Is Early Necessarily Better?

Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church. But the earliest is not always the best. It is also true ideas develop over time.  Sometimes the earliest form is simpler or more pure, but not necessarily better than the more mature forms.  While I might be nostalgic for my first computer, I am not really willing to go back to using a Commodore 64.

The argument Acts ought to be normative for church involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine. Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and later Christians who seriously thought through who Jesus was and what he did on the cross.

Never Live in Good Old DaysThe book of Acts describes a development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely Gentile missionary movement. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul establishes in Corinth or Ephesus. Nowhere does Paul suggest Gentile believers live a life of voluntary poverty. In fact, he tells the church at Thessalonica to work hard to avoid being dependent on anyone (1 Thess 4:11; 2 Thess 3:6-12). The later New Testament documents have no system for appointing new apostles. There are few people who consistently apply the “earlier is better” thinking. No one should use Ananias and Sapphira as an example of what happens to poor givers to the church!

In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine. By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea. There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.

We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.  Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit! Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.

The book of Acts becomes the beginning point of a trajectory from the first moments of the church to present practice. What are practices which “develop” from Acts, through the epistles and through Church history? Is there any danger to clinging too tenaciously to “church tradition”?

5 thoughts on “Is Early Necessarily Better?

  1. Dear Phillip,
    Thank you for this thought inspiring post. I never studied the growing of the practices and customs or even the understanding of the Gospel in Acts. Your post puts a challenge in front of me.
    God bless.

  2. Often times I read through books on “new” Christianity and it seems to be a call back to the old. Now I for one do not miss the start of the church were in people are trying to kill me. As profound as the people who wish for us to go back are, I don’t see that being what God wants for us. The push back comes from a over done church service from today that seems stale and unauthentic, and people yearn for true experience. True experiences are out there to be had, but one doesn’t need to look to acts solely to find it. many good believers have given there lives to Jesus all the way without going into poverty.

  3. According to a class I took with Dr. Loverin, theology, and thus, the church, are made up of three different sources; these being reason, tradition, and experience. The illustration was a venn diagram, showing that we need to have a good balance of each of these, or they become dangerous. Trying to hold onto “the good old days”, or old church traditions, over other parts of theology, can lead to problems in the church. If we spend too much time trying to mimic the early church and hold strongly to their traditions, these traditions could become more important than the scriptures. These traditions could become our object of worship instead of God. So, no, I do not necessarily believe that mimicking the early church traditions is better and more pure than today’s, but I also do not believe that we should just ignore them. We can take them and learn from them, and create our own traditions, using the scriptures as guidance.

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