The First Century Church - A Model for Today
One hundred and twenty believers in the Messiah Jesus were gathered together in unity, obediently following the Lord's instructions to "wait for the promise of the Father... For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days from now "- Acts 1:4,5.
This first church of less than two hundred disciples was the tiny mustard seed and the leaven described in Jesus' parables (Matthew 13:31,33) that would ultimately expand the kingdom of God, becoming a multitude of people that eventually covered the known world with the presence of God operating through them by His Holy Spirit.
The first century church was born in simplicity and was nurtured through the ministry of the apostles and the prophets. Fifty years after the original leadership died out (the last apostle to die was John whose death at one hundred years marked the end of the apostolic age) the prophesied apostasy gradually began to slither its way into the church.
Apostasy begins when the words of men override God's words and man's words are accepted above the word of God. As the years began to slip by and the church followed the pathway of time into the future, apostasy gradually became her companion in the journey and a reformation was required to try and bring her back to her first century simplicity. That reformation was initially instigated by Martin Luther which resulted in a massive church split. The reformation was not one hundred per cent successful, but it did provoke the church that had emerged from the ashes of the Roman empire to eventually reform herself in some areas.
As we look at the church today in both camps, Protestant and Catholic, can we honestly say that either of them have any resemblance to that thriving Holy Spirit led living body of the Lord Jesus that graced the first hundred years of church history? I don't think so. That is my opinion based on Scripture, what I have observed and some knowledge of church history.
The church of Jesus Christ today in many places, while maintaining a form of what was instigated in those early years is wallowing in an apostasy that has been accepted as the " new normal" through the deceptions of this present age.
To rectify this situation, there is currently a movement within certain segments of the Christian church to restore the ministry of the apostles and the prophets. This is a good thing, but we must keep in mind that the day and age in which this movement is beginning is also prophesied as the time of a great falling away from the faith and an age of spiritual deceptions. Jesus warned us that the time preceding His return would be rampant with false prophets and messiahs -"And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Matthew 24:11,24).
Therefore any attempt to restore the church to her original first century model must be done with this in mind; accompanied by fervent dedication to God's word, what it actually says and not someone's opinion of what it says. If Christians today do not have a solid knowledge of what the Bible teaches and they do not compare what they are hearing with the word of God, then they are candidates for deception.
I remember talking to a friend that had been indoctrinated with man's opinion of the word. When I showed her what the Scriptures taught that specifically contradicted what she had been learned, she looked at God's actual words, shook her head and said, "Oh, no, that's wrong."
I thought, "Oh, no, this is scary." When this happens, my friends, when man's words take precedence over God's words, the church, no matter what denomination or affiliation, is in apostasy, or on its way.
Unfortunately, the charismatic camp that had indoctrinated my friend, is part of the movement that is busily trying to restore the leadership of the church through the spirit-filled ministry of the apostles and the prophets. Many elements within this camp have succumbed to the influence of the Jezebel spirit, sadly without being aware of the deception.
I believe that it is the will of God to see His bride, His church, restored to her first century brilliance. And I believe that within this movement there is and will be a remnant that will be functioning in accordance with the first century model; a peaceful yet powerful body of believers operating by God's instructions like the calm eye within a twisting storm of a church spinning in apostasy. This remnant will minister amid its counterfeit counterpart and stand out among them as Jezebel's nemesis by their unwavering devotion to Jesus and the purity of God's word and His Spirit as their guides.
The original apostles were church planters and overseers of the Lord's flock, and the prophets operated as their assistants. Both offices served as servants to the church following Jesus' example and teaching that - "he that is greatest among you shall be your servant" (Matthew 23:11). An attitude of genuine humility is one of the characteristics that designates a genuine apostle or prophet from a counterfeit.
To those first century servants of the church, maintaining God's people in sound doctrine was of primary importance. No one who professes to be a devout follower of Jesus Christ, can downplay the importance of the word of God in their lives. If they are truly being led by God's Spirit, then the pure word of God will be foremost in the promotion of any church restoration, no exceptions.
The Catholic church views itself as "apostolic" and there are also elements within the Protestant camp that also describes itself as apostolic. The dictionary defines the word apostolic as those who are followers of Jesus and His apostles; therefore, anyone who is truly following Jesus and His apostles is apostolic.
It is the goal of any genuine apostle to guide and maintain the church in her apostolic calling. This is the true definition of any "apostolic reformation." It is not about manufacturing apostles, its all about making people apostolic by shepherding them into a pure faith based upon the Scriptures and discipling them into the image of Christ. Sadly, many who are professing to be "apostolic" are not being directed by the pure word of God.We are guided by the Holy Spirit, we live by the word of God for - man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds of the mouth of God - Matthew 4:4.
The Old Testament was founded upon the scriptures that were given to Moses and the prophets by direct revelations from God. Moses and the prophets were handpicked by God for establishing The LORD'S word to His people. Likewise, The New Testament scriptures were also initiated by direct revelation from God through the Messiah Jesus to His chosen Holy Apostles. In turn their revelations were also founded upon the Messiah's words which were God's words (John 14:10), the Torah and the prophets. No latter day "divine revelation" or "tradition" can be considered to be on an equal level with those whom God had chosen to be the foundations of His church.
Someone has said that when the church is in apostasy the truth becomes heretical. The historical record we have verifies this fact as we read about the horrific persecutions that were inflicted upon Christians by other professed "Christians" who were more concerned about maintaining allegiance to an organization than to the Lord Jesus.
The true church of Jesus Christ has never been, nor ever will be an organization. The church is comprised of people who are united by faith in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). This is the clearest and most accurate definition of the Christian church.
As we look back from where we are standing upon this present pinnacle of time, we can see the flames of the Holy Spirit birth the first century church in her fiery embrace. The church of today that claims to be the direct descendant of this first anointing sadly bears no resemblance to the church God established within the fires of His Spirit.
In the first century church people were allowed to contribute freely to the service - How is it then, brethren? when you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, (teaching) has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (I Cor. 14:26). Most church services today forbid this kind of interaction by an over structured atmosphere of ritualized formality.
Many misconceptions about what the first century church was really like was perpetuated through a fraudulent book that was published in 857 AD known as the "Pseudo-Isadore Decretals." This document was basically a fabrication of church history that also contained fictitious statements by famous church "fathers" like Augustine, that were used to dupe people into thinking that the apostate church of that age was the way it was supposed to be and the way it had always been.The Decretals became part of the foundation of the Catholic canon law and even though the book has been proven to be a fraud, the canon of the Catholic church has never been changed to accommodate this fact. The Pseudo-Isadore Decretals is still being quoted today by some apologists of the Catholic church to affirm that their organization is the same as the first century prototype.
The works of Thomas Aquinas are also widely used and the bulk of his writings were based on the Decretals. He had no knowledge at that time that the Decretals were fraudulent.
The model for the first church is contained within God's word, and it is the model that God has expected His people to follow.
We observe from the book of Acts that records the church's infancy, that the leadership of that first church was plural. -
...and they continued steadfastly in the apostle's doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. - Acts 2:42
Among the twelve was a remnant within the leadership. The Apostle Paul notes that -James, Cephas (Peter), and John, who seemed to be pillars...Galatians 2:11.
These were the three men that were the closest to Jesus and were often singled out from the other disciples to accompany Him for specific ministry. They were obviously working equally together as a unit to help guide the church and assist the other apostles.
Plural leadership was ordained by God to be a check and balance system to protect the church from false doctrine and abusive leadership. The prophets were subject to one another (I Cor. 14: 29, 32), and the church would function with plural leaderships in these categories - And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors (Greek - "shepherds") and teachers; (Ephesians 4:11).
Bishops were elders and served with the deacons of a church as mutual guides to shepherd and serve the Lord's flock. Their role was the equivalent of a pastor/shepherd and this is why the word bishop does not appear in the list from Ephesians 4:11. The Apostle Peter, who saw himself as an elder and equal with the elders of the church, in no way viewed himself as superior to them even though he was an apostle. He gave them this wise advice. - The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock (I Peter 5:2,3).
There were no "popes" at that time. The word pope means father. Jesus taught specifically to "...call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven (Matthew 23:9). He was referring to church leadership. God tells us that He wants His people to call Him Father (Jeremiah 3:19). As a title in Christianity it was reserved for God alone. The early church obeyed this command. There was one Father God and Jesus His "vicar" or representative, who is God's image (Colossians 1:15) and our one High Priest (Hebrews 2:17, 3:1, 4:14, 15). There were no intermediaries inserted between the Lord Jesus and the believer. People prayed to God directly in the name of Jesus.
In the Old Testament the priests served as intermediaries between God and the people. Once a year the priest would enter the Holy of Holies,( the place where God's presence resided), and make atonement for the people by the blood of animal sacrifice. When Jesus was sacrificed for our sins once for all time (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:10) the foot thick veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the inner court was rent in two (Matthew 27:51) removing the barrier that had figuratively separated God from His people. Because of Jesus, all who believe have access to God's Holy Presence. We can come directly to God through our high priest Jesus (who is one with the Father, John 10:30) without being blocked from this relationship by any intermediaries. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need - Hebrews 4:16.
It seems that that there are many today who are trying to re-instigate that barrier between God and His people. Servitude to any religious organization is not a substitute for an intimate, personal relationship with God.
Because the Levitical priesthood had been changed (Hebrews 7:12) Jesus was made the one and only high priest over the church, God's house (Hebrews 10:21).
God told Moses that it was His desire for all of His people to be priests - And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Moses must have wondered how that could be when God said only those from the tribe of the Levites were permitted to minister before Him in the holy order of the priesthood. Was God contradicting Himself? No, He was prophesying of that time when there would be a change in the priesthood which was fulfilled through Messiah Jesus. As we are followers of our one High Priest, the Lord Jesus, we become a royal priesthood and a chosen generation (I Peter 2:9) and we are admonished to walk worthy of our high calling in Christ (Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10.) We are ordained by God to be ambassadors of Christ (II Cor. 5:20), representing Him to those who as yet do not have a saving faith in Him.
Communion with God is made through Jesus who comes into us by His Holy Spirit establishing an intimate relationship with God in the believer. Through the ages as the church descended into apostasy, this relationship was replaced by "religion." Dependence upon church leadership slowly began to replace the fellowship God desires to have with His people. The simple purity of God's word was subjugated by the traditions of men and the flock that Jesus died to set free was once again brought under a spirit of bondage.
We can break those chains of man-made religion when we realize that the life giving words that were first spoken by the Apostles of that first century church have been recorded and are available to us now within the pages of God's holy word. These co-equal pillars of the faith, James, Peter and John are waiting for you to sit down and share some quiet time alone with them as you read. Jesus is there too, of course and the Apostle Paul. They are offering you everything you need to partake in that first century simplicity.
Copyright 2014 by H.D. Shively
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