Stanley W. Paher

 

"The Early Church" by Gene Edwards. Published by Christian Books, Goleta, Calif. 243 pages, $6.95.

"Reader, be warned," the author states ominously m the introduction. "The intent of this book is to wreck your life completely. This book was written to touch off a revolution of the highest order." The author insists that the story of the first century church is virtually unknown today and that there is usually no similarity between the practice of the early church and today's Christianity. Edwards' book backs his contentions by a simple retelling of the history and practice of the first century Christians.

To return to the practice of the early church, we do not reform the existing church structures. There is no way to revise a system which has veered so far off course. States the author: "It must be abandoned. We must start all over, from the ground up."

The author makes a careful distinction between today's practice of Christianity and its belief. "What Christians today believe about the Lord, the Scripture, salvation, etc. is correct and beautiful. But what present day Christians practice is an abomination." How did we miss it so badly?

The early church matured gradually out of a deep experience with the Christ. It is improper to force offices upon-the assembly unless they have had a long and abiding relationship with the Lord. Nor can modern institutions be scripturally justified -- Christian colleges, Sunday school, organizations, the "pastor system," church buildings, and other trappings of the incorporated organized church. If you insist that these things are necessary for successfully carrying on God's work, this book is not for you.

Another of Edwards' intriguing ideas is the proper distinction between the first line of churches which began with Jerusalem and a second line of churches which were established with Antioch. The former was nurtured by the synagogue; the latter flourished on Gentile ground. As reported by John W. Kennedy in "The Torch of the Testimony" (also published by Christian Books), the former contributed to the development of the institutional church (with its councils which ultimately evolved into the Greek church, the church at Rome, and modern Protestantism); the latter -- Antioch contributed to the primitive testimony of the likes of Tyndale, Wycliffe, and later various congregational and independent churches.

From the genesis church, Jerusalem, came more than 100 churches throughout Judea -- one per city. Each of these sprang up when whole groups of Christians moved bodily into a new city. Ultimately, the church in Antioch began that way, ending the Jerusalem pattern. This was because Antioch, in Gentile territory, was not a Jewish town. Unlike in Judea, where Jewish Christians "swarmed" into scores of towns, in Antioch only a few people comprised the group which started the church. But the Gentiles' response to the gospel was large, exceedingly large.

Antioch would be a different church. Unlike Jerusalem or any other in Judea; it would not be Jewish. Fortunately, God kept such a thing from happening, and the "rough, rowdy, irreverent" Gentiles found their own natural ways of expressing worship to Christ. Its founders, among them Simeon the Black, Manaen, and Lucius, received the warmest response ever given to the gospel. There was no way for them to assemble in the manner that Christians in the Judean churches met. They came together as Gentiles! They expressed their worship together informally and joyously, the very opposite of the Judeans.

Evidently, the first century churches of Christ were greatly varied, defying little categories and neat pigeon holes. Edwards stresses the history of spiritual life -- a relationship with Christ -- as the essence of Christianity, not patternism. A first century church cannot be established by merely setting up what is thought to be a scriptural mold and applying the correct techniques. In no way does the New Testament set down rules and regulations whereby the fellowship of the church should be governed legalistically as it had been for the building of the Old Testament tabernacle.

The point is driven home: spiritual life first produces the man; and man, doing the work of the Lord, creates the of-rice. The office does not create the man. It is the Spirit that makes elders (Acts 20:20); look at the man who does the work of shepherding and you will be watching the man holding the office of elder!

How can we get back to the first principles -- to recapture the spirit of the first century church? Restore church spiritual life! Drop our fly-by-night mentality and return to a life built on a relationship with Christ and not on our own intellectualism and logic. Away with the idea that we must rely on the organization -- institutional corporate church! The early saints would have no idea of "going to church" for church to them was not a place or an assembly but a way of life. They met daily -- before dawn and after work. Perhaps both times. They were the church! They experienced Jesus Christ. This is what the Lord intends for us to do today. We must speak about the Christ, nurturing new converts by flooding their thoughts about Him.

No apostle ever compelled nor demanded everyone to believe exactly the same thing. This, in fact, is what causes disunity. Nor was it organization that held them together. At Antioch, Lucius, Manaen, and Simeon, all Jews, had the good sense to allow the Gentile Christians to find their own expressions of worship. When Barnabas later came to Antioch, he made sure that things stayed that way.

The Antioch church was indeed a higher and more democratic work than what existed in Judea. Though they did not practice living in common, the saints did live sanctified lives, very likely in clusters scattered about the city. They adopted the Greek way of life. They gathered "all in one place" on the Lord's day and at other times but also in home meetings, ever practicing oneness. Since love flowed true and deep in the house churches, the Bible records no discord at Antioch, only unity. It was characterized by evangelism, prayer, love, togetherness, forbearance.

With bursts of evangelism, there were always too many new Gentiles coming into the meetings for traditions and rituals to be fixed into place, as was in Jerusalem and Judea. In the absence of crisis in the church (so that leaders are clearly evidenced -- cf. I Cor. 11:26), Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen took no offices. These Jews imposed no structure on the Gentiles. None esteemed one higher than another in the assembly. Unity based on love was the keynote.

The Antioch church emerged as a blend of Jewish virtue and good conscience (without the accompanying legalism) and the free, uninhibited nature of the Greek without the immorality. There were no elders, only prophets and teachers in a church which numbered nearly 100,000 members all meeting in homes, ever proclaiming the gospel throughout the city and ministering to the needy. The church rested upon a powerful foundation of prayer and deep spiritual experience and not on the shallower base of evangelical gospel gimmicks.

How did they do it in Antioch? In the year 47 A.D., five men, as reported in Acts 13:1 fi, were ministering to the Lord. The Holy Spirit spoke to them telling them to take the gospel westward to the Grecian world. Two new apostles arose with Paul to unshackle the gospel from the Jewish religion (the Great Commission as in Matt. 28:18 was given to Jewish apostles appointed by Jesus).

In contrast to this simple way of extending God's kingdom, today's man of religion raises up an ecclesiastical organization with a building containing pews filled with a group of people who agree to show up every Sunday morning and night. The word "church" is painted upon a sign in front of the building. A preacher drones on "preaching the gospel" to a congregation that has long ago stopped listening. This is the church as modern man understand and serves it, but it is not the church as it was experience in the days of the apostles.

The church in Jerusalem and others in Judea kept an "institutional'' concept of the church, for that is what they were familiar with. They kept the law of Moses along with the new Christian precepts, doing nothing to offend the ancient customs. They attended Jewish synagogues, worshipped at the Temple, kept the sabbath, engaged in purification rites, paid the temple tax, and circumcised their children. They obeyed the Levitical food laws (Acts 10:14). Ananias was a devout observer of the law, highly respected by all the Jews (Acts 22:12). See also Acts 28:17; 24:11; 2:47; 21:20-21, 24, 26; 15:5; 18:18. Evidently, Paul was an obedient orthodox Jew as were the Christians in Judea. But this dualism was not extended affirmatively to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:3-5; Acts 15:19 ff).

The main reason for unity and togetherness was that each saint was enamored by Jesus Christ and the daily experience of abiding with Him. He was the unity -- His love; it did not come any other way.

Perhaps the author's most valuable contribution is that the reader is transported historically back to the thrilling days of Christ's early church in action. The great Pentecost of Acts 2 is cast in its social and religious setting. The pages of this book come alive with the sights and sounds of the crowds listening to Peter proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ. The reader experiences a day in the life of the early church -- prayers at Solomon's Porch, accompanied by preaching. You experience other adventures including the selection of the Seven (Acts 6). Then comes Stephen, Saul, and the scattering of the saints (Acts 8:4).

Soon assemblies sprang up all over Judea. Men traveled up and down the roads of Judea proclaiming the glories of Jesus Christ and churches sprang up. The persecution in Jerusalem had turned into an "avalanche of joy, victory, and advance" in Judea. Unlike the Antioch line of churches of the Gentiles, composed of people with little religious heritage, the churches of Judea were made of transplanted people from "mother" Jerusalem. Nevertheless, later in the first century, the Antioch line and the Jerusalem line would honor one another, holding to the sanctity of the unity of Christians in each city.

The Kennedy book is also valuable in pointing out the spiritual nature of the elders. No hint is given as to how the elders at Jerusalem, Ephesus, and Philippi came to occupy their positions, whereas in other places (Corinth, Thessalonica) they were recognized without any formal ordination (1 Cor. 16:15-16; 1 Thess. 5:12-14). Being appointed by the Holy Spirit, these men were marked out by their spiritual life and conduct, ruling in matters of faith. An office was a work; do the work and you hold the office. Man-appointed elders today preside like a board of directors over a human institution -- much akin to the Elks Club, Rotary, etc.

But soon came the transition from "eldership" to authoritarian leadership, when the church lost its emphasis on spiritual life. The monarchial bishop arose above the eldership, along with a clergy-laity distinction, church buildings, and apostacy. Christian service was practiced exclusively through the functional entity, the incorporated unit. The church made itself attractive to the world. It had drifted far from the simplicity of the gospel message and the communion of the saints as in the beginning.

Surely, there is a lesson to be learned from history. In the words of Kennedy, "The development of the highly organized systems of Christianity...has no valid spiritual reason, and has but served to preserve 'churches' which could otherwise exist no longer since the life of the Spirit has departed from them." -- 4135 Badger Circle, Reno, NV 89509.

Editor's Note: The author's Nevada Publications Co. is an agent for this new book. Dealer discounts available. Individuals add $1.25 for postage. We recommend this book to you.