The Gifts of the Early Church

This article was published in the magazine of the Prayer Book Society, a couple of years ago.  I wrote it originally as a blog post for the Wilmore Anglican Mission.

The Gifts of the Early Church, Mark Royster

We begin with a giving God.  “For God so loved the world that He gave…”  In fact, God has been giving Himself to His lost people from the very beginning.  All of His gifts in their many forms have been oriented toward the goal of creating a people for Himself, transformed to reflect His character of Holy, self-giving love.  God’s gifts call into being a community.

When the Father sent the Son in human flesh, Jesus entered the community of God’s people, living in their own land of promise, but under Roman rule.  This semi-exile was a symbol that their deliverance was not yet complete, nor could it be so until the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus was nurtured in that community, its Scriptures, its festivals and rituals, the totality of its ways.

These elements formed the context of Jesus’ identity and His earthly ministry.  He affirmed, challenged, and fulfilled the Jewish tradition in his teaching, his ministry, and ultimately his passion, death and resurrection.

At the Last Supper he linked Himself to Creation, to Israel’s salvation history and to the new future of God’s people in the way He presided over the pre-Passover meal, proclaiming the New Covenant in His blood.  He told his followers it would take some time to understand all that He meant by this and many other teachings.  Indeed we are still exploring the depths of the Eucharistic mystery.

By the time Peter and Paul wrote their epistles, there was a growing awareness that the new communities forming around the memory and worship of Jesus and the living, corporate experience of the Holy Spirit, were in fact the new “Israel of God.”  So Peter would describe them in the same words used in Exodus:  “You are a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

Let’s review what God the Father gave them:

  • He gave them Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, a revelation in Himself.  Then,
  • Jesus gave them His teachings, both in word and deed.
  • Jesus gave them His life and death and new life.
  • He breathed on them and gave them the appetizer of the Holy Spirit that would come in fullness at Pentecost.
  • He gave them promises and commands.
  • He gave them commissions, some general and some quite specific.  They were to be His witnesses. They were to go into all the world, making disciples and teaching the way of the Kingdom.  As the Father had sent Him, so Jesus was sending them.  Peter, and the other disciples by extension, were to feed His sheep.
  • He also gave them two definite sacraments.  They were to baptize and they were to eat and drink a special meal in remembrance of Him, and in so doing receive His death and life into themselves, becoming one body as they ate and drank one loaf and one cup, proclaiming and celebrating His death and coming reign.

It was an awful lot to synthesize.  And it would all be happening in a context of persecution and extreme duress.  But this was the crucible in which Christianity was to be formed and purified.

Now, let me pause and underline an essential point for what follows:

Jesus said that He would send them the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who would guide them and encourage them and sustain them, bringing to their memories the things He had taught them, helping them to make sense of it, and keeping them in community and loving fellowship along the way.

This raises an essential question: Do we really believe that what was going on in the early days, weeks, months and years of the church was substantially and reliably led by the Holy Spirit?

As we go forward, you may need to go back to that question a few times. This is a point of faith.  We cannot prove that the thoughts and practices of the early Christians were Holy Spirit-led.  But if they were not, then the whole Christian enterprise begins to wobble.

A further clarifying question: 

Did Jesus leave His little band with the resources they would need to ensure the survival and the lasting fruit of His ministry?

If He did not, then He must have been unaware of what they would need. Either that or He was unable, or unwilling to leave them adequately equipped.  This hypothesis requires a fundamental deconstruction of Jesus’ essential identity so extreme as to render our exploration of the role the Holy Spirit in the formation of Christ’s church absurd at best.

Jesus is portrayed as  praying specifically not only for His disciples in John 17, but also for those who would believe as a result of their witness.  Clearly, He had the long-range plan on His mind when He left the Gospel in the hands of these unlikely folks.  And He left them with the confidence that with all He had given they were indeed adequately equipped.

So, I am going forward on the basis of a firm conviction that God the Father, in Son and Holy Spirit, gave the early Christians all that they would need to fulfill His purposes.

The next question is: Using what Jesus had left them, what did these early Christians give to those who followed?

Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the New Testament.  But for 20-30 years prior to the first Biblical documents the early Christians were gathering, worshiping, witnessing,  losing their property , suffering and dying gladly for their faith.  What we know as the New Testament was conceived in struggling worshiping communities who had preserved the memory of Jesus and His teachings and His practices; and in the hearts of those apostles and pastors who loved these little groups and wanted to protect them from grievous error.

In the years that followed,  it was these  Spirit-guided communities who discerned which of the many “Christian” writings were authentic.  They asked themselves: through which writings did the Spirit speak the clearest,  which were truest to the character and “voice” of Jesus Himself?  Many of these folks had known Jesus personally, and many more had known people who had known Him.

Within the first 100 years of the Church, the message of Jesus Christ had spread and was being lived all over the Greco-Roman world, and there was a collection of writings solidifying among them as the standard for belief and practice in the face of ignorance and proliferating heresies.

Out of those writings and those communities came the first Creeds, confessions of faith, essential core beliefs, and vows.  These Creeds were not only based in Scripture and reason, they were tested by fire and by blood.  Their formulation challenged the best theological minds of the time.  How could this Jesus whom they worshiped, whom they “knew” by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, and whom they encountered in the “breaking of the bread” be both fully God and fully man?  It took 300 years to get this worked out, and two hundred more to clarify.  But these Creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity became the bedrock of Christian theology from that point on.

The process of fighting heresies, preserving Scriptural and rational integrity, and formulating the creeds generated a wealth of Biblical exegesis and theological reflection and issue-focused correspondence.  These writings of the early church fathers provide a window into how those who lived closest to Jesus, both in time and in their own piety, wrestled with the fundamentals of the faith.  Interestingly, most of the “modern” issues we wrestle with to day were dealt with already in the first 500 years of the church.

Now, without a stable structure none of this would have happened.  Jesus left the apostles with some definite commissions which they fulfilled to their dying breaths.  But as they began to pass from the stage the question of leadership emerged rapidly.  Who would continue to offer apostolic leadership and who would be the symbols and guardians of the unity of God’s people, protecting them against the constant threats of heresy, division and disintegration?

These early communities determined that the best way to accomplish this would be for the apostles to lay hands on successors to carry on the ministry, establishing a pattern of mentoring and training and commissioning, as seen between Paul and Timothy.  This pattern was maintained from then until the Reformation with an amazingly high degree of continuity.

So, these are the primary gifts of the early church to those of us who followed after:

  • A pattern of worship, around the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist
  • The New Testament (and its validation and affirmation of the Old Testament)
  • The three Creeds, and great collection of patristic reflection and exegesis stimulated in their formulation and in dialog with real church challenges
  • The pattern of leadership and care given by the historic, apostolic episcopate — that is, pastoral care by bishops ordained by bishops, delegated to priests and deacons and laity.

From the 6th century until now God’s people continue to make use of these gifts in a variety of ways to shape the Christian church in its many expressions.  Obviously some Christian groups have completely left some of these gifts behind long ago.  Others have heavily weighted certain elements to the exclusion or distortion of others.

One way to understand the great variety of denominational expressions we see today is to think of them in terms of what they did with these four primary elements of their inheritance.  For example, most evangelicals tend to believe that once the early church had finished giving us the Bible, we could take it from there.  No need for anything else.  We have taken a variety of approaches the sacraments, the episcopacy, the writings of the early church fathers, even the Creeds.  But since these do not appear to enhance evangelism directly, they have sometimes been viewed as impediments or curious artifacts at best.

The result is a strong view of the Bible, but not much to go on in terms of interpretation, except the pressing questions and demands of our culture, and an orientation toward getting immediate results.  There is great confidence that the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone are enough both to bring sinners to salvation and to lead Christians into truth.

Unfortunately, this formula has often led Christians into “truths”  (and practices) that contradict the teachings, practices and Creeds of the early church. It has also led to regrettable distortions and neglect of a balanced and balancing diet.  For example, the modern evangelical church diet, heavy on preaching and the “plan of salvation,” has left many Christians stalled in the infancy of their spiritual formation and uncertain about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the body of Christ in this world.

There is a natural human tendency to attribute Holy Spirit leadership to things that seem very right to us.  This accounts for some of the sad extremes we have seen in this generation, though there is nothing new about any of this.  Rising leaders assured of their unique anointing and vision tolerate no accountability and inevitably lead themselves and others to spiritual disaster. They have no patience with anything other than the Bible (as they interpret it) and their own professed inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  A probing question from the ancient tradition of the church would be dismissed out of hand, along with any thought of submitting to the structures of sacramental and liturgical worship.

In the more liberal or progressive denominations this tendency has taken another form, clearly illustrated in those who sincerely see the battle for full acceptance of homosexuality and the redefinition of marriage as a new movement and teaching of the Holy Spirit.  They even speak of this teaching as a new “gift” from God, a gift we were not ready to receive until recently that was part of God’s plan all along.  Now, in the fullness of time, the gift has arrived following the trajectory of God’s universal inclusive love.  When challenged, they respond, “If the Holy Spirit guided the early church into all truth, why should the Spirit not be guiding the modern church as well?”

The only answer to that is to appeal to the primacy of the Spirit’s leading in the days closest to to the earthly life of Jesus, and the communities who embodied and recorded His leading in the New Testament and the early Creeds.  The fact that these recent innovations contradict what Scripture teaches and what the church has practiced and affirmed explicitly in all its cultural expressions worldwide for over 1900 years should give us pause, at least.

But this appeal to history and universality is not at all persuasive to most moderns who have been taught to despise the past in general, and particularly any sense of the past as normative.

The fundamental issue underlying debates about sexuality, marriage, ordination, and many other less inflammatory issues, is the question of authority:  where do we look for guidance?  Interestingly, many evangelicals, charismatics, and progressives have essentially the same answer: “We look to ourselves, our reading of Scripture, and our sense of the Spirit’s leading.”  Though they may come to different conclusions their methodology is very similar.  Few of us realize how much we have been formed by the spirit of the age.  This is why now more than ever we need the wisdom of those who stand at a more objective distance.

Until the 1960s the Anglican way held firm its confidence that Jesus did in fact leave His followers with everything they would need to fulfill the Father’s purposes, and that this gift package was indeed normative.  Traditional Anglicans still believe that the Holy Spirit did inspire, teach, remind, guide, correct, sustain and protect these fledgling communities, especially in the task of recording the Scriptures and synthesizing the mysteries of the Triune God in the Creeds.  But we also believe the the Holy Spirit helped them understand and develop the fuller meanings of Baptism and Holy Communion, and that He provided the structure in the historic episcopate through which sound doctrine, practice and unity would be preserved.

Not everyone agrees.  But that is the Anglican way.  I like it, not least because it preserves and makes use of all the gifts that God has given in such a balanced way.  Word and Sacrament are preserved in balance. There is a structure that provides care and discipline, yet allows a lot of freedom and creativity.

The Anglican way is more dynamic than some people prefer.  It deals in pretty broad strokes and does not answer every detailed question.  Sometimes this leads to trouble.  But I believe there is a reason why the Anglican way has survived and is now even thriving in the face of the most severe challenge to its doctrine and polity.

Sometimes heresy brings out the best in the Church.  We thank God for our African and Asian brethren who have stood firm in this time of testing and given the rest of us the courage to reclaim our precious heritage.

In closing, along with John Wesley I believe the Anglican way provides the best connection with the best of the early church, and through them back to Jesus, known in Word, in Sacrament, in Community, in Mission, and directly by the witness of the Spirit.

This is not the whole story, but I hope it helps.