The New Testament gives us some insight into church life in the days of the Apostles. Yet we are left with many things undefined. We do not have record of their hymns, sermons, service structure, weekly program, discipleship concepts, and much more.
We can infer many things, from the letters written by Paul, Peter, James and John. We also have Luke’s historical record of Paul’s missionary work, in the Book of Acts. The Book of Revelation also gives us some glimmers of how the earliest churches functioned.
Some documents which were not included in the canon of New Testament scripture have also been preserved. They provide additional insight, along with the writings of the early church fathers. Some of the early church fathers learned directly from some of the original Apostles and also met those who saw Christ after His resurrection.
A number of texts which purport to be from significant Christian identities are quite suspect and even fanciful. Spurious ideas have been promoted, based on texts which contradict what the New Testament writers have passed to us. Care must therefore be taken in drawing from some of these sources.
Some years ago I visited the site of what may be one of the earliest church buildings ever constructed, at Cenchrea, in Greece. It is from this church that Paul’s letter to the Romans is believed to have been sent, at the hand of Phoebe. The foundations of a building remain at the water’s edge. It is dated to the fifth century.
The problem with archaeological remains is that they do not interpret themselves. Assumptions must be made as to the use of certain rooms and the activities maintained in the building. Further to that, a building which might stand for many decades or centuries can be put to various uses, modified and reconstructed over time.
While my guide pointed out certain parts of the building and asserted that the rooms were used for various purposes, I could not help but wonder how he could be so certain. What we might take as an ante-room could have been a kitchen, storeroom, prayer room or whatever. Over time the same room may have been used for several purposes.
Adjusting Your Vision
While referring back to ancient sources one challenge we must keep in mind is that we are now living in a new day. People unconsciously project themselves into other settings, and evaluate another person’s reality through their own filter.
We need to be aware of this tendency and seek to see things from the local context as much as possible. For example, we may see slavery as abhorrent and to be despised, but a servant or slave in another time and place may be quite settled in that as their life situation.
To prompt your attention to the problem of projection, consider those occasions when you decided some person must be a difficult person to live with, only to discover that his wife and children find him to be someone of value. They see the person through entirely different eyes.
I see this problem often with historical dramas made into movies. Modern actors and script-writers recreate today’s attitudes and personal philosophy into settings where people were raised to a very different sense for themselves and those around them.
So, be aware that your theology, worldview, philosophy of life, attitudes, experiences and the like will blur your view of another person’s situation.
Hidden on Purpose
An assumption which I am inclined toward is that God has made a point of preserving that which we need, and allowing to pass away that which is not so important. Some information about the early church has been hidden from us, on purpose.
God does not wish us to make carbon copies of the New Testament churches, nor the early church examples. Where the Bible speaks, we may speak with authority. Where the Bible is silent, we are given some liberty to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our own situation.
It is my personal assumption that God is not as offended with the diversity of today’s church world as some observers might suggest. There is not one perfect and holy church model which we will all one day be called back to. It is not that practice, liturgy, process and order are the elements by which the living church of God is made perfect.
Exploration of the past is instructive and helpful. Our quest, however, is to inform the present and steer the future, not to transplant the past into our present situations.