Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Four Things in the Early Church You Won't Find in Your Average Non-Denominational Church

One of the major focuses this generation has is a desire to be "authentic" or "genuine" or "real", especially in matters of faith. The desire for true religion, although many of these people may prefer the term "spirituality" to "religion", is most certainly a noble one; we all should strive for an authentic expression of our Faith. Many times, this desire is conjoined with the proclamation of going "back to the Scriptures" and "back to the Early Church".

I see so much good in the non-denominational movement: their love for ministering to the poor, their passion for overseas missions; and no, not simply to Paris or Venice for "missions trips" that are actually just paid vacations that score brownie points. We are talking going to third world countries to spread the love of God to the uttermost parts of the earth--all of these things and more make me glad to call them my brothers and sisters in the Faith.

Unfortunately, in many of these churches I see a very different form of theology and worship from that of the Early Church. The differences aren't necessarily game-changers--these aren't all essentials to the Faith--but they certainly aren't the way that the Early Church ran things. If your desire is to emulate them, then pay heed to these four particular differences from that nice mega-church down the road with the coffee shop in the auditorium and the hipsters vaping outside between services...

1) The Early Church was Hierarchical.

When the Apostles were still alive, they led the Church and spread it throughout the Roman empire. The epistles we have in Scripture are almost all responses to questions sent to the Apostles from local churches; the local churches were asking them, because these men were their leaders.

After the death of the Apostles, the Bishops took their role as leaders of various parts of the Church. The Bishops were placed in charge of multiple church homes, and while they were not given the same amount of power and authority as the Apostles, they were still considered the leaders of the Church.

St. Ignatius of Antioch was one such Bishop; trained by St. John the Evangelist, author of five books of the New Testament; it might be worth something to hear what he had to say about the office of Bishop:

"It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality. For it is not the being called so, but the being really so, that renders a man blessed. To those who indeed talk of the Bishop, but do all things without him, will He who is the true and first Bishop, and the only High Priest by nature, declare, 'Why call ye Me Lord, and do not the things which I say?' (Luke 6:46). For such persons seem to me not possessed of a good conscience, but to be simply dissemblers and hypocrites."--Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Magnesians, chapter 4 (longer version)

Or, if you're one of the more skeptical types, the shorter version of the same passage along with the previous chapter:

"Now it becomes you also not to treat your Bishop too familiarly on the account of his youth (literally, "to use the age of your Bishop") but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the Power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters (local pastors) do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance (of their Bishop), but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting  to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the Bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey (your Bishop) in honour of Him Who has willed us (so to do), since he that does not so deceives not (by such conduct) the Bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, Who knows all secrets.

"It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed hive one the title of Bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment."
--Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Magnesians, chapters 3-4 (shorter version)

St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote this and other letters while on his way to his martyrdom in Rome, in A.D. 107. Some people point to St. Clement's First Epistle to the Corinthians (likely his only extant epistle to the Corinthians) as a counter to the claim that the Christians after the Apostles had a Bishop ruling over multiple local churches, but that is mainly an argument from silence. Even if that were granted, it is incredibly difficult to argue against a hierarchical structure within the vast majority of Christianity by the end of the 2nd century.

What does this mean, in laymen's terms? It means that for most of the Early Church, each local church community was under the authority of a regional leader. That means that if your non-denominational church named "The Impact" or "Exciting New Awesome Christ Follower Community Center Place" were transported back in time to the 2nd century, the Christians surrounding you would expect you to be under the authority of the region's Bishop...who'd hopefully then make you change your church's hideously annoying name.

2) The Early Church Used the Deuterocanon (a.k.a, "The Apocrypha").

GASP!!!! OH NO!!!!!! The Apocrypha is that there Devil's book collection!!!!!

...or, that's what I was told, growing up.

Friends don't let friends believe what's written in Chick Tracts.

If the Deuterocanon (that's the better name for it than "Apocrypha") is Satanic, or even just not a good collection of writings helpful for the Church, then why did...

The Didache (second half of the 1st century)
St. Clement of Rome (A.D. 95)
St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 107)
St. Polycarp of Smyrna (first half of the 2nd century)
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 180)
St. Clement of Alexandria (mid 2nd-early 3rd centuries)
Tertullian (mid 2nd-early 3rd centuries)
St. Hippolytus of Rome (late 2nd-early 3rd centuries)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (early 3rd century)

 and a whole host of other Early Church Fathers use it, even authoritatively?

Even more important; the version of the Old Testament overwhelmingly used by the writers of the New Testament was the version of the Old Testament that utilized deuterocanonical books. The vast majority of Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In fact, when the Septuagint and what becomes known as the Masoretic text (sorry if I'm nerding too much on you all: for simplicity's sake, think of the Masoretic text as the "no Deuterocanon/Apocrypha" Old Testament and the Septuagint as the "Deuterocanon/Apocrypha" Old Testament. I could delve into the history of the two major streams of the Old Testament, but that'd take a long time and would probably bore you to death) say different things in the same passage, the New Testament authors tend to side with the Septuagint.

Now, why is this important? Because, as stated in the previous paragraph, the Septuagint utilizes the Deuterocanon. Granted, there is no uniform canon for the Septuagint, but the copies we have all make use of a variety of the books generally considered "apocryphal" to the majority of Protestants.

Now, to be fair, I must quickly add that the Early Church was not uniform in its understanding of the Deuterocanonical books. While the Church Fathers mentioned above, and many more, utilized it authoritatively, many within the Church were not so readily accepting of them. One example is St. Jerome, while others exist in addition to him. However, few if any of the Early Church Fathers would have entirely rejected them, and absolutely none to my knowledge considered them Satanic (sorry, Chick Tracts...).

So what should be done with them?

Well, the consensus of the Church Fathers throughout history seems to be that they should be considered incredibly important to Christians at the very least, not simply rejected. What the Anglican Communion does is consider them as a "lesser" canon; still to be used in readings during church services and as part of one's studies, but not with the same level of authority as the New Testament or the more universally accepted books of the Old Testament. What that means, for example, is that we can't read the Book of Tobit and find some claim in it that can only be found in that Book (and not in the universally accepted Canon), then teach that point as an authoritative doctrine for the whole Church or as necessary for salvation. Roman Catholicism considers the Deuterocanon to be fully canonical, and the Eastern Churches have a variety of canon lists for the Deuterocanon, as well as varying degrees of canonicity for them.

Protestant churches would do well to utilize these precious texts for teaching, if for no reason other than to help better understand the Scriptures and the Early Church. While specific views differed on the canonicity of these texts, it was universally recognized as at least important for the growth of the Church, and certainly not Satanic books to be avoided.

3) The Early Church Worshiped Liturgically. 

Sorry, guys; the Early Church was not some free-for-all worship-however-you-want music fest. Contrary to popular Protestant belief, the structure of Church worship was pretty high.

And they didn't wear crap like this, thank God (courtesy of the Facebook group "Christian Memes").
"But didn't they worship in homes? Doesn't that strongly imply that they worshiped in a more free-style form?"

Yes, the Early Church generally did meet in homes for their worship services. However, as far as we can see historically, they maintained a pretty high form of liturgical worship. The oldest liturgy still used today is the Liturgy of St. James, which at absolute latest was finalized in the 4th century. Below are a few pictures of the liturgy, taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume VII:

That's pretty different from your modern worship service today, isn't it?

And while there were house churches...they were still very liturgical. Even the Gospel Coalition has written about this fact.

4) The Early Church was Very Sacramental.

Wait...what's...Sacrimintle theology?

Okay...REALLY quick lesson, here: Sacramental theology is the belief that the Sacraments (specifically Baptism and the Eucharist) mediate Grace to us. When we are Baptized, according to Sacramental theology, we are literally in some mysterious way ("Sacrament" means "mystery") united to the death of Christ (read Romans 6; yes, the entire chapter). When we partake in the Eucharist or what you might call Communion, according to Sacramental theology, we are in some mysterious way taking part in the Body and Blood of Jesus (read John 6:22-71, or more concisely, John 6:52-58; as well, 1 Corinthians 10:16 and a whole host of other passages, but that's enough for now) which saves us. There are other Sacraments in the Western Church, but I want to focus on these two for now.

The Early Church was incredibly Sacramental. Here are a few quotes confessing both the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the power of it for the Christian:

"Take ye heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to (show forth) the unity of His Blood; one altar; as there is one Bishop, along with the Presbytery and Deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever ye do, ye may do it according to (the will of) God."--Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Philadelphians, chapter IV (shorter version)

"But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the Grace of Christ which has come to us (that part's important), how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphans, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty.             

"They abstain from the Eucharist (Communion) and from prayer, (here it comes...) because they confess not the Eucharist to be the Flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this Gift of God (the Eucharist), incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it is better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again."--Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Smyrneans, chapters VI-VII (shorter version) 

"And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made Flesh by the Word of God, had both Flesh and Blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the Flesh and Blood of that Jesus Who was made Flesh."--St. Justin Martyr's First Apology, chapter 66 (middle of the 2nd century)

Here, we see both the Real Presence and the power of the Eucharist proclaimed in the Early Fathers; there are plenty of other passages that can be used to demonstrate this (as well, I wrote an article last year giving a Scriptural defense of it), but we will move on to Baptism.

Both Baptismal Regeneration (Sacramental theology) and Infant Baptism are taught in the Early Church.

"Now this is what Faith does for us, as the elders, the disciples of the Apostles, have handed down to us. First of all, it has admonished us to remember that we have received Baptism for the remission of sins in the Name of God the Father, and in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who became Incarnate and died and raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God; and that this Baptism is the seal of eternal life and is rebirth unto God, that we be no more children of mortal men, but of the eternal everlasting God; and that the eternal and everlasting One is God, and is above all creatures, and that all things whatsoever are subject to Him; and that what is subject to Him was all made by Him; so that God is not ruler and Lord of what is another's, but of His Own, and all things are God's; that God, therefore, is the Almighty, and all things whatsoever are from God."--St. Irenaeus' The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, (written approximately A.D. 180)

"For He (Jesus) came to save all through means of Himself--all, I say, who through Him are born again to God--infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men."--St. Irenaeus' Against Heresies, Book II, 22:4 (written approximately A.D. 180)

"And again, giving to the Disciples the power of regeneration into God, He (Jesus) said to them, 'Go and teach all nations, Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'"--St. Irenaeus' Against Heresis, Book III, 17:1 (written approximately A.D. 180)

"But in respect of the case of the infants, which you (Fidus) say ought not to be Baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be Baptized and sanctified within the eighth day (in other words, Fidus is wanting to not Baptize infants until the 8th day, due to Jewish Law making it 8 days before circumcision), we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man."--The Epistles of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter LVIII, 2 (written approximately A.D. 253)

I can give many, many more passages. Here is a fuller defense of Baptismal Regeneration and Infant Baptism, but for now these passages I've just posted should suffice. Oh, and in case you are curious, here are some more of those passages.


Most of these aren't necessarily essential to the Faith; however, they are important. If we reject these points of doctrine, what is our reasoning? Because they don't fit into our already maintained belief system? Because they would require us to reexamine our church and see if it is one that is consistent with the rest of Christianity? Because we are already too comfortable?

If those are the reasons, it is time for a serious reflection on how your Faith works out in your life. If you have other objections, then seek wisdom on the subject; don't just immediately reject the Fathers because of those objections. See why you disagree with them, and try to work it all out. Ask men and women far more knowledgeable in the Faith than you, including those who are in different denominations. Perhaps, read the Church Fathers themselves.

After all, many of them died for the Faith. Many died so that we could have the Faith passed down to us and the Scriptures to help lead us. The least we can do in thanks is read what they thought, and listen to what they had to say.

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