You’ve heard people say, “We just need to go back to the early church.” We need to be more like the raw, organic, on-the-go church we see in the New Testament.
Now, I don’t totally disagree. Obviously, there are elements of the early church we should imitate. Fellowship, sacrifice, mission, unity, endurance in persecution, and more. But let’s not pretend that the early church didn’t have their problems.
When we talk about the New Testament church, we can fall prey to the "chronological snobbery" C.S. Lewis cautions us against. Oldness doesn’t constitute betterness. Nor does newness.
People often over-celebrate the early church in a veiled attack on the present church. “The church today is lame, too organized, not free-wheeling enough.” They look back on the early church and crave those early days. But Solomon tells us not to do such a thing. “Don’t say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).
So, you who want to go back to the early church, let me ask you a question:
Which early church do you want to be like?
The church at Corinth? They were rejecting the apostle Paul, falling in love with impostor Apostles, abusing the Lord’s Supper, and were proud of the fact that one of their members was sleeping with his stepmom.
The church in Galatia? They were on the verge of denying the gospel and going wholesale into legalism - denying the apostle Paul and denying the nature of radical grace.
The church in Ephesus? They seem pretty solid. Though, it appears they may have some struggles with unity, magic, family dynamics, and spiritual warfare. And by the time they get a letter from Jesus, they’ve abandoned the love they had at first.
The church at Philippi? Serious division. The disunity was bad enough that Paul had to call out two women, Euodia and Syntyche, pleading for them reconcile. Drama.
The church at Colossae? They were in a fiery battle over the deity of Christ. Does Jesus have a human body? Is Jesus fully God? Paul wrote to help them stay true to Christ and not give in to the false teachers.
The Thessalonians? They are knotted up over the End Times—the return of Christ, the resurrection to come, and wondering if they’ve been left behind.
So, tell me again, which early church you want to go back to? Immorality, persecution, division, theological confusion, legalism, and attacking the apostle Paul is what’s on the menu.
We don’t need to go back to the early church—we are already like them. But we do need to go back somewhere.
Where We Must Go Back
The only perfect church, filled with non-problematic people is in Heaven. Be faithful in the present without wishing for the past.
We must always go back to the teachings of the early church, the New Testament, but the church itself was a mess. Much like today. We are a mess, too, so we go back to the teachings that went to our messy brothers and sisters. We learn from them and the teachings—not to be like them, but to be faithful to our risen Lord.
We go back to the apostolic teaching. We go back to the Bible. We go back to Christ. A church that does that is who we should want to be.