The Earliest Churches Were Nothing Like Ours

July 25, 2022

“It [i.e., the movement started by Jesus and his apostles] had no bank accounts but was rich in relationships and joy. It had no elaborate hierarchy and organization but spread like wildfire through simple practices of empowerment and self-organization. It had no seminaries or colleges but it was constantly training new waves of courageous and committed leaders through the “each one teach one” strategy of catechesis. It had lots of problems, too, but it grappled with those problems courageously” (McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, xix).

The only part of the above quote with which I would take exception is, “It had no seminaries or colleges but it was constantly training new waves of courageous and committed leaders through the “each one teach one” strategy of catechesis.” I don’t know if McLaren meant this or not, but to me it reads like there was some training program more formal than the Jesus training method of “Come, follow me.” His “catechesis” was an “as you go about your daily life” natural “training program.” Sadly, it didn’t take more than a generation or two before humans formalized and came up with a program for “leadership roles,” but for the average disciple of Jesus, their lives were too busy, too full, too focused on survival to be involved in any ongoing, formal training program. They learned from what they heard and they did what they saw other followers of Jesus doing. Also, the plurality of doctrinal understandings throughout the early churches indicate that from the beginning there was no formal schooling involved. Only with the growing concern for “orthodoxy” and “unity” did control begin to be exercised over what and how people learned and grew spiritually – a sad, development, indeed, and one that resulted quickly in the development of a clergy/laity hierarchy and mindset, which Christianity has only sporadically overcome and from which it still suffers.

However, the rest of the quote contains thoughts and perspectives that the 21st century church really needs to think about, hard and deeply, and should challenge many of the “sacred traditions” that render the church unappealing in doctrine and practice today; holding back the true gospel of Jesus. There were no bank accounts, no elaborate and imposed hierarchy and organization, and no colleges and seminaries. They had little concern for material things, no programs and buildings that required huge and consistent donations to run, no ministry employees, and no places where people left “the real world” and studied and trained in isolation before returning to real life with unrealistic expectations due to lack of real life experience. Yet, in today’s church we believe we cannot survive without our elaborate hierarchal leadership tiers that do not empower members but infantilize them, keeping them dependent on leadership direction and decisions. We train up the younger to be leaders by removing them from real life and then reinserting them into people’s lives who have to experience real life on a daily basis.

I heard a powerful lesson from John Porter a number of years ago where he said that his responsibility as an evangelist was not to encourage and equip members to invite outsiders to church, where they could “see the light” in a manufactured, mostly spectator rich worship service. Rather, his task was to equip and empower disciples of Jesus to go out into the world, and via their daily Jesus-following lives, let their lights shine all over the place, where all could see, if they are open, the light of the glory of God through their good words and deeds.

But the problem with that job description is that it would involve the leaders to not direct and decide, but to equip and encourage, resulting in a releasing of “power” and “authority” (i.e., control) to each and every member of the church, rather than holding it to themselves and relatively few others. It would involve believing that God is able to work with and through every member of the church and that Jesus is the only true head of the church. We “ministry staff” preach and teach “every member a minister,” but do we demonstrate that in how we interact with and equip the individual members of the church?

Jesus set an example, taught and trained his followers, then he left them and, before he left, he sent them out to do what they would do…and look what happened!

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