By Stuart Briscoe
I heard a lady recently say, “Why can’t we get along like they did in the Early Church?” Her desire for unity in the body of Christ was highly commendable, but her understanding of church history was way off target. We seem to have idealized the church of the First Century having overlooked much church life as recorded in Scripture. The most notorious example is found in the Corinthian correspondence where Paul despaired that he would ever see the church he had labored so hard for fulfill his vision to be a lighthouse to the whole region and far beyond.
I have no desire to hang out the dirty laundry of the Early Church, but Scripture records some of the struggles they experienced. Jesus was clearly concerned about this partly because he knew that when He left the 12 disciples they would become vulnerable to the attacks of the “world,” presided over by a malignant Evil One who was diametrically opposed to the purposes of God. So He prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17: 23).
Peter and his fellow apostles soon ran into problems related to the programs they had put in place to alleviate the suffering of the numerous widows. A church that has numerous programs will always run the risk of satisfying some people and upsetting others! So what did the Apostles do? They called a meeting, listened to the complaints, explained their priorities and directed the disaffected to appoint people of their choice to deal with the issue. It worked. (See Acts 6:1-5.)
The Corinthians had been wonderfully blessed by the presence of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. But they lost sight of the message because they were focusing on the messengers. Paul accepted that differences are normal, but he insisted that divisions are unacceptable. And what turns a legitimate difference into an illegitimate division – attitudes! They were being confronted with the truth they needed to hear but – and this is a big but - they were given a detailed explanation of the way God works through His servants. (See 1 Cor. 3: 1- 23.)
One other example should suffice. The Apostle John had mellowed considerably in his old age and was well known for his exhortations to love each other. But his pleas had fallen on the deaf ears of a man called Diotrephes. In the early days of the church, there was a great need for Christian homes to accommodate traveling preachers. Diotrephes refused to do any of this, banning from church membership any who had the temerity to help their brothers in Christ against his wishes. John put this down to behavior that we would call pathological. People like this can cause havoc in the church. John made it clear that if he arrived at the church despite being told he was not welcome he would not hesitate to “call attention to what (Diotrephes) is doing.” He was going to deal with it!
What can we learn from these examples?
Disruptive and dysfunctional behavior in church life must be addressed – by duly appointed leadership. Fear of losing people if they are confronted frequently leads to unacceptable behavior being allowed to continue. We must admit that while today people who get upset go down the street to Second Church, in the first century it is doubtful if they had any such luxury.
Wise leaders are aware of the fact that there are at least two sides to every story so they will not be hasty in arriving at conclusions before hearing from all concerned.
Mature believers will also be careful to examine their own hearts to see if they have contributed to the problem and if so, will take steps to rectify their mistakes.
I do hope I have not demolished some rosy images of the Early Church. My desire is to face up to the need for the church to be the church and that means we need to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 3).