We tend to think that the Christian church, like a mountain stream, is purer at its source; the closer we get to the churches planted by the apostles, the closer we get to “real Christianity.”
This intuition is destroyed when we look at the data. The apostolic churches were far from perfect. In fact, they were rife with problems. Think about it: if you had been part of the first church in Corinth, how long would you have stayed?
Paul’s messy churches
To begin with, the atmosphere at that church was bristling with competition driven by arrogance. People were clustering under the banners of various personalities. One group claimed to be followers of Paul. Another contingent was enamored with Apollos. Still another faction rallied around the name of Peter. The group that had the most convincing motto (“We’re the Christ-followers!”) was not actually any different from the others. For them, “Christ” became a just a party platform to boost their own status.
But this was just the beginning of the problems. Their worship services were chaotic. They were smug about their toleration of a member’s incestuous relationship. Some people were teaching that the resurrection had already occurred. When they observed the Lord’s supper, some would go away hungry and humiliated, while others would stumble home bloated and inebriated.
One thing is clear: Paul didn’t plant perfect churches. He planted problem churches: communities of redeemed, but still sinful people (just like us) struggling to live out their identity in Christ. In fact, it was the problems of these churches that occasioned many of the New Testament epistles.
The timeless key to healthy churches
If Paul had planted perfect churches, we might have the mistaken notion that the power for healthy churches died with the apostles, and that the best we can do now is to try to get back to the model of those early churches. In reality, however, the “power” for healthy churches and healthy Christians is just as alive today as He was in the first century. As Paul himself put it: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
The New Testament reveals that the solution for moving Christians and their churches from to spiritual health does not depend the personality and dynamism of their pastors. Instead, the key is the faithful and rigorous application of the person and work of Christ to every aspect of life. Not even 2,000 years can separate us from that solution, since Christ himself has said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
By listening carefully to the logic of the New Testament epistles, we discover how this Christ-centered solution plays out in the concrete realities of Christian living. How can two bickering women overcome their differences? By agreeing in the Lord (Philippians 4:2). How can we possibly forgive those who wrong us? By remembering that God, for Christ’s sake forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). What resistance do we have against the temptation of immorality? By bearing in mind that, as redeemed people, we belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). What will motivate us to work hard, even when our boss isn’t looking? By doing our work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” since we ultimately “serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:22-24). How can we find comfort in affliction? By fixing our hope on Christ whose suffering was the pathway to comfort and triumph (2 Corinthians 1:5-7).
If we entertain the notion that going back to the apostolic days of the church—or any other era in church history—would solve the problems of our churches, we miss an important reality. We already have the answer. His name is Jesus. Now we just need to live accordingly.