I have a problem with anything that resembles organized religion. By organized religion, I do not mean the opposite of confused. Rather, I am referring to churches that function by the traditions and decrees of men. Even with that definition, I have to hasten to add that not all tradition is bad and not everything that organized religious institutions do is wrong. It is not the purpose of this article to condemn and castigate, but rather to encourage the reader to think about what it will take to get people back to a working faith that has meaning and really motivates them to do anything.
The Bible presents Christianity as a way of life. When I read about the First Century Church in the Bible, I see people who met together on a daily basis. I am impressed by the fact that their worship and their conduct seems to have been free of formality, objects of a physical nature, and ritualism. I do not see any evidence that they used church buildings, that there was a set-and-prescribed order in which things had to be done or that the load of dealing with personal problems among the members fell on one person called a preacher. When a congregation began to do things like this, they immediately got into problems. The congregation in Corinth got into all kinds of problems because they began playing politics and social handball among their members. Notice the description given:
My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another "I follow Cephas"; still another "I follow Christ." --1 Corinthians 1:11-12(NIV)
It is not my purpose in this discussion to suggest that every group of Christians who owns a church building should sell it, nor is it my purpose to say that having a comfortable order to our worship service is something that has to be changed. What I am trying to get the reader to do is to think about what it must have been like to be a member of a congregation of Christians during the first century.
It appears that the First Century Church met in people's homes for their worship. It appears that their services were varied and constantly changing as different speakers came through the community and different needs were addressed. During the week, there were daily meetings of Christians from house to house. They ate their meals together, shared their resources, talked about their struggles and problems, and each held the other person in higher esteem than themselves (Philippians 2:3). I am sure that this is an idealized picture. There are plenty of indications in the Scripture that they had their disagreements and falling outs. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, specifically addresses a personality conflict among two Christian women in the congregation who were both great workers. The First Century Church was not heaven; it had problems and conflicts just as we do and always will.
The problem is that, as time has gone by, all of Christendom has tended to drift toward the practices and techniques of the secular world in which we live. We have tended to want to have a figurehead in charge who can be both the hero and the scapegoat of our own successes or frustrations. Just as we have a president of our country and a captain of our football team, we want a figurehead of our religious identity. The picture is similar to ancient Israel wanting a king like everyone else had. In the Catholic church, this person has been the Pope. In most denominations, that person has been labeled the preacher. Special clothing has even been given to this person so that he can be identified. We have heaped so much praise and adoration on the more successful of our religious figureheads that they have been able to turn their identity into a power base to make large amounts of money and, in some cases, special recognition of a political nature.
I do not believe that there is any major religious group that identifies itself as Christian in any way that has not, to one extent or another, been affected by this drifting away from what the First Century Church was all about. The religious figurehead is so attractive that now the question of whether everyone should have the right to gain its prestige and power is getting into our laws, and there is a high probability that the courts are going to step in and say that everyone, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, etc., must be given equal opportunity to acquire this religious figurehead position. I am well aware of the dangers of allowing the state to get into religion in any way, and I am not advocating that the state should dictate who should be in our pulpits, but I am saying that we have invited the intrusion by making the stereotype of what the preacher is so attractive that even people in the world recognize it as desirable. The preachers that I read about in the Bible were not people who lived a lifestyle that attracted world desire and attention. From John the Baptist to Christ to the Apostles to Timothy, we see men whose drive and desire enabled them to tolerate a very difficult work. They frequently supplied their own needs and worked selflessly to help everyone that they came in contact with in a spiritual way. Political causes and issues of the state were not their primary concern.
Perhaps it is time for those of us who believe that the Bible is the Word of God to go back to a pattern that is more like what the First Century Church used. Maybe owning church buildings should not be a high priority--especially in places where the cost is so large that it straps the mission and benevolent programs of the local congregation to the point where only the edifices of the congregation are being maintained. Perhaps the men and women who are supported by congregations should be those who do the work with those in need, and the pulpit preaching should be done by those in the congregation or area who support themselves and are not financially supported by the congregation. Perhaps leadership needs to come from the elders and not from paid title-bearing people who become the figureheads of the congregation.
The Church of the first century functioned within a political system that was barbaric, harsh, cruel, atheistic, and oppressive. Because of the organization and function of the Church, it grew and prospered as it never has since. As our country and our society stampede toward a system similar to ancient Rome and Christians become the most hated and despised of all people on the earth, we may be forced to restore the practice and methods of the First Century Church. Perhaps we will then have evangelists because we will realize that we do not really need preachers.
--John N. Clayton
Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Jul/Aug97.