It’s true of the world. It is scary and exciting to see how similar our culture is to the first century Roman culture. We are a patriotic culture, our culture is filled with an incredible variety of religious groups, cults, and experiences. There is a basic ignorance of Christianity. Once again story has risen in prominence as a form of communication—there are differences to be certain, but there are some very real parallels.
When it comes to the church, we are beginning to see a wide variety of groups trying to return to a simpler form of Christianity. We hear phrases like “Ancient-Future Faith” and “Simple Church” being tossed around by various groups. I have to admit, I have an affinity with those sentiments because it speaks to me of renewal. Throughout the ages whenever major church renewal—like the great awakenings in Europe and America—took place there was a renewed call for returning to simple church, to the way it was envisioned in the first century. I think it is a good thing. It certainly reminds me of my roots in churches of Christ. We constantly spoke of “restoration”: of trying to go back to the simple way of first century Christianity. That was the plea of those men like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone who encouraged people to return to the roots of Christianity—the first century roots. These are the men who radically changed the shape of American Christianity—who plead for people to be only Christians.
But what is simple church? Simple church is more than just imitating a few outward practices of the first century church. For me going “back to the future” involves changing an attitude and a spirit that I believe was diluted throughout the years. For some of you what I am talking about sounds very familiar—for others this may be rather new to you. But let’s dig a little. Let’s talk about the way it used to be and how simple church evolved into something not so simple.
During the first three-hundred and fifty years of the church, we notice little change in the basic nature of the church. There were some changes—especially in leadership roles and in some practices, but the basic nature of the church remained the same. This was what I call pre-legalization or Pre-Constantinian. Here’s how the church was viewed:
Pre-Constantine (Illegal Church)
-Small groups (metaphor: family, body)
-Met in homes, fields, river banks, etc. No Sacred Buildings
-Grassroots, decentralized movement, but connected with other groups
-Assembly focus: encouragement, prayer, discussing scripture, regular observance of communal meal of thanksgiving, informal
Post-Constantine (Legalized Church)
-Met in purchased buildings (basilicas, temples)
-Institutional-trending toward centralized control
-Focus: Event & Building
-Outreach: Attraction/send others
-Assembly focus: public, to attract non-believers, formal, participate in sacrifice, ritual observance of a sacramental “meal”
Prior to Constantine, gatherings of God’s people looked something like this :
After Constantine the gatherings of God’s people looked something like this:
Can you see the difference made merely by seating arrangement? In a circle, what percentage of the people do you think participate in a gathering? When a gathering focuses on relationships, dialogue, and a shared meal, what percentage of people do you think participate? Does this mean a building owned by a church is wrong? Or that an auditorium like what we have is anti-scriptural? Not at all. But is it terribly effective in promoting the spirit of the first century church?
These weren’t the only changes that took place after Constantine. What was once a simple, local group of Christ-followers led by shepherd-counselor-teachers, became a highly organized institution divided into the same geographic divisions used in the Roman Empire ruled by a bishop. The biblical purpose of leadership is found in Ephesians 4: 12; Acts 20; 1 Peter 5:1ff; Acts 6; to prepare God’s people for works of service, to encourage, to teach, to pray, to be examples, to gently warn those who were living opposed to their call—but after Constantine the role of leadership was to police the faithful by external control and domination. Rather than serving, elders began to rule. What was once every member a minister mentality was divided into a clergy-laity division complete with titles, special clothing, privileges, and authority.
The question occurs to me: how does this affect us today? I think all people who claim to follow Jesus have been influenced by these attitudes and changes. Here are some ways it affects us: other than singing, our assemblies are not highly participatory. We tend to sit and allow four or five people to stand on a stage and do everything for us. Our assemblies are not primarily relational—it is easy for a person to get lost in the crowd and for needs to go unnoticed. The Lord’s Supper—although we use the words “memorial” and “communion” to describe what we do—is primarily an individualistic experience rather than a community experience. Our view of the identity of church is limited to a building and event. We tend to create our special little enclaves cloistered in our special buildings. If we wish to reach people we say: “Come to our building” rather than entering into their world. We’ve tended to remove “church” from day to day living and created a false sacred space. Have you heard this? “Don’t tell a lie, you’re in church!” “Watch your language, you’re in church!” “What are you doing wearing flip-flops? Don’t you know you’re in church?” So, it’s OK to lie outside of church. It’s fine to curse somewhere else. And if you’re going to come to church you have to wear special sacred clothing or you’re just not worthy! Is this good? Does it catch the spirit of Jesus who welcomes everyone to his table—who broke bread with saint and sinner alike? Does this reflect the spirit of Jesus who viewed all of life as holy and precious? Does this reflect the truth that God does not live in houses made with hands but indwells his people and is the one in whom everyone lives and moves and has their very being? Does it enable every believer to serve and find his or her place in connecting God’s love to others? Does the current view of “church” enable people to connect with each other and encourage each other as they did in the first century? Or does it create a consumer religion that is far removed from day to day ethics and behavior? Does the current view of church influenced by Post-Constantine culture encourage every one of us to reach out and introduce our friends and neighbors to the God whom we love? Or does it make it easy to avoid sharing the good news? What do you think?
Yes, the more things change the more they stay the same. Maybe it is time we went back to the future. Maybe it is time we brought change from the past—maybe it’s time we took seriously the pleas of men like Campbell and Stone. What do you think?