Saturday, December 29, 2007

Restoring the First Century Church: Which One of the Three?

Of course, such a subject line obviously bothers many, if not most, of the people raised in or converted to a church of Christ in America (or at least in the Bible Belt), for we are confident that as per Ephesians 4:4, there is only "one body".

However, it's important to remember that whereas the apostle urged the Christians to be united in the same mind and same judgment, and to have no divisions amongst themselves (1 Cor. 1:10ff), the reality of the situation is that there were divisions among the first century Christians (e.g. v. 12).

The general aim among churches of Christ has been to restore the first century church. But looking through the eyes of history, we find that over the first one hundred years or so of the church's existence, there were three broad stages of life, resulting in three "different" churches.

The First Stage: Just Another Sect of Judaism

During the life of Jesus, there were several sects within Judaism, his "native" religion, if you will. Here's a brief summary of the "big five", plus a sixth late-comer, that were common in and around the area of Judea.

Pharisees - These were the mainstream "people of the Book". They were careful to dot their "I"'s and cross their "T"'s in religious matters. These were what we might call "good, church-going folk". Their biggest problem was that they were concerned with details more than the over-all broader picture of religion, and often wound up being hypocritical in their lifestyles. They revered the written law, the Torah, but because it is vague on the details, they adopted an oral law which had grown up through the centuries alongside the written law. Jesus had no real qualm with the Pharisaic viewpoint, except when it led to hypocritical action or when their Oral Law canceled out the Written Law.

We see both Jesus' approval of Pharisaic doctrine and his condemnation of hypocrisy in Matt. 23:1-3:
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.
A few verses later, starting in verse 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for elevating the Oral Law above the Written Law.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
The Oral Law addressed the minutia of daily living, such as how to handle tithing of certain things, or the proper steps in washing the dinner dishes. Note that Jesus did not condemn the regulations of the Oral Law -- "without leaving the others undone". Rather, he condemned placing the unwritten rules above the God-inspired written rules.

The Oral Law specifies that if a situation causes a conflict between two laws in the Written Law, then the written law which saves or helps or loves has precedence over the one that is ritual. We see Jesus' properly applying the Oral Law in Luke 15:1-7.

Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”So He spoke this parable to them, saying: 
"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance."
We see the same sort of thing in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25ff. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man did so because of ritual regulations. The people hearing this story expected the priest and the Levite to avoid the wounded man, and they likely expected the next person in the story to be a Pharisee, who upheld the principle found in the Oral Law of helping another even if it means technically violating a Biblical regulation. At this point, Jesus had already taught the lesson he intended to teach, that helping those in need trumps Biblical regulations. But surprisingly, he takes a different route by making the hero of the story not a Pharisee but a Samaritan, hated and despised by the Jews. In doing so, he masterfully taught a second lesson to his hearers, to love those you hate.

Some of the Pharisees often considered Jesus as one of them, and went out of their way to protect him from Herod's intention to kill him on at least one occasion (Luke 13:31), whereas other Pharisees (or perhaps the same Pharisees at a different time) conspired with Herod to kill him (Mark 3:6).

The point of all this is that the Pharisees, while having a tendency toward hypocrisy and legalism which Jesus condemned, were basically the party that Jesus most identified with. When he condemned the Pharisees, it was more or less done as an "insider".

- This was the ruling elite, the political party. For the most part, they weren't too interested in things of the Bible, preferring instead to deal with the practicalities of living. They were more or less in bed with the ruling Romans, from whom they got political favors, such as official appointments. Accordingly, they were more interested in keeping the status quo than in having some upstart from Galilee going around and creating turmoil that would likely cause them financial and comfort loss. In Acts 5:17, we find that it's the Sadducees (and the office-holders, such as the high priest - vs 21) who sought to silence Peter and the early church by killing him (v. 33); it was Gamaliel, a Pharisee, who rescued him (v. 34ff). The Sadducees were more or less the agnostics of the nation, not believing in angels or the resurrection.

Zealots - These were the extremists, the fanatics, the pipe-bombers of the first century. Their main focus was on freeing Israel from the hated Roman rule. If that meant following a messiah who offered a chance to fight their way to freedom, so be it. If it meant handing over to Rome for crucifixion a so-called messiah who had no interest in overthrowing Rome, so be it. Whatever overthrows Roman rule and frees Israel is the goal.

Essenes - These were the "monks" of the period. They withdrew from society, and set up their own society. They had strict regulations, and kept their own writings, many of which were discovered in the caves of Qumran in 1947, now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. A fringe element in the Jewish religion, they seem to have contributed quite a bit of flavoring to Jewish society at large; there are some remarkable resemblances between the teachings and habits of the Essenes and those of both John the Immerser and Jesus.

Hellenists - These were good, Bible-believing Jews who typically were raised in a non-Jewish setting, such as in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Accordingly, they tended to accept Greek ways, and didn't worry too much about being "exactly Jewish". These were relatively rare within Judea itself, and tended to be found more among the Diaspora, the Dispersion of Jews outside of their homeland area.

Starting in about A.D. 33, a new sect of Judaism arose: the Nazarenes. It is clear that non-Christian Jews considered Nazarenes just another sect of Judaism, from such passages as Acts 24:5 and 24:14 and 28:22. It also seems clear, once we take off our 20th Century[1] "we've already figured it all out" eyeglasses, that the early Christians still considered themselves as just another branch of Judaism.

The Nazarenes, the church in this First Stage, still went to Temple at the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1), where they prayed (Acts 22:17), and returned to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 24:11) and to present offerings (v. 17) like good Jews did. Paul said that he believes everything that agrees with the Torah and the Prophets (Acts 24:14) and that he has the same hope in God as non-Christian Jews have (v. 15). Paul was concerned about being ceremonially clean (v. 18). About a week earlier Paul had claimed that he "is", not "was", a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Paul emphatically stated at least twice that he had not broken any Jewish laws (Acts 25:8, 10). Prior to Paul's conversion to Christianity, he sought out Christians whom to persecute, and it was to the synagogue he went in order to find them (Acts 26:11), which agrees with James' indication that the Christian assembly in the early days was the synagogue assembly (James 2:2, in the Greek). Later Paul tells the Roman Jews that he had done nothing against "our people" or the customs of the ancestors (Acts 28:17). When speaking to a group of non-Christian Jews in Synagogue, he includes himself with them as children of their fathers, to whom God has fulfilled his promise (Acts 13:33). He met with both Christians and non-Christians in the synagogue for three months, until the non-Christians maligned the Christians so much that the Christians left the congregation (Acts 19:8-9).

Stephen the Martyr was stoned because he accused the Jewish leaders of not keeping the law (Acts 7:53); the implication was that if they had kept it, they'd be Christians as he was. In other words, Stephen was a keeper of the law.

Peter was resistant to go see the Gentile Cornelius, because it was unlawful for a "Jewish man to keep company" with a non-Jew (Acts 10:28). The church in Jerusalem, including even the Apostles, also was upset because Peter broke this rule (Acts 11:1-3). It was a shock to the early church that non-Jews could become Christians (v. 18). As part of the controversy, Christians who still considered themselves as Pharisees insisted that the new Gentile believers convert to Judaism (Acts 15:5). It makes no sense to believe the earliest Christians expected non-Jews to convert to Judaism if they no longer considered themselves as law-following Jews. Note that the Christian leaders may not have insisted on Gentile believers converting to Judaism (Acts 15:24), but the existence of rank-and-file Christians who believed this doctrine makes it obvious that the earliest church was a Jewish church, and that they believed being a Christian meant being a Jew.

Paul had no problem circumcising a non-Jewish believer in order to appease the Jews (Acts 16:1-3). On another trip to Jerusalem, Paul submitted to certain Jewish rituals to prove that he was a good, Law-keeping Jew (Acts 21:15-24, 26), thereby proving that although Gentiles were not required to keep the law, he was not teaching this message to Jews living among the Gentiles (v. 21, 24-25).

Sosthenes was the ruler of the synagogue while apparently a Christian (as evidenced by the Greeks beating him after being given permission by the proconsul to handle the "Christianity issue" themselves - Acts 18:14-18).

Other passages could be examined, but it seems clear that for the first fifteen years or so of the church's existence, Christianity was strictly Jewish. The church was a branch of Judaism. It was a matured branch, unlike the other branches, as it had found the long sought-for Messiah, but nevertheless, it was still Jewish, and only Jewish, at heart.

Even though the Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law in many cases, they realized that they were not justified by the keeping of that Law, but rather by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:15-16).

The Second Stage: Jews and Gentiles

As has been mentioned, when God sent Peter to Cornelius (about A.D. 49), this began the second stage of the church's life. At first, the strictly Jewish church resisted the inclusion of Greeks into the church. Then, as they began to realize that "God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (Acts 11:18), many also insisted that these new Gentile believers should go through the whole process necessary for conversion to Judaism, including circumcision (Acts 15:1, 24). The "Jerusalem Conference" in Acts 15 addressed this issue, and concluded that Jewish believers in the Messiah should continue being Jewish, but that Gentile believers did not need to become Jewish. Instead, the new Gentile believers needed to adopt four rules (abstaining from idols, blood, things strangled, and sexual immorality) that would reduce the friction between the Jewish and the Gentile believer in the synagogue (Acts 15:21).

During the first stage of the church, when it was strictly Jewish, non-believing Jews were by and large willing to leave the Christian Jews pretty much alone. Some that weren't believers still respected the Christian Jews, and in the very earliest days of the church, believers had favor with all the people (Acts 2:47). However, now that Gentiles were coming into the church, and without having to submit to the rules and regulations to which the Jews had to submit, the Jews tended toward envy and anger (Acts 17:4-5). By the time Paul was sent to Rome for his trial, the Jews there were compelled to say that, "concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22).

During this period, much of the writing in the New Testament emphasizes that both Jew and Gentile are part of the church. For example, Romans 1:16 says "[the Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile". Similar phraseology can be found throughout Romans (2:10, 3:9, 9:24, 10:12, 15:27). Galatians 2:7-9 makes it clear that the Gospel is for both the Gentile and the Jew.

The Third Stage: Jews and Gentiles Separate

The second stage "truce" worked for a while, but relationships between the two camps deteriorated fairly quickly, taking sharp dips after the destruction of Jerusalem in the first Jewish Rebellion against Rome (c. A.D 70) and again after the complete razing of Jerusalem in the second Jewish Rebellion (the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, c. A.D. 135), which cemented a virtually complete division of the two into separate religions. We don't have much Biblical evidence of this, as the separation accelerated after most of the Bible's record was completed, but historical sources outside of the Bible show this progression clearly.

The tragedy of this third stage is that whereas Gentiles and Jews are supposed to be family, after A.D. 135, the normal situation has been enmity between the two branches of the family. Gentiles have blamed Jews for killing Jesus (when really it was mostly the less-religious appointed-by-Rome office-holders kow-towing to Roman influences who killed Jesus, not the people at large); Jews have blamed Christians for hating them unjustly, and for co-opting their religion.

Since the great Holocaust of the Second World War, new dialogs have opened between the two camps, and hope flows that peace may again reign between the two parties, as Jesus would have it. Christians need to reach out to Jews with the news that their long-awaited Messiah has come; it's just that they've been blinded to it because of mistakes and blindnesses on both sides. Jews need to realize they have an awesome Rabbi in their heritage, if they'd just get over the revulsion they have to all things Christian.


So, when considering the task of restoring the first century church, one must ask, "Which church? The Jewish church, the Jewish/Gentile church, or the Gentile church?"

Strictly speaking the purely Gentile church begins just after the first century, rather than being a first-century church, so it can't be the first-century church.

The earliest church was the Jewish church. But the Bible makes it clear that God wants Gentiles in the church, and that Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism. So the Jewish church, although a first-century church, is not the church God wants.

That leaves us with the Jewish/Gentile church. The only problem with this, is that in the typical church of Christ at the tail-end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st, we have such a fear of "sectarianism" (aka "denominationalism"), that we have blinded ourselves to the Biblical record that God's church, though one body and one spirit, can take at least two forms: one that worships in the Temple and in the Synagogue and that keeps ritual regulations concerning vows and purity laws, and one that does things in a decidedly more Gentile, non-Jewish way.

So what are we going to do about it?

1. Yes, I know it's the 21st Century, but many in the church of Christ are still living in the 1950's. Much of the resistance in the church to doing things differently is because we perceive these new things to be different from the ways of the early church, when in reality it's merely different from the ways of the 1950's church. In other words, we've confused the church we knew in the mid-20th Century with the church.


Anonymous said...

I have many bones to pick with the source for your study here, some quite large. For example, I hardly consider Matthew 23:2-3 an endorsement. I read it as more a note of political realities. Under Roman rule, the Jews were permitted generous latitude in handling their own civil law. The civil courts for most Jews were dominated by Pharisees. Thus, Jesus simply warns His disciples there's nothing to gain by playing rebel. He goes on to condemn almost everything about them in the rest of the chapter, not to mention a lot of other places. I find it ludicrous to suggest Jesus would consider Himself their friends. I won't bother to list all my objections, because I think it's more important we agree to approach the New Testament from the proper cultural context and historical understanding, and note there will be differences of understanding. We won't any of us come up with THE answer, but most of us will have better ones than those confined to a modern Western mind.

Chyntt said...

I would agree with you that Jesus was warning against rebelling against those in authority in the Matt. 23:2-3 passage. But he recognized those who were in authority as having authority. In essence, he agreed with their teachings. He just didn't agree with their carry-through.

You'll remember that Jesus in Matt. 5:20 referred to the Pharisees as the best contemporary standard of righteousness. But then he made it clear that even that was not good enough; you have to go to the next level. Why did he pick the Pharisees as the standard? Because they were the most righteous folks around in Jesus' estimation. That still wasn't good enough, but it was closer than the righteousness of the other groups. In other words, Jesus identified doctrinally more with the Pharisees than with the other groups.

This affinity between the Pharisees' doctrine and Jesus' doctrine might help to explain why the Pharisees were a significant chunk of the new converts (Paul, and the Judaizers who instigated the Jerusalem Conference, etc), and why the Pharisee Nicodemus came to him at night to learn more, and why Pharisees invited him to supper (Luke 7:36, 11:37), and why the Pharisee Gamaliel maneuvered Paul off the hook.

Don't get me wrong; I perhaps have been unclear. Jesus was not 100% "on board" with the Pharisee doctrines. But when he condemned the Pharisees, it was more for their hypocrisy than for their doctrine, such as in Luke 12:1, where he says, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."