The Early Church - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 - The Early Church

Many Christians today feel a little nostalgic as they read the New Testament. Things then seemed so simple. Today there are vast, competing, religious organizations. They are powerful movements, dipping their fingers into political and social reform. Is the simplicity and spirituality of the early church forever gone?

Down through the years there have been individual congregations which have turned aside from the main current of Christendom and have determined to go back to the Scriptures as a guide. They have been largely ignored by organizational Christianity but have known real spiritual blessing and the exulting joy of pleasing their Lord in these matters. What were some of the characteristics of the early churches?

Attraction to a Person
The early disciples were held together, not by membership in an organization, but by devotion to a Person. They had heard the call of Christ and became His followers (Matt. 4:18-20). Their whole life centered in Him; learning from Him, obeying Him, loving Him. This relationship was an intensely personal one. It revealed itself on a fanatical loyalty. Peter voiced their common sentiment when he said, "Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee" (Matt. 26:35).

After Christ's ascension, new disciples drank of the same spirit. They preached in Christ's Name (Acts 4:12, 18), baptized in His Name (Acts 10:48), gathered in His Name (Matt. 18:20), did miracles in His Name (Acts 3:6), defied opposition in His Name (Acts 4:18-20), suffered willingly for His Name (Acts 5:41). Is it any wonder that they began to be called "Christians" (Acts 11:26) by the world?

Believers today who catch this spirit turn away from all ecclesiastical brand names and delight to carry the Name of Christ before the world. They desire to use only terms found in the Bible for Christians, such as believers, brothers, saints. For them the Scripture is still relevant: "And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus..." (Col. 3:17).

Submission to the Word
For believers in those early days the only authority was the Word of God. The Old Testament already existed and as the New Testament began to be written it was recognized as having the same authority (II Peter 3:15, 16). The Apostles stressed teaching of the early converts (Acts 2:42). Had not their Lord commanded them, "... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . ." (Matt. 28:20)? Lives which had been lived independently of God were now to be molded by teaching of the Word (Rom. 6:17).

The most prominent activity of the early church in its meetings was teaching (Acts 2:42). The Word must shed its light on every aspect of life. Those who had lived in darkness must now walk in the light (I John 1:6, 7). There was no recourse to a higher authority. "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (I Cor. 14:37). Those today who would follow the pattern of the early church must stress afresh the absolute, unchanging authority of God's Word for all matters of faith and conduct. If God has not spoken, then man can never really know spiritual truth.

Leadership by Elders
The early churches were like families, families of God's people. Some were young in the faith and others were more mature in their knowledge of the Lord and His Word (I John 2:13, 14). In every family there must be leadership and this is true of the local church. After a church had been formed and had been meeting for some time the early missionaries returned and pointed out those who were qualified to take the leadership (Acts 14:21-23). Later the qualifications for such leadership were spelled out in detail for succeeding generations to follow (Titus 1:5-9; I Tim. 3:1-7). To be a leader one must have a good knowledge of the Bible, be morally above reproach and have a Godly, orderly home.
These leaders were called elders or bishops (overseers) and were the shepherds of the flock (Acts 20:28). Theirs was a heavy responsibility. One day they must give an account for the progress of the work left in their hands (Heb. 13:17). In every local church there was a group of men who serve in this responsibility, never only one, who was the elder or pastor. "In the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Prov. 11:14). The early missionaries left each church in the charge of such local elders. There was no higher authority, no federation of churches, no bishop over a diocese or superintendent over an area. It was all delightfully simple. Leadership was left in the hands of local, spiritual men, who could best make decisions governing the work under their care.

Liberty for the Holy Spirit
Each local church was left under the care of a group of elders with the Scriptures for a guide book (Acts 20:32). The apostles had tremendous confidence in the Word of God as being sufficient for spiritual growth and guidance (II Tim. 3:16, 17). Besides leaving them with a Book they left them with a quiet certainty that God the Holy Spirit would continue to work in their hearts and lives. "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform (complete) it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6).

The Lord Jesus Himself had promised them power for witnessing with the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). In a wonderful way they had known this enabling power to speak boldly for Christ, regardless of the opposition (Acts 4:19, 20). The Gospel spread like a running fire through the Roman world, fueled by the Spirit of God.

When the apostles left small groups of Christians behind them, they did so with a confidence that the Holy Spirit, Who had led them to Christ, would continue to lead and empower them. They believed He would raise up spiritual gifts among them for the growth of the believers (Eph. 4:11; I Cor. 12:4-7). Each believer was taught that he was needed and had a function to fulfill in the local body (I Cor. 12:12). Each realized that he was now the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19), and that the very life of God was to be expressed in him.

These early churches encouraged the development of each person's gift. Here there was no division into clergy and laity with preaching reserved for a privileged class. Most of the meetings were informal with various ones taking part. All the men could feel free to pray publicly (I Tim. 2:8). (In mixed meetings of the church men did take the leadership - I Cor. 14:34). Others might lead the group in a hymn or give teaching or exhortation to the Christians. In this way the various gifts began to develop and became known to the group (I Cor. 14:26). In time some would become known as prophets or teachers and did most of the speaking. However, there was always to be opportunity for a new voice to be heard and new gift to show itself (I Cor. 14:31). No wonder Paul could speak of the church as a body, with each member contributing his part (Eph. 4:11-16).

The Lord's Supper
The various activities in the meetings of the early churches are seen in Acts 2:42: "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers." Teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread; (Lord's supper) and prayer — these marked their early gatherings. Their Lord's command, "This do in remembrance me", was still very fresh in their thinking. At times, in their love and fervency, they may have remembered him daily (Acts 2:46). Later the churches adopted the practice having the Lord's supper every Sunday (Acts 20:7).

It was a high point in their meetings, a time of intense worship and adoration as various ones led in prayer, follow by the partaking of the loaf and cup. Hearts were melted in the presence of God as the Savior's agony on the cross was remembered. The loaf and cup were only symbols to refresh and aid the memory; a broken body, poured out blood. The early churches rekindled their devotion to Christ often remembering Him in this way. Christians today desperately need similar devotion to Christ (I Cor. 11:23-26).

The Lords Return
As Christians turned away from the table with moist eyes it was to face a hostile world. Their hearts were full of love for one another (Acts 2:44, 45). They were deeply concerned for those who had not yet received Christ - without Him men were doomed (Acts 4:12). They evangelized wherever they went, telling men of this wonderful Savior of theirs. Always they were marked as men who were waiting, waiting for Christ to return.

No group can claim to be truly Christian which is not marked by a deep faith in the coming again of the Christ.  "You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven . . . "(I Thess. 1:9, 10). Each church regarded itself as a pilgrim colony from heaven, earnestly waiting for the King to return (Phil. 3:20). Then, and not before then, all of their hopes would be realized. This was the "blessed hope" that lifted their hearts and caused them to sing. The last prayer of the Bible is uttered with a longing sigh, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev, 22:20).

Simplicity, spirituality, power... it makes one long for the days of the early church. Still God is the same and down through the years small groups of Christians have returned to the simplicity of the early church and found the blessing of God. There is no better way to do God's work. "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them" (John 13:17).