Learning From the Early Church
Written by Gerald Procee
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

In 313 A.D. the Roman emperor, Constantine, made Christianity the religion of the state. Ever since that time Christian morality has heavily influenced Western civilization. Today, in our culture, we see a return to the moral confusion that prevailed prior to the days of Constantine.

Today’s Culture

In the public forum the church of Christ is marginalized. Post-modernism (the thinking that leads people to be critical of classic moral standards in the arts, architecture, etc., but especially in personal ethical behaviour) leads individuals and families to become emotionally unstable. Families fall apart due to divorce. Hedonism (the thinking that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person) is rampant in our culture. Our culture lives for pleasure, games, fun, entertainment, sex, lust, money, and violence as entertainment. We are “Amusing Ourselves To Death” (title of a popular book by Neil Postman).

Looking around us we can see the return of paganism. Witchcraft is on the rise. The Salem Religious Leaders Association accepted a witch high priest into its membership (Peter Jones, The God Of Sex, p. 40). Sexual immorality is becoming a social problem; 25% of all search engine requests on Internet are for pornography; 89% of all Internet pornographic web pages originate from the USA. The current moral standard is sex with anybody by anybody and is considered to be the utopian birthright of citizenship (Jones, p. 53). In Scotland, one out of every three or four pregnancies ends in abortion. In the United States there are 1.4 million abortions annually. The feminist movement vows to change the traditional views of God and gender relationships. The homosexual lobby is increasing its influence and demands. The Supreme Court of Canada has been requested to reassess whether polygamy is unconstitutional.

Church membership is in decline; while at the same time spirituality is ‘in.’ People still want to be ‘spiritual.’ However, they are looking within themselves for ‘inward light’ to satisfy their spirituality. It is a widely accepted notion that one will not find any truth outside of self. The pollster, George Barna, concluded in 1996 “America is transitioning from a Christian nation to a syncretistic, spiritually diverse society” (The God Of Sex, p. 40). In this society the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is challenged to be faithful to the Word that has been entrusted to her care.

The Roman Empire Before 313 A.D.

Our days are starting to resemble those of the early church of before 313 A.D. Like ours, those days were also characterized by hedonism, materialism, false religions, and syncretism. The opinion was that all religions were the same. The Romans had conquered vast areas of the then known world and adopted the gods of the peoples they conquered. The conquered nations were free to worship their gods as long as they would also offer incense to the Roman emperor. That was the primary duty of every inhabitant of the Imperium Romanum (Imperial Roman Empire).

If we compare this era of time to our modern religious scene, we see that religion is now also characterized by syncretism. All religions are viewed to be equal. Everyone may believe what he wants, as long as he does not propagate that the Word of God is the only Truth (G. Roos, Kleur bekennen in de actuele cultuur; English: Acknowledging our identify in the current culture).

More parallels can be seen with our day and the first two centuries: The Roman emperors sought to secure the support of the common people by giving them ‘bread and circuses.’ Juvenalis, a Roman poet of the late first century, wrote various satires on Roman culture.

To him we owe the people—rather well-known saying: the common than caring about their freedom—are only interested in “panem et circenses” i.e. bread and circuses. Appeasing people was the short-term goal of Roman emperors, while they neglected to pursue long-term advantages for the nation.

In current society, we see similar developments. Politicians are supplying handouts and holding frivolous amusements to gain the support and favour of the people instead of obtaining it by proposing sound policies.

Roman society was crazed with amusement. Theatres, circuses and violence were common forms of entertainment. Gladiators fought each other to death. Before they began their combat they lined up before the emperor repeating the common phrase: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant (Greetings O Caesar, those who are going to die, wish you well).

Modern society is filled with violence, especially in the mass media, which supplies more “bread and circuses” than the Roman emperors could ever imagine possible, with all the detrimental effects on society. It was in this society that Christianity not only survived but also expanded rapidly.

The Early Christians

By the year 313 A.D., there are estimates that the number of Christians had surpassed six million members. Various reasons are given for this increase:

1. The Christianity of the Early Church was characterized by commitment. Just listen to the words of Ignatius, (d.116): “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearing, breaking, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shattering of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me; only let me attain to Jesus Christ” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 76). The early Christians were devoted to the Lord and realized that “all the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.” They were men and women who were committed to the Word of God and to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. The Christianity of the Early Church was also characterized by the communion of saints, or Christian fellowship. They experienced the “communion of saints.” Everywhere it was noted how the Christians loved one another. The church father, Tertullian, described the agape meals, the meals they held together as tokens of their mutual love. These were meals of Christian charity where food was made available to support the poor and to promote Christian fellowship. This all took place in good order. “They do not eat before prayer has been offered. They eat till they have had enough. They drink in moderation. The Christians eat and drink as people who know they must also be able to speak to God in the night. They converse together, knowing that God listens to their discussion. They conclude their meals again with prayer” (Tertullian Apologeticum, Chapter 39).

3. The Christianity of the Early Church was characterized by confession. Heathen authors noted the Christians’ confession of Christ and His Word. They also observed their confession by their life style. The Christian Athenian philosopher Aristides wrote around 140 A.D. to emperor Antoninus Pius: “Christians do not divorce, neither do they commit adultery, they do not give a false witness, they do not steal funds that have been entrusted to their care, they do not covet each other’s goods, they honour their father and mother, they love their neighbours, and exercise just conduct. Their women are pure as virgins. Their husbands abstain from uncleanness” (Sizoo, Christenen in de Antieke Wereld, p.33; English: Christian in the Ancient World).

4. The Christianity of the Early Church was characterized by compassion. Christians were noted for their care for each other, but also for those outside the church. Pagans collected mandatory contributions but used them to finance their orgies and feasts. Christians collected free will offerings to take care of the indigent and those who were poverty-stricken. The elderly were cared for and provisions were made for orphans. It was

common at that time that shipwrecked survivors who were far from home would have to beg for help. But Christians would provide for the needs of these victims. Christian prisoners who were condemned to forced labour in mines or who were banished to far away islands could still count on being taken care of by the Christian community.

What We Can Learn

What can we learn from the Early Church?
It had its share of problems with false teachers, pseudo apostles, hostile Jews and Gentiles. But they were people known for their commitment, close fellowship, confession and compassion.

Are we committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and His salvation and honour? Do we love the Lord above all else in the world? Are we willing to suffer hardships for His sake? Has the Lord Jesus become for us the ultimate Goal of our life? Have we learned to seek the kingdom of God first? Or do we love the world and have we become intoxicated with love of money, lust, the pride of life, fame and honour? Is there genuine love and care for one another among us? Do we support and care for one another? Do we have sincere concern for each other? Those who are outside the church will notice.

Do we have compassion for those in need? We can easily make a Christian confession but we can also deny our confession by our deeds. There were hypocrites and false believers in the Early Church, but there were also many true children of God who were committed to love their Lord and Saviour, even if this meant they had to suffer financial hardships and economic loss. They realized they were on their way through this world, to another world. They knew, as Calvin would later state: that we must “accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life” (Institutes 3,9,1). They also understood another statement of Calvin: “For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile? If departure from the world is entry into life, what else is the world but a sepulcher?” (Institutes 3.9.4).

The early Christians knew that following the Lord Jesus implied breaking with the idols of their day. Christians did not visit the circus. They didn’t attend violent games. Tertullian wrote against marriages between Christian women and pagans. He fulminated against abortion, but also against excessiveness in dyeing of hair, use of make-up, and wearing showy jewelry (Ante-Nicene Fathers, IV, pp. 21, 24).

The circus and theatre of many centuries ago are now easily accessible through our modern media. Instead of being a light in the world, the church is snuffing out the light. The feminist agenda has infected the church.

Christians of this day and age can learn from the early Christians to live antithetical to the world around us. We accommodate because we fail to realize who God is and what the fear of His Name really is. When we see God as a holy God and see sin in its soul-devastating consequences, we will grieve before God because of our sins. Then we will realize the holiness of God’s demands and realize that we cannot love the world and also Christ. This can only take place in the way of Spirit-worked regeneration, conversion and repentance. Only when the love of God and His saving grace become real, will sin be seen as detestable and loathsome. Only then will there be a breaking with the world of sin. The Early Church clearly understood this.

Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.) wrote:

We used to have pleasure in uncleanness, now only in modesty. We used to practice sorcery, now we have devoted ourselves to the good and eternal God. We used to value money and possessions to the highest degree, now we share what we have with one another and we give to those in need. We used to hate and kill each other and refused to eat with people of a different race, but since Christ has appeared we have fellowship together and pray for our enemies and we try to gain those for us who hate us without a just cause (Praamsma, Kerk van alle Tijden, Deel 1, p. 24; English: The Church Through the Ages).

Decline Of The Church

After 313 A.D. the situation changed. Christianity became the official adopted religion of the state. Many joined the church to gain status in society. Deformation took place and accommodation to the world, which eventually led to a serious decline of the church. Likewise, we too live in a culture of accommodation and self-centredness. There is a weakening of Christian love and caring fellowship. Our lives are so busy that we can hardly find time to seek communion with the Lord. That results in coldness and indifference in our relationships, also in the Christian church. We need to experience the reality of sin and grace. Where there is no longer the experience of the love of God and the miracle of God’s grace is no longer felt, serious decay sets in. In one or two generations congregations will cease to exist.

The Early Church teaches us to be personally devoted to Christ and to distance ourselves from the world instead of becoming entangled with it. It teaches us to hate sin and to flee from it, to be willing to be a martyros (a witness and martyr at the same time), and to be motivated by the love of Christ. Then there will be future for the church in our post-modern, hedonistic culture. This is what we may learn from the Early Church.

Dr. Gerald Procee is the pastor of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelharnis, NL. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is repubished here with permission.