1st Century Christianity in the 21st Century
To practice 1st century Christianity in the 21st century seems like "mission impossible" to many people today. Some have doubts that the ancient practices of Christians can be repeated in modern times. Others question whether we should even try, as if it wasn't important. The New Testament writings that record the beginnings and history of the church (e.g., the book of Acts) and the beliefs and teachings of the church are often belittled as "out of date" and too archaic to apply to the people of the 21st century.
The attitudes described above explain, at least in part, the reason why there are so many different churches and denominations with different beliefs and practices today. When people do not follow the original pattern or example of Christianity as revealed in the New Testament, division and a multitude of religious groups inevitably follows. When people doubt the original "blueprint" (i.e., the New Testament) and put their confidence instead in man-made creeds, traditions, and the wisdom of men, something other than genuine Christianity will be established (Col. 2:8; Mat. 15:14; 16:18).
Let us all be encouraged to know from the word of God that 1st century Christianity can be practiced in the 21st century! 1 Peter 1:24-25 should remove all skepticism: "For, 'All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, But the word of the Lord abides forever. And this is the word which was preached to you'" (NASB). The Scriptures are timeless, applying to every generation. Rather than a dead or stale document, the Scriptures are just as "living and powerful" today as they were in the first century and thus very relevant to our modern age (Heb. 4:12). The Scriptures still have value today of helping "the man of God" to be "perfect" or complete spiritually in every way (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The best and only way to know how people became Christians in the first century is to study the New Testament. Belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God was the first essential step (e.g. Acts 16:31). Next, people were required to repent (i.e. change their mind) and thus turn away from their sins (Acts 2:38; 3:19). In addition, they needed to confess their faith in Jesus (Acts 8:37; Rom. 10:9-10). Finally, people were then ready to become Christians by being baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38; Gal. 3:27). Baptism clearly requires an immersion in water (e.g. Acts 8:37-39; Mark 1:10). For centuries, immersion has been viewed as a radical, disgraceful, and improper practice that goes against the tradition of sprinkling. An immersion in water may seem strange to people in modern times, however, immersion (baptism) it is only way to be "buried with Jesus" (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12) and as a result, gain forgiveness of sins and salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Once a person is baptized into Christ, they are now a part of the Lord's church (Acts 2:38, 41, 47; 1 Cor. 12:13; cf. Heb. 12:22-23).
Christians, according to the New Testament, organized into collective, local bodies of Christians or “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). Each local church was to have a plurality of elders (not just one, e.g. Acts 14:23) who provided oversight and leadership (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). The rule of elders (also called pastors or bishops, Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1) was limited only to the specific local church they were a part of (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Also, each local church was to have deacons who served the church (Phil. 1:1; e.g. Acts 6:1-6). Evangelists, otherwise called preachers or ministers, simply preached God's word (Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:2, 5). Each and every member was to contribute their talents in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Rom. 12:4-8).
The organization of local churches in the first century was very simple compared to the often complicated structure and dangerous arrangements that men devise today. Compare the New Testament pattern with for example, the system of Catholicism in which there is only one pastor or "priest" that rules over a local church. These priests are then subject to a higher office called a bishop who is in charge of many local churches. The bishops then submit to just one man called the Pope. "Protestant" denominations also deviate from the New Testament plan by having only one pastor over a local church. Each local church submits to the decisions and decrees made by the leadership of the denomination. These man-made organizations and positions of leadership (e.g., church associations, general conferences, councils, church presidents, etc.) take way church autonomy and independence. This deviation from the New Testament Scriptures has led to widespread error in churches and an abuse of power and authority. If only people would follow the New Testament model for the church, then every local church will be set up the way the Lord intended, thus bringing glory to God, not men.
The work of the church in the first century was also much simpler than what typically takes place in modern times. The three major works of the local church were: (1) Evangelism or teaching the lost (Mat. 28:18-20; Phil. 4:15-18); (2) Edification or building up one another through the word of God (Acts 20:32; Eph. 4:16); (3) Benevolence toward needy Christians only (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 11:27-30; 1 Tim. 5:16). In contrast, men today want to add to the work of the church and broaden its mission. Many churches are engaged in all kinds of works that God did not assign such as a "ministry of recreation," world or community benevolence, maintaining orphan homes, and political crusades. Such works were not the work of the church in the first century, though certainly these types of works individual Christians could do (Gal. 6:10; James 1:27). By keeping the work of the church simple in conformity to the New Testament Scriptures, we not only please God, but we eliminate works that distract us, allowing us to remain focused on the spiritual, on what is most important for us to do as a congregation.
The worship of the church in the first century was also very simple and thus is entirely possible for us to repeat today. Since Christians are commanded to assemble themselves together for worship (Heb. 10:24-25), there must of necessity be an adequate place for worship. Contrary to popular belief, a church does not have to meet in an official "church building" or some kind of fancy cathedral with stain glass windows. A church may assemble for worship in a variety of places, provided it is lawful and expedient (1 Cor. 6:12). In the first century, and even the second, it was common for local churches to meet together for worship in private residences or member's homes. For example, the New Testament records the early Christians assembling in the homes of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5), Gaius (Rom. 16:23), and Nympha at Laodicea (Col. 4:15).
Christians in the first century assembled together on the first day of the week to devote themselves to “the apostles’ teaching” and “fellowship” and engage in acts of worship to God such as partaking of the Lord’s supper, prayer, and singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Acts 2:42; 20:7; Eph. 5:19). Giving of their means towards the work of the Lord was commanded on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2), an act of worship when done with the right attitude of heart (2 Cor. 9:7; e.g., Phil. 4:15-18).
All of the acts of worship mentioned above were spiritual sacrifices (Heb. 13:15-16; Phil. 4:18; 1 Pet. 2:5). They did not burn incense, light decorated lamp-stands, or use mechanical instruments like many churches do today. Such practices passed away with the Old Law or Old Testament (Col. 2:13-16; Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-17; 10:9-10). Some churches try to “improve” worship by providing entertainment such as concerts, bands, theater, and the like. Yet, to please the Lord, only worship that is according to “the pattern” of the New Testament (Phil. 3:17) and “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21) will do, to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). The spiritual simplicity of worship during the first century can most definitely be practiced today!
To simply be Christians, in character, in conduct, in everything we do, we must be willing to "go back to the first century"- to the original pattern for Christianity as found in the New Testament Scriptures. Our aim should be to please the Lord as well as honor Him by respecting His authority: "And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father" (Col. 3:17). To be genuine Christians, let us demonstrate our faith in Christ and our love for Him by doing what He says as recorded in the Scriptures (Luke 6:46; John 12:48; 14:15; Eph. 3:3-5; James 2:14-26). Let us prove ourselves to be real Christians indeed, living in the 21st century (Mat. 5:16; Phil. 2:14-16).
- Mark E. Larson