First Century Christianity

By Paul C. Keller

There is continuing need for a study of Christianity as it was in the first century. What Christianity was in the first century it needs to be in the twentieth century  and in the twenty-first. The religion of Christ has been so long perverted that many have no true conception of genuine Christianity. Men are prone to use the wrong standards for judging the correctness of our faith and practice. As individuals we tend to measure our responsibilities as Christians, not by what the Bible teaches, but by the conduct of other church members. Congregations overlook the Bible as a standard for its activities and allow the practices of other congregations to be their guide. Unconsciously, many allow the denominations to set the standard for them and adopt sectarian patterns for their religious practices. In other instances the church is influenced by the pattern established by former generations. We are prone to accept the teachings and practices that have developed through the years without questioning their scriptural authority. We almost assume that our brethren have never erred and that we can safely adopt all that has been handed down to us. Nevertheless, a failure to follow the Bible as our only guide in matters of religious faith and practice will ultimately lead to apostasies! History gives abundant testimony to the truthfulness of this statement. The apostasy of the New Testament church did not arise overnight. Instead, it came gradually, over a period of centuries. The gradual departures introduced in one generation paved the way for further departures in succeeding generations. This continued until the pattern of the New Testament church was lost and was replaced by the traditions and doctrines of men. The apostasy came because men failed to follow the Scriptures as their guide.

Today, the “Christian Church” (or “Disciples”) stands as a monument to the folly of substituting human judgment in the place of divine authority. While leaders in the “Restoration Movement” were united in their plea for a complete return to New Testament Christianity, the denominational world was put to flight. So long as these men were willing to abide by the slogan, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we are silent” (a principle which is taught in I Peter 4:11), the sectarian world was powerless to resist the onslaught of truth. It was when some of them abandoned this ground of safety that the devilgained an advantage. When some sought to “improve” on the Lord’s arrangement by introducing practices not authorized in the Scriptures, division resulted. These first departures were but introductions of the many that were to follow. The wide scale apostasy of the “Christian Church” in less than a century of time was so rapid as to be almost unbelievable. It could not have developed without a “beginning.” Its “beginning” was the substitution of human wisdom for Bible authority. Thereafter, men in this sect judged their teaching and practice in the light of what had been handed down to them rather than in the light of Bible teaching. And it is with deep concern that, during these recent years, we have observed the spectacle of many churches of Christ pursuing the same sad, inevitable course. When we adopt the wrong standard of measurement for Christianity we will “miss the mark” every time.

With people who want the truth the question is not “What are others doing?” nor “What do preachers think about this?” nor should it be “What do I want?” These are not questions to be raised by the honest truth-seeker. His question is: “What does the Bible teach?” In 2 Timothy 3:16,17 Paul teaches that the Scriptures are an all-sufficient guide. This being true, we need nothing more. Opinions expressed orally are as useless as the written creeds of men. Each generation needs to reexamine its teaching and practice in the light of the Scriptures rather than accepting that which has been handed down by former generations. Likewise, in the light of Bible teaching it should examine the proposals of con-temporaries.

If we would know what Christianity should be in the twentieth century, we must learn what it was in the first century. Let us first observe what it was:

Undenominational In Its Nature

This is evident from a number of considerations. First, the church of Christ is not a denomination. A denomination is a sect. It professes to be merely a “part” or a “section.” This does not describe the church of God. It is, itself, the whole of God’s people. All who are saved are added by the Lord to the church (Acts 2:41,47). Hence, the church contains all the saved. Furthermore, the Lord’s people in the first century believe the same, taught the same, practiced the same, and all wore the same name. There was nothing to distinguish them one from another. All were members of the “one body,” the church (Eph.1:22,23; 4:4).

Second, a denomination is not the church of Christ. The church is referred to in the New Testament in two senses: (1) Universally, with reference to all the saved  all the church, everywhere. Jesus spoke of it in this sense in Mat-thew 16:18. (2) The church is referred to in its congregational or local sense  speaking of the church in a given locality. Paul used it in this sense in 1 Corinthians 1:2. But, what is a denomination? It has been defined as “a religious organization smaller than the whole church and larger than the local church.” One Methodist Church is not the Methodist denomination. It is made up of local Methodist churches tied into the General Conference. Likewise the Baptist de-nomination is composed of all such churches of like faith and order having affiliation with the Association. Thus a denomination is larger than the local church and smaller than the whole church; and since the New Testament presents the church only in the whole sense or the local sense, and a denomination is not the church in either sense, it necessarily follows that a denomination is not the church in any sense. The church is a divine organization founded by Christ. Denominations are human organizations founded by men.

Next, let us note that the gospel does not create de-nominations. The gospel is God’s power to save (Rom. 1:16). It is the mission of the church to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15; 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:15). The gospel was preached in the first century  and thousands obeyed it. But while thousands obeyed the gospel then, such obedience did not make a Roman Catholic, Mormon, Methodist, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or Presbyterian of a single one of them! It follows that if obedience to the gospel in the first century did not make denominationalists then it will not do so now. When the gospel is preached today as it was preached then and people obey it today just as they did then, it will make of people now what it did then  Christians. Only when something other than the gospel of Christ is preached and obeyed do men become denominationalists. Baptist doctrine must be preached and obeyed to make Baptists. Methodists are made by the preaching of Methodist doctrine and obedience thereto. The same is true for all denominations. But the gospel of Christ will not make a Baptist, Methodist, or any other denominationalist. It did not do it in the first century! It will not do it in the twentieth century! The gospel does not create denominations.

Furthermore, the gospel requirements in the first century were undenominational. The same conditions of salvation required of the Gentile were required of the Jew. Rich and poor, strong and weak, were called upon to do the same things in order to have the remission of sins. Alien sinners in the first century were taught to believe, to repent of sins, and to be baptized for the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19, 20; Luke 24:46, 47; Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 2:38). None was exempt from these conditions. All were required to meet all of these conditions. No exceptions were made.

Finally, the results of gospel obedience were undenominational. This has already been noted. Let us notice further, however, that all penitent believers who were baptized obtained salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), entered Christ (Gal. 3:26,27), and became members of the body of Christ, the church (1 Cor. 12:13 Acts 2:41, 47). Since the Lord has “but one body” (1 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:4), which is the church they were all members of the same church. Being “in Christ” they were “new creatures” (2 Cor. 5:17) and hence they had all been “born again” (John 3:3-7). Gospel obedience obtained the same results for all.

These facts show conclusively that Christianity in the first century was undenominational. This being true, it follows that genuine Christianity in the twentieth century and every century, must be undenominational. Let us put forth every effort to keep it undenominational. To this end may God bless us.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: No. 21, p. 18-19
November 2, 1995