What would the Early Christian Church look like if through the miracle of time travel we went back to the very beginning? What would it look like if we had a time machine?
I first heard that question put by Dr. Peter Kreeft, an Evangelical Protestant convert to Catholicism and intellectually gifted professor of philosophy at Boston College in the United States.
I really hadn’t thought about it before. But it’s a upon closer inspection it’s a profoundly interesting question and it brought, for me, two things into sharp focus.
First, it made me realize that without giving the idea too much thought I did, nonetheless, have a very specific idea of what the Early Church looked like. I could articulate it on a dime, though exactly where my picture came from was an open question.
Second, it brought into focus the very importance of the notion itself. Why was it important to know what the Early Church looked like? Why did it matter? And, fundamentally, what if the Early Church looked nothing like the Church of today?
With these two ideas clearly in mind I took up to answer Peter Kreeft’s question and I fired up my virtual time machine to see what I could see.
Of course, absent a time machine we’re left to dig through the writings left behind by the first Christians so dig I did and what I found was amazing. Not only was it incredibly easy to get a picture of how the earliest Christians worshipped—what the Early Church looked like—the picture itself was remarkably clear, and remarkably different from the perspective I’d had.
What I Thought The Early Church Looked Like
As an Evangelical Protestant I had a pretty clear picture of what I thought the Early Church looked like already in my mind.
The Early Church met in people’s houses. The Early Church broke bread and prayed together. The Early Church was a loose collection of zealous Jews and Gentiles who were willing to die for their faith in Christ.
As a young Evangelical I didn’t question what I knew about the Early Church. As a young Evangelical I once found myself on the periphery of a church plant—the start of a new “house church” which was meeting in a friend’s living room every Sunday morning and I was roundly convinced that, of course, that was the Early Church.
My picture of the Early Church, it turns out, was based on Luke’s accounting in the Book of Acts alone. Based solely on that reading the idea of a “house church” created by the decision of a circle of friends and meeting, independent of any larger denomination, made total sense to me. Based solely on my reading of Acts, and my understanding of the Early Church, this is exactly what it was: a group of believers—friends—who got together to pray and celebrate Communion.
That’s what I thought the Early Church looked like.
The Early Church in the New Testament
But let’s hop into our time machine, and dig into our first primary source, the New Testament itself.
Remember what I thought the Early Church looked like, the almost subconscious picture I had of how the first Christians worshipped: as a loose gathering of friends and family breaking bread casually in someone’s home.
Is that an accurate picture?
At first glance and without much scrutiny you might say, “Well, of course. That’s the Church! The simple, brass tacks early followers of Christ. Uncomplicated Christianity.”
But our time machine beeps and buzzes and takes us back, and what we see is in stark contrast to what I thought I knew.
Certainly, we see Christians, as pictured in Acts, meeting in each other’s homes. But likewise, according to Luke himself, these same early Christians spend “much time” gathered together in the Jewish temple (Acts 2:46). Far from abandoning their holy, ornate Jewish temples the first Christians gathered there moving into their houses only to perform the most Christian of activities: breaking bread as Jesus had taught.
And, presumably, gathering in houses to hide.
Remember, the earliest Christians were fiercely persecuted not only by the Romans but by their fellow Jews in the form of ruthless opponents like Paul before his radical conversion.
Likewise, my notion of the Early Church, like our modern “houses churches”, as a gathering of equals seems also to run contradictory to our primary source.
Truly, from the beginning of Acts we see a hierarchy, an authority structure, begin to form in the Early Church. With Judas out of the picture the remaining eleven apostles find it necessary to appoint someone in his place, someone to succeed his office, and draw lots to assign Matthias. Still later, in Acts 6, Luke provides another account of a clear authority structure as the twelve apostles meet and give their assent to the sending out of seven new disciples to serve the needs in their community.
Thorough our trip in the time machine we already see an Early Church with a clearly developing authority structure as well as an emphasis on the continuation of some form temple worship. Far from a democratic gathering of Christians who’ve thrown off any kind of ceremonial trappings, this Early Church looks much different.
Remaining with the New Testament, the epistles of Paul speak strongly of the authoritative structure of Early Church and in stark contrast to the idea that these first churches were democratic affiliations as I’d thought.
At a fundamental level, what makes up the bulk of Paul’s writings are letters written to authoritatively correct misconceptions and misdeeds in the Early Christian Churches. Far from working out issues as peers, Paul writes with the authority given to him by the apostles in order to rebuke Early Church leaders. Remember, Paul had his mission approved by Peter, who was appointed to his role by Christ, and is considered to be the first Pope.
Likewise, in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy we see him not only recharging Timothy with his mission—an act of authority—but providing guidelines for worship and qualifications for appointing bishops and deacons.
While certainly, like my picture of the Early Church, the first Christians met and broke bread in homes and in small tight-knit communities there is, equally, undeniable evidence that an authority structure was beginning to form and that religious, ritualistic worship like that which took place in the Jewish temple, was not utterly discarded.
The Early Church in the Fathers
But our time machine, thankfully, is a dynamic apparatus and our next stop is just one or two generations removed from the very first Christians pictured in the New Testament.
In the Early Church Fathers, those incredible Christian martyrs who were taught by the likes of Peter, Paul, and John, we find a wealth of primary source information on what life looked like in the Early Church.
And it stands, again, in stark contrast to what I thought I knew.
First is Clement, Bishop of Rome and considered by the Catholic Church to be amongst the few first Popes—a man appointed by Peter himself. His title should give him away but Clement’s writing, only a generation removed from the apostles, speaks of a clear authority structure in the Early Church. An authority structure not mirrored in my loosely democratic idea of the “house church”.
Clement writes at length to the Early Churches of the importance of submitting to their local bishops. He writes, in the same vein as Paul or Peter, to rebuke and correct churches which have strayed from an orthodox faith.
Again, in similar fashion to Paul and his letter to Timothy, Polycarp, another Early Church Father and a disciple of John, writes to the Philippians outlining, again, the various roles and authorities of deacons and priests in the Early Church there.
And Clement and Polycarp are only two of the sources we have on the Early Church. From even a cursory reading of the Early Church Fathers we can discern a clear authority structure which speaks in direct opposition to my perspective on the first Christian communities.
Likewise, a sense of how the first Christians worshipped can be gleaned from Justin Martyr who lived from about 100 – 165AD.
In his lengthy letters, Justin writes of Christians gathering together weekly to pray together, to take up a collection for the church and the poor, to listen to the letters of the apostles and the early gospels being read, and, finally, to break bread together and to drink wine. The bread and wine which Justin unapologetically expresses as, “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
Justin even goes to length to mention, twice, that what he calls “the Eucharist” is taken by deacons to those who are sick and homebound so that they may also partake in union with the Christian community.
Far from a loosely organized group of Christians gathering to share a meal, pray, and read Scripture the picture of the Early Church from the very first Christians themselves is of a distinctly authoritative organization with a clear and prescribed form of worship. A form of worship which looks very little like what I’d imagined before.
Why What the Early Church Looked Like is Important
In my humble opinion, it’s important to ask yourself if your perspective on the Early Church matches what our time machine—our pouring over the primary source documents—actually makes it out to be.
It’s likewise important to ask yourself if your church reflects this as well?
Because not only did my picture of the Early Church not entirely match the reality but my own Evangelical tradition was in stark contrast to how the Early Church worshipped, too.
Instead, I found, what did look like the Early Church was Catholicism.
In Catholicism, a clear authoritative structure exists which is nearly identical to that picture in the New Testament and the writings of the Early Church Fathers even some two thousand years later.
In Catholicism, a pattern of worship exists as well which is nearly identical to that expressed by Early Church Fathers like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and the ancient Christian document known as the Didache (a text contemporary to the apostles and expressing a clearly Catholic Eucharistic service).
But why is it important that our worship services look like those of the Early Church?
Because why not?
Why, if our worship looks different, did it changed? And do we have a very good reason?
Of course, our trip in a time machine to get a peek at the Early Church only opens up a can of worms but thank goodness we have a time machine (we’ll be using it a lot). What I found, as an Evangelical Protestant, was that once I began asking questions like, “Why does my worship look different?” I found myself stumbling more and more often through ancient Christian sources. I found myself frequently at the helm of the time machine, to get answers.
Because it wasn’t enough, for me, to say we’re contemporary, or we do things differently, or we prefer it to be simple because these were not adequate reasons for doing things differently than the first Christians. Because those first Christians weren’t simpletons, they weren’t minimalists, and they weren’t merely democratic Jesus people. They had an authority structure, a distinct identity with ritualistic trappings, and a passionate faith which sent many of them to their deaths.
The view of the Early Church afforded to us by our time machine should, I would argue, give us a life-changing perspective and ought to give us pause.
And ought to make us wonder, and pray, and go even deeper.