Growing up in a Pentecostal community allowed me to experience firsthand many unique and interesting theological distinctives. You see, theology does not only exist as a mythical collection abstract thoughts, instead it is an understanding of the world that drives our feelings and experiences in the world. If you grow up hypercharismatic and your theology tell you satan is hiding behind every rock, you quite literally feel or experience a “spiritual battle” at every corner. Theological roots grow practical fruits.
Pentecostals have a few core ideas that govern the movements trajectory. Millennialism and Restorationism are two predominant ideas at the heart of Pentecostalism (although other movements share these). Millennialism is the theological idea of Christ returning for a 1000 year reign. Early Pentecostals (turn of the 20th century) were hyper-focused on ushering in this Second Coming by providing an explosive and urgent push to finish evangelizing the world and “bring in the final harvest.” Even today many Pentecostals think the end of the world is literally only a few years away.
The second big distinctive is Restorationism, or the idea that we were a restoration of the early church, and were abandoning stale Christianity in an effort to match the primitive roots of the apostles. I remember hearing many sermons about how we needed to repent of the sins of the modern age so that God could work again exactly like in the early days. Pentecostals are not the only ones to think “less modern = more holy.” There is a huge variety of Christian groups, denominations, and movements that are strongly convinced the most early version of the church is the ideal. Often many of these groups talk about the “apostolic age” or even consider themselves “apostolic” in an effort to clarify that the best era of Christianity, and the only one to be imitated, is the age of the apostles. In other words the perfect version of Christianity started at Pentecost and ended with the death of the apostles, and our ultimate goal is to make the future look like the past. Today among many Christians this is an accepted fact, but is it really true?
Is the Early Church the Best Church?
I recognize that there are many great lessons and examples to learn from the era of the apostles, or the young church, however, I would argue that this era was also marked by many immaturities. I would submit that the church is on a journey, with the end destination being a wedding feast with Jesus, not the 1st Century. Imagine a father who left his family in a small town, and told them to journey across a mountain towards a seaport where they would join him on a ship. Yet the mother decides to stay behind because the small town was the last place she was with her husband. The son travels to the top of the mountain, and decided to camp there because he could see the furthest from there. And the daughter continued the journey towards the seaport and her father. This simple picture explains the denominational variety in Christianity; some are on the journey, others want to go to the starting point, some have stopped, and others are walking into the opposite direction.
Is the most primitive early church our perfect ideal and ultimate goal? I don’t think so, here is why:
1. Lack of Complete Revelation: What happened to the local church before Paul would send them a letter? They asked a question, or had some issue, and it took months or years for Paul to visit or a letter to come their way. Because the Bible had not yet been fully written, the answers were still missing. For example, the book of Romans was written in the mid/late 50’s yet there were believers far before then. Believers today have more knowledge than believers then.
2. Disunity in Doctrine: The church was hardly as unified in doctrine as we assume. As an example one of the major orders of the Apostolic council to the Gentiles was to teach people to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). Yet, Paul on two occasions says the opposite, allowing believers to eat this meat, so long as it doesn’t cause a weaker brother to stumble (1 Cor 8:4-13; 1 Cor 10:25–32).
3. Divisive Factions: Not only was the church divided by manners of doctrine, they were also grossly divided just for the sake of division. The first epistle to the Corinthians shows a huge dissension of at least four varying factions, each taking a name for itself and saying “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ” (1 Cor 1:12). Clearly that last group was the most proud by thinking it was the most right. It reminds me of the people who say “I’m not Calvinist or Arminian, I’m Christian!” (while being totally Arminian or Calvinist, yet with a bigger ego).
4. Carnality and Fleshly Living: Though we often idolize the early church as our theological heroes of faith, the real early church was a nest of carnality. As he begins his address to the Corinthians, Paul writes (to all, not to a few) saying “ I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor 3:2-3). Paul was very much afraid of the state of the early church (2 Cor. 12:20).
5. Petty Fights and Bickering: Even as they had seen signs and wonders the early church was quickly reduced to bickering. In Acts 6:1 we see Hebrews being unjust in giving little food to the gentile widows leading to murmuring in the camp. Elsewhere we see believers taking one another to court (1 Cor. 6:1-8) as well as numerous cases of bickering and judging one another, against which Paul wrote on many occasions (Rom 14:10).
6. Sexual Immorality: Though this is often considered a “modern issue” the early church was not free from sexual immorality. In one example Paul writes in about an incestuous case where a man slept with his father’s wife (mother or stepmother) and strangely enough had not been disciplined or excommunicated (1 Cor 5:1). Besides that there are passages upon passages warning believers time and time again to stay away from sexual immorality. If the early church had absolutely no struggles with sexuality, there would not need to be so many repeated warnings about abstaining from sexual immorality.
7. Poor Leadership: Its assumed that only todays leaders have disagreements, however, the early church was not free from them as well. Even the Apostles who wrote the Bible were involved in disputes and arguments. Paul and Barnabas (who were chosen and anointed by the church for a mission) got in a fight and split their ministry in two (Acts 15:36-40). Elsewhere we can read about Peter promoting racial separations between classes of Christians and getting in a fight with Paul over this. (Gal. 2:11-16)
8. Immature Use of Spiritual Gifts: Pentecostals and Charismatics often point to the many displays of spiritual gifts in the early church, implying that it was the golden era of charismata. Yet, it wasn’t that “golden,” for example Paul wrote a whole chapter to the Corinthians about their severe misuse of spiritual gifts, mainly speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:1-40). He even warned that they could scare away new converts with their abuse of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:23).
9. Easy Gullibility: Rather than being strong in the faith and knowledge of God, the Apostles continually warn believers against believing false teachers. In some cases the church had already believed and come under the influence of false doctrine, and Paul was required to rebuke them. For example in the second epistle to the Thessalonians Paul tells the church to stop believing that the rapture had already come, as was apparently being taught and being believed (2 Thess 2:1-5).
10. Laziness: Often we imagine that the early church was a well-oiled machine where every single person was sacrificing to their utmost, however, this is far from the truth. Paul rebukes the Thessalonians because some of their number are lazy, and not only so, are “busybodies” (those pesky people that involve themselves into everyone’s business and tell everyone what to do without actually doing anything themselves). (2 Thess 3:11).
11. Rampant Legalism: This new doctrine of Grace was not well received and many continued to teach some form of legalism (Acts 15:1). Paul spent most of the book of Galatians convincing believers to stop trying to perfect themselves with the use of fleshly legalism (Gal 3:3-4). Paul was so angry about the amount of legalism in the early church that he even insinuated that legalists should castrate themselves (Gal 5:12).
12. Social Hypocrisy: Even as the Apostles preached radical unity amongst all of Gods family the church did not obey radical self-sacrifice and love. James rebukes the church by writing about the hypocrisy in dealing with rich people vs the poor (James 2 2:7). Even while Jesus taught the church to love the poor, James says that because of their hypocrisy they have dishonored the poor (James 2:6).
So Which Era of the Church is the best?
This picture of the church may seem appalling to some. It may seem unkind and blasphemous to others. Am I saying that the early church was childish and now we are mature? Should we shame the early church for the flaws above? Hardly, there are things in which they were more mature than us. Should we shame those who try to strictly imitate the early church? Again, no, not in the least. Most are very zealous and earnest, though misguided. Should we think our modern church is the best so far? Not very likely, we are at least as flawed as the early church, if not more. The point being that all generations of the church were filled with very flawed people who need God’s grace. There is no perfect church era, at least not yet.
So what should we do?
We should stop idolizing a church era, and start worshiping her Creator. We should stop idolizing the past, and look forward to our future with Jesus. We should recognize that we are on a journey, and our ultimate goal is not to reach the “golden age of the church” but it is to earnestly strive to be like our humble Savior in whatever time, season, or place God has appointed us to be.