Context is Everything: The Early Church in the 21st Century

      Ever since the time the “Early Church” was no longer the early church, people have sought to return to the practice of the early church.  Confused yet?  No wonder.  People have spent nearly two millenia trying to identify what the early church thought and how it practiced.  Even more fundamentally, people have wrestled with the question of what exactly the “early church” was and whether it is even useful to speak of the early church as a single body.  While this last question is well beyond our purview here, all of these questions point to a larger question: why do we care?  Even within the greater Protestant tradition, there have been movements to return to the ancient Christian church and its practices for centuries.  What drives these movements?  Is it an idealized nostalgia for times gone by, an appeal to times before formal theology grew out of “authentic” (a word so ubiquitous in modern Christian circles that it has lost all of its rhetorical force) Christian worship?  Is it a belief that because the early church worshiped and lived closer to the time of Jesus it must have embodied more proper orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) than we can centuries later?  Is it merely antiquarian curiosity run amok?
      My friend, Trent, asked me some months ago to do a piece for his blog on the views of the early church on violence and warfare, a particular interest of mine.  After several false starts, it occurred to me that I had to deal with the “so what” question first.  Again, why do we care?  I’m not really here to answer that question but only to identify it so that you, the reader, can decide why you really care.  Assuming we can reasonably discern what the early church both thought and did, do we take its experience as the gospel (no pun intended) and graft it whole cloth into our own experience?  If not, how do we distinguish the wheat from the chaff, deciding what to appropriate from the early church and what to discard as belonging to another time and place?  In an important book on early Christians and military service, the authors caution that it is a “false methodological assumption that the teaching and practice of the Bible and early church, without analysis of sociological and historical context, and without the application of a balanced hermeneutic is literally normative for contemporary teaching and practice.”  In other words, context is everything–always–no less in looking to the ancient church for modern-day guidance.  And even once we consider context, we evangelicals, biblicists that we are, must measure what the early church did and thought against the witness of scripture (and just how we decide do that is yet another gargantuan task).  Appropriation across millenia is not, therefore, as simple a process as we’d sometimes like to think.  These are just some thoughts to keep in mind as we delve into what the early church thought about certain things.
      By way of disclaimer, I am something of an armchair historian.  I hold a masters degree in church history with a concentration in early Christianity  What that means is that I know just enough to be dangerous and am frequently humbled by those, regardless of education or degree, who know much more than I.  That said, my studies tend to focus primarily in the fourth century and shifts in both the rhetoric of Christian self-identification and in the relationships between the church and the state.  In other words, how did Christians talk about themselves and how was that influenced by changing social and geopolitical realities in the fourth century?  Next time, we’ll get into what the early church or, more specifically, the church until AD 306, thought about violence and warfare.  Bonus points if you can tell me why AD 306 is significant.  Until then, grace and peace.

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