We have a pretty good idea of what a Sunday gathering of the early church looked like (hint: a lot like 1 Cor. 14:26). This fact is near-universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, and totally ignored by church professionals. What we do is widely different from what they did, everybody who’s ever looked into it knows it, and nobody cares even slightly. My friend Shawn noticed this a few years back, but just wrote up a lovely little article illustrating the point using commentary on 1 Cor. 14 from a wide variety of denominations. It’s worth your time to read it.
The ensuing discussion has been interesting.
- Someone chimed in with an extended argument about how her very standard American church service really is very participatory — singing songs and listening to teaching is not passive at all, according to her — and so she doesn’t see the need for all this fuss about making things more participatory.*
- Someone else warned that in his experience, studying early church practice invariably leads to a kind of legalism, where the student of the early church is now filled with demands that we must do things in the same way.**
- Another observer wondered if any of this really mattered: perhaps the American church is simply attaining the same goals the early church did, but by different methods.***
I could go on, but what’s the point?
What’s so striking about this conversation was the sheer scale and variety of excuses for refusing to engage the discussion. The bottom line, to my eye, is simple: we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, and we’re simply not interested in a conversation that might result in changing something. The tribe that raised and trained me talks a good game about following Scripture rather than tradition, but the truth is that we have our own tradition that we protect as ferociously — and dishonestly — as the most ardent Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox partisan.
We need to be comfortable with repentance. We tell ourselves that we are, and it’s true, for the obvious sins — adultery, fornication, theft, hatred, envy, gossip, like that. But we need to get comfortable with repenting of the more respectable failures like complacency, valuing “the way we do it” above Scripture, the arrogance of thinking we have nothing to learn about church praxis from the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth.
*Answer to #1: As a sometime preacher, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate her zeal for active listening when the preacher is talking! But this is nothing to the purpose. If we acknowledge that what Paul told the Corinthians to do is widely different from what we do of a Sunday morning, then it’s that gap we’re talking about.
**Answer to #2: While that’s certainly a danger, it occurs to me that there’s another possible interpretation besides “legalism.” Imagine a southern plantation owner in 1830 warning a Bible scholar that studying the slavery issue closely invariably leads to a very legalistic strain of abolitionism! Maybe there’s a reason, ya know?
***Answer to #3: If the American church were actually attaining the sorts of results the early church did, that would perhaps be a valid question. But they were a martyr church, and we’re…well, most of our church people are stagnant babies, most of our pastors don’t know how to disciple someone, and most of our young people ditch the Christian faith before the end of their first semester at Leviathan State University. With results like that, perhaps the methods of that early church bear looking into….