4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church

There have been a few changes in the past two thousand years.

I often hear Christians say that we should be more like the early church. And I must admit, I’ve been one of those Christians. But if we linger on how this would look, I wonder how many of us would rather stay put in our 21st century churches. After all, first century Christians clung to a set of values that differs quite radically from most Christians today.

How We View Other Christians

One uncomfortable value trumpeted by the early Christians was their view of the church as a family. The first Christians saw themselves as brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers to everyone who was part of the Christian community.

This is, of course, well known to anyone who reads the New Testament. But we shouldn’t read the church-as-family metaphor through the lens of our modern-day Western family values, where our high-maintenance grandparents are shuffled off to retirement homes and annoying siblings are treated as outcasts.

In the first century, the family unit extended far beyond the nuclear family and was held together by an unconditional bond of commitment and service. You didn’t have to like your relatives, but you were expected to love them.

It’s within this context that Jesus and Paul blew open the doors of the home and welcomed in all believers as brothers and sisters. They created a new focus on the family that extended far beyond one’s nuclear relatives and included people of every race and social strata who gave their allegiance to the risen Christ.

We shouldn’t read the church-as-family metaphor through the lens of our modern-day Western family values. In the first century, the family unit was held together by an unconditional bond of commitment and service.

How We Spend Our Money

Many churches today spend most of their revenue on salaries, building mortgages and other material supplements to ministry. Look at any church budget and you’ll probably find 1 or 2 percent of church funds allocated to benevolence—helping poor people in need. Maybe another 5 percent, or 10 percent at best, is given to needs outside the church that on some level help the poor.

But such distribution of funds runs counter opposite to how the early church spent its money. The New Testament talks a lot about giving money, but rarely—if ever—talks about giving toward salaries, and it never mentions giving money toward a building. (For what it’s worth, it also never mentions giving 10 percent, which is still a staple value in modern churches.)

When the New Testament talks about giving, it refers to redistributing money to the poor—usually, poor believers outside church walls (Romans 15:22-29; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9). When Paul declares “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7) for instance, it was in the context of Gentile churches giving money to poor Jewish believers living in Jerusalem. In fact, Paul spilled more ink talking about giving to poor people than he did on the doctrine of justification by faith.

Jesus Himself said that giving to the poor is one of the main criteria of genuine faith (Luke 12:33, 14:33, Matt 19:16-30) and the primary means by which He’ll sort out the wicked from righteous on Judgment day (Matt 25:31-46). If we take Jesus’s words seriously—and our church budgets suggest that we don’t—our suburban churches might look a little different.

How We Think About Power

Another modern value that was unknown to the early church is militarism. Militarism refers to the “belief or desire that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.” There’s no doubt about it—militarism profoundly shapes American values.

But it also shapes American Christian values. Military historian Andrew Bacevich has unearthed the roots of American militarism and has discovered that the man behind the curtain has been none other than the evangelical church. After much research, Bacevich concludes: “Were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in this deeply and genuinely religious country becomes inconceivable.”

But the early church was unmistakably not militaristic. Early Christians were never fascinated with the power of the Roman military; rather, they clung to the rhythm of the cross, where evil is conquered not by swords and spears but by suffering and love. In fact, the most quoted verse among early Christians was Jesus’s command that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:44); it was the John 3:16 of the first few centuries.

Today, it’s buried under a pile of caveats and footnotes—we can’t really love all our enemies. When it comes to people perceived as threats, most people today—ironically, even Christians—prefer justice to grace.

Maybe Christians should serve in the military or use violence as a last resort to defend the innocent. These are tough questions to answer. But when the Church has become the turbo engine behind the military machine—to aggressively defend or promote national interests—we flee from our early church roots, whose allegiance to God’s Kingdom demoted their allegiance to Rome’s kingdom.

How We Study the Bible

The early church also valued the corporate study of the Bible. You may think the modern church has this one down. Most Christians own several Bibles, and church programs often contain a wide array of Bible studies and spiritual classes.

The early church took seriously Jesus’s statement that people can’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the Lord’s mouth.

Be that as it may, Christians today exhibit an unprecedented biblical illiteracy despite owning dozens of Bibles. According to one statistic, 60 percent of confessing born-again Christians can’t name five of the 10 commandments, 81 percent don’t believe (or aren’t aware of) the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and 12 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

Early Christians eagerly soaked up the word of God like a sponge. The New Testament letters, for instance, not only contain direct quotations from the Old Testament but also many subtle allusions (brief phrases) that were expected to be understood by the reader. For instance, the book of Revelation alone does not contain a single direct quotation from the Old Testament, and yet has more than 500 allusions to words or phrases from the Old Testament. These allusions could only be picked up on by readers who were intimately familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures.

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The early church took seriously Jesus’s statement that people can’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the Lord’s mouth (Matthew 4:4). And when Jesus told His disciples to teach others “all that I command you,” they did it (Matthew 28:20).

This is why Christian leaders in the first centuries of the faith mandated a rigorous, communal study of the Bible for everyone who became a believer. Every new convert to Christianity spent their first three years of the faith studying through the entire Bible so that it seeped down into their bones.

This wasn’t an option. To become a Christian meant becoming reconfigured through the Word of God. And here’s the thing: Prior to the printing press (A.D. 1450), most people couldn’t read. The whole idea of doing private devotions was unthinkable until 500 years ago. And yet—despite being illiterate—Early Christians became fluent in Scripture by listening to the communal reading and teaching of God’s word.

The first Christians actually lived as if the same God who breathed stars into existence also breathed out His Word for us to cherish, memorize, and read ten thousand times over. They would have been mystified by our modern ability to own, read and yet neglect the priceless written word.

I fear that our desire to get back to the early church would require a rather extensive overhaul of the shape of contemporary gatherings.

Top Comments

stephen

2

stephen commented…

I am not intending to be controversial or overly defensive because ultimately there are many many things i abhor about the modern church, but this particular article is simply wrong, or at least shows a lack of understanding scripture/ church history in many many areas.

1- The early church was actually very bad at treating each other like family. (much as we are today) That is why so much time was devoted in the New testament to teaching about treating one other as such.Consider passages like 1 Cor. 12, and recognize Paul is preaching this because they needed to learn that all the gifts were equally important and served equal functions. Even with these types of teachings the early church separated over doctrine just as we do today. Some saying "I am of Cephas", "Apollos"," Paul", or "Christ".. Doesn't seem like this is some new issue to me.

2- There is plenty in scripture that speaks to the giving of money for the concept of salaries and buildings. In fact, it is so plastered throughout scripture I don't even remotely understand what this author means when he says. "it never mentions giving money toward a building" has he missed the numerous passages that gave detail about how the temple should be built and decorated with gold and fine wood, and craftsmanship? When the poor widow gives all that she has, what do you suppose that money would go towards? Would it simply be given back to her? The Bible talks on countless occasions about providing for the priests, caring for the apostles, etc. When Ananias and Sapphira pretend to give all their money, what do you suppose that money went towards? There is plenty in church history that shows us money was used to support the buildings of worship, and the ministries of the teachers. this is a big topic.. but easily proven. Obviously one of the tasks of the money was to provide for the needy, of that there is no argument.

3-The early church struggled just as much with a militaristic mindset as ever. Heck, they thought Jesus was going to be a military leader and were disappointed when he wasn't. Christ's own disciple cut off the ear of a man as he prepared to fight. this mindset was so much a part of the early church that it bled over into much of our early church history in horrible ways, from the crusades, to violent missions.

4- While it is true that the early church may have had a better memorization of the scriptures from repetition and "3 years of study" this completely misses the point. The problem with this style of learning was that people memorized things that they did not live out. Think Pharisees, the church in Rome, and the Church in Corinth. We have multiple teachings in scripture that show while these individuals may have studied the word of God, they had not absorbed it, understood it, and built it into their lives.

Please let us not be like the Israelites, looking back fondly upon our own past in Egypt as if it was far superior. We are a very flawed church today, and we were a very flawed church then. The answer does not come in the form of glorifying the past church, but rather in looking to the teachings of Christ and his Apostles, which applied as much then as they do today.

Raine Wheat

3

Raine Wheat commented…

This was a very good article. It took me two readings of the Bible to realize the concept of giving as, you, Sprinkle (really fun last name by the way), put it. And because the biblical definition conflicts so much with what many churches say, I am still conflicted. But giving to the poor has brought way more joy and satisfaction in my life. I often use giving to the poor as a gateway to ministering and prayer. And the poor can refer to those who are poor in spirit as well. Not necessarily meaning those who have little money in the bank. I also find giving does not have to be financial as well.

42 Comments

Dan Hennessy

1

Dan Hennessy commented…

I would like to suggest that the modern "church" looks nothing like the "early church" because the movement instigated by Jesus was thoroughly dominated by those Jewish followers of the One considered to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And so it is that they met in synagogues, not churches, as all Jews did, to include Jesus' extended family, James, his half-brother, as well as all of his disciples. There was no such thing as a "church" until non-Jewish followers broke from the Messianic form of Judaism lived and observed and taught by Jesus, cleansing it of all things Jewish enroute to founding ta "spin-off" religion they could call their own... much to the ultimate horror of the Jewish people Jesus was born into, lived amongst and loved.

Replacement theology was spawned in the wake of that self-inflicted amputation from the Judaism of Jesus, the "church" crowning itself the "New Israel," assigning the curses of apostasy to the Jews and claiming all of the blessings promised to Israel for themselves. Two thousand years later, Christian Europe would turn its head as the Third Reich exterminated six million of those diaspora Jews.

No offense intended to anyone reading this... as I believe as a Christian believes but in a way that more resembles the ways of Jesus... perhaps "the early church" doesn't look like "the modern church" because it was never supposed to have been "a church" at all.

William Mills

2

William Mills replied to Dan Hennessy's comment

Matthew 16:18. Christ told Peter, "upon that rock I will build my church." The best interpretation is that Christ was referring to the confession Peter made, saying that Christ was the Son of God.

Michael Snow

23

Michael Snow commented…

On militarism, we American evangelicals could learn a lot from Charles Spurgeon (as well as from our brethren from the first centuries). https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

Michael Snow

23

Michael Snow commented…

"... 60 percent of confessing born-again Christians can’t name five of the 10 commandments." Here is an easy way to begin....and why don't Christians teach them to their children these days? https://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/teaching-children-the-te...

David Kahle

3

David Kahle commented…

The modern institutional church has strayed so far that it no longer is a means of growing people closer to God, but rather a hindrance to spiritual growth. Read, "Is the Institutional Church Really the Church?" to examine the issue thoroughly. http://www.acalltoarms.co/is-the-institutional-church-really-the-church-2/

Becky Wynn Saddler

1

Becky Wynn Saddler commented…

I would like to quote this article. I do not know if it comes from the magazine or is just an article written for this site. If it comes from a magazine, I will need some more information to cite it correctly. Thank you.

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