Category Archives: Christianity

Our Obsession with Imitating the Early Church and Another Way Forward

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.

Book Review: “Paul – An Apostle’s Journey” By Douglas A. Campbell

A few weeks ago a friend recommended I read Douglas Campbell’s work on Paul. Since that time I have worked my way through his book “Paul – An Apostle’s Journey” and want to share some insights on the book, Campbell’s views, and the positives and negatives of the book as a whole. The first thingContinue Reading

What is the Gospel? (Part 1)

In Scot McKnight’s excellent book, “King Jesus Gospel” he asks a question that is so simple but so profound – Did Jesus preach the gospel? This is an intriguing question because we typically think of the gospel as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus that gives us future hope in heaven through our promisedContinue Reading

Politics, the New Religion & Proving Your Piety

Politics is the new secular religion. You want to change the world? Engage the political process. You want to find meaning for your life? Join a political cause. You want to gather with people of like mind? Join a political party and go to rallies. You want to know your identity? Look no further thanContinue Reading

Making Complex the Simple and Dreaming Dreams

It takes a lot of work to take a complex idea and make it simple. It takes relatively little work to take something simple and make it complex. Disorder comes more easily than order…chaos is the natural course of a broken world. Entropy doesn’t just affect physics and thermodynamics. Entropy affects communication. Order takes discipline.Continue Reading

Process Crimes in Theological Conversation

There are few things in the world of politics that interest me but one thing that does are process crimes. Let’s say Senator Smith is being investigated for money laundering and tax evasion. They bring her in, put her under oath and ask her umpteen zillion questions. During the questioning she tells several lies andContinue Reading

A New Year’s Resolution I Promise You Can Keep

Here it is – Fail at something. I don’t mean fail because you didn’t try. That isn’t failing. That is laziness. I mean fail because you tried something daring. Fail because you stepped out beyond your comfort zone. Fail because you stretched to be closer to your capacity. If you don’t fail at anything thisContinue Reading

Repeal and Replace

There is a law at work in our minds that must be repealed and replaced. It is a law that doesn’t have our best interest at heart. It is the law of sin that enslaves us to the desires of our flesh. Here is how Paul described it, “21┬áSo I find this law at work:Continue Reading

Operating Out of Conviction

Conviction is a word that I don’t hear very often. I think it is underused. The Bible talks about conviction in a few places including the famous chapter on faith in Hebrews 11, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” If we are to operate out ofContinue Reading

Ministers’ Health in Churches of Christ – Some New Statistics to Consider

I recently ran a survey of Church of Christ ministers to assess their health and self-care. I am going to be presenting a very small portion of that information at the Pepperdine lectures next week. There were a lot of things in the data that were encouraging and some things that scream just how muchContinue Reading

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