Recently I read a book that said that the modern church is broken, and we need to get back to how the first Century church did things. Our weekly meetings should be how they did it then. Our sacraments and worship should be like theirs. Our leadership should be like their leadership.
The problem with that, of course, is that we know next to nothing about how the first Century church did things. We don’t have any descriptions of their regular meetings. The sermons we have related to us were all unusual circumstances, not the weekly practices. We have no recipes for their rites or worship beyond a few corrective statements to the Corinthians about how not to do it. No guides for how they lead their community, beyond a few qualifications delivered to Timothy and Titus. The picture we have is spotty at best, and in some areas where we’d particularly like to know the specifics the picture is missing entirely. So, lacking a good picture, we fill in the gaps with our imaginations and then push for the church to return to that Golden Age when the church got it.
The problem with wanting to go back to the Golden Age, as a recent article by Marc Cortez points out, is that There Was No Golden Age. The history of the church is full of people with failings just like ours. The dynamics of groups of people getting together have not changed. People are people, and they have been for all of human history.
This was highlighted further by the recent discussion on the web about Propaganda’s recent song “Precious Puritans.” If you listen to the track (and it is worth listening to) you will miss the point entirely unless you listen to the end. The puritans participated in the barbarity that was American slavery. It is hard to reconcile the writings of the men of that time that show so much spiritual Biblical insight in many places, with participation in such evil practices as slavery. The answer, of course, is where Propaganda’s lyrics take us: “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.”
Every period of church history is full of Christians who are still living here on this Earth, in this Age, struggling with the painful reality of the flesh to which we are still bound. Or, as Propaganda put it, “There’s not one generation of believers that figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action.” Or as Paul put it, “Wretched man that I am, who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So, then, on one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”
Reading the epistles makes it clear that the first century church was not without its struggles. Divisions, sexual sin, bickering and petty disputes, discrimination, drunkenness and gluttony… the individual people and the community of the church in the first century were flawed. All of us are saved by grace through faith, from Pentecost until Jesus returns.
When we gather humans together, we will have all of the issues of humanity gathered. People will try to control who have no business leading. People will try to teach who have no business teaching. Others who have been called to teach and lead will hold back, resisting the call of the Spirit of God. It is the way it is because human nature is what it is, and the church is made of humans.
The solution is not to look at new models, to look for ways to reimagine how it should be, or go back to how it was in the Golden Age. There isn’t anything at all wrong with self examination from time to time. Sometimes habits get in our way, and we should break them. Sometimes as part of our fallen nature we elevate religion and religious practice to the place in our hearts and minds that only God should be. A challenge to look at what we do and why is a healthy thing. We’re always better off when our idols are toppled and our high places cleared.
But the answer isn’t in how we order our services, or how we gather, or the style of singing (or lack of singing), or the method of teaching. The answer is in Christ Jesus himself. Not in some abstract fuzzy sense, but in His person. We come to know him and we pursue relationship with Him through what He has revealed in His Word, and illuminated in our hearts by His Spirit, and through our belief that is lived out in active trust and submission to Him as our Lord.
Then we step forward into His work, which He has prepared beforehand for us to walk in with Him. Whether the group you are in is large or small, casual or liturgical, modern or traditional doesn’t really matter. What matter’s for the church is Him, His Gospel, His work in our lives and His calling and purpose for us. The churches that are failing (not necessarily in numbers and popularity, but failing in their mission) are failing because they are missing Christ and the Gospel.
You are not perfect. I am not perfect. God uses crooked sticks. Whenever I look in the mirror I’m amazed that He would want a relationship with me at all, much less want to work through me, much less die for me. I’m as crooked a stick as any, awed by Christ and astounded His grace.
Let’s stop straightening up the edges and dive into the substance. God is still calling crooked sticks. If you are on the sidelines spotting the flaws in how other people are responding to God’s calling on their lives, get out of your seat and into the race. It is the only one worth running, because He is the only God worth serving.