With all this evidence and divine assistance you would expect the first century ecclesia to be strong in faith, full of enthusiasm, a perfect knowledge of doctrine, perfect behaviour, extremely loving and an example of blissful harmony.
But of course the early churches weren’t like that at all, and we see the reality from reading through the Acts, the letters to the various churches and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. We see writings that are full of exhortation and encouragement, and often corrective exhortation and rebuke when things weren’t going right.
We can take comfort from this as it shows that we cannot expect a unity or perfection of behaviour within our own body, for if Jesus, Paul and the apostles who were all blessed with the Holy Spirit couldn’t produce a church that was truly unified as one body, without division or argument, then we can hardly expect to do better than them today.
We can go back further in our thoughts though to when the disciples were called. This is really the beginning of the foundation of the church, the first group of followers of Christ. But if we had been asked to pick out 12 men to help us in our mission I expect the end result would have been very different.
If we were asked to pick, then we would I’m sure question their suitability for the job, certainly some their educational backgrounds might have not met with our expectations, and we probably wouldn’t have been surprised to see that after 3 ½ years they still failed to understand what the real message of Jesus was and how personal and materialistic their expectations were. Peter forsook Christ and denied him at a time when the other disciples needed him to be strong of character, and we can say that they had all failed their calling, but we would of course be wrong to think that.
The disciples were not chosen on the basis of what they could do, but rather on the grounds of what they could become. The disciples were chosen to be a representative of all the people who would come into the church, from John to Judas, and we sometimes overlook the words of Christ when he said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus saw people from all walks of life during his ministry, and his message was to them all, not just a few choice men from society. The 12 he chose to accompany him during his ministry were a diverse group, full of imperfections and could be thought of as poor building materials by some for his church, but that diversity and imperfection was nothing compared to what Paul was going to encounter on his extensive journeys to build the church of Christ.
Think of all the many men and women that Paul and the other apostles met and collected into the early church. There were men and women from all races, all colours, religions. There were Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians, Ethiopians. Rich men with large areas of land and numerous possessions, poor men with little more than the coat on their backs. Masters, servants, freemen. Jews who knew the Old Testament by heart, Gentiles who hadn’t had time to read it yet. Tentmakers, sellers of purple, doctors. The rich Philemon and his servant Onesimus along with many, many others. What a collection! And what a lesson they teach us.
This was the body of Christ which is the church. They had all become one in Jesus through baptism and belief in his saving sacrifice. They were all one body as Paul told us in Romans 12.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Rom 12:4-5)
Everyone was contributing to the body, each member was an important part of that unit, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was working together for one common purpose.
There was of course one fixed point in the early church and that was the head, the head which is Christ and the body seeks to be controlled and animated by the head, motivated and directed by Christ. We recognise that the body often fails to follow the head, but it’s not the achievement of perfection that indicates success, for while we have our own mortal bodies we can never achieve perfection. The body of the church will never be perfect until we are made like unto his own glorious body and only then will we ever achieve unity of mind and body, and we are not there yet.
So it follows that the church isn’t a group of believers who have a complete knowledge and an abundance of qualifications. It’s not a group of people who love each other with the same love that God has for us, it’s not a body that thinks only of his brother or sister, or neighbour. It’s not a community where faith never wavers. It wasn’t like that in the first century and it isn’t like that now. The church is really very different from the body of saintly individuals that we perhaps sometimes think that the church should be composed of.
When we are called into the church it is not the end, it is only the beginning of the process. The people are the raw materials for building up the church but they must first be cut and shaped. Paul speaks to the Ephesians like he is conducting a Christian training camp.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:11-14)
It’s that unity of faith that we must all strive for, and while we will never achieve it before the return of Christ, we must unite together in that striving.
But there are some differences in attitude between the first century and today that we should take lessons from that. Remember that in the first century there was no New Testament, it was still in the process of being written and collected together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There were some letters beginning to be distributed by the likes of Paul, but the circulation was quite narrow. There were no concordances, there were no shelves of commentaries, and not many would have had even one book of the Old Testament in their private possession. The Septuagint was available, but not as accessible as the Bible is today, and even then literacy levels weren’t high. When we think of our ecclesias today we perhaps think of sitting round, engaging in a deep study and discussing the finer points to exhaustion. In the first century, that kind of study was virtually impossible, but what they could do and did do was to meditate on the practical living side of things, the pastoral care, the love for one another, the helping each other out whenever they could. Through this they grew in spirit, in truth and in love.
They did have some extra challenges to overcome though. We have nothing like the diversity to contend with, at least in this country. We are largely composed of people with a Christian background of some sort, and you can imagine the difficulty Paul had in bringing together intensely nationalistic Jews and the Gentiles who were thought of as dogs. Can you imagine trying to unify them into a close family relationship? Perhaps this is something to remember when we have differences of opinion.
Largely though, we have a very similar situation to the first century, with a wide range of callings, talents, personalities, and we have all the different races, religions, accents, jobs, education, salaries, and none of them matter. In Acts 10 when it is revealed to Peter that the Gentiles were to be included…
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Act 10:34-35)
We often say God is no respecter of persons, but I’m sure we all like to think that God should have respect for someone like ourselves, but we would be wrong to think that. God never has or will respect salary scales, intellect, education, a Queen’s English accent, and all the rest of it. There simply is no substitute in God’s eyes for a loving mind and a loving heart and these are the things that count. These are the things that are important and we must remember what is important and what is not.
In John we are told this of Jesus
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Joh 1:11-13)
Being a son or daughter of God surpasses everything else and anyone who is a son or daughter is equal before God. Fitting that into the symbol of the body that Paul uses we then contribute using our faith and belief to be doers of good works, to be carers, presidents, doorkeepers, organists, preachers, teachers, writers, missionary workers, and other servants to the body of Christ of every kind. Some of the work can only be done by a few perhaps, but everyone can contribute love, faith and zeal to varying extents.
But what we all contribute in abundant quantities is weakness, and the big challenge to each and every one of us is to overcome it.
Each one of us is unique… just like everyone else in the world. We each have our own personalities, and we are of course more than just our speech and our opinions. We have all kinds of peculiarities, likes and dislikes. There are those who have a responsible mind and think carefully before they speak about what the impact of what they say might be. There are the more impulsive who speak first and think later about the possible consequences. Sometimes people upset us or cause disagreement with what they might say or do, but in actual fact it’s those people who keep us mentally alert and alive.
There are the conservative types don’t like to have their carefully structured minds disturbed, settled in their routines, don’t want to have to re-think things, progress and change isn’t necessary and everything is fine as it is. Quite often that comes with old age, but it comes on some people quite young too! Then there are the freethinkers who stir things up a bit, like to grasp at every new idea as it comes along, causing people to think. They are essential to a living church and should never be criticised, it keeps us on our toes. Each person has his or her place and every personality or trait will find somewhere to fit into the body of Christ.
There are people so uncritical they will like everything, there are the hypercritical who are incapable of liking anything. If the exhortation was good, it was too long, if it was just the right length, it rambled too much. What they say about there is no pleasing some people there is some truth in it. But our diversity is actually a benefit to us because it means there is something for everyone at least some of the time. But what we mustn’t do is think that our peculiarities are excusable while those of others are insufferable.
The body of Christ is selected from the whole spectrum of society, not based on their talent, how clever they are, how much money they can contribute, and from an organisational point of view it sounds like it would be a complete shambles, but the members of the church are selected by the teaching of the Word of God, because of their potential reaction to that message. Then whatever abilities exist are built into the church and all the weakness of sin that we bring with us we try to help each other overcome and eradicate. This is the whole task of building up a church. We of course have many diversities of sins, and each temptation can be quite different to us. There is no point priding ourselves on not doing sins A, B, C and D because it reality they had never been a great temptation to us anyway, when we are committing sins E, F, G and H continuously, just picking out the bits that come easily to us.
But take comfort from the fact that it was always so. There were always people like Diotrophes, who love to have the preeminence.
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3Jn 1:9-10)
There were those who wanted to compromise like the church at Pergamos, there were the Gentiles who wanted to drift back, there was Alexander at Ephesus who caused much harm to the truth. There are the agnostics who thought they already had all the answers, which the apostles found difficult to overcome.
I don’t think we have the same extent of the problems of the first century that Paul had to cope with, we don’t tend to have squabbles over which is the greatest spiritual gift like the Corinthians, we don’t get hang ups about the law like the Galatians, we don’t have the extent of problems that were spoken of in the letters to the seven churches, think of Laodecia, and think of Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 about wolves in the church when he gave them not a long term prophecy, but probably something that would occur after his death.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Act 20:28-30)
All these events give us a perspective and comfort, hope and direction and teach an essential lesson of harmony. We may have disagreements among ourselves but it’s nothing compared to the first century problems. Let us remember the words of Paul in Romans 14 and in particular v13, though the whole chapter is very relevant.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Rom 14:13)
Let us not be surprised when others show weakness or cause offence, for what do we expect in a group of human beings like ourselves, but let us not make things more difficult by putting obstacles in each other’s way. Let us seek out the good in each other, encourage and uplift for while there is good in the worst of us there is much bad in the best of us. Let us try and build each other up for there is never much building up achieved by constantly knocking down what we think to be faulty. It’s the old question of motes and beams.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Mat 7:1-3)
It’s a great comfort to see that our Lord Jesus never lost patience with the 12 disciples despite their obtuseness, their waywardness and weaknesses, even quarrelling among themselves about who should have priority in the kingdom. We should be extremely grateful that he will not lose patience with us either no matter how many times we show our failings. Let our concentration be where it should be, on helping each other in a positive way, recognising our common weakness and realising that the path of Christ should lie before us, striving to follow it together in unity as one body, helping each other along that road, and building the church of Christ together.
So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Rom 14:19)