Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role
(An Alternative History – The Early Church, the Temple, and Religious Authority)
“How should we do church?” Or the even more basic question: “What is Church?” is often on the mind of the pomo Christian today. Now, I’ve no intent or ability to delve into the deep ecclesiological musings that Cliff, Trip, and Jeff have been fascinatingly involved in, but rather I will generally outline some aspects of the Eastern Orthodox affinity with the Early Church and thus perhaps inspire the potential to see a different image of the much coveted and misunderstood Early Church.
Like we often do with Jesus, I think we have a tendency to romanticize the early Church and project upon them an image created from our own desires and wishes. Loaded with scattered biblical proof texts and the most admirable of intentions we develop a model that fits well within the context of what we yearn to see. The motivating fuel in trying to understand the early church is the assumption that the closer one gets chronologically to the original the more likely you are to see “pure” Christianity. I believed this to be the case, but unfortunately, I missed a lot of the “data” before I had firmly come to believe in my hypothesis.
From my perspective, the early Church – just like Jesus - shunned the Temple/Religious Institution from which it had been delivered. The early Christians shook their fingers at the Temple and condemned it as basically worthless because the Veil had been torn and this clearly…clearly indicated that God was no longer in need of such Institutionalized forms of worship. I also believed that they rejected Hierarchical Religious leadership along with their pompous religious rituals. I fully imagined the early Christians gathering together and just hanging out: maybe singing some songs, raising some hands, praying (always extemporaneously of course) and sharing a purely symbolic communion. Ahhh…it was evangelicalism some 1500+ years before it’s parent (Protestantism) existed!
Well, as you can well imagine the bubble was burst when I began being directed to numerous unusual and obscure un-underlined verses in the scriptures that seemed to call into question my image of the early Church. As if this weren’t enough, I made the horrific mistake of finding out what the second generation of Christians practiced, believed and taught. But, first the Scriptures.
Consider the end of St. Luke’s Gospel where the followers of Christ have just experienced the glorious Ascension. One can imagine the TV interviewer: “Hey First Christians! You’ve just seen victory over death and watch your Savior ascend into Heaven. What are you going to do now?” Well, they didn’t go to Disneylnad.
And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.
It was a little disconcerting for me to imagine these guys worshipping in the Temple…I mean my impression was that they only went there to witness to the unsaved Jews! And then that little word “continually” really messed with my presuppositions…what the heck were they doing there “continually”? Maybe Luke was wrong or maybe it was added later…after all Martin Luther said such things and worse about the Epistle of James, why couldn’t I if I didn’t like what it said! Well at least there was nothing else like this in scripture…oops!
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house…
Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
Oh Nuts! Now the "going house to house" idea jived well with me, but “continuing daily” in the Temple – what were they thinking!?! And worse yet they were going to Temple to pray the traditional Jewish hours of prayer! None of this fit well with my mental image of the Early Church. And here’s why:
We must keep in mind that the early church saw itself as fulfilled Judaism – and as such they maintained a Jewish identity to such an extent that it would require later church councils (such as in Acts 15) to discern exactly “how Jewish” they were to be. But the scriptures are clear: they continued going to Temple and as I said maintained the traditional hours of prayer. (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 10:1-9) In fact the Acts 2 verse clues us in to the evolution of Christian liturgy. Christian liturgy evolved from a melding of the Jewish liturgical services of the Temple and the Synagogue. Of course, the new Christian sacrificial offering was the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist and this was done (as the Acts 2 verse implies) in private homes. There is little doubt however, that the Early Church continued to offer worship in the Temple for as long as they were permitted to do so. Wolfgang Simson, a big proponent of the newest house church movement is bold (and wrong) to insinuate that the early church rejected the use of special buildings and that St. Stephen was martyred for standing up against the Pharisee on this issue – I address many of Simson’s claims in detail via this old email to a friend.
Furthermore we see in the Early Church the development of Hierarchy growing out of the leadership of the Apostles. The threefold form of ministry leadership is noted clearly in the New Testament: Bishops (lit: supervisors), Priests (lit: elders), and Deacons (lit: servants). We are exhorted by St. Paul on numerous occasions to honor and obey such leaders. And I’ll not even begin to mention in detail the many writings of the Early Church Fathers who give us further insight into the everyday life of ancient Christianity- Christianity centered around the Bishop and the Eucharist. Some of these writings are so contrary to our popularized view of Christian leadership today that they are simply dismissed, ignored, or we somehow deem ourselves able to judge the writers as mistaken…or as I have heard it phrased: “they were being silly, just like many Christians today are sometimes silly.”
Such thinking and rationalizing leaves us with little tools to discern what the early church was really like. Trying to piece it together from the Scriptures alone is about as effective as trying to develop a systematic theology from the scriptures alone – you end up with 20,000+ versions. But when you look at the extra-canonical documents of the Early Church a much clearer picture emerges. Quite frankly these ancient resources lend themselves rather nicely to understanding the Scriptures because we get a glimpse into the overall cultural context in and from which the New Testament was born. When we admit that the New Testament was not written or canonized as a guide to “re-create” the Church, we free ourselves to be able to really examine the history. In so doing we begin to see in the New Testament many new facets that we’d been missing or ignoring, and new light is shed on old verses that we were sure we had all figured out. For instance, is the prayer in Acts 4 an example of an early Christian liturgical prayer?
As I engrossed myself in the writings of the period I began to wonder if I ever really understood what this religion was all about - because so little of what they wrote seems to mesh well at all with what I believed and did. I realized very quickly that they could no more recognize my church as Christian any more than I could theirs!
Okay, so where are we at? As I mentioned, the Orthodox Church offers pomos seeking kinship with the early Church an alternative history. One based not solely on one person amongst many persons’ interpretations of the Scriptures, but rather on an all encompassing historical and theological context which when examined closely testifies to the Orthodox Church’s own affinity with the early Church. Furthermore, it is based on something else that is much belittled by our society and culture, but was in fact held in VERY high regard by the early Church. It is the title of this blog.
More to come…
An Alternative Theology: Tradition and The Mysteries.
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 9:44 PM [+]