Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The almost-ancient order of things

Sometimes I think those of us who find ourselves wanting to restore the "ancient order" of the New Testament church don't really want to bring the church back to its most primitive state. It is much more comfortable for us to bring the church back to the almost-ancient order of things--perhaps the end of the 1st century--rather than the day of Pentecost.

What do I mean by that? Well, consider that by the end of the first century, some pretty horrible practices had already been slipped into the church. To rewind history back to about 96 A.D. still gets us back to a point where the churches of Asia, described by Jesus in his Revelation to the apostle John, taught deviant doctrines and had outright anti-Christian practices taking place within their congregations. I don't think that's the "pristine state" we want to restore the church to.

If we rewind history back to 55 A.D., we still end up with a divided church. The apostle Paul had to write to the Corinthian church about that time to discourage them from getting drunk at the Lord's supper, and forming factions around Paul, Apollos, or any other preacher of the gospel. In an odd sort of way, those looking for a "pattern" for the factionalism so prevalent today can find it in Paul's first letter to this congregation. I guess it makes us feel better to know that they had a problem with it too.

But what would happen if all Christendom rewound the clock back to the day of Pentecost? After all, social movements, including divinely inspired ones, start in their ideal state and decline through subsequent generations of human influence. Christianity is no different, and the content of the inspired epistles, written for the very purpose of correcting already-errant practices in the ekklesia of that era, emphasizes this point.

This means that the pattern for our ideal church is found somewhere in the days following Peter's first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, not further down the road of the first century. Believers in that primitive state were undivided by opinions, brought together in koinonia solely for the love of their redeemer, each other, and their newfound Way. Of course, God used the apostles to reveal divine solutions to the problems those early Christians encountered, but it was all with the goal of restoring that primitive state of harmony and zeal for the Lord expressed in the church during those formative days, months, and years.

Not one fact was added to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ after its first presentation by Peter. Christians were saved and thrived as a community for about two decades before the first epistle was penned. This means that everything revealed in the apostolic letters, while God-breathed, must be seen as attempts to eradicate human error, rather than attempts to create an appendix to the gospel or a new codebook of legislation for the church. The epistles are not so much "additive" but "restorative." Leave it to fallible men to take uniting, uplifting doctrines and turn them into tools of division and factionalism. Men are good at dividing, and not so good at uniting.

My point is that factionalism is the ultimate "innovation" in the church. We are called to to return, not to the almost-ancient order of things, but to the truly ancient, primitive order of the church. This is the state where Christians knew each other as brothers, not as hyphenated Christians or half-brothers alienated from each other to forever work apart in the great cause of Christ.

We do not have to agree with our brother on a list of creedal matters in order to share with him in our cause. If he is our brother, he is worthy of our mutual love and edification. The correctness of our opinions does not justify the enforcement of them upon lesser (or greater) intellects. This was, at one time, the powerful restoration plea of the early 19th century.

Those of us who are the heirs of that legacy here in the 21st century might find that level of tolerance a bit startling due to our current factional climate. I thank God that the pendulum is swinging away from the divisive zeitgeist that infected the 20th century restoration movement. I sincerely hope that a new restoration movement--returning, not almost, but fully to the primitive concept of the brotherhood of all believers preached on Pentecost--will take hold in my generation.

We need to understand that the Lord himself adds to His church--not to a particular sect--those who would be saved, making clean the hearts of people with diverse backgrounds and intellects. What God has made clean, let no man call common, unclean, or unworthy of our koinonia. If God has called him, who am I to reject him? That is the truly "ancient order" of the church.

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