Over time some of our number developed an idea that because God only has one church and that church is defined by the New Testament that the only way to become that church is to imitate the early church as seen in the New Testament. Once we do what they did and say what they said we become who they were and anyone else who has not made the same move is clearly not the same church. Since there is only one church we become the true and only one and others, therefore, are not God’s church and, in theory are presumably lost.
This is the thought process behind why people in the Churches of Christ said they were the only ones going to heaven. That isn’t something I have heard stated in quite some time but I know it is something a significant portion of our fellowship still holds to.
In its strictest form, this view, is about what some would term “precision obedience” or at least a strict imitation of the first Christians. To miss on one point is to miss on all the points. This is a very dangerous theology. It is what Paul condemned as Jesus +. But what is just as troubling about it is, the view itself doesn’t hold up in practice because we can never imitate them with any degree of precision. So we have to have an unwritten list of things we actually believe we must imitate (or be lost) and yet there is no official list of what those things are. There is certainly no list in the Bible itself. And yet our tradition has calcified over time so that we all pretty much know what those things are even though we are all autonomous and never written down! We can’t write them down because that would be a creed and we don’t do creeds. In practice we have our own creeds, they are just not written down so that we don’t break our rules on creeds.
Here is where it falls apart. When we talk about imitating their practices we typically mean for one hour on Sunday. What about the rest of life? What about being together daily? What about selling and sharing our things sacrificially? Can one be a Christian without imitating the early church in all things? How precise are we if we don’t cover all the bases? If we pick some and ignore others? For example, we take the Lord’s Supper the first day of the week (which I am a proponent of) and to not do so, for many, would make a church not a true church. And yet we don’t have that same standard toward mission/evangelism. We can have churches that haven’t converted a single non-Christian for years, decades, and yet their failing on Jesus’ very obvious command to go and make disciples somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being the true church. It would seem to me the standard of strict imitation would take all the commands seriously while the reality is we have bound things that don’t even reach the level of command while not even caring that we fail at things that were directly commanded. And yet, no one has trouble still saying that church is “sound” and you know what, they are right. They are still God’s church even though they missed the point on that issue. And that same grace can extend to other things as well, that is where we miss the boat.. It isn’t that they are considered “sound” because they picked the right things to imitate (which are never listed in the Bible). They are “sound” because they love and follow Jesus.
So what are we left with? We are left with a new and better view on imitating the early church. We certainly don’t want to imitate the church in Corinth. Can you imagine what a mess that would be? We would say we are to imitate an ideal. But when do we get that any church in the New Testament ever pulled that off themselves? The reason Paul wrote his letters was because various churches had problems. How can we get right what they messed up while claiming our goal is to imitate them even though they got it wrong? In essence, we are imitating a theory, not a real group of people.
We are left with the same thing they had and this is our similarity between us and them. We are left with imitating Jesus. I love what my friend Eric Brown said once at the Spiritual Growth Workshop in Orlando a few years ago. He said the early church wasn’t trying to be the early church. They were trying to be Jesus. That is what makes a true church – people following Jesus who assemble together to worship! We have a strange relationship with the early church but maybe our connection with them isn’t such an odd thing. Maybe our similarities are not about what all we and they got right but about recognizing that both we and they have limitations and failures of understanding that God’s grace is sufficient for whether 2000 years ago or last week. Once we realize that we become more open to those not following the “pattern” to be in the family as well because there hasn’t even been a group of people who both figured out and lived out the pattern perfectly. If they did we wouldn’t need Jesus. Once you come to this realization, you can experience true freedom. Not freedom to do whatever you want, because a disciple will want to do what God wants, but to release yourself from the oppressive yoke of the idol of identity in Christ based on my own rightness.