Thursday, October 14, 2004

The "Did they do it?" test

Yes or no? Did the new testament church do it or did they not? This was always my litmus test for church practices. If the new testament church didn't support Bible colleges, it seemed self-evident that it was wrong to do so. If they didn't hire professional pulpit ministers, then it seemed obvious that this, too, was wrong. Likewise with musical instruments, and a host of other controversial issues.

Conversely, if the new testament church did do something, I assumed it was self-evident that it was sinful not to do it ourselves. This makes some sense. After all, if they baptized every convert, we ought to do that. If they participated in the Lord's supper each first day of the week, we ought to do likewise. And the list goes on.

I see some wisdom in this line of thought, because it keeps us tethered to Biblical methods for doing things. It is arguably helpful in keeping a congregation from getting mired in commercialism, popularity contests, and layer upon layer of human-derived traditions.

But we should recognize that this test for church practices is not the determining factor in "getting it right." There are other, more rational ways to defend immersion and the Lord's supper. Practices that can't be supported on firmer Biblical ground than the "Did they do it?" test should not be insisted upon. Furthermore, in this age of freedom from the law, I'm not so sure that being tethered to legal precedent is what Jesus had in mind. No doubt, there are methods for accomplishing church functions that were simply not available to the first century Christians. Are they necessarily ruled out for us? I don't think so.

It is simply unwise and inconsistent to turn this method of deducing proper church practices into a binding law or test of fellowship between brethren. If we say that it is sinful not to do the things that the early church did, or to do things that the early church did not, we condemn ourselves along with the entirety of the Christian world.

Consider this list of things that the new testament church did not do:

  • They did not meet in church-owned buildings.
  • They did not advertise.
  • They apparently did not keep a common treasury unless there was a pressing need, such as the humanitarian aid to the Judean Christians.
  • They did not denominate themselves "The Church of Christ" or any other sectarian appellation, nor did they insist that others do so.
  • They did not call their assembly a "worship service."
  • They did not dissociate from other congregations of believers, but were instructed to receive one another just as Christ had received them. (Romans 15:1-7)

And consider this list of things that the early church did do, which, if taken as binding precedents, would cause uproar among some Christians today:

Some of these things may be appropriate for us to learn from and pattern our own practices after. However, we have no scriptural basis for dissociating ourselves from congregations who don't fit our idea of what the new testament church did or did not do in their assemblies. What one person deduces to have been a practice may simply be an incidental fact. What another person considers incidental may actually have spiritual ramifications. As Christians, we are freed from law, and are to exercise the liberty we've been given to the extent of our knowledge, intellect, faith, and understanding. That means being longsuffering, edifying, and even encouraging, to those who may have arrived at different conclusions at different points in their Christian walk.

I think the "Did they do it?" test has some value to us, intuitively. We have something to gain by asking the question, like wisdom and potentially insightful guidelines. When we see that we're doing something that the new testament church did not do, we ought to take notice and ask more questions. But we cannot maintain this question as the ultimate test of whether we do something or choose not to do something, nor of whether we associate with another group or not. In short, the "Did they do it?" test should be a starting point in our studies, not an ending point.

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