Was the First Church the Right Church?

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club. Check out the Book Club for more posts on this book, an interview with the author, and for responses from other bloggers and columnists.

He doesn’t say it the way that I say it, but I think that Chuck Gutenson is onto something.

Gutenson’s new book, The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians, presses modern-day Christians to look to to the earliest church fro guidance in the vexing issues of our day. I’ll pick my nit right off the bat, then get to the good stuff: Chuck’s writing is too dependent on evangelical idioms and phrases. Other than that, this is a book that I can recommend.

I’m a big fan of church history, and I share Chuck’s concern that modern American Christians are woefully ignorant of what’s gone before us. Any effort to get Christians to read about and learn about the early church is commendable. And that’s exactly what Chuck does in this book.

Evangelicals — who, it seems, continue to be pro-G.O.P., pro-big military, etc. — will be chastened by what Gutenson writes in his chapter on war:

“Prior to Constantine, the church largely viewed participation in war as inconsistent with Christian faith. And, prior to 200, the rejection of Christian participation in war was overwhelming.”

Liberal Christians will be challenged his chapter, “Society and Government,” in which he charges the modern church with making an exchange with the government: Give us a privileged place in society (tax breaks, civic duties), and we’ll give up our prophetic voice.

So I think that makes for a good book, if both sides of American Protestantism are challenged. That’s not easy to do, but Chuck Gutenson — with some help from the early church — has done just that.

  • http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com Matt Dabbs

    That has been the point of the American Restoration Movement since the early 1800′s. Sometimes it has been taken to an extreme but I think overall it is a great idea and one that the Restoration movement founders (Stone, Campbell, etc) believed should bring unity to a divided Christianity. The ideal was, read what is there, practice it and see many of the man-made divisions disappear. That is an ideal, of course.

    • Peter

      The problem with the Stone Campbell Movement was that it was rooted in the Common Sense hermeneutic and took the bible at face value. By taking their own interpretation of the rules they themselves became a sect. We (because I am from this movement) are still trying to recover from this literal reading of the bible and become more of a unity movement. This book seems to be coming from a more historical-critical point of view and in that way will probably be more useful than the SCM.

  • terry shoemaker

    I think mimicking the early church or defining the early church as “right” is a serious error. The church obviously did not have many answers (as they had several recorded disagreements and a council to make some decisions). Using the early church as a model is romanticized at best and potentially dangerous.

    The stories are wonderfully messy, but not prescriptive. At the same time, if the book offers a critique of the contemporary church, then it probably has value. But, if it suggests that we can find answers in the biblical narrative for our complex society which is so vastly different that two thousand years ago, I think its problematic.

  • Andrew

    I decided that I needed to live like the first Christians did. So I decided to become Catholic.

  • Greg D

    Putting this one on my “To Be Read” list. This sounds a lot like Frank Viola/George Barna’s book, “Pagan Christianity” which I highly recommend. I agree that not all of the answers are found in the early church. But I believe they did church much better than we do today. One of the biggest things we can learn from the early church that we have strayed so very far from is… community. Church today is a once-a-week event at a building across town. Whereas, church in the early years was a way of life. Believers gathered together daily, broke bread, prayed together, and cared for one another’s needs. We have much to learn from the early church and I think a return to vintage Christianity is in order for today’s church.

  • Scott Gay

    Bible, progressive, Catholic, organic( the first four commenters)…..all that’s needed for a fifth comment is Spirit(pentecoastalism or Cox from Harvard) and you have it all……..but wait….now there is the missional church.
    Agreed that learning and understanding church history is invaluable. At least part of the value is in not going down bunny trails. An example would be Montanism, which has popped its head throughout church history enumerous times. And it has a long time dying despite never restoring.
    So how is this church community to be understood?- the answer is crucial because it is divisive. Catholicism’s institution( and that it is), gave way to Protestantism’s association, and that gave way to the sect type of the absorption of the Church into churches. In truth this evolution has had strength as well as weakness. Take it from Pannenberg, or Olson, or Kasper, or Bartholomew…….the reality is ecumenical…..and most of us are really historically ignorant here. Only here is the set, that is Christianity, unbounded. The toleration that is so needed in a plural society must be modeled by Christians, otherwise we cannot unmask the truth of our mimetic natures and the conflict it produces.

    • Pax

      You have a funny definition of the expression “gave way to”.

  • http://fidesquaerens.livejournal.com Marta Layton

    I have not read the book so I can’t comment on that. However, I’m a bit wary of attempts to turn back the clock. There are certain things, like slavery, that surely both “sides” of Christianity (along with the great majority in the middle) can agree we wouldn’t want to reinstate. More to the point, it seems a bit arbitrary, given that the first-century church was itself the product of progress from the first-century (BC) temple, to think that progress would have stopped at that point in time.

    If the point is that Christians carelessly toss out our heritage, that’s one thing. I can get behind that. Or if the point is that the first Christians’ theology and lives just don’t look like we imagine – again, point well taken. . But surely we shouldn’t think that our understanding of God, Christ, and the world as a whole hasn’t progressed in a good way, over the past two thousand years?

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