Imagine going to an antique store and finding an old mantle clock. It wasn’t running any longer. It was obvious that it was once a beautiful clock that had illustrious carvings in the solid wood case. But it was difficult now to imagine what it must have looked like when it was new. If you purchased such a clock with view to restoring it to its original beauty what would be the first thing you would likely do? I think if it were me the first thing would be to try to find a picture online of the clock or one like it in its original beauty. Unless you have a clear view of what are trying to restore you may end up making it look less like the original that it does now.
The same thing is true in looking at restoring the church to its original beauty. There is no doubt there have been multiple changes in the church through the ages. But what were the essential elements of the church from the beginning. In every age of church history there have been things that were practiced as incidentals rather than because there was a mandate from God to do things in a certain way. As we think of restoring the church to it’s original form we must distinguish between form and function, between the essential and the incidental, between the Scriptural principle and the practical means of carrying the principle out.
One obvious thing in looking back at the church in the New Testament is that not every church is the same. There are some fundamental truths on matters like what one must do to be saved and live for God that are common to all the letters. But there isn’t a uniformity in how they did the work God called them to do.
It’s obvious the church in Jerusalem had an elaborate benevolence program because people were selling their properties and bringing the money to the apostles to be distributed among the disciples. But we don’t read of such benevolence in any other church. Image a benevolence program so large that it would take seven good men to have the oversight of it.
Antioch became a missions minded church. They sent out Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey. And they were the core church sending Paul out on the next two journeys. Corinth was a church with numerous problems and not a lot of answers. Ephesus did thing right for some time but when Jesus wrote them in Revelation two, they had left their first love and needed to repent and do the things they had done at the first.
In light of the differences in the different churches and in light of the fact any one church didn’t remain the same all through the years means that we can’t freeze a church in time and try to go back and be like it on this occasion while totally rejecting what they did in later years.
The Jerusalem church is an excellent example of this point. In Acts 2 when the church was started they were doing great. They continued in the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. They were meeting together every day, praising God and in favor with all the people. The Lord was adding to their numbers every day. People were selling their goods to share with those in need. They had everything in common.
Not all these things continued for very long. In Acts 5 a couple pretended to give all the money they had made from the sell of property while keeping back a part and they were stuck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 6 they were fussing about the Greek speaking widows being neglected in the daily distribution. In Acts 11 some were upset at Peter for going to the house of a Gentile to preach the gospel. In Acts 12 the church was meeting in the home of Mary the mother of Mark to pray for Peter’s release from jail and when he was released and came to the door they didn’t believe it was really him. In Acts 15 some brethren had gone out from the Jerusalem church saying that Gentiles who became Christians had to be circumcised and obey the Old Testament law to be real Christians. They had a meeting with the elders, apostles and Paul and Barnabas about it and came to the conclusion that these Gentile converts didn’t have to submit to the law or be circumcised. In Acts 21 when Paul brought the contribution taken from Gentile churches to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem Paul met with the elders and was told there were many thousands of the Jewish Christians who were still zealous for the law. They encouraged Paul to pay for a couple of the members who had made a vow and to make an offering in the temple to demonstrate that the things the Jews had heard of him telling the Jews they didn’t have to obey the law or be circumcised any longer were not true.
Think about the church in Jerusalem. If it is the model for the church in all time, at what point is it the model. Would we want to use them as a model when encouraging Paul to do something to indicate that what he had said earlier wasn’t correct?
What about the fact that other congregations seemed to have very different areas of emphasis? Antioch became the center of Paul’s missionary journeys. Corinth was a very mixed congregation that struggled with many problems through the years. Ephesus had been a great church but was warned that men would arise from among their leaders to draw away disciples in the wrong direction.
Truthfully, every church we read about in the New Testament had some very good things and some things that were not so good. The lesson seems to be that there is not a single congregation that serves as the model for all a church should be because every church had unique responsibilities and opportunities in their own areas.
Some have declared the Jerusalem church at the beginning is the model for us. But how do you decide which of the things they did were part of God’s plan for the church and which were incidental to their situation? Was daily meetings from house to house something that we should follow in all times? What about the holding of their wealth in common and people selling property to give to the needy? Is that part of pattern for us today? The Amish and Mennonites would say that it is part of pattern. Was receiving a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues a part of the model for the church in all time? Those in the different pentecostal movements would say that it is.
In order to restore Christianity to its original design we will have to look deeper than just what was done by different congregations that was approved by God because some things were approved for a time but never meant to be a lasting part of the church.
Since the church is the body of Christ (Colossians 1:18) and our mission is to live out the example of Christ in our own world it seems more logical to say that the model for the church is Jesus. But even that has limitations since Jesus lived and died under the Old Testament law. Near the end of his ministry on earth he told the rich young ruler when he asked what he had to do to have eternal life that he should keep the commandments. When asked which ones he quoted from the Ten Commandments especially the ones having to do with treatment of one another. When he asked what else he lacked Jesus told him to go sell all he had and give to the poor and come follow him. That is very different from what Jesus said we should preach and teach when he gave the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47-58). It is certainly true that many of the things Jesus said were said in anticipation of the coming church. But there were also things said that related to the time he lived on earth instead of the coming kingdom.
Where do we find the original model for the church so we can be sure we are trying to restore what is really vital for the church and not incidental to the time? In the next post we’ll explore some options that help.