In Churches of Christ we have a tendency to try to make most things an issue of scripture whether the Bible speaks on it or not. I have a great appreciation for the sentiment and goal – that we want to be biblical and pleasing to God but what sometimes ends up happening is people end up with an inconsistent approach. People end up cherry picking what is approved and what is not based on comfort and tradition…making some innovations on par with scripture (try changing it and see if that isn’t the case!) and other innovations are anathema to be spewed out of the church when there is really little difference between the two.
If you take a moment to think about all the things we do in churches that were never mentioned in Scripture it is kind of amazing, humbling and eye-opening. Here are 10 innovations, things that we do that aren’t just like they did them, to consider…
Baptistries – the early church didn’t typically have these around unless the host home was particularly wealthy and had a pool in the atrium. Baptisms were made more into a public event because water was out in public (the gymnasium, the river, public baptistries, etc). Baptism was much more a proclamation of faith in public than in the confines of a house church or later a church building where only the Christians witnessed the event. Maybe we can learn something from that!
Paid, located preachers – this is also an innovation. The elders were teachers and the ministers were basically the deacons. Apostles certainly taught like what James did almost entirely in Jerusalem and what Paul did as a traveling apostle. Timothy may be the closest thing we have to this as he was located in Ephesus. Paul and his companions were probably funded by patrons/benefactors (Greek “prostasis”) like Phoebe in Romans 16:2. The NIV translates it as “benefactor”
Minimal Lord’s supper – it was given in the context of a meal (why it is called the “supper” (deipnon in Greek – biggest meal of the day) in the early church. That changed in the first 300 years of Christianity. What we do at the supper is not how it was originally done in full.
Church buildings – the early church met in homes. Like the Lord’s Supper being a full meal…this too was consistent for at least 200-300 years. Meeting in homes allows for sharing that is hard to do in a large building set up with rows of chairs with just a few people doing the speaking.
Sermon – they didn’t have a sermon as we have it today. They did teaching, preaching of scripture, prayer and the supper (even a homily given at the supper too, as is usually done today) but they didn’t have the weekly sermon as we know it today by a paid staff member.
Hymnals – these weren’t around either, as far as we know. They had the psalms and there is evidence in the New Testament for a few hymns like possibly in Philippians 2.
Order of worship – According to 1 Corinthians 11-14 we see that everyone came with something to participate with in the worship and that the different aspects of worship were predominantly Holy Spirit led and then controlled/ordered by those who had the gifts. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not working in quite the same fashion in our churches today but it shows that they didn’t have the clergy/laity distinctions built into their worship that we have today.
Clergy/laity distinction – They certainly had leaders (like elders) who were distinct from the rest of the congregation in role and authority. If I am reading Paul’s letters right, it seems to me that the worship service was far more participatory amongst the congregation than we typically have it today. Today someone stands up front and everyone else is in the audience. I don’t read it that way in the early church. I think we have lost something here as they centered their worship in the Lord’s Supper as a meal eaten around tables. In the house church, the head of the household would have had some authority over what went on and that is probably why elder qualifications involve things like managing their family well.
Sunday Bible class – Sunday morning Bible class started off in the 1780s as a day off for kids working in the factories in England. They could come in and get an education using the Bible as the curriculum.
Weekly collection – The verse that is typically used to justify the weekly collection is 1 Corinthians 16:2 – “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” But here it is in context,
“Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.“
Paul is coming through and wants them to give a gift to the struggling Christians in Jerusalem. In order to not have to collect it all when he gets there he wants them to begin giving toward that cause on a weekly basis, setting it aside for Paul to pick up and take to Jerusalem.
My point is this – the logic that adding anything to the scriptures always takes something away from God is anecdotal and inconsistent. It doesn’t hold up to any careful scrutiny. I do not believe any of these things are sinful or wrong because we have adapted over time. Those who agree with me on that should be careful in how they evaluate other “innovations” to make sure that they are dealing with things fairly and consistently…not accepting some because they are such a deeply engrained part of our tradition and rejecting others because they are not.
Each thing must be dealt with by its own merits and decided accordingly. This does not mean all innovation is good and that “anything goes.” It does mean we need to be careful how we talk about such things because in the process our standard of judgment may very well condemn many of the things we already do but have no condemnation for in our minds.