And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. [Acts 2:42-47]
Much is made of the early Acts 2 Church, as well as the early Church in general. It has been called the ideal that all Christian should strive to return to. It has been understood to be Church life at its fullest and purest. People have devoted entire books to arguing that the early Church was untainted and uncorrupted by human tradition, and have proposed that if we could just get back to that type of model, that type of simple communal living and giving, that the Holy Spirit would be well pleased and we would be at our most effective. A lot has been said and written about it, and the whole early Church mystique has taken on mythic proportions. It is legendary. It is that ethereal, untouchable and pristine. It was the pinnacle of Church life, and it’s what we need to get back to in order to enjoy the undiluted spirituality that runs rampant in this type of glorious environment.
I see the attraction in that. You have 13 apostles, alive [for a short time], on fire, and spreading the gospel which they heard first hand. It would have been a time of expectancy and excitement, with miracles, signs and wonders, and that daily awe overcoming and soaking through the church. There would have been people that saw Christ before and after his death and resurrection, and I imagine many were great storytellers. There are great and many enviable aspects of the early church and in the context that it was birthed and then grew out of would have made it more so. Because of this, and because it is viewed as the ideal Church in every way, people want to get back to it and resurrect the aforementioned model, hoping to replicate its success.
Which begs the question to those who want to get back to the early church- which one do you want to be like? Do you want to be like Corinth, a permissive, sexually promiscuous, dysfunctional church with incestuous members, out of control worship, and out of control services? How about Galatia? Do you want to model your church after one that had so quickly abandoned the gospel? Do you want to be like the church in Thessolonica, a church that lost the eschatological hope of the new heavens and new earth, a church drowning in grief? How about Ephesus, who had abandoned their first love and who were near to having their lampstand removed by Christ himself? Even John’s letters to the churches show that they all were having huge problems which could lead to their downfall.
We see from the early onset that the Church, while new and brimming with joy, was quick to go astray and become lost, misguided, full of false teachers, and chugged on with wild heresies and heterodoxy. The early church was not a pure, unadulterated innocent. It went off on the wild side from day one, and the Church has spent the time since her inception fending off false teaching and teachers and other enemies of the church. Truthfully, there was never a time when she was not under attack by foes from without and from within, even with the strong hand and firm guidance of apostolic leadership. People look at theological divisions in the church and wish for a time when it was not so, but that time doesn’t exist. Outside of the Gospels, the bulk of the New Testament is spent addressing, rebuking, clarifying, and combating false doctrine and practices.
It was not only that, but there was persecution. People were being beaten, killed, and martyred. There was persecution from both Jewish and Roman leadership, and families were being ripped apart through death and destruction. It is true that the church bloomed in blood, but how many of us would be eager to return to a time when almost the entire apostolic leadership were murdered and the threat of being rounded up and tortured for sport were a constant threat?
People tend to idealize the communal life which seems to have existed for a time in the first Jewish church, but such actions are descriptive, not prescriptive. Nowhere does the bible command or even suggest that Christians should sell all they have and pool it together for the use of all. That was the decision by one community in a certain context thousands of years ago, and we do not see the slightest indication that it ought to be binding or normative for us today. Furthermore, we don’t see that model with any of the Gentile churches. We see them giving in proportions according to the means they had, and not selling all they owned. I suppose one can attempt to make the case that the authentic early church that we ought to emulate is the Jewish one founded in 32 AD, but once Paul got some of his churches going some 20 years later that they had missed the boat, but I don’t think so. We can just as easily make the case based on the gentile model of Church that we should not pool the resources together. And if we follow the pattern of Acts 2, can we rest assured that none of us will be needy, as stated in Acts 4? Or, will we end up like “the poor saints in Jerusalem” as found in Romans 15?
Another thing that people tend to idealize is the house-church movement, or the act of meeting in homes versus buildings. They point to the early Christians meeting in homes in Acts 2 and suggest that that was the best way to do it. I’m not against the house movement perse, but nothing in the early Church would suggest to us that we ought to eschew meeting in buildings for service. First of all, not only did they meet in homes, but they also met in Solomons Portico. They met in the temple precincts, as the early chapters of Acts informs us, and they regularly went to synagogue services in purpose-built buildings, as well as met in temples constantly. They also occasionally rented halls, like the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. Later in the first century, as the archaeological evidence makes clear, they met in caves, namely the catacombs in Rome. There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament which either suggests or requires that Christians should only meet in homes, and these sorts of arguments ignore the differences in social setting, then and now. Christians met in homes, usually of the most prominent members because they were so large and allowed for over 100 people to gather. We’re not talking about 10 people meeting in a trailer, but rather the roman household could be quite large because it was not just a nuclear family. In addition to persons related by kinship, a household could include slaves, freed persons, hired workers, tenants, and crafts or tradespeople. In a sense they were large-all purpose buildings, and we see as early as the first century that many of the homes had in fact been converted to places of worship.
I have no doubt that being there in those early days would have been electric. How could it not? There are so many things which would have made it awe-inspiring. But at the same time much of what we read about was descriptive, not prescriptive, and we need to look at it that way. Because the early Church existed in a time of transition, we see that in many ways it was quite unhealthy as it fought to move from infancy to maturity, as it struggled to go from instability to stability. For some people, that meant communal living and giving. For some people, that meant living in their own homes, giving to others according to their means, and meeting in all-purpose structures for services and worship. All the time, they battled dysfunction and false teaching within the churches themselves, often winding up on the losing end. Was it the early church great? Yes, but so is and was the latter-day Church. Was the early church some wonderful, pure Christian utopia? Not even for a minute. And yet for those who want to return to it, I think the mistake they make is thinking they can recreate this quality of church by pursuing the things they did. We tend to think, “If we just gave ourselves to the apostle’s teaching, if we ate together, if we sold our possessions and shared, then the kingdom would break in again to our churches. ” But this is moralistic at best and infantile at worst. It is not the pursuit of the archaic model that would usher these things in, but the pursuit of Christ. We need to be realistic about that ancient institution, acknowledge its many failings and shortcomings, and I think be grateful and thankful that Christ has matured and thoroughly equipped his Church to be fully-functioning and effective in our present day society.