At North Broad, one of our shepherds has been teaching a class called “Twenty-First Century Church” that is loosely based on a book by Rubel Shelly entitled The Second Incarnation. I was privileged to fill in for Gary one Sunday while he was out of town. During the class, I gave a few comments on the terms “First Century Church,” “New Testament Church,” and “Twenty-First Century Church.” I thought it would be helpful to some of you for me to share those thoughts here.
I think we need to make a big distinction between the expressions “First Century Church” and “New Testament Church.” Properly defining these two terms will help clarify a lot going further.
But first we need to talk about the church. What exactly is the church?
Well, the word church can mean different things depending on the context. Usually, people are talking about the building, or they are referring to a particular congregation. For example, when someone says, “Go by the Baptist church and take a right” they mean the building, but when they say, “I used to go to the Baptist church on main street, but now I attend the one on Broad” it sounds like they mean the building, but the emphasis is on the congregation.
But what does the Bible mean when it talks about the church?
Sometimes it’s talking about a normal assembly of people like in Acts 19. The mob there was called a church. Similarly, in Acts 7, Stephen, in one of the earlier mentions of the word church, uses the term to describe the congregation of Israel in the wilderness. In other instances, like in any of the opening passages in the epistles, the church is the assembly of saints meeting in one or several groups in a city or region (like the “churches of Judea” or the “churches of the Gentiles”). In rare occasions, the term is specifically referring to the assembly of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:19). And in other occasions, the church is identified as the entire body of Christ composed of believers out of every nation, gender, tongue, and class.
So, what’s the difference between the First Century Church and the New Testament Church, and why is that a big deal?
In the Churches of Christ, when we hear “First Century Church,” our minds go back to the church in its “purity” and “infancy.” We typically think of a church who had it all figured out, performed worship according to a pattern, and spoke the same thing. Of course, when we read the New Testament, they were just as divided, if not more, than what we are today, which is kind of the point I’m trying to make. There is a difference in wanting to be the church of the First Century and desiring to be a New Testament Church.
If we really sat down and thought through the conditions of the First Century Church, I think we would want to stay in our time. Think of the persecution, lack of technology, diseases like leprosy, and countless other comforts we enjoy that they had no access to. Do you really want to go back to that?
But to be the New Testament Church is to ask what God intended us to be at our very core: loving, patient, kind, tolerant, humble, and many other qualities Paul described when sorting out some of the problems prevalent in the First Century Church.
So when we talk about being the Twenty-First Century Church, we’re asking what does the New Testament Church look like in our time?
How might our advances in transportation, technology, and science assist in the work of the kingdom? In the first century, they had questions about modesty that had to do with gold, braided hair, and head coverings. How might we answer those same questions, or other questions, in our day?
As we move into 2022, we must also ask what the church looks like in the new year versus 2021. The Amish are a snapshot of the 17th century. We must ask if our church is a snapshot of the 1950s and 1960s, or if we can move into the future while maintaining our identity as the New Testament Church?
Now, if we make any changes, regardless of how subtle, in 2022, does that mean that we are anti-2021? Of course not. Instead, we know that we transcend beyond what we were in 2021 while including all of the good we may have picked up along the way. We do this as we age, add people to our social circles, and we even do this in our relationships. As we grow together, we bring with us all of the good while leaving behind whatever is no longer relevant or useful for our time.
For example, unlike the group of Amish people who do not use vehicles, we purchase new cars and trucks whenever we need to or are able. We don’t stick with a 1960s car (unless we like the style) because “if it was good enough for Meemaw, then it’s good enough for me.” Instead, we try to purchase a car which has improved safety features, can play music off of our phones, and has seat warmers. This doesn’t mean we are disrespectful towards, look down on, or forget about the memories we had riding in our grandparents automobiles, but we also know that while they may have good enough for them, that without their trials and errors, we wouldn’t have access to the vehicles we do today.
The same is true for traditions within the church. By traditions, I do not mean the things that make the church the church. Loving your neighbor and taking communion are timeless. By traditions I mean things that we do together that aren’t necessary to us being the church. These are things that we can change or even lose all together and still be the New Testament Church. For example, we might incorporate new songs into our worship, take advantage of technological advances like Zoom and live streams, and change the order or incidentals of worship like whether or not we stand up or sit down during communion.
At one point, congregations would use one or two cups for communion depending upon the size of the congregation. Then, when individual smaller cups were invented, churches started using those. People got mad, churches split, and there are still some today who will only use one cup, and they condemn everyone else who doesn’t. In this case the 19th century church, with their one or two cups, may look a little different from the 20th or 21st century church. Well, who is right? Both are the New Testament Church regardless of the number of cups they use. However, they cease being the New Testament church when they turn those traditions into commands and condemn those who disagree. In those instances, they become more like the First Century Church of Rome or Corinth who divided over opinions than like the New Testament Church who is to be patient, tolerant, and humble when dealing with differences of opinion.
So what we have to ask as we move into 2022 is what the church will look like in the new year? Will we be a snapshot of 2021 forever like the Amish are a snapshot of the 17th century, or will we move into the new year, embrace the changes it brings, and bringing with us the positive things we’ve picked up through the centuries?
We always need to strive to be the New Testament Church, but if we believe the gospel truly was ahead of its time and is still ahead of ours since none of us are perfect, then we need to be open to being led by the Spirit towards perfection, even if it means moving beyond 2021.