Friday, January 11, 2008

Why study the early church?

A couple of friends have asked me recently why I seem particularly interested in how the early church met. One who emailed me asked whether how the early Christians met is relevant. I thought it was a really good question - one of those straightforward, obvious ones that aren't so easy to answer.

Here's an edited version of my reply...

It’s a really excellent question. It is the question that drove me to study the social history of the New Testament in the way that I’m currently doing. The reason is simple – though the answer is proving to be anything but!

The current debate about what people call emerging church or fresh expressions is centred on the question ‘what should the church be like to be relevant to the world we live in 2008?’ This question is often refined to this one ‘what would the church look like if all we had was the gospel and the culture we live in – and no history at all?’

We find it really hard to answer that question for two reasons. The first is that we’ve had 2000 years of church history – some of it glorious, some of it anything but. The second is that we have scripture and especially the New Testament which we often read thinking that it contains a blueprint of how we should do church.

I am convinced that what we have in the New Testament are people wrestling with the same question we need to wrestle with – namely ‘what should the church look like if all we have is the gospel and the world we live in’? This is why the churches in Corinth were different from the churches in Rome which were different from the Christian communities in Thessalonica.

I am fascinated to see if there are lessons for us in how the early followers of Jesus earthed the gospel in their culture. As I said earlier, I do not believe the New Testament has a blueprint for church organization or leadership, a single way for the followers of Jesus to express their corporate life. What I think we have are Spirit-inspired people making it up as they went along.

It is fascinating to see what they came up with and how it enabled them to embody the gospel of Christ in a way that enabled others to hear it, see it, experience it and respond to it.

That’s what I want to see happening in our time but I fear that weddedness to forms of church that might once have worked prevents that from happening. If our authoritative text shows us how the first followers did it and invites us to learn their method but not ape their forms, I think that’s worth a shot.

Does that make sense?

Of course, the other reason I'm studying the early church is that I think it's fascinating because I'm a history junkie and I might get an MPhil out of it. But maybe that's too mercenary an answer!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, that makes sense. Not a million miles from why I am mad enough to want to read 17th century Baptist history! The big difference is that you probably can do history whereas I failed my 'O' level and had to go from zero undergrad basics very rapidly!

Although since I now think that 'O' level history, as I was so badly taught it (my excuse!), was not the best way of exploring resources about past times, maybe coming at it fresh is useful.

It will be interesting to watch you work unfold and see where it leads.