BACK TO OUR ROOTS? : The Early Church & Ecclesiology


This is the week leading up to Pentecost the time in the Church year when we have traditionally remembered and celebrated not just the giving of the Holy Spirit but the creation of the Church. Church is the big topic at the moment, you must have been living on Mars for the last decade if you are Christian and haven’t heard or been involved in the current “stushie” over the nature of the Church. People have headed off in many different directions in their thinking and practice when it comes to the Church. There is movement in the States back to very formal liturgical churches, some low church evangelicals have migrated to Anglicanism and some right back to Orthodox churches, seeing them as representation of the genuine historic one church which has developed from the New Testament Church. In parallel many have been moving to the other end of the spectrum, back to simple churches meeting mainly in homes and claiming that the whole building and clergy “thing” was a significant wrong turning for the church. The previous Pope added his penny’s worth to the debate by repeating his oft heard opinion that only the Catholic Church is the true church of Jesus Christ, we have yet to hear the present Pontiff’s view but I suspect although probably expressed more tactfully it won’t be hugely different in substance.

The more I have read and been involved in these debates about the church the more I have come to realise that one of the fundamental issues is how we understand the role of the Early Church in ecclesiology. Nearly every segment of the church looks back to the Early Church in some way to legitimise the way they understand and function as God’s People.

From all my reading over the last few years I think I can see three basic approaches to the Early Church. They are

1. EMBRYO … From this perspective the early church is the church in embryonic form. After the church burst on to the scene on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit guided it as it matured. The creeds of the church councils, development of monarchical bishops, ordination of priests, church buildings, veneration of Mary and Icons and the place of Rome and the Pope are all looked on as steps in the maturing of the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Obviously there are differences, the Orthodox church tends to think that the church fully matured just after the major early church councils. The Roman Catholics see the process continuing till today under the guidance of the Pope, cardinals and bishops. Anglicans and Lutherans it seems to me sort of pick and choose a little bit but basically want to see themselves in continuity with the maturing church and the “great tradition” This view as I said above is proving to be very attractive to great number of young American evangelicals.

2. EDICT … I went to an horrendous seminar about simple church in 2010. (no it wasn’t the Neil Cole one) The person leading it (I have an aversion to calling him a teacher) seemed to have the basic position that if its not in the NT its not legitimate in today’s church. So according to him, buildings are out, worship groups, choirs and ordained ministers and theological colleges are out as well, out because they weren’t “in” the NT church. This is a kind of restorationist agenda that sees the Early Church in Acts as an edict from God on how to do church, it is the blueprint for doing church we are to work from today. Our contemporary churches are to recreate whatever the early church did and not do anything it didn’t. Interestingly some of the Reformed Churches developed this kind of thinking during the reformation when it came to worship, hence the reason why some reject the use of musical instruments and only sing the Psalms.

3. EXAMPLE … The final approach to the Early Church I can discern is one that sees it as an example. The church in Acts and then beyond into the first few centuries contains examples of how the Church expressed its missional nature in various cultural and historical contexts. The example of the early church especially as described in Acts carries special weight because it is contained in Scripture and therefore is part of divine revelation but also because in the first century Christian faith was in its most pristine state. We are to follow the general example of the early church not in details but in expressing the missional nature of the church in our cultural contexts in a similar incarnationally faithful and relevant way.

At some point I aim to sit down and research this and flesh it out a bit. I would appreciate your input.
Do you see any other approaches to the Early Church?
Which do you, or your church group operate with?
Which have you come into contact with recently?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach?

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1 Response to BACK TO OUR ROOTS? : The Early Church & Ecclesiology

  1. I see all three expressions, and think you have characterized them well (good alliteration!). Like you, I take issue with the second, and find myself somewhere between Embryo and Example. My church operates from the Example approach, following the early church in ethos but not necessarily in details.

    I also see the history of the church as a beautiful messy tapestry (the “great tradition” if you want to call it that) that we, and the early church, are all part of, and therefore I tend to view the early church as more “primitive” than “pristine” (not to use either word in an exalting or derogatory manner).

    I think one weakness of the Embryo approach is that it tends to codify or exalt some errant and man-made traditions that cropped up along the way – it becomes hard ti distinguish between what was and was not “Holy-Spirit-guided.” A strength is that it acknowledges the dynamic nature of the church throughout history, the work of God through the church, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and helps us make sense of the diversity (and in some sense disunity) of the Universal body of Christ today.

    A weakness of the Example approach (which is by no means a weakness of the Bible or its portrait of the early church, but rather our interpretation and application of it) is the complexity of the 1st century culture and context and the complexity of our own, and figuring out how to follow that general example without sliding into the Edict approach. A strength is the authority of scripture and knowing that God has (and does) reveal to us what we need to know.

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