Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
“If we could only be like the church in Acts – those were the good ‘ol days!”
I have heard these words from others and they have come from my lips as well. But I dare say that these words are often said in ignorance. Certainly the Early Church ought to be a paragon to all Christians of how to behave in a churchly manner.
Yet, on the flip side, there are several problems that many of us making this claim fail to think about.
1) The Early Church had significant problems
The early church was not simply a place of explosive church growth, though this did occur (cf. Acts 2:41, 47; etc.). The Early Church was also a place where significant strife, explicit Satanic attacks, divisions, heresies and daily problems occurred, to name a few. The Early Church certainly grew in spite of these problems, but this is owing to the grace of God and less to the ingenuity of men, though the latter cannot be ruled out.
Many who critique the modern church do so in light of the Early Church. They almost deify the Early Church, as if it were itself the Heavenly Jerusalem coming down from the clouds. In doing so, they do not pay attention to the fact that nearly all of the the epistles (i.e., letters: Romans – Revelation) were primarily written to struggling churches and Christians (with maybe Ephesians and Philippians as an exception). Not one of these letters assumes that the “Early Church” is how it ought to organize itself
Wisdom tells us that to look on the past as though it were this idealized portion of time in which there were no struggles (or very few at that) and people were experiencing tremendous prosperity is highly reductionistic and ignorant. Though there are certainly periods of time in which blessing as been poured out in more significant manners, such as the Great Awakenings, the Reformation, or one may look to the period of king David and Solomon, yet this must still be balanced. Even Solomon, for all the tremendous blessing that God poured out on him and Israel during that period, made many foolish and destructive decisions that would lead ultimately to a division of the kingdom and the destruction of Israel, Judah and Jerusalem.
The Early Church certainly must serve as our example, but it must not serve as our idol. We must avoid thinking that it itself was “Thee Church”, and that since then God has departed and left his church to meander through a maze of malcontent, division and destruction. The gates of Hell will not prevail against God’s church. Though Satan may do his very best to undo her foundation and to hide her glory, Christ’s victory has clearly established that the Church will grow in spite of her struggles and problems, simply because it is Christ himself who said, “I will build my church.”
2) The modern church has as much of the Spirit of God as they did back then
This is probably the more dangerous form of ignorance that is being circulated today, though unknowingly. What many fail to understand is that the Holy Spirit indwells Christ’s church as much today as it did on the day of Pentecost. Though some may argue to the contrary and that we need a “second experience of grace (or Holy Spirit)”, such a position is hardly sustainable upon further investigation.
Because we have the Holy Spirit today, it is God himself indwelling his church that gives it its power and authority. Implicit within an assumption that the “Early Church” is the ideal is that they have something that we don’t have. It may certainly be said that the Early Church had clear exercises of God’s grace and surely manifested these in powerful ways, but we must not therefore conclude that they had something that we don’t have today. This is not to say that there are not problems within our churches and that we are manifesting the work of God in our churches in the same way that the Early Church did. There are certainly significant things that the Church must devote her attention to that are being neglected. But history will bear witness that these are not uncommon, as if it were only today the churches were filled with people who were of false professions of faith or lived contrary to the gospel they received.
The New Testament bears witness that undergirding the Church is Spirit of Christ. This has remained a constant since the church’s inception. We must not fail to address, confront, discipline and correct the errors that are so prevalent among the church today. We also must look to what the church fathers did in establishing the church and their manner of establishing and growing Christ’s church. Wisdom teaches us to look at the joys, gains, and blessings of past times, and to be grateful and pursue such things. But Wisdom also teaches us that we must not look upon those things through a fog that neglects the struggles and travails that also occurred during those times.