Lessons for Today’s Church from the Life of the Early Church

Article ID: JAF2432 | By: J. Warner Wallace


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


The first Christians were revolutionaries. The group they formed was, in many ways, different from what we know as the church today. The early church emerged during a tremendously diverse Roman melting pot of social and religious ideas, and through purely peaceful means, completely changed the Empire and united it under the banner of Christianity. They did it without a single mega-church, television program, or website. Instead, they opened their homes, spoke the truth fearlessly, and trusted God for the results. Long before Christianity became a dominant political power, it was a divine movement of God. Long before Christianity found a comfortable home in church buildings, it was an active body of passionate believers.

Christians Were Bound and United by a Common Truth. Early observers recognized the first believers were committed to an important objective truth: Jesus Christ is God and the only way to enter into a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. This common truth and relationship to Christ became a unifying force. Tertullian (a church scholar who lived in North Africa c. 160–225 AD) wrote about the emerging Christian believers:

We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This [strong exertion] God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.1

Christians Were Characterized by Uncommon Joy. Amid terrible persecution and hardship, the early believers stayed focused on God instead of their own dire situation. As a result, regardless of their personal circumstances, they were able to live with joy. Read these words from the author of the Epistle to Diognetus (written c. 130 AD):

They [the Christians] love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.2

Christian philosopher and apologist Aristides presented a letter to Emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138 AD) and described the uncommon joy of early believers:

Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins.3

Christians Were a Fearless and Animated People, Not a Passive Church. Early Christians did more than attend church, they were the church; they impacted their culture as the people of God. They assembled to equip themselves to be the people God intended them to be and do the work God intended them to do. Tertullian explained, “We assemble to read our sacred writings…[and] with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits.”4

Christians Were Known by Their Love. Because they had surrendered so completely to God’s call on their lives, they began to live as the people of God. The world took notice. Again, Tertullian: “But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another,’ for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; ‘how they are ready even to die for one another,’ for they themselves would sooner put to death.”5

Aristides delineated the fruit of the Holy Spirit profoundly manifest in the early Christians:

They do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest; and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a recompense to come in the other world. Further, if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God.6

Christians Gave Sacrificially to the Needy. Early believers understood why God had given them the limited wealth they had. Meeting in homes and led by regular men of character, these first believers poured all their financial gifts into the care of the needy. Tertullian testified:

Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are…not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.7

Similarly, Aristides explained, “And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”8

Laymen of Character Led the Christian Movement. The New Testament repeatedly describes small groups of believers led by laypeople called elders. These elders were not paid staff but simply men of character who rose to leadership based on their passion and gifting. Tertullian observed, “The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.”9

Christians Were God’s Holy Ambassadors in a Dying World. The world quickly recognized there was something different about these Christians. They represented something noble and pure, and they were influential in their communities. The Epistle to Diognetus shows how Christians reflected God’s nature in the world:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech….But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. (Emphasis added.)10

The Epistle’s writer concludes this line of thought:

To sum up all in one word — what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them….The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.11

Early believers stood apart from the world because they had been transformed by the power of God and had surrendered themselves to their Lord in both word and deed. Aristides put it succinctly: “They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them.”12

Clearly, the early Christians were living their faith in both the context of the church as well as within the context of the world. The movement was impossible to stop, and it eventually encompassed the known world. Where did these early believers learn the method of living their faith that changed the world? They got the model from their predecessors as described in the Scriptures:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 NASB)

The first community of saints reflected the power of God in their lives as a family of believers. This early history of the church simply reflected the teaching of the Bible as it recorded the nature and essence of the first community of saints. The early Christians were the church — an active, energized body of believers equipped to change the world. Today’s church can learn something from their example.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case detective, author, speaker, senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and adjunct professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University) and Southern Evangelical Seminary.

NOTES

  1. Tertullian, Apology, 39, trans. S. Thelwall, Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html.
  2. “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” 5, Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html.
  3. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, 15, trans. D. M. Kay, Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html.
  4. Tertullian, Apology, 39, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html.
  5. Tertullian, Apology, 39, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html, (single quotation marks added).
  6. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, 15, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html.
  7. Tertullian, Apology, 39, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html.
  8. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, 15, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html.
  9. Tertullian, Apology, 39, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html.
  10. “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” 5, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html.
  11. “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” 6, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html.
  12. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, 15, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html.
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