Around about two years ago I began to wonder- “What did the early Church really look like?” Early in my Christian life, and to this day, I hear people say: “The book of Acts is a blueprint for church life” or “We are restoring the Ephesians 4 ministries, our church will restore Gods’ Kingdom”. My response was to join in, get involved and do the stuff, but in the back of my mind I had some doubts…
My journey with God began 38 years ago, 33 of which I spent in Charismatic Community Churches, so we were always looking for the perfect New Testament model. I know very little about Liturgical/ Orthodox Church and lifestyle. So this blog is skewed by my world view. What it is not, though, is an anti Institutional Church rant.
A pleasure of mine is armchair history, especially Roman history. With the help of Wikipedia and some chance discoveries I found three books (see below) which helped in the search. So I began to discover what early church may have looked like. Where better to begin understanding early church than 1 Cor 3:10-11? St Augustine took this verse out of context by applying it to celibacy, so I am now also going to use it out of context (!) as the basis for building a City.
So our starting point requires a bit of imagination; if one is looking at building a house, one first has to find a plot in a suitable location, then buy it and mark out the plot, excavate and start building. Someone else likes the location, as do many more families. Over centuries that one small plot has now become a City. From small beginnings in Jerusalem, a mighty global City has emerged.
Imagine now your own Capital city. My city is London; I grew up 30 miles from the city, I now live 350 miles away. When I go there, the first thing that hits me when I step off a train is the people, the noise of people, over and above the mechanical noise and PA announcements. I see laughing family groups, a business woman cutting a swathe through the crowd, eyes down, intent on her iphone, swerving around lost and confused tourists. I get beyond the concourse into the street and avoid a collision with a manic cyclist! I have treasured memories from my time working in the ‘West End’. I daydream about living in this City. What kind of house would I choose; Victorian, Georgian or ultra modern? Which area? Gated community or multi ethnic? Now an interesting part of living in London, is, regardless of your origins, within two years you will pick up the ‘spirit’ of London and become a Londoner. I suspect New York is the much the same.
What if, though, I want to find and live a truly authentic London life? Maybe I could find a part of town where I could find a Victorian town to demolish, dig down, maybe 20 feet, and find the foundations of a Roman villa. Once there I will need to pump out water continuously, find authentic materials and build my villa. This will be 20 feet below modern London, and not too far from the river, built by looking at books and using modern materials because stone is too expensive, and because I need electricity for heat, TV, internet, oh, and for the water pump…
As I dig down towards my Roman foundations history reveals itself; overcrowding and plague, industry and gracious living. Historic London comes alive with each artefact found. Some of the finds from the 13th century really grab my eye. “Shall I stop digging and settle here?” I ask myself. The more I find the more I realise we can never replicate or rebuild the past. I can be informed by it and make decisions based on historic information but any attempt to replicate it is based on assumptions and romantic ideals. At best I could become a re-enactor – ‘bald, middle aged gladiator, own repro armour, living in stone shed seeks work’.
My growing understanding of the Christian past informs my present and will influence my future. I see more clearly now how our faith, past and present, has created gated communities around doctrine and methodologies, culture and style of worship. During my digging I saw how Christendom suits more people than we would care to admit; we love Empire and security, certainty and strong leadership. This Post Modern, Post Christendom world gives us an unparalled opportunity to re-imagine, along with the Holy Spirit, our sacred spaces, community living and our own sense of self in an uncertain future. I have a picture in my head of Christendom as a giant dark monolith holding within itself vast quantities of salt and light. The weathering of centuries has split the monolith asunder and we, as salt and light, are spilling out and into our communities. Think back to the business woman I imagined. In the evening along with colleagues she goes to their favourite pub, orders a wine spritzer and unwinds with friends. She enjoys the conversation; someone is struck by something different about her……
In conclusion the two quotes below struck me as pertinent to much of the current conversation in this 21st century City of God.
‘Any group which cannot present itself as one wherein people are welcomed, a real community is established, and wisdom and grace, beauty and life are encountered, will not endure.’*
Also; ‘ The task of theological reflection is to carry out this questioning in a methodical fashion and to help faith to distinguish itself from its own superstition and its own unbelief and to seek the truth of Jesus himself.’*
*Thomas o’ Loughlin The DIDACHE A window on the earliest Christians
** Jurgen Moltmann The Crucified God
St Augustine City of God, Penguin classics
A dense, long book. The original reason for writing was a refutation of Christianity being the reason for the fall of Rome. There is evidence for the development of the inquisition, the rise of anti Semitism and the influence of Plato on Christianity.
The first urban Christians, Wayne Meeks, Yale University Press
An academic account of the growth of Christianity in Greco-Roman culture. Wayne provides incontrovertible evidence for the role of women at very senior levels in the early church.
The DIDACHE A window on the earliest Christians, Thomas o’ Loughlin, Baker Academic
An exploration of the transition from house church to congregation, and the development of the Eucharist and of course the Didache itself.