Saturday, January 13, 2018

Early Church Distinctives

As part of our ongoing series on the distinctives of the early Christian faith (the apostolic church of Jesus Christ), it is of course very important that we examine those distinctives, even briefly- the things that set it apart from much of modern evangelicalism and other expressions of Christianity. This will help us to see just how far removed from the early church modern Christianity really is.

Apostolic Faith
The early church was fiercely committed to maintaining fidelity to the teachings of the Apostles, without addition or subtraction. 

"In the Lord's apostles, we possess authority. For even they themselves did not choose to introduce anything new, but faithfully delivered to the nations the teachings that they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even "an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel" than theirs, he would be called accursed by us."                                                                                      - Tertullian

"We hold union with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different than theirs. This is our witness of truth."                                                                                  - Tertullian

"No other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation."- Tertullian

FACT: Many of the denominations of our day have added to that divine deposit of the faith in some significant way, whether it be things as blatant as veneration of the icons of saints and martyrs or a rejection of apostolic tradition. How many churches can we honestly say hold the same faith as the early church?

The early church had a clear understanding of authority and how it was passed on. 

"Through our Lord Jesus Christ,  our apostles knew that there would be strife over the office of oversight. Accordingly, since they had obtained a perfect knowledge of this, they appointed those men already mentioned. And they afterwards have instructions that when those men would fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry."- Clement of Rome

"When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but than even the apostles."- Irenaeus

"In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of truth, have come down to us."                                                                         - Irenaeus

"We cling to the standard of the heavenly church of Jesus Christ according to the succession of the apostles."- Origen

"By this succession, they have handed down that church which exists in every place and which has come down even to us."- Cyprian

FACT: Many denominations lack this element of authority by either not teaching the faith of the apostles, or by an outright rejection of the tactile succession of apostolic leadership. Of course, the faith is more important than tactile lineage, as it is the faith that saves, not the laying on of hands.

Community of Goods
The early church took steps to ensure all of the faithful were provided for. I am not suggesting that we need to replicate the exact model, but the exact principle. If we live in intentional villages, or simply have a congregation, a storehouse of goods should be kept to assist those in need in the church.

"You will share all things with your neighbor. You will not call things your own. For if you are partakers in common of things that are incorruptible, how much more of those things which are corruptible."                                                                               - Barnabas

"We who used to value above everything the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and share with everyone in need."- Justin Martyr

"All things therefore are common, and not for the rich to appropriate an undue share....I know very well that God has given to us the liberty of use. But only so far as is necessary. And He has determined that the use should be common. For it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in need."- Clement of Alexandria

FACT: Many churches fail to care for their members in this way. They have either abandoned this principle for a "pray for them and give them a few comforting words" approach, or telling them to ask family members who often have nothing to give either. Yet we see mega-churches with lavish buildings and campuses, pastors flying in private planes, wearing the finest tailor made suits, living in multi-million dollar mansions, etc. 

The early church rejected the concept of "sacred art" and of the use of icons and statuary in worship.

"It is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you...It leads you to pay religious honor and worship to images and pictures."                                                                - Clement of Alexandria

"We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images. But when images are set up, we know well enough, too, who carry on their wicked work under these names. We know who exult in the homage rendered to these images. We know who pretend to be the divine. It is none other than accursed spirits."- Tertullian

"The Law itself exhibits justice. It teaches wisdom by abstinence from visible images and by inviting us to the Maker and Father of the universe."- Clement of Alexandria

"The different tribes erected temples and statues to those individuals I have previously enumerated. In contrast, we have refrained from offering to the Divinity honor by any such means, seeing that they are better adapted to demons."- Origen

"What madness is it, then, either to form those objects that they themselves may afterwards fear, or to fear the things that they have formed? However, they say, "We do not fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were formed, and to whose names they are dedicated." No doubt you fear them for this reason: because you think that they are in heaven."- Lactantius

 "It has sufficiently been vain it is to form images."                                                                                - Arnobius

FACT: The ethnic Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other smaller sects clearly violate this prohibition on images, even of saints and martyrs.

The early church demonstrated a very clear objection to materialism. 

"My child, do not be a money lover, nor vainglorious. For out of these, thefts are born."- Didache

"Sell your possessions." And what is this? Jesus does not ask him to throw away the substance he possessed and to abandon his property. Rather, He asks him to banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, and his anxieties."                                                               - Clement of Alexandria

"It becomes us not to lay down our souls for money, but money for our souls- whether spontaneously in giving, or patiently in losing."                                                        - Tertullian

"To seek riches is not a virtue."- Lactantius

FACT: Many churches are very much materialistic, operating more as businesses than houses of worship.

Fasting Days
The early church had set fasting days during which the entire congregation would fast together and pray for each other.

"But you should fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday)."- Didache

"He knows also the enigmas of the fasting of those days- I mean the fourth (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday)..."                                                            - Clement of Alexandria

"At prayer should be made without kneeling and the other customary marks of humility. For we are not only praying, but pleading and making satisfaction to God our Lord."- Tertullian

"No one will find fault with us for observing the fourth day of the week (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday), on which it is reasonably directed for us to fast according to the tradition. We fast on the fourth day, indeed, because on it the Jews took counsel for the betrayal of the Lord. And we fast on the sixth day, because Christ Himself suffered for us on it."- Peter of Alexandria

FACT: No church observes this apostolic tradition. Truthfully, very few churches encourage fasting at all, let alone require a twice weekly fast.

Morning and Evening Prayer
Early Christians gathered together twice each day for morning and evening prayer as a community.

"Do not forget Christ's church. So go there in the morning before all your work. And meet there again in the evening to return thanks to God."- Apostolic Constitutions

"But assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord's house. In the morning, say the sixty-second Psalm. And in the evening, say the hundred and fortieth Psalm..."- Apostolic Constitutions

FACT: Most churches do not keep this apostolic tradition. While some churches have religious orders and/or clergy that do, this does not meet the criteria described herein. This tradition was clearly meant to be for the entirety of the congregation.

Non-Resistance, Military, Lawsuits, Patriotism
The early Christians practiced non-resistance as an integral part of the Christian faith and rejected political involvement, civil lawsuits, and military service.

"We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us. Not only that, but to those who strike us on one side of the face, we have learned to offer the other side also."- Athenagoras

"He commanded them not only not to injure their neighbors, nor to do them any evil, but also, when they are dealt with wickedly, to be long-suffering."- Irenaeus

"Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct the delinquencies of sin."- Clement of Alexandria

"Do not willingly use force, and do not return force when it is used against you."- Commodianus

"When a Christian is arrested, he does not resist. Nor does he avenge himself against your unrighteous violence.."- Cyprian

"Do no one injury at any time.."- Theonas of Alexandria

"Religion is to be defended- not by putting to death- but by dying."                              - Lactantius

"When we suffer such ungodly things, we do not resist even in word. Rather, we leave vengeance to God."- Lactantius

"Shall a Christian apply the chain, the prison, the torture, and the punishment, when he is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? Shall he stand guard for others, more than for Christ? Shall he do it on the Lord's Day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? Shall he stand guard before those temples that he has renounced?...You will see by a slight survey how many other offenses there are involved in the performances of military duties. And we must hold them to involve a transgression of God's Law."- Tertulian

"We have no country on earth."- Clement of Alexandria

"How can a man be just who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? And those who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things."- Lactantius

"When they speak of "duties" relating to warfare, their speech pertains neither to justice nor to true virtue. Rather, it pertains only to this life and to civil institutions. And this is not justice."- Lactantius

FACT: Most Christians today, and most denominations, support civil litigation against other believers, war, political activism, and justify violence at some level.

These are just a few of the things we could explore that sets the early church at distinct odds with many of the churches of the world.

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