In fact, most discussions of church practices or ideas have this
"appeal to the primitive church" aspect to them. Authors present their
ideas and cite instances from the Bible to show that, indeed, the
"early church" had the same idea. Or entire movements may cite certain
problems with the modern church and call for "restoring the early
I'm all for learning and understanding the Bible and the early church.
there are some serious considerations that must be made about this
whole topic of primitivism. This article seeks to address some of these
concerns. It is hardly the "final word" on the topic; it is my hope
that reading this educates you to issues related to primitivism that
are not often discussed.
Myths Concerning the Early Church
Most appeals to primitivism have unstated presumptions about the early
church. The first of these is the idea that the church was monolithic.
This means that all churches believed and did the same things. This
gives rise to a method of handling Scripture that harmonizes different
accounts from different places. Instead of believing that different
biblical churches did certain things, this ends up saying all biblical
churches did all of the things that any of them did.
Let's illustrate with an example. The early Jerusalem church met daily
in their homes and in the temple courts (Acts 2:46). Some have
suggested that, on this basis, all churches today ought to meet every
day. Other have suggested because the "early Christians" "went to
church" everyday, Christians today should not complain when told to "go
to church" more than once a week.
Now consider the Corinthian church. Is there any evidence they met
together every day? No.It seems that they met on the first day of the
week (1 Corinthians 16:2).
Does this mean the Corinthians were fallen because they did not "meet
as often" as the early Jerusalem church? No.
The New Testament church was not monolithic. Different churches did
different things at different times, certainly due to the circumstances
and possibly for other reasons as well. In efforts to find and follow a
"pattern" of the early church, people often separate the practices of
certain early churches from their circumstances. This is not a
legitimate way to handle the Scriptures.
The second myth about the early church is that its actions are
normative and are meant for all Christians for all time and
circumstances. I have a favorite story to illustrate this
woman who always chopped the tip off the end of the
steak before putting it into the oven. One day her observant
daughter asked why she always did it. The woman said she did not know
exactly why she did it, but she did it because
her mother always did it. So at the next family gathering, the woman
and her daughter found Grandma and asked why she did this. Grandma
replied, "I cut the meat so it would fit in the pan I was using." There
reason behind the action; without that reason the action was
As context matters in biblical
interpretation, context matters in understanding church practices
discussed in the Bible. We must endeavor to know not just what the
early Christians did, but why they did it. For example, some might
argue that the modern church building is wrong because the early church
often met in homes. But does the New Testament say that church
buildings are wrong, or does it only say where early churches met?
Didn't they meet in temple courts and rented facilities too? So why did
early Christians meet as they did? Perhaps they met in houses often
because they were available; perhaps they met in houses because God
really wanted it that way from the beginning. Those who oppose church
buildings and advocate house churches have great points about how the
church is affected by this, but did God really want all Christians for
all time to meet in houses only?
The point is this: the early church did what it did, but that doesn't
necessarily give that example the force of Biblical commands. It might
also be examples of what the church could do. And it doesn't mean that
what they did was always right. This provides a nice transition into
The last myth I'd like to raise here is the idea that the early church
was perfect. People appealing to primitivistic arguments often cite
"problems" in the church today and seem to think that the early church
was perfect. It wasn't. As the failings of the apostles are freely
discussed in the gospel, the failings of the early church are discussed
elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul's harshness towards John Mark. The
anti-Gentile bias of certain Jewish Christians, not the least of which
was Peter. Some insisting that Gentile Christians be circumcised.
Others who became lazy because they believed the return of the Lord was
imminent or took advantage of the generosity of other Christians.
Going to the house church example, perhaps house churches helped the
fellowship of the church be more intimate. But perhaps it contributed
to resentments between the rich and the poor that were known in the
church (James 2:1). Perhaps it helped the church be more organic, but
perhaps it also led to corruptions in leadership (ref. 3 John 1:10).
It is naive to think that the early church somehow had this pristine
set of beliefs and practices and had no problems, and by golly if the
modern church just would be like them we'd have a perfect church too.
But there never has been a perfect church. Not only are all of its
members sinners (1 John 1:8), it had unmet needs and a myriad of other
problems. But it was still the Body of Christ.
Those who seek to restore the early church usually have just a couple
of things in mind. Some want to restore church structure and doctrine,
others seek to restore lifestyle, others gifts of the Holy Spirit,
still others a counterculture world view. Still others seek to restore
continuity with the apostles through an chain of leadership or other
aspects of first-century culture (avoiding modern things, shunning city
We might shake our
heads about fundamentalists in other religions who want to keep the
world in the middle ages, but Christians who want to establish aspects
of first-century culture in the modern church are not much different.
first century culture the only standard, canonical, legitimate culture
for all people of all times? Can't the truth of the gospel and the
spirit of Christ live in our century too?
The point is that the things to be restored to "the way they were in
the first century" are based upon one's perceptions of the failings of
the contemporary church and one's perceptions of the primitive church.
As a result of this "picking and choosing," primitivism means different
things to different people-- it is extremely sensitive to the
circumstances of the one doing the restoring. It is not as dissociated
from history, unbiased, nor pure as it sounds.
Primitivism and History
Primitivism cannot adequately handle time or history. The most
primitive church (Jerusalem, Acts 2) had not yet experienced history,
yet it grew out of its own primitivism without falling away. The early
church held to one primitive gospel (Galatians 1:6ff), but clearly grew
or matured in its structure (ecclesiology) and thought (theology). That
primitive gospel is legitimate not because it is primitive, but because
it is true. By contrast, the pure primitivist impulse denies the
opportunity for growth in structure and thought beyond the designated
The New Testament church experienced all sorts of changes away from its
more primitive forms, and none of these were considered a falling-away.
The church was initially led by apostles. But missionaries and
itinerant preachers arose. In time local leadership could take control
over local churches. The church started out with only Jews, but in time
Gentiles were added to the mix. The church started out in a Jewish
context and culture, yet in time found itself in the Greek and Roman
cultures. Through these and other changes, it adapted accordingly.
The ideal of primitivism doesn't know what to do with growth and
maturity. It requires that growth and maturity stop at a certain point
Perhaps discussing biblical metaphors for the church can help us here.
The church is likened to both a building (1 Corinthians 3:10-11,
Ephesians 2:21) and a body (Colossians 1:18,24). Bodies start out as
helpless embryos, are given birth, go through various stages of
childhood and then various stages of adulthood. The members of the body
go through various stages of development. How silly it would be to tell
any person having a problem they just need to be like an embryo or
revert to some previous stage! But this is what primitivism does.
Similarly, a building that is brand new has no fixtures, furnishings or
decor (such as paint or landscaping). In time, these appear and the
building becomes more useful. Is such a building really not as good as
one without those things? Do we fix buildings by restoring them to a
post-construction stage? But primitivism insists that buildings remain
as though they were newly constructed. Some movements even deliberately
"tear down" everything to get to this stage again.
looks attractive to those fed up with aspects of the modern church. But
it has a way of invalidating the
church at a certain point down the road in its own history, condemning
for its lack of primitivism, demanding that what it has become be
thrown away and replaced with a new primitive version of itself.
Primitivists need to consider why the Scriptures use such dynamic
metaphors for the church, and not static ones (such as mountains,
the Bible the Constitution for the Church? Or Does Primitivism Become a
New Gospel? Some
tend to view the bible as the constitution for the church. I've seen it
taught that the church is built on the Bible (since it is built on
Jesus 1 Corinthians 3:11, who is the "word of God"). But metaphors
mixed. The church existed long before the New Testament did. The early
church didn't use the New Testament as a constitution for itself,
because it didn't exist yet.
I've never heard a primitivist suggest we get rid of the New Testament,
but the early church didn't have the New Testament, so why not get rid
of it? I'm not suggesting that we get rid of it; I'm only illustrating
how inconsistent and inadequate some of these primitivist ideas are.
The Protestant world tends to linger on the Bible too much.
Historically, they reacted to Roman Catholicism, in which the Bible was
more or less inaccessible to the church. But now we study the Bible, a
sermon has become the centerpiece of most church meetings, Bible study
has become a "spiritual discipline" and something used to measure
spiritual growth and sometimes even faithfulness itself ("How have your
quiet times been?" is the first question many Christians ask someone
who is "struggling").
We study the Bible looking for patterns to follow, patterns to debunk,
and patterns to trump other patterns. We pursue the nth
degree of restoration nobody
else has yet attained. That's Christian living? That's the gospel?
That's something the "earliest Christians" spent their energies on? Did
Jesus bring us a perfect pattern that demands flawless adherance, or
did he save us from such things?
Conclusion If I
sleep in the garage, does that make me a car? If I wear a major league
baseball jersey, does it make me a major league baseball player? If I
do what some of what some Christians did, does that make me a Christian?
said before, I'm all for studying the Bible, understanding its
context and meaning.
Sure, we need to pay attention to what the early church was like. But
this whole pursuit must be kept in proportion. Even the primitivist
must see that
the early Christians were far more concerned about trusting God, loving
one another and spreading this message than chasing after the wind of
primitivism. May we consider the New Testament appropriately and have
the kinds of lives and churches God has truly intended for us.