If you’re just getting started with church history, you might be wondering a couple of things:
1) Why do church history books often start telling their story with Jesus? Wasn’t he a Jew? Didn’t the
Jesus-followers only gain the name “Christians” after Jesus died (Acts 11:26)? So shouldn’t the story start after his death — once the church got going?
2) I can imagine how later things, like the Reformation, are relevant for our world; after all, we follow people like Martin Luther. But how is the very first century actually relevant for our church life today?
These are good questions, and you might be able to anticipate the answers. First, there are many churches today that pride themselves on being “biblical”; in many cases, that includes a certain simplicity in worship. Some churches emphasize charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues or the laying on of hands, precisely because those things were done in the early church and are a manifestation of God’s power. (Sometimes it’s also because they have not been done in most churches since then, and some folks have an ax to grind against history…) Other churches emphasize simple, “Bible-based” preaching, in part because that’s what we see in Acts. And still others reject elements from other denominations’ worship because those things are not found in the New Testament; examples here would include having priests/leaders who are commanded to be celibate, or using creeds in worship time, or praying to Mary.
In other words, if you are an American Christian — especially a Protestant one — it is relevant for you to know the story of the early church, because it probably impacts your church life more than you realize.
But the tradition I come from — a denomination called the “The Churches of Christ,” which is part of a larger movement often called “The Restoration Movement” (by insiders) or “The Stone-Campbell Movement” (by historians) — has a deeper connection with this impulse. In fact, from the very beginning, its leaders focused on “restoring” (hence the name) New Testament Christianity in a particular way — and not only in worship. The first leaders of the movement lived in the early 1800s, a time just after the American Revolution when there were many Christian denominations in the young America, and many of these denominations were divided in significant ways. They longed for a united Christianity, and they saw how so many efforts at unity had failed. Ultimately, some of these folks decided that the New Testament was the one thing on which all Christians could agree, and so they wanted to make all aspects of church life to be “according to the New Testament.”
Now, because of their social location and time period, that aim ultimately meant that this emphasis was focused in worship — in other words, worshiping as we seem to see it in the New Testament. While there has been debate about how to apply this principle in specific situations, it has been a hallmark of the Churches of Christ ever since. Sometimes it’s even led to strange statements on the part of Church-of-Christ folk — like the line that sometimes appears on church signs and cornerstones that reads “Established 33 AD.” But if you’ve ever wondered why Church-of-Christ worship regularly features musical worship without instruments, this is your answer. We don’t see it in the New Testament, and so most Churches of Christ don’t include it, either.
We will have many more posts on this blog about ways that church history is relevant for our day, but it’s important to remember that history’s influence on today’s churches goes back to the very beginning of the church. We truly are a people who have been shaped by 2000 years of history.
Image credits: http://images2.fanpop.com/images/photos/7400000/Jesus-A-Portrait-creative-for-christ-7417820-600-712.jpg and https://churchofchristandsocialmedia.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/coc.jpg (edited)