What We Miss When We Romanticize The Early Church

Yesterday during the service, my pastor covered Paul’s visit to the Areopagus.

The visit, in Acts 17, follows Paul’s jaunts to the synagogue and to the marketplace to tell people about Jesus.  After debating with some Stoics and Epicureans, he’s invited to the Areopagus to share these strange new ideas that no one had heard before.  It’s there that Paul implores the “people of Athens” to listen to the good news of Jesus Christ, pointing out that their “unknown god” is, indeed, very known, and a magnitude of order different than the deities that they worshiped.

I have always loved this story.  I love it because it shows a believer going out into the world and meeting with people at a place of common ground, of intellect, of ideas.  I love it because in order to get his message across, Paul ends up quoting Greek poets.  I love that people invited him because they were curious about what he had to say.  I love that Paul paid enough attention to the cultural context and his whereabouts to note the Greek altars and for whom they were intended.  I love that, as our pastor pointed out, this visit is the epitome of Biblical bridge-building: going out into the world, finding common ground with non-believers, and starting from there.

I often think that our modern church is guilty of romanticizing the New Testament church.  All too often, we envision our spiritual ancestors as gathering together in warm Christian fellowship around a table to break bread and pray, without remembering Paul’s letters to these churches are stuffed with reprimands and instructions on how to cut back on the infighting and the idolatry and get their act together.  But we persist in romanticizing them, modeling small groups after the method of “doing life together” that we believe the ancient church embraced.

And yet what strikes me is that we only ever seem to romanticize those warm, cozy moments in Scripture where believers are hanging out together, worshipping God and being…somewhere inside.  Some nice warm room where everyone has warm, loving faces and they all sort of vaguely seem the same and have lots in common.  I don’t hear many people wistfully hearkening back to Paul’s visit to the Areopagus, or the disciples’ random jaunts through strange towns and their encounters with strangers and sometimes hostile crowds.

Certainly the New Testament church did come together, support each other, and pray and eat and form communities together.  But the New Testament church was also full of people like Paul, who were willing to march right into a major center of learning and engage with the secular thinkers there who devoted their lives to a series of Greek gods and goddesses.  Who stopped to talk to anyone who would listen.  Who would get on a boat and just go to wherever seemed like a good place to start talking about Jesus.

The New Testament church was anything but insular as it’s portrayed in Scripture.  These believers were not interested in barriers; if anything, the prevailing idea seemed to be “the more, the merrier.”  They participated in a Christian community, but were also integrated into the larger communities around them – all the better for them to serve and to witness.  They didn’t balk at showing up in secular places.  They understood the people they were ministering to.  And they were willing to set aside their schedules, their agendas, and their own plans to get out in the world and share Jesus Christ.

And they were all different.  Paul was a thinker, a debater, a scholar.  He felt comfortable in the Areopagus.  Engaging with people and challenging their ideas – especially in a forum where idea-challenging is the name of the game – was his jam.  I’m sure some believers weren’t into that. And that isn’t the least of the differences they shared. Some Christians were slaves and formers slaves.  Some Christians were members of the aristocracy.  Under Jesus’ name, tax collectors, devout Jews, Roman guards, Greek thinkers, women and men of all social stations gathered.  Those differences undoubtedly bred some of the conflict and frustrations Paul was forced to address in his letters.  After all, the only thing some of these people had in common was Jesus.

I think it’s worth not romanticizing the New Testament.  I think it’s worth realizing that the early church was about more than just gathering in rooms and breaking bread and singing.  It was about Paul striding out to visit the Areopagus, and Philip stopping to chat with a man on the side of the road, and believers living and working and serving in their communities to reach out to their friends and neighbors.  It was about engaging with others.  It was about letters saying “guys we have a bigger mission at hand here so you can you please get it together.”  It was about debates and divine jailbreaks and people falling out of windows and other people being healed and a whole slew of very unlike people gathered together over one common cause.  And it was, also, about praise and fellowship: about gathering together, sharing resources, lifting each other up, praying together and praising together.

When we romanticize the early church, we tend to only focus on certain aspects of it – perhaps coincidentally the aspects that are most fun and comforting to us to emulate.  As always, when it comes to the past we tend to paint over authenticity with a glossy sheen of nostalgia.  But if we’re going to grow into a modern, living church, part of our growth requires that we see the early church as it really was:

Messy.  Conflicted.  Joyful.  Supportive.  And deeply engaged with the world and the culture around it.





4 thoughts on “What We Miss When We Romanticize The Early Church

  1. I’d like to think of the early church as a sort of ‘all hands on deck’ enterprise; there’s so much to do that they can’t just rule out this guy or that gal on account of anything. They have the old and the young together, not separated into different life station groups. How we do church – it’s really different and some are keen to keep the workers out of the harvest field if they don’t feel that they met all the qualifications.


    1. Oh yeah, for sure! And really that’s what Paul’s chiding always gets at in his letters: this spirit of “okay, there are problems, but we have to make this thing work, so….” Yes, we’ve grown accustomed to an abundance of workers. It’s an interesting change over the years.


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