December 12, 2002
I, like most in the churches of Christ, was raised up on the notion that we must "restore" the first century church to present day America. It was something I never questioned, and just assumed (like most) that it was a biblical concept and goal. However, some years back I began a personal quest to confirm my beliefs, and I soon learned that many of my cherished convictions came more from my forefathers in the faith than from my Faithful Father! This notion of restoration of the first century church is one of them, in my view.
Yes, there is something inherently noble about wanting to "return to the Bible" for our authority in matters of faith and practice. I have no problem with that. However, where on earth did we get this notion that Christianity must forever be frozen in the form of first century customs and perceptions and methodologies? When God provided His people with guiding principles did He honestly expect all peoples everywhere until the end of time to implement those principles ONLY after the manner of the "approved examples" of a band of fallible disciples in one small corner of the globe? And if so, where has God ever declared this precept? Where has God declared specifically that unless we give or love or pray or sing JUST EXACTLY LIKE they did in Troas or Corinth or Ephesus or Jerusalem we will go straight to hell and be tortured for a zillion years?! Would someone please show me where God ever declared such a thing? What specific command of God makes the methodologies of these early disciples the universal standard for all peoples for all time?! I have yet to find that clear command in Scripture.
Some within the early church seemingly took a collection (a special contribution, really) on the first day of the week for a special cause: the relief of the saints in Judea who were experiencing the ravages of a famine (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Fabulous! Good for them. Does that mean that if I take a collection on any OTHER day of the week that I will go to hell? I actually had someone tell me this was the case. If we took up a collection on a Wednesday evening, we were eternally LOST. If a brother dated his check on any day other than Sunday, he was committing a soul-damning sin. Where does this thinking originate? It certainly didn't come from the Bible!
On the first day of the week they gathered together and broke bread in the city of Troas, or at least they did on that particular weekend (Acts 20:7). That's marvelous. Good for them. Does that mean I will go straight to hell and be tortured forever in fire if I break bread and remember my Lord's sacrifice on any OTHER day? Some say so! However, what ever happened to my Lord's statement pertaining to frequency ("as often as" -- 1 Cor. 11:25-26)? Does a singular example have the power to forever limit and restrict and regulate this divine command of Jesus Christ (repeated by an inspired apostle)? And if so, where is the clear command from God in Scripture that specifically and unequivocally declares a singular example has the power to forever alter a command of deity? I would sincerely like to see that passage. I can tell you now: It isn't there! And yet God's people have divided over such rigid, religious regulation .... all of which is based on assumptions of men rather than the authority of the Word.
This effort at "restoration" of the first century church has easily proved to be one of the most divisive ideas ever promoted by later disciples. Restoring some elusive "pattern" (the nature of which even the patternists themselves can't agree upon), that some think they perceive in their personal study of the inspired documents, has led only to the fragmenting of the fellowship of the saints, and it has fostered feuding factions the likes of which make the church in Corinth look like a unity movement!
If we feel we absolutely MUST restore something, then let's restore spirituality and love for the Lord. Let's restore faithfulness to the spirit of our Lord. Let's restore a spirit of honest inquiry and a sacrificial devotion to evangelism and benevolence. Let's restore biblical principles, which can unite us if embraced, but not some elusive pattern, which can only lead to further fragmentation of the One Body. I see nothing in Scripture that even remotely suggests God expects the universe to revolve around 1st century Palestine. The universe is to revolve around HIS SON, and that resolve transcends time, space and culture. And it certainly transcends the methodologies and customs of first century disciples (our knowledge of which is imperfect at best).
There is MUCH we don't know about these early disciples and the particulars of the practice of their faith. Indeed, there is very little we DO know. Take, for example, the Acts 20:7 passage. OK, so we have a limited peek into what happened in one town among one group of disciples on one weekend. Was this characteristic of their normal custom? Was this the ONLY day they "broke bread" together? Do we know? Was this the custom in other cities in the Empire? Do we know?
The fact is, we don't know ... and never will. To formulate a theology of frequency, and its attendant practice of exclusion and condemnation, based upon this singular example about which many assumptions must be made (keeping in mind our Lord's own command regarding the matter of frequency ... a command repeated by an inspired apostle), is both frivolous and factional. Let's be honest with ourselves here --- we have inherited a tradition from our religious forefathers and we then went searching for any justification for that tradition. And, frankly, this was about the best we could come up with! Discerning disciples, men and women who have not yet surrendered their ability to think and reason for themselves, can easily see through this attempt at validation, and they rightly reject it as fallacious. The practice of Sunday only observance, and every Sunday observance, is not wrong (it most certainly does comply with the command "as often as"), however to seek to bind this tradition upon the rest of mankind as the ONLY acceptable pattern until the end of time, and to condemn to hell all who differ with this traditional preference, IS wrong! It is dead wrong! It is exactly here that we have departed from TRUTH and fallen before the idol of TRADITION.
I personally doubt ANY of the early disciples would recognize much of anything we do today, especially in our worship assemblies on Sunday morning. In external FORM we are so far removed from anything found among first century disciples that they would likely disfellowship the whole bunch of us (assuming, of course, that they were equally into this whole patternistic, exclusivistic, isolationist nonsense ... which I do not for an instant believe they were).
In short, this notion of preserving the methodologies and customs and traditions of first century disciples, and binding them upon all disciples the world over until the end of time, is ludicrous. It is nowhere in Scripture commanded, much less recommended. The principles of Christianity can be applied in any culture at any time in the history of this planet. Christianity is not frozen in 1st century practice or perception; it transcends such a local limitation. Christian principles can be applied anywhere by anyone at any time. Far too many of my beloved brethren have taken their focus off the MAN and the MESSAGE, and have focused instead on the METHODOLOGY .... and we are all the losers for it.
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