In coming posts, David will continue this reflection to discuss how the early church handled the message of the Gospel and in what context they presented it. He will also look at the purpose and method of the organized early church and draw a number of parallels and conclusions in our contemporary Western cultural context.
Recently a friend and I were discussing what has been referred to as the Missional Church. An organization called The Gospel and Our Cultural Network (GOCN) has listed a number of items that they believe characterizes the missional church. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, list twelve items that they took from the GOCN (paraphrased by me):
- Proclaims the Gospel
- A community of believers learning to be disciples of Christ
- The Bible is the normative authority
- Sees itself as different from the world due to its participation in the life, death, resurrection of Christ
- Seeks God’s missional vocation for the church
- Members have a high regard for each other
- Practices reconciliation
- There is accountability among its members
- The church practices hospitality
- Worship is a central element of the church’s practice
- Purposes to be a vital community witness
- Sees itself as an incomplete manifestation of God’s reign on the earth
Frost and Hirsh add these additional three points (again paraphrased):
- Incarnational - it seeks to take Christ to society in the context of how the church fits into that society
- Messianic - in that it adopts Christ’s world view and not that of the culture surrounding it
- Apostolic - in terms of leadership and in its encouragement of the various members of the church to use the gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit.
There is a reaction among many believers today toward the present state of the institutionalized church, and a desire to get closer to the standard set by the early church. Such a desire is not new. E. H. Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church shows that this desire has been unbroken throughout the history of the church and has been manifest at least somewhere on the earth in every generation from the time of the Apostles. The universal nature of this desire, spanning both space and time, suggests to me that the Holy Spirit is witnessing within His people that the way the church began is the very same way she should continue.
To be sure, there are many who believe that today’s “mature” expression of the church is preferable to what it was at the beginning. But arguably, every significant advance that has occurred in the church in the last two millennia have come from those who have either believed we should return to some aspect of the truth as contained in the New Testament, or to the whole counsel of New Testament truth—including what we see in the Book of Acts.
Of course, there are some who say it is not possible to go back; that the New Testament was a dispensation we cannot revisit. But I do not believe Scripture supports that view. There is something burning in many of this generation who want to return to the beginning. If history is any indication, this is the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
In my review of church history, the groups that have sought to return to the early church’s life and practice have had mixed results. Zeal and desire alone do not achieved the desired end. Our need is to first learn what we can from the mistakes and the successes of those who have gone before us. But as with everything spiritual, it is more than a rational interpretation of past events that is needed. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1). We must have the Lord's working and moving within us and through us if we will ever accomplish anything of value. Not only this, but Satan is crafty! Even if we know every detail of history, he is clever enough to outsmart us. We not only need the Lord's ability but His protection and wisdom.
Although the basic principals of how the church met and lived should be the same, the application and outward expression will likely be different. Paul said he became all things to all men that he might win as many as possible to Christ. He adjusted to the culture of those he was ministering to without compromising who he was and who Christ was. We will need to do the same.
For now, I'm receiving Dave's challenge to learn from the past in the spiritually dependent way he describes; and I'm eager for what kind of thought and discussion his thoughts stir up in us! Thank you David!