Last night while I was trying to sleep, my mind rebelled against the prospect of sleep and decided to instead revisit a common objection that I hear from pastors, against abolition. The objection goes like this,
So if standing against abortion and infanticide is every Christian’s duty in a culture that sacrifices its children, then why don’t we see Christians doing that in the New Testament Church? These things were happening all throughout the Roman empire; why don’t we see the church coming together to stand against that evil? The apostles simply focused on preaching the gospel; abolition wasn’t a part of their ministry.
Until last night, I’d never really thought through a good answer to that objection. This seeming contradiction never stumbled my conviction that we have a duty, but I certainly understand why a pastor would hesitate to adopt this idea when its outworking seems to be missing from New Testament practice. If Jesus and the apostles command us to show practical compassion to those suffering around us, and if systemic infanticide in a culture falls under that commandment’s purview, then why don’t we see the New Testament Church standing together against infanticide?
Whenever I encounter an apparent contradiction in scripture, I’ve learned that it’s helpful to revisit the foundational assumptions that I’m bringing to the text. I’ve been around long enough to know from experience that the Bible is God’s word, and God’s word is infallible — there’s no use calling its consistency into question. So if there appears to be a contradiction in scripture, then it must be a problem in my understanding of it, and I need to change to be in greater conformity to God’s word.
So last night while I was trying to sleep, I worked through my foundational assumptions, and asked a question. “Well, why do I believe that the apostolic church is supposed to be my model for Christian living in the first place? Where in scripture do I get that idea from?” After thinking about it, I realized that I’d inherited the idea from my upbringing; I never really challenged the assumption to see if it is in fact a biblical conclusion.
Certainly many people view the Apostolic Church as a model for Christianity. My Dad’s church was called The Church of Acts, which perhaps may have been more of an aspiration than a reality :-), but it nevertheless reflects this desire to emulate what is seen in the earliest church. A quick Google search on the topic yields the following quote:
Is the structure of the church consistent with the biblical model that was established by Jesus? The goal of an apostolic church is to reproduce the genuine paradigm Jesus set in place for His Church. The First Century Church is our model for that paradigm; therefore, we strive to emulate what we see in Scripture.
— The Apostolic Church Model
The above paragraph sounds like a good way to develop a biblical ecclesiology, but it contains an assumption. “The goal…is to reproduce the genuine paradigm [that] Jesus set in place” — Amen, I agree wholeheartedly. But does the First Century Church best reflect what Jesus desires from His followers? That is an assumption, one which may or may not be true, and one that I would like to challenge in this post.
Many good men of God believe in the model of the apostolic church (until last night I was one of them), so I am more than willing to be proven wrong in this regard. But, for what it’s worth, I think that we do have good reason to look elsewhere for a model of Christian living.
Ephesus or Smyrna?
My first argument involves the seven churches described Revelation. This is not an argument that will persuade everyone; it uses an interpretation of the seven churches that is not expressly revealed in scripture. For those not persuaded, bear with me; more concrete arguments will come in a bit. But I’m leading with this observation because it helped me to frame the issue more clearly in my mind, and to remember that Jesus doesn’t always value things the same way that we do.
In the opening chapters of Revelation, Jesus dictates a series of letters to the apostle John, directed to seven churches in Asia Minor. These letters convey Jesus’ perspective on each church — where they are doing well, and where they are falling short of His desire and commandments. Commentators differ on how to apply these seven letters; obviously there were seven historical churches that they describe. Also at the end of each letter, Jesus commends the letter to all churches with Christians who are willing to hear — “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” So any Christian who is struggling in an area where these churches struggled can learn from these letters.
Some however have also observed another interesting phenomenon. The way these churches are listed happens to describe the timeline of church history in advance, through the present day. If these churches would have been listed in any other order, the picture wouldn’t fit, but as it stands, history is foretold in their sequence:
- Ephesus (30 to 100 AD) — waning love
- Smyrna (to 313) — persecution, poverty and spiritual wealth
- Pergamos (to 538) — state religion and idolatry
- Thyatira (to 1560s) — toleration of idolatry and apostasy
- Sardis (to 1790s) — dead reformation
- Philadelphia (to 1840s) — revival and an open door to the gospel
- Laodicea (today) — poor, blind, naked, lukewarm Christianity
Source: Seven Churches Chart
The historical overlay is an interesting phenomenon, at the very least. Given the way that the Lord reveals Himself through types and shadows in scripture, and given that He seemed to use the seven churches as an idiom for the whole church in Revelation, I find credibility in the idea that these seven churches are typical of church history. You may disagree, and this certainly isn’t the core of my argument, but let’s run with it for a little bit.
Two of the above churches — Smyrna and Philadelphia — were found blameless by Jesus, with much commendation and without any criticism. The rest of them had serious areas where they were falling short, and Jesus calls them to repent and change. Among those criticized was the very first church, the church of Ephesus, for neglecting the most central commandment that Jesus ever gave to His followers (Matthew 22:36-40):
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
In the prophetic understanding of the seven letters, Ephesus is seen as a type or picture of the early Apostolic Church. As a result, given Jesus’ criticism of this church, anyone who believes in this interpretation has to necessarily concede that the Apostolic Church cannot be our ideal model for Christian living; there were better churches that came later on. We should certainly study and learn the infallible truths taught by the apostles and other New Testament writers; however the church that arose while they were living cannot provide to us an infallible example of what Jesus desires from our lives.
For those who don’t believe in the prophetic nature of these letters, good for you — way to be Bereans. Let’s stick with what the Bible explicitly says, and build our thinking from there. First and foremost, does the Bible explicitly tell us that we should look to the Apostolic Church as our model for Christian living? Or is that an idea that we impose upon the text of scripture? The burden of proof rests upon the apostolic advocate to demonstrate that the Bible places an ideal on the early church as a model whose image we should aim to bear.
To the contrary, from these seven letters alone we know that very soon after Jesus founded the Church, at least five churches in Apostolic Age were experiencing serious problems that elicited a strong rebuke from Christ Himself. Even if the church of Ephesus is not typical of the entire Apostolic Age, it was still an important church that had waned in its love for Christ over the short period of its existence.
Beyond these five, several other major churches exhibited a rapid diminishing of Christian love. In Corinth, Christians were suing one another in secular courts (1 Corinthians 6); there was sexual licentiousness more grievous than that of the pagans (1 Corinthians 5); Paul had to devote three chapters of his letter to describe how love needs to govern and bind together the gifts of the Spirit, so that the body can be built up rather than torn apart by rivalry and jealousy (1 Corinthians 12-14).
In Philippi, two women had generated enough conflict to warrant public rebuke in a letter (Philippians 4:2). In Antioch, Peter (one of the twelve apostles) caused all of the Jews save Paul to treat Gentiles as second-class Christians, leading even Barnabas astray by his actions (Galatians 2). Throughout his ministry, Paul was constantly fighting against the false teachers, who swerving from the goal of love would wander into vain discussions in an attempt to lift themselves up (1 Timothy 1:5-7).
All of these problems came in the wake of a church which had an incredible beginning marked by generosity and self-sacrificial love. There was genuine concern for the less fortunate; people would sell their possessions to provide for those in need (Acts 2:45). Positions were created in the church to manage care for widows and the fatherless (Acts 6), and the church at large gave into that endeavor, sacrificially.
So with or without a prophetic interpretation of the Revelation churches, it seems inescapable to conclude that the Church of the New Testament was marked by a passionate love for Christ that quickly faded away. As such it is far from a model that we are to mimic in its every facet. Rather, like any other set of sinners brought before us in scripture, we can learn to emulate the good things that the Lord wrought within their lives, and avoid and improve upon the bad.
Hebrews 11 teaches us to admire and imitate men of faith like Abraham. However it does not tell us to blindly limit our obedience so that we are only as faithful to God as he was, and no more. In the same way, we can certainly admire and work to emulate the church of the New Testament, but that doesn’t mean that we should follow after them in the places where they were disobedient and criticized by Jesus Christ and His apostles.
Consider the church that came after them — the persecuted church, the church of Smyrna if you accept the prophetic timeline of the seven churches. Jesus didn’t have a single bad thing to say about that church. They were persecuted by the Romans, fed to lions, burned, martyred in the arenas etc. They were poor, having hardly enough resources to care for themselves, but what things they did have they shared with others, and according to Jesus they were rich in good deeds (Revelation 2:9). In particular do you know what good deeds they became famous for? Rescuing children from parents who were trying to kill them. Love conquered Rome as the church of Smyrna worked systematically, self-sacrificially to abolish infanticide in the Roman empire.
Or consider the church of Philadelphia, the church in revival — a church that actually has a little strength left. Is it any surprise that out of this period of revival came the movements to abolish man-stealing and the unjust slavery of africans? What a coincidence that the two churches for which Jesus had no criticism happened to be the two churches that were actively working to protect the weakest people in their respective environments. Could it be that Jesus actually meant what He said when He told us He wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves? My, who would have thought?
A Better Model
Nevertheless, despite the comparative successes of two post-apostolic churches, I don’t believe that scripture points us to any period of church history as a golden age or model for us to imitate. There is a danger that comes when you begin to hold yourself accountable to the fallible examples of sinful men rather than the impossible standard of the Son of God.
For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.
– 2 Corinthians 10:12
What drives me forward in my walk with the Lord is this incessant, impossible standard of reflecting the character of my Lord Jesus Christ. It’s easy to look around at another Christian and think, You know, I may not be perfect, but at least I’m doing better than that guy. It’s the same thing in scripture — you can look at the great heroes of the faith, or the New Testament Church, and think, You know, we’re really not doing that bad. But as soon as Jesus steps in the ring — when you stop comparing yourself against sinners and start comparing yourself against the sinless Word of God — you will always fail that test, you will always fail this side of eternity. We will always find places to grow.
So rather than saying, “I am following the Apostolic Church — I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, or Calvin, or Wesley, or Ligonier Ministries, or Calvary Chapel, or Sovereign Grace Ministries,” or whatever other men or church systems we may purport to follow, let us all say, “I am of Christ,” and find the wonder that comes from attempting the impossible, seeking to model the character of our Lord and Savior.
So what does it look like to be a Christian — a follower and imitator of Jesus Christ — in a culture that practices child sacrifice? Christians have attempted to answer this question before, and it led them to abolish child sacrifice throughout the Roman empire and beyond.
How did Jesus deal with injustice and oppression? He did many things; He showed compassion, practical help for the poor and downtrodden, just as He taught. He boldly challenged the religious leaders and civil magistrates of His day to stop neglecting the weightier matters of the law.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
– Matthew 23:23-24
Most importantly, He told us to go and do likewise, and to teach others to do the same (Luke 10:37, Matthew 28:18-20). May it never be that we find ourselves resting under our Savior’s just criticism like these Pharisees. Rather than limit ourselves to the heroes we make out of other sinful men, may Jesus grant us the humility to always compare our lives against His life, and change to be more like Him.