The Simplicity of the Early Christians

At first sight, one could say that our resources in men and money are many times greater than those of the original disciples. We confront the world with hundreds of thousands of ordained clergy, religious brothers and sisters, lay preachers, Sunday-school teachers, missionaries, with organists, choirs and all the adherent caucuses of a great religion. But at Jerusalem the little community which met in the upper room consisted only of one hundred and twenty men in addition to some women. Of the multitudes who had personally heard Our Lord speak and received His healing, none apart from these clung to His cause. Mere words, even His words, which only reached the ears of others by mere miracles, even His miracles, which only cured the flesh were not enough to stand the final trial. Then as now, much more was needed than mere preaching, however persuasive it may have been, and philanthropy, in spite of how magnanimous and effective. And we have to find out what it was. 

It certainly wasn’t money! Churches receive millions from benefactors every year; the early Christians had scarcely a shekel or denarius with which to organise a revival, while as for a political establishment, He had by His last words before the Ascension postponed that idea. He would not thus set up His eternal kingdom upon earth. In- deed if you had visited Jerusalem at this time, and had asked for the Christian Church, none would have known what you meant. The disciples, left to themselves, were only Nazarenes, followers of an obscure Galilean who had been executed as a felon, and it was not until years later, and then at Antioch, many miles distant, that they used the name which hails’ Him Messiah. At the outset, the Church was not even recognised as a definite society. Outsiders noted those who belonged to Christ merely because they lived in a certain “way” which differed from the customs of the time. With us, worship is public and conduct is sometimes private. With them it was the other way round conduct was apparent and worship was concealed behind closed doors. There was an inner life, which God alone watched. 

Sometimes we are mislead by certain expressions. When we say that a man is “going into” the Church, we mean that he will be making vows and possibly ordained as a deacon or priest, in many countries he will wear a special garb or “cloth” denoting his status and making him easily recognisable. Those who were “added to” the early Church did not wear such distinctive uniform — in fact, the Apostle Paul thought so little of his cloak that he left it behind at Alexandria Troas and the Apostle Timothy had to bring it with him to Rome (see 2 Timothy 4:13). The brotherhood of saints belonged as much to the layperson as to clergy in fact, every one, whatever his ecclesiastical status, could wash their robe and make it white in the blood of the Lamb. In an era of social divisions, caste, slavery, captivity and bitter persecution, this form of spiritual citizenship was the blueprint of democracy. 

I am one who is greatly helped by symbols, including stained glass windows. But I am endeavouring on this occasion to read my Bible by plain daylight. As a matter of history, men like Peter and women like the disciple Tabitha (see Acts 9:36-42) did not wear elaborate vestments, or adopt regal or ceremonious attitude, nor appear under richly carved baldachins. On the contrary, Paul was of miserly appearance, and his only known gesture was a certain marvellous “motion of his hand” to beckon people to his side, which at Antioch in Pisidia captured the attention of an entire synagogue of which many Jews and worshipers became converts (Acts 13:16 & 43); whilst in Jerusalem the motion of his hand silenced a mob (Acts 21:40). James expressly warns us against the individuals who pay attention to the man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes above those men who wear shabby clothes. James asks “have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? (James 2:1-4) whilst Timothy warned and told that “women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes, but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

Church parade, as we call it, was thus discouraged and these people, living amid the luxury and the ostentation of the Roman Empire, avoided advertisement and anticipated by seventeen centuries the black coat with which the Republic of the United States encounters the gilded lace and ribands of European diplomacy.

Circular diagrams showing the division of the day and of the week, from a Carolingian ms. (Clm 14456 fol. 71r) of St. Emmeram Abbey.

The Church had its Calendar. Christians observed the Passover and Pentecost. But, with them, every day was a Saint’s day. Every day new converts were added to the cause. Every day was a day of salvation. What we call canonisation is the reward of a few, a reward long postponed and finally granted by the Vatican. In Jerusalem, an act of God, immediate and decisive, made the Saint, and every such Saint, however humble, must walk worthily of his high calling. I do not say that canonisation is wrong — I am not here to decide that I only state as a fact that it came later. Similarly, while church officers were to be held in high esteem, we do not find that they were greeted with a genuflection or obeisance. At Caesarea, Peter firmly declined the worship of Cornelius, while at Lystra, when the people would do sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, those evangelists rent their clothes. Such reverence for special leaders was thus another of the practices which, whatever may be our view of it, came later. At the outset, Christ was served by disciples or teachable persons; by evangelists, or persons with news to tell; by apostles or missionaries, for the word is the same, or selected persons, who were free to go abroad; and by prophets, or persons with insight. All had their appointed task but all reserved homage for the one Master. 

Avoiding titles themselves, these people used plain speech to others. Tertullus, the orator, “talked in flattering terms about most noble Felix.” To Paul, Felix was simply a judge, as  Agrippa was simply a king. Nor did they flatter the mob. It was not a case of “Ladies and Gentlemen” when they spoke, but, short and sharp, “Men of Israel,” “Men of Athens,”  “Men and Brethren.” It was manhood that they valued manhood that they displayed without prefix or compliment. As God regards men and women, so did they. 

The vocabulary of the early Church was therefore curiously simple. They talked in monosyllables like love, joy, peace, and were little worried by technical terms which encumber theology today. The creeds were still unwritten, save in the heart. There was as yet no catechism. The only suggestion of a liturgy that I can discover, and it is scarcely a suggestion, is the thanksgiving at Jerusalem when persecution was threatened. Hymns and spiritual songs were sung, but the melody had to be first in the heart, there were no printed words and music sheets. Nor were there any prayer books, only prayer, and no articles of religion had then been drafted, unless we regard as such the circular letter which dealt with various Jewish ordinances. Sometimes we are apt to apply a modern and narrowed meaning to the broad human expressions which we find in the New Testament. A bishop was not a peer of the realm or prelate, as we put it in England, but an overseer or shepherd, who, as every man ought, looked after the interests of others, rather than his own. When Paul went about “confirming” the Churches, he strengthened them, as we all may do, with helpful words. It was service, rather than ceremony.

Fresco depicting a banquet. From the Catacombs of St. Marcellinus and Peter

And, finally, we must get out of our minds the Idea that a church in those days consisted of bricks and mortar. What the apostles meant by a church was not an edifice, with a pulpit and chancel and reredos, but a congregation or society of men and women; built together like living stones; and they were quite content to meet in some upper room, “or a place,” or a private dwelling like that of Mary, mother of John Mark, where a housemaid called Rhoda acted as doorkeeper. It was not until all these early Christians, and, indeed, their children after them, had been long dead, that money began to be spent on architecture. The worldwide mission was inaugurated with an open-air meeting at some street corner in Jerusalem. Paul preached wherever he could get a hearing in synagogues, by the riverside at Philippi, on the hill of the pagan god Mars at Athens, on the steps of the citadel in Jerusalem, in Herod’s palace, and in a hired house under the shadow of Caesar’s throne, where he was — as he puts it — an ambassador in bonds. The energy that we devote to mortgages, debts, and bazaars was concentrated by these pioneers on the supreme task of winning men. For why should they waste their forces on material shrines? Anywhere and everywhere they expected to meet God. The first vision came to Stephen when he was in the dock. The second came to Paul on a turnpike road. The third came to Peter in a tannery, of all places, and the last came to John in a salt-mine. 

Nor did they waste time or temper in wrangling over ordinances. The only altars that they knew of were in the Jewish or Pagan temples and they broke their bread simply, going from house to house. There were no baptisteries; and Philip, when approached by the Ethiopian eunuch, therefore used a well in the desert of Gaza, now familiar to the armed forces of the Allies. At Philippi, Paul and Silas administered the rite in a jailer’s lodge. Indeed, so afraid was he of exalting the mere form, that in writing to the Corinthians, he actually thanked God that he had himself baptised none of them, save Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. “Christ sent me not to baptise,” said he, — and the very word “sent” indicates apostleship — “but to preach the gospel.” There lay the thing to be done not to elaborate systems but to liberate souls.
If then I am asked to furnish a first glimpse of these few scattered Christians, I reply that they were simple folk. Unencumbered by machinery, technology, traditions, caste and ritual, they moved freely over the whole realm of opportunity. Stephen and Philip might be appointed to serve tables while Peter and John preached. But if Stephen and Philip preached as helpfully as Peter and John, they were invited to do so. No Church can grow no country can develop unless there is freedom of opportunity, this simple aim, this one thing for you and for me to do. The disciples knew what the one thing was, they did it, and therefore they turned the whole world upside down. 

These are days when every institution seeks to justify its usefulness by propaganda. The one Church of Christ, as a spiritual body, has grown directly from the little societies of early Christians whose thought and life will be described in this series of 38 articles. As they drew inspiration from their Bible, so shall we draw inspiration from ours. As they brought ancient wisdom to bear on modern problems, so shall we follow their example. What we read of old times bears upon what we do in the twentieth century. Our schools, colleges and universities tell us that we learn much by fighting over again the battles of Greece and Rome. These Christians fought the biggest battle of all, and it  continues unto this day. 

Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honour.Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them.Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.