Bible & Theology

A First-Century Church? Well, sort of.4 min read

May 20, 2015 3 min read


A First-Century Church? Well, sort of.4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It isn’t uncommon for a website or church bulletin to have an italicized slogan like, “A 1st Century Church In A 21st Century World.” Cool, right?

It’s catchy. It’s fresh. It’s non-confirmative.

In a confused ‘community church’-packed world, where staunch denominationalism is increasingly unfashionable and “I’m okay you’re okay” inter-denominationalism is in vogue, churches of Christ offer a sweet answer: pre-denominationalism. “Let’s just be the simple church that was started by Christ in the first century,” we appeal. Who could fault us for this noble pursuit?

But every now and then, a smart aleck in our midst – thinking he is more clever than he really is – will crudely observe that the 1st century church had problems too, and therefore “we shouldn’t try to be a 1st century church” and leave it at that.

Yes, Copernicus, the 1st century church certainly did have problems. One congregation had a member sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1), while other members started forming denominations (1 Cor. 3:4-5). There were congregations mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 that wrongly tolerated bad doctrine, immorality, and even idolatry. And it was common for some 1st century congregations to allow false teachers in their midst (Jude 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-4; Acts 20:29-31). Yes, the early church had problems.

But such an observation needlessly distracts from the real point: Our doctrine should be based entirely on the New Testament (which, we should remember, was written by Christ’s apostles in the 1st century). It is in this sense we are a 1st century church.

We don’t need to be lazy in our pursuit to restore 1st century Christianity. We need to be levelheaded enough to understand what the church of Christ actually is today.

A 2nd Century Church

In a sense, we can’t entirely restore 1st century Christianity, nor should we want to. Christians in the 1st century were greatly disadvantaged compared to Christians today. They did not have the 27 books of the New Testament in a nice leather-bound pocket-size Bible; they merely had the inferior “spiritual gifts” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There were some who could prophesy (“Prophecy” is the ability to speak on behalf of God), but the Holy Spirit’s gift of prophecy would cease when God’s Word was entirely communicated through the apostolic writings (1 Cor. 13:8-10; cf. Jas. 1:25). The point of the miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit (limited to the 1st century), after all, was to authenticate the Holy Spirit-inspired message of the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4; John 16:13).

Because of this, the church of Christ today will resemble the 2nd century church more than anything else. There are no longer miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to further authenticate the message of the apostles, because God’s Word is now complete and the apostles are now dead. We merely have the writings of the apostles as our authority. God’s Word has been “once and for all delivered” to us (Jude 3); no further revelation is coming. Like the 2nd century church, we must “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) communicated by the apostles (Acts 2:42). We are to avoid those who teach a contrary doctrine than the apostles (Gal. 1:6-10).

Living In A 21st Century World

Since the New Testament was written nearly two millennia ago, countless religious bodies have come into existence and deviated from the New Testament pattern. False religions and philosophies can only exist by either ignoring the New Testament, perverting the New Testament, or claiming additional revelation after the New Testament. It is the responsibility of all Christians to refute error and return to the simple, flawless doctrine of the apostles.

We must intelligently apply our 1st century Book to the needs of our 21st century world. Doing this successfully requires a robust understanding of God’s Word. We must culturally contextualize the timeless pattern of the New Testament. There is no escaping the fact that we live in 2015; therefore our message must be adapted to 2015’s culture. We no longer live in the 1920’s, 1950’s, or the 1980’s – therefore, we should not preach to these eras.

Following A 1st Century Pattern

When we say we are a “1st century church,” we really mean we are following a pattern of doctrine written by the apostles in the 1st century. When 1st century congregations allowed sin, false doctrine, or apathy to creep into the church, Jesus commanded them to return to the original pattern: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). To be faithful to Christ, we must be dedicated to what His apostles taught (John 17:20-21; Rom. 6:17-18; 1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13). We cannot afford to alter the apostolic teachings.


A 2nd Century Church Living In A 21st Century World Following A 1st Century Pattern” isn’t quite as catchy, but it is certainly more accurate. Don’t worry, it isn’t a slogan I will be plastering above my church building entrance or putting on the website. But hopefully, we will remember that our condition most closely resembles the 2nd century church. Will you join me in returning to the New Testament?

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
  1. Jordan Bishop

    Another awesome article man! Keep it up love your work and thinking!

    • Ben

      Thanks brother! Hope your work is going well!

  2. Will Ray

    Your article says "Our doctrine should be based entirely on the New Testament". My bible says "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine". All scripture, not just the "new" testament.

    • Ben

      You're right about all 66 books of the Bible being Scripture and inspired. Thank you for referencing 2 Tim. 3:16-17. I was simply being specific about which of the two Laws - the Law of Moses & the Law of Christ - we are under. The Old Law was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14), so obviously our doctrine must be from the New Testament (unless we are to start burning incense and offering animal sacrifices, about which the book of Hebrews has much to say). That certainly does not mean the Old Testament is not true; it simply means we have been released from the OT and find a much better Law in the New. But of course, you aren't suggesting we are under the Old Testament. Semantics I suppose.

      • Will Ray

        I have to stop you right there.The word "nomos" or law is not contained in Col 2:14. Even the version that you quote says "record of debt" - not law. The Greek word "nomos" used for law everywhere else in the NT is not contained in Col 2:14. It is certainly not called the "old" law in Col 2:14. You can say "this is what I think it means" but the verse doesn't say what you said it did. The law is eternal - Ps 111:7-8, Ps 119:151-152, Ps 119:160. The new covenant was that it would be written on our hearts ( heb 8:10 and heb 10:16, Jer 31), not nailed to the cross. We are saved by grace alone but the law remains until heaven and earth pass away Luke 16:16-17, Matthew 5:18. Why would the bible say the law is eternal, and that it would be written on our hearts if God intended to nail it to the cross? The bible says to obey is better than to sacrifice, showing the difference between the moral and ceremonial law. The temple is gone as Jesus prophesied it would be, so sacrifice went away with the destruction of the temple anyway, so it is a moot point. but the bible says the Law is indeed eternal - we follow in the new way of the spirit, and not the old way of the letter and we are saved by grace - but the law remains. God bless. - William

        • Shane Robinson

          I'm not exactly sure what you are arguing for here William, but Romans 7:1-6 clearly teaches that Christ has freed us from the law. That law being the law of Moses. The law that Jesus fulfilled through his life and death. The point Paul was making, as well as the author of the blog, was that we follow Jesus and not Moses. Yes, the Old Testament is profitable, but the New Testament contains instruction for all people for all times.

          • Will Ray

            I'm saying the whole bible is the authority - not just the new testament - the Romans verses you quote say we follow the law by spirit rather than letter - the law isn't abolished, it is written on our hearts and we follow it by spirit. Romans 2:13 says it is doers of the law that are counted righteous, and Romans 3:31 says we uphold the law. So you have to take the whole Roman letter - not just a small piece, and indeed the piece you quoted said we follow the law by spirit, not letter. Any interpretation that the law is abolished makes God a liar - he said it was eternal - Ps 111:7-8, Ps 119:151:152, Ps 119:160, Luke 16:16-17 and Matt 5:18. Again, why would he promise to write the law on our hearts if it was to be abolished? The new testament itself refers to the law as the source of authority in quote after quote. No where more overt than 1st Cor 9:9 and 1st Cor 14:34 - "as the law says". Why would Paul refer to the law as the authority if it was passed away? This was all settled in Acts 21 - when Paul was confronted about teaching against the law and asked to affirm the law - he did just that, by making a vow and a sacrifice, so the idea that the law was abolished has already been dealt with in Acts. We get salvation from grace through Jesus, not the law, but the law remains as a guide that as your quote said - we follow by spirit rather than the letter.

          • Ben

            Yes, ultimately, the whole of God's Word is our authority. If something is to be bound on us in the Old Testament, like the keeping of the Sabbath, the Mosaical cleansing rituals, circumcision, David's (inspired) temple worship pattern, the bloody levitical sacrifice system, etc., we of course would be bound by it. Are you claiming we must do these things? These elements of the Old Testament are no longer bound on man today, because this part of God's law - intended, by the way, only for the Israelites - has been fulfilled in Christ. We are now all one in the doctrine of the Divine Son (Gal. 3:26-29). "Abolished" isn't as accurate as a description as "fulfilled" (Matt. 5:17). All of God's Law is indeed eternal, even as it pertains to the Mosaical Law, in the sense that His Law is eternally true. But that does not negate that the Mosaical Law, intended only for the Israelites, has been fulfilled. In Acts 21, there was obviously a miscommunication as to what Paul was teaching. Some Jews actually thought Paul was teaching that Israelites should "forsake" the Law of Moses (Acts 21:12) (similar to the misunderstanding you have about the apostolic teachings which are being taught on this blog). Yet nothing could be further from the truth! Paul was teaching that Christ has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, and thus they should follow the Law of Christ. In my opinion, and it is only that (because the Bible does not specify), I believe Paul made a human judgment error by taking the Jewish vow. And it backfired on him, obviously (Acts 21:27-36). No longer is our law written on tablets of stone (an illusion to the Mosaical Dispensation), but it is now written on our hearts (an illusion to the Christian Dispensation) (Jer. 31:33). The Law of Christ is a BETTER covenant than the Mosaical Covenant (Heb. 8:6), because it is a system of faith, not a mere system of decrees (cf. Col. 2:14). Your logic can only lead to one of two conclusions: (1) Either there is no specific law that Christians are to follow and therefore we must follow what our hearts say, or (2) we are bound by some of the regulations in the Mosaical Law, but only the ones that are closer to the core of the Gospel than others. Regardless, both ways make a mockery of God's Law and lead inevitably to 'have-it-your-way' Christianity. No thank you.

        • Beginnings77

          Hebrews 8:13 NKJV In that He says, "A NEW COVENANT," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

          • Will Ray

            yes a "new covenant" -What was the covenant? the new covenant was the law would be written on our hearts (heb 8:10, heb 10:16, jer 31:33) not abolished.

          • Ben

            Not abolished, but fulfilled in Christ by God Himself (Matt. 5:17). Hallelujah!

        • Ben

          I referenced Colossians 2:14 correctly. The NASB translates it most correctly: "...having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." "Certificate of debt" (Greek: cheirographon), noted by Thayer, is "metaphorically applied in Colossians 2:14 to the Mosaic law, which shews men to be chargeable with offenses for which they must pay the penalty." Then "decrees" (Greek: dogma), according to Thayer, refers to "the rules and requirements of the law of Moses." Hendriksen comments on Colossians 2:14 are: "This handwriting or handwritten document is clearly the [old] Law (cf. Eph. 2:15). [...] What has been abolished through the cross is not 'a signature of indebtedness with our signature on it' but 'the law of commandments with its requirements' (Hencriksen, 120-121). D.A. Carson drew the same conclusion in his comments on Colossians 2:14: "Thus the law of God with its specific ordnances stands as God's statement of our indebtedness [...] The law of God not only stated our guilt, but cried out for the penalty due to such a guilt. So the bond was our enemy" (Carson, Colossians, 69). Additionally, couldn't be more obvious that Paul is indeed referring to the Law of Moses when you zoom out and look at the next few verses (Col. 2:15-17). All who were under the Law of Moses violated it and were worthy of sin and death (Rom. 6:23; Jas. 1:13-15). The Law (ultimately intended to prepare us for Christ) brought condemnation because of the sins of all who were under it (Rom. 7:9-11). The "debt" was the obligation placed on God's people to keep the decrees of the Law. The passages you referenced, Psa. 111:7-8; 119:151-152, 160, mean God's Laws can never fail. They bear witness to the glorious things provided for the salvation of men - and they continue to teach man (Rom. 15:4). God's Laws will always be true; they shall have in due time their fulfillment. The Old Law - not merely the sacrifice system, but the entire Law with it's ordinances and decrees - was fulfilled (Matt. 5:17). The New Law is a better law (Heb. 8:6). The Old Law was indeed nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14) and replaced with a better Law - not a law written on tablets of stone (the Law of Moses) - but a Law about which God wants man to have an inward knowledge of (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). When Jesus died, His testamentary "will" (i.e. the "New Testament") went into effect (Heb. 9:15-18). The Law and the Prophets existed (as binding) until Jesus came (Luke 16:16), yet the truthfulness of them shall never fail (Luke 16:17). What Jesus is saying in Luke 16:16-17, speaking to the Pharisees (supposedly lovers of the Law), is that if they are to keep the Law, they must embrace Jesus and His (to Whom the Law points). Responding to Jesus represents fulfilling the law and so receiving Jesus means fulfilling the whole purpose of the Old Law (Rom. 9:31-10:13). There is no contradiction here. The truthfulness of the Old Law is eternal and shall never fail, while at the same time Jesus has fulfilled the legal demands and obligations as outlined in the Old Law and has replaced it with the New Law. This does not mean, however, that many of the principles found in the Old Law (morality, obedience, etc) are not found in the New. Samuel told King Saul, after Saul offered an unauthorized sacrifice to God, that "to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22), meaning that God wants us to ultimately obey Him, not just pay Him lip service with empty ceremonies and sacrifices. Samuel was certainly not making a distinction between so-called "moral" and "ceremonial" law. Whatever God has bound on mankind today, we must follow. The universal law for mankind - not just the Mosaical Law reserved for a fraction of mankind known as the Israelites, is the New Covenant (which has fulfilled the Old).

        • Tom

          The Law of Moses, given to the Israelites, not the church, was made obsolete, nailed to the cross, done away with in it's entirety only after it had fulfilled it's purpose, bringing those to whom it was given to the cross. Anything applicable to the church has been repeated in that which is perfect, the bible (God breathed/penned only by apostles), whether it's written on our heart or not. Also, you say we are saved by grace alone in contradiction to Jas. 2:24 " Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."

  3. coltscamp

    First-century Christianity in a 21st century world. I think this works. :)

  4. Barbara J. Barnes

    Thank you Ben. I enjoy your articles. I continue to pray for the understanding as I study God's Word.

    • David Roman

      Barbara, God doesn't deliver understanding in that manner any more... We have the completed revelation (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

  5. Tim

    The handwritten ordinance was obviously a metaphor for transgression. Like the conviction above Jesus' cross that condemned him for blasphemy... Jesus took our written conviction and nailed it to his cross... Being convicted to death for our sin. Also, where is there a new law? The phrase old law isn't even in scripture. Jesus didn't die to take away an old Law just to instate a new Law. He came to bring forgiveness for sins not to take away the Torah. Covenant is obviously very different from law... But here's my question, if a baptized believer attends a Baptist building, are they a member of the "church of Christ?"

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