The scant evidence to support our projections of the early church

I’ve been reading an anthology of early Christian writings which includes, among other things, the epistles written by Ignatius of Antioch in ~105 AD, and the Didache, a brief manual for Christian living written about ~70 AD. The letters are to some of the same churches that Paul wrote to only one generation earlier (Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, etc.). It’s easy to see why they weren’t included in the canon of scripture though. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but they just aren’t nearly as interesting as the letters that made it into the NT. They deal with more immediate local topics, include more names and commendations and little meaty theology or commentary. Still, they offer an interesting window into the REAL early church. And what does one find? I think I would have to answer that by saying, “Not what I was told I would find.”.

One narrative I heard often in my childhood was that the early church, planted by the original apostles was pure and vibrant and deeply Christ-centered. The nationalization of the church under Constantine was the thing that screwed everything up and spawned dysfunctional Roman Catholicism. Only in the Protestant Reformation did we “get back basics” about what the gospel was really about.

OK, so surely these early writings (from and to people who actually sat under the original apostles personally, or whose parents did at least) would reveal some of what these unadulterated “basics” looked like, right? One might assume so. So what do all these letters talk about? Justification? Nope. Substitutionary atonement? Not really. Sola fide? Most definitely not – moral imperatives abound (avoid fornication, idol worship, don’t listen to heretics, etc.). Sola scriptura? Don’t be silly – though much of the NT cannon is known (the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters are frequently quoted), other parts are missing completely (almost nobody had heard of John’s gospel yet for example). What about hip authoritarian-free house churches? Nope, none of those either. The most frequent admonishment is for submission to the bishop(!).

Worshiping and studying in the pentecostal tradition during my years in college, a key part of the story was that the early church was full of miracles. Healings and prophecy abounded as a highly regular and normal part of church life. The exercise of spiritual gifts died out in later centuries as we replaced dependence on God with philosophy, overly sophisticated theology, and simple unbelief. OK, so surely these early letters might mention divine healing somewhere – how could they not? Nope. It’s nowhere too be found. Just more admonitions to listen to the clergy, refrain from fighting with other Christians, and to not be too greedy for money. The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp includes some miracles, but it’s certainly the exception, not the rule. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and they pointed out that despite all the miracles in Acts, a period of 30 years is covered, so maybe they weren’t that terribly common to begin with. The time compression one experiences when reading Acts can often go unnoticed I think.

So my initial reaction, judging from just these early 1st century writings, is that much of what I had been taught about the early church were largely projections of what contemporary thinkers assumed, wished, or hoped it had really been like. What was is really like though? Nobody knows of course, but there is scant evidence to support many of the popular narratives, regardless of which tradition you are from.

What IS frequently spoken of though that still matters incredibly much today? The veracity of the resurrection. Jesus Christ really DID come back from the dead. Not pretend, not spiritually, not mythically, but in a new blow-up-the-world way – anastasis. This much is certain and emphasized again and again. Everything else flows from that. Everything known from the law and prophets of Judiasm only INFORMS us of the person of Jesus and the main thing he did (which wasn’t teach!), but die and be raised by the Father. As long as we, the church today, continue to focus on THAT and not brush it aside, then we really WILL be like the early church in a big way.