Most discussions of church practices or ideas have this "appeal to the primitive church" aspect to them. Preachers or authors present their ideas and cite instances from the Bible to show that, indeed, the "early church" had the same idea. Or entire movements may cite certain problems with the modern church and call for "restoring the early church."
I'm all for learning and understanding the Bible and the early church. But there are some serious considerations that must be made about this whole topic of primitivism. This article seeks to address some of these concerns. It is hardly the "final word" on the topic; it is my hope that reading this educates you to issues related to primitivism that are not often discussed.
Most appeals to primitivism have unstated presumptions about the early church. While these sound like they could be true, they are in fact not true.
The first myth is the idea that the church was monolithic. This means that all churches believed and did the same things, it arises from the idea that the early church followed Jesus and the apostles, and they were all taught the same things. This gives rise to a method of handling Scripture that harmonizes different accounts from different places. Instead of believing that different biblical churches did certain things, this ends up saying all biblical churches did all of the things that any of them did.
Let's illustrate with an example. The early Jerusalem church met daily in their homes and in the temple courts (Acts 2:46). Some have suggested that, on this basis, all churches today ought to meet every day. Other have suggested because the "early Christians" "went to church" everyday, Christians today should not complain when told to "go to church" more than once a week.
Now consider the Corinthian church. Is there any evidence they met together every day? No.It seems that they met on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2).
Does this mean the Corinthians were fallen because they did not "meet as often" as the early Jerusalem church? No.
The New Testament church was not monolithic. Different churches did different things at different times, certainly due to their circumstances and needs, and probably for other reasons as well. In efforts to find and follow a "pattern" of the early church, people often separate the practices of certain early churches from their circumstances. This is not a legitimate way to handle the Scriptures.
The second myth about the early church is that its actions are normative and are meant for all Christians for all time and circumstances. I have a favorite story I heard from somebody somewhere to illustrate this point. There was a woman who always chopped the tip off the end of the steak before putting it into the oven. One day her observant daughter asked why she always did it. The woman said she did not know exactly why she did it, but she did it because her mother always did it. So at the next family gathering, the woman and her daughter found Grandma and asked why she did this. Grandma replied, "I cut the meat so it would fit in the pan I was using." There was a reason behind the action; without that reason the action was misunderstood.
As context matters in biblical interpretation, context matters in understanding church practices discussed in the Bible. We must endeavor to know not just what the early Christians did, but why they did it. For example, some might argue that having a church building is wrong because the early church often met in homes. But does the New Testament say that church buildings are wrong, or does it only say where some early churches met? Didn't they meet in temple courts and rented facilities too? So why did early Christians meet as they did? Perhaps they met in houses often because they were available; perhaps they met in houses because God really wanted it that way from the beginning. Those who oppose church buildings and advocate house churches have great points about how the church is affected by this, but did God really want all Christians for all time to meet in houses only? If so, then why did some churches meet in other places?
The point is this: the early church did what it did, but that doesn't necessarily give that example the force of Biblical commands. It might also be an example of what the church could do. And it doesn't mean that what they did was always right. This provides a nice transition into another myth.
The last myth I'd like to raise here is the idea that the early church was perfect. People appealing to primitivistic arguments often cite "problems" in the church today and seem to think that the early church was perfect. It wasn't. As the failings of the apostles are freely discussed in the gospel, the failings of the early church are discussed elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul's harshness towards John Mark. The anti-Gentile bias of certain Jewish Christians, not the least of which was Peter. Some insisting that Gentile Christians be circumcised. Others who became lazy because they completely misunderstood what the "coming" of the Lord entailed or took advantage of the generosity of other Christians.
Going to the house church example, perhaps house churches helped the fellowship of the church be more intimate. But perhaps it contributed to resentments between the rich and the poor that were known in the church (James 2:1). Perhaps it helped the church be more organic, but perhaps it also led to corruptions in leadership (ref. 3 John 1:10).
It is naive to think that the early church somehow had this pristine set of beliefs and practices and had no problems, and "by golly, if only the modern church just would be like them we'd have a perfect church too." But there never has been a problem-less church. Not only are all of its members sinners (1 John 1:8), it had unmet needs and a myriad of other problems. But it was still the Body of Christ.
Those who seek to restore the early church in some way or another usually have something specific in mind. However- those with this inkling rarely agree with each other! For example, some want to restore early church structure and doctrine, others seek to restore early church lifestyle, others early church gifts of the Holy Spirit, still others an early church counterculture world view. Still others seek to restore continuity with the apostles through a chain of leadership. And there's more-- restoring other supposed aspects of first-century culture (avoiding modern things, shunning city life, etc.).
We might shake our heads about fundamentalists in other religions who want to keep the world in the middle ages, but Christians who want to establish aspects of first-century culture in the modern church are more like them than they'd care to admit. Is the first century culture the only standard, canonical, legitimate culture for all people of all times? Can't the truth of the gospel and the spirit of Christ live in our century too?
The point is that the things to be restored to "the way they were in the first century" are based upon one's perceptions of the failings of the contemporary church and one's perceptions of the primitive church. As a result of this "picking and choosing," primitivism means different things to different people-- it is extremely sensitive to the circumstances of the one doing the restoring. It is not as dissociated from history, unbiased, nor pure as it sounds.
Primitivism cannot adequately handle time or history. The most primitive church (Jerusalem, Acts 2) had not yet experienced history, yet it grew out of its own primitivism without falling away. The early church held to one primitive gospel (Galatians 1:6ff), but clearly grew or matured in its structure (ecclesiology) and thought (theology). That primitive gospel is legitimate not because it is primitive, but because it is true. By contrast, the pure primitivist impulse denies the opportunity for growth in structure and thought beyond the designated primitive model.
The New Testament church experienced all sorts of changes away from its more primitive forms, and none of these were considered a falling-away. The church was initially led by apostles. But missionaries and itinerant preachers arose. In time local leadership could take control over local churches. The church started out with only Jews, but in time Gentiles were added to the mix. The church started out in a Jewish context and culture, yet in time found itself in the Greek and Roman cultures. Through these and other changes, it adapted accordingly.
The ideal of primitivism doesn't know what to do with growth and maturity. It requires that growth and maturity stop at a certain point in time.
Perhaps discussing biblical metaphors for the church can help us here. The church is likened to both a building (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, Ephesians 2:21) and a body (Colossians 1:18,24). Bodies start out as helpless embryos, are given birth, go through various stages of childhood and then various stages of adulthood. The members of the body go through various stages of development. How silly it would be to tell any person having a problem they just need to be like an embryo or revert to some previous stage! But this is what primitivism does.
Similarly, a building that is brand new has no fixtures, furnishings or decor (such as paint or landscaping). In time, these appear and the building becomes more useful. Is such a building really not as good as one without those things? Do we fix buildings by restoring them to their pristine, post-construction stage? But primitivism insists that buildings remain as though they were newly constructed. Some movements even deliberately "tear down" everything to get to this stage again! (Hey, if you want to tear down everything, how about tearing down the leadership structure that led to all of the problems you claim to be fixing? 😀).
Primitivism looks attractive to those fed up with aspects of the modern church. But it has a way of invalidating the church at a certain point down the road in its own history, condemning itself for its lack of primitivism, demanding that what it has become be thrown away and replaced with a new primitive version of itself. And they keep doing this over and over again because their model of the church allows for nothing else.
Some tend to view the bible as the constitution for the church. I've seen it taught that the church is built on the Bible (since it is built on Jesus 1 Corinthians 3:11, who is the "word of God"). But metaphors can't be mixed. The church existed long before the New Testament did. The early church didn't use the New Testament as a constitution for itself, because it didn't exist yet.
I've never heard a primitivist suggest we get rid of the New Testament, but the early church didn't have the New Testament, so why not get rid of it? I'm not suggesting that we get rid of it; I'm only illustrating how inconsistent and inadequate some of these primitivist ideas are.
The Protestant world tends to linger on the Bible too much. Historically, they reacted to Roman Catholicism, in which the Bible was more or less inaccessible to the church. But now we study the Bible, a sermon has become the centerpiece of most church meetings, Bible study has become a "spiritual discipline" and something used to measure spiritual growth and sometimes even faithfulness itself ("How have your quiet times been?" is the first question many Christians ask someone who is "struggling.")
We study the Bible looking for patterns to follow, patterns to debunk, and patterns to trump other patterns. We pursue the nth degree of restoration nobody else has yet attained. That's Christian living? That's the gospel? That's something the "earliest Christians" spent their energies on? Did Jesus bring us a perfect pattern that demands flawless adherance, or did he save us from such things?
Primitivism has a place in that it is useful to unstand what the early church did and believed.
But primitivism also has many problems. There are a myriad of unspoken assumptions about the primitivist impulse that are rooted in myths. Primitivism has a way of canonizinng things that were not intended to be canonized. It looks appealing, but the closer one looks the less appealing it is. And it has this way becoming all-consuming in a very unhealthy way.
By all means-- let's study the Bible and understand its context and meaning. Sure, pay attention to what the early church was like. But this whole pursuit must be kept in perspective.
The early Christians were far more concerned about trusting God, rejoicing in his blessings, loving one another, and spreading this message than chasing after the wind of primitivism. May we consider the New Testament appropriately and have the kinds of lives and churches God has truly intended for us.