the fact that the world had very few copies of the Scriptures, and that the first printing press was yet to be invented for another several hundreds of years, what teaching methods were employed by the pioneering Christians of the first century? There was no curriculum. Very few people in the world owned a personal copy of any substantial portion of the Bible. How much emphasis was placed upon Scripture reading, repetition, meditation, and memorization? What might this teach us about the value of community in Bible reading and discussion?

How geared were church meetings toward lost people? How sensitive were church meetings, ministries, and programs toward potential church members? In cases of persecution, church meetings were most certainly not public knowledge. So, in what ways did they assimilate new members?

Were public offerings made, or were the regular offerings secretly received? Did they take Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 to apply to the local church?

How frequently did they practice the Lord’s Supper? Did it coincided with the Passover? Was it a weekly event? Was it scheduled, or was it observed as needed?

How did they conduct church business? Do we have Scripture to prove that they always voted before making decisions? If so, how were children’s opinions weighed against those of adults? Did they set aside a particular meeting for the purpose of handling business? Rather, did they tackle each item of business as it presented itself? Were certain sorts of business left to the wisdom of the overseers, deacons, and other leaders? If a particular church were organized in a “house-to-house” manner, how might their business be performed?

How much commitment was expected of members? How significant of a lifestyle change was expected of new Christians uniting with a church?

When “the church” was mentioned, did their minds automatically picture a building or a programmed-service? Did people come as they might come to an entertainment hall?

Did they ever have an “altar call”? Did they have an “altar” at all? Did they play music during the invitation? Did they sing during the invitation? Was there an even an invitation, as we know it?

Did they “dedicate” babies? Did they have a sort of “chapel church”? Were young children baptized?

Did they just baptize people because they wanted more church members? Or, was church membership seen as a benefit of being baptized and not its purpose? Was there even such a thing as institutional “membership”? Was baptism itself considered solely to be a means to an end, and not also an end in itself?

As we compare our way of doing things with what we know of theirs, then we find that some of our practices are ill-founded—perhaps even ridiculous—, and that others are simply left to our discretion, and that, within reason, depending on culture and circumstance, it makes more or less no difference how we do them. Simply put, there are things to which we must hold, but there are also many things over which we have great freedom. Some hills are worth dieing on, and some are only worth looking at as we pass them. We hold some things in an open hand and some things in a closed hand.

I think this is a healthy exercise. It helps us to reassess our priorities. It helps us to remember what is strictly biblical, what is unbiblical, and what is neither. It helps to stretch our minds beyond the confines of our cultures, traditions, and preconceptions. It helps to prevent us from becoming legalistic cults or libertine social clubs. I hope you have found the above questions and observations interesting. There are many other questions which could be asked, and, of course, many other observations made, but these should stimulate your mind to think “outside the box,” or, rather, “outside our box.”

I will leave it to you to think about these things more deeply.

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  1. Anonymous Thu Mar 08, 03:57:00 PM EST

    Dave, that was good. I read all three parts and it was excellent. One thing God has given me as a leader that i absolutely love is the desire to dream about doing ministry just like God would want it done, the desire to question what i and others are doing, and the desire to never stop getting better a being a leader, and a servant. I always want to get better at doing church. Thank you for all your questions and thought provoking statements.

  2. Anonymous Wed Aug 08, 12:02:00 PM EDT

    Although I enjoyed the basic mind exercise and believe it to be worthwile. I must disagree with your comment in part 2 that sisters can be teachers. The bible is very clear that women should not teach men. I know this goes against our current culture and what we think is just & fair, but it is Gods truth that we are to follow, not our own.

  3. D. Michael Gregg Wed Aug 08, 09:53:00 PM EDT

    Wherever I may or may not fall on that issue, that was not at all the point I was trying to make. I did not intend to even infer any point whatsoever toward that issue.

    I apologize for not writing clear enough to keep the focus of thought on the intended subject.