God's Original Intent for his Church: What the First Century Church was Really Like

The Story of the Church: The Early Years

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dicken's opening words to "A Tale of Two Cities" apply very well to the circumstances of the first century church. The love of the first believers for their arisen Yeshua and for each other is unparalleled in history. The appeal of this group of people was first and foremost through the love they showed, not just to each other, but to their enemies, even as their enemies were putting them to death.

These first believers walked in a freshness of fellowship with Yeshua that released life wherever they went. Miracles followed many of them, not just the apostles and those who had known Yeshua personally. Stephen, for example, was a fiery spokesman for the movement, whose ministry included signs and wonders. Peter could walk down a street and have people healed upon whom just his shadow fell. Paul rebuked an occultist opponent and blindness fell on him. An earthquake hit a jail were two workers were imprisoned and broke it apart as they sang their worship for their King.

Thousands responded to the first preaching of the apostles. Whole cities turned out to listen to the message of the first itinerant workers. People were healed, enemies became friends. The church functioned like an open and loving community, sharing what they had with those in need. Within two decades opponents lamented that the whole world had been turned upside down by these first self-sacrificing believers.

Yet they did have opponents. The leaders of their own nation tried to stamp them out. The priests and religious leaders were against them, putting many to death. When they fled to other nations dispute and enmity rose up everywhere and tried to root them out.

They were imprisoned and scourged with whips. They were falsely accused, they were beaten and left for dead. Some were thrown to lions in arenas, others were crucified. There were those who were boiled alive in vats of oil, others lost their heads, were shot with arrows, pierced with spears, or stoned to death.

They were accused of being evil, of being godless, of being atheists, of killing small children and drinking their blood. They were hated, and loved, where ever they went. Some were chased from their cities; many lived in constant danger. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

These facts are known to most who have taken the time to carefully read their New Testament. We have the perception today of a church who lived in constant danger, of dynamic believers who were willing to follow Yeshua into death, rather than deny him. We see a church who loved, who had intimate fellowship with their Lord. But this is not the whole picture of the church of that time.

There were other dynamics going on in the first century church which generally slip under our radar.

  • How they lived church. The first century church in it's life and ways of meeting was drastically different from modern conceptions of church.
  • Their intensely Jewish culture, which permeated the church, both in Israel and in other countries
  • The tensions and divisions that threatened to tear their fellowship apart.
  • The internal dangers to their vitality of life, coming both from the influence of Judaism and from Greek philosophy and pagan religious concepts
  • How the groundwork was laid which eventually led to the transformation of the loving community into a monstrous institution.

Church Life in the First Century Church 

Church life at the beginning was relational and organic, not organizational and institutional. Those words probably don't communicate much to most readers, so I'll try to explain.

There is more to the fact that Jesus' teaching revolved around growth in nature than just that he was speaking to an agrarian culture. He used examples of plant growth because both Nature and the Kingdom of God had the same designer and share the same growth principles.

The way that God works is organic. He plants seeds and has the patience and wisdom to sit back and let them grow and develop. Faith, for example, grows like a seed. It gets planted in the human heart in seed form through a single spoken word, or through reading the scriptures, or possibly through a spontaneous thought which seems to "come out of nowhere" (though it is actually from the Holy Spirit).

In order to truly grow and develop, that seed must apparently die and dissolve. The dream, the hope, will be tested and seem to fall apart or become impossible. Yet if that seed is nurtured and cared for (in the heart as well), it will put down roots and grow. On the surface it will seem for a long time that nothing is happening, but in reality it is getting ready for explosive growth. Biblical faith is a natural growth process. Trust, another word for faith, takes time to grow.

Today we are organizational, rather an organic. We organize the different ingredients that make up a healthy plant and then will it into being. We apply every component that we think will be required in order for it to work. We bring together a crowd and a preacher and then ask the Holy Spirit to come to give it all the power to synthesize and produce something. If and when something is produced, we institutionalize it so that it will be preserved for all time (because institutions live and grow for one purpose only: that it at all costs survives.)

God is not institutional nor did he intend for mankind to grow in an organizational way. Therefore, when Yeshua came, he did not develop the existing institutions. Nor did he organize a new one. He ignored the existing institutions as a vehicle for carrying out his intentions. And his first followers continued on in his vein.

Yes, the early believers continued to attend Jewish synagogues wherever in the world they existed and for as long as they were allowed, including the gentile believers, because there they could hear the Word read aloud every week. Few believers at that time had access to a Bible, consisting of the Tanach (Torah - the law, the prophets and the poetic writings of the Old Testament). A handwritten Bible was very expensive.

But when the first century church met, they met in a way and for a purpose which ignored a synagogue-like structure. In other words, the early believers did not build synagogues. Rather the family met wherever it was appropriate for the family to meet and have fellowship. They existed as a Body and as a family, not as an institution.

Yeshua's Method for World Transformation

Yeshua's methods were completely consistent with his goal. His goal was relationship on a grand scale between himself and a corporate body of people with whom he would carry on a love relationship similar to a bridegroom with his bride.

As Frank Viola writes in his book, "From Eternity to Here," the Father has always desired a house to live in (a living Temple, made with living stones) and a family (He calls us his children). What Father wants for his Son is a Body and a Bride. (The body of Christ is more than a metaphor, it is his living breathing body made up of millions of different members.)

These are God's goals with creation and all are relational, requiring a very loving, intimate connection. That's what he wants for you and for me.

So how did Yeshua begin? He gathered a group of people together, men as well as women, though based on wisdom and cultural constraints he called 12 men to his side. Then, for 3 1/2 years he modeled relationship before their eyes. Day by day they saw him interact with his Father and with the Holy Spirit. They saw it in his prayers, they saw it in the way he did nothing without first hearing it from Father. They saw it in his total dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit to work miracles and touch people.

The model of the first century church and the model for all church life is the continual flow of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what Yeshua modeled before their eyes, and this is what made the disciples qualified and capable of being apostles: those sent out to duplicate it!

Yeshua not only showed it to them, he then began to do it with them. So the second church consisted of fellowship between Father, Son, Holy Spirit together with the twelve (plus those others who might happen to be around during intimate evening conversations). For more information about the true model for church life, see Milt Rodriguez' articles called, "The Perfect Model, parts 1-7"

When Shavuot came (pentecost), thousands suddenly flooded into this circle of relationship after Peter preached. So how was the church formed, and on what model? Peter, John, James and the others simply took what they had already experienced and demonstrated it to each new group where they met in homes.

Actually in those first few months there was another element that went on. We read that the apostles taught daily in the temple courts. This is taken as a biblical reason for having platform ministries. May I suggest two things. First, this is not where the life of the church took place, because life involves an exchange of nourishment and communication. Rather than being normal church life, the preaching in the temple courts was a teaching transfusion.

You see, the first converts had grown up knowing nothing other than an institutionalized form of the Torah, the Law, with priests and ritual. What they knew is not what God had originally given to Israel. It was a rabbinical and priestly system of control, quite different than the free, non-institutional life that the Torah originally described.

Now suddenly they have decided to take the plunge and defy the religious authorities and become part of Yeshua. They needed a quick immersion course in what life in this new dimension with Yeshua was like. That's why the apostles took the opportunity that the wide temple courts offered with their tradition of letting rabbis and torah teachers sit around teaching their followers. Here they could give out a lot of information quickly, to large crowds.

But as we read further in Acts, they also met from house to house. This is where things would get practical, because in the community of Yeshua, when the body meets, that is where life flows. Here they didn't teach how to live as a body, they demonstrated it. This is where it gets difficult for us, today. They couldn't teach what could only be shown. And we weren't there to experience it with them. But we can see the result of what each little group internalized: they became lovers of God and lovers of people.

This is the most striking difference between the first century church and the modern church. The first believers loved. The modern church just talks about how important love is. And the world notices the difference.

The New Testament does not give us many insights into how the first Christians met, or how they were organized. If you've been paying attention, you'll recognize that it is because they were more intent on experiencing Jesus than on organizing to evangelize the world.

Even though they had a mission, the purpose of bringing souls to salvation was to expand and build and to bring a Body of Yeshua into being in every city of the world. In other words, the purpose of the church was not to save the lost, but to live as part of Jesus himself and to express that life to the world! The lost were saved so that they could be part of this great new life!

One thing is certain. The center of life in the Gatherings was not the pastor. There was no pastor in our sense of the word. Nor was it the elders or any other brand of leader. The center of their life was Yeshua and they met to meet with him. Together. After that what they emphasized is that each one should come to meetings intent on serving someone else.

Did you know that the word pastor is mentioned just once in the entire New Testament? And that it is only found in a list of a number of different ministries present in the body. Later we will see where the present concept comes from. Hint: it isn't from the scriptures!

In comparison we have four different verses describing what went on in their meetings.

"What is our conclusion, brothers? Whenever you come together, let everyone be ready with a psalm or a teaching or a revelation, or ready to use his gift of tongues or give an interpretation; but let everything be done for edification." 1 Corinthians 14:26 Complete Jewish Bible "Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to each other; sing to the Lord and make music in your heart to him; always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah." Ephesians 5:19-20 CJB "Let the Word of the Messiah, in all its richness, live in you, as you teach and counsel each other in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude to God in your hearts." Colossians 3:16 CJB "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV

What we have here are four passages which say essentially the same thing, that each one of us has the responsibility - each time that we come together - to consider how we may build up each of the others. They also state that when we come together, we come PREPARED! We come prepared to minister to the others there.

That means that each person takes time during the week to ask the Lord how, even if it is only in a small way, he or she can bring something, say something, sing something or pray something which will help and build up the group or at least one person there.

If we all were to do this each week, each according to his measure, experience and gifting, how fast do you think we would grow in our (now very practical) faith? You may have also noticed that this is very difficult to put into practice if there are more than 15-30 people in attendance.

I have been told that these are just examples of what they did and not a biblical mandate for how we are to experience church. But consider that what we have here is more than three times the biblical foundation for this teaching than what exists for the common practice of having a church pastor? For that there is just one verse, horribly misapplied and ripped out of its context.

The First Century Church was Intensely Jewish

Are you aware that the church for the first few years after Pentecost was 100% Jewish? For years - possibly as much as a decade long - there were NO non-Jewish believers in Jesus Christ!

Since those early, first years in the New Covenant era there has never been a time when every single person in the church, regardless of what city or town they lived in, was Jewish: circumcised (if male), ate Kosher, and followed the Torah much as their fathers had. They brought peace offerings into the Temple.

They were Jews who were burning white hot with love for Yeshua. They had understood the truth that Yeshua had inaugurated the long awaited New Covenant with God, and they could now live in this New Covenant. And there were tens of thousands of them, maybe a hundred thousand or more of them - and that was just in Jerusalem and the outlying Judean areas alone!

When non-Jews were converted by Paul and the other apostles, they were considered by all the Roman world to have converted to a Jewish sect. They were considered in those first years to have become Jews! The dead sea scrolls confirm this, that the early church, even the Gentile branches of it, was far more Jewish than we can imagine today.

As I already mentioned, as late as the second century it was common for Christians to attend synagogue on Sabbath and have their believer's gathering that evening or the next day.

The churches grew rapidly in many parts of the world. Not only did the Jerusalem church grow to eventually number in the tens of thousands - possibly up to a third or half the city was in the church -, but by the end of the first century many churches had grown to up to 50,000 people.

This loving community was Hebraic in another aspect too. For the first several hundred years, before Greek and Roman culture infiltrated their ranks, the believers were not theoretical in their faith, but intensely practical! This is the essence of a hebraic culture. It doesn't theorize about God, it determines to KNOW God personally and live practically and in a very down-to-earth way to please him.

As a result the Body of Jesus in this time was a church where things actually worked! They loved each other, they cared for widows and orphans. They fed the hungry, clothed the needy, healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead. They didn't just talk about God's love and power! They taught the scriptures and trained each new believer how to live out of the Life of God, through the Holy Spirit who was now dwelling within them. 

The Big One: Tension Creeps into the First Century Church 

It sounds like the garden of Eden, so to speak. But Eden-like peace and prosperity didn't last long, unfortunately! Seeds of division were being sown that were closely tied to determination of the new believers to follow God from a whole heart, but had its true roots in that most typical of human foibles: the inner need to hold on to what they'd always known ...

You see, one day something totally unexpected happened. Peter, while off on a mission trip from Jerusalem to Joppa, was sent off by the Holy Spirit to meet with an army officer. Typical for Peter, he acted without thinking, and did something that was impossible, at least according to the understanding of the church at that time. Peter, admittedly under the command of the Holy Spirit, brought the gospel to a group of pagans and led them to faith in Israel's messiah, Yeshua. At least it wasn't his idea.

The other believers were shocked and dismayed! The problem was not that a Gentile had converted, the problem is that he hadn't become a Jewish proselyte according to all of the traditions and rules!

Jewish believers in the first century church understood something that few do today and that is that the prophetic word about the new covenant, the offer of a new heart in the new covenant, was made specifically to Israel! It was an internal thing, not open to outsiders.

Here's the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:31 -

"Behold the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD..."

Did you catch that? The covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That is fairly exclusive. Non-Israelites have no prophesied part in the New Covenant! So to the early church, a Gentile needed to become part of Israel first. There was a very well established tradition to regulate how that could happen.

Generally speaking, that meant that a Gentile who wanted to join Israel had to be baptized (undergo immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath), be circumcised (if male), begin to eat kosher, keep the Sabbath and other holidays of Israel, learn a whole lot of how to do each of these things ritually correctly. And then he had to prove that he was actually doing these things!

Proselytes had become believers in Jesus before Cornelius. The problem with Cornelius and Co. was that he didn't become a Jew first, which would allow him to enjoy benefits like salvation through Jesus.

This event started a controversy which burned throughout the church for a long time. It was the reason why Peter did one thing in Antioch according to conscience when he first came, then changed his tune when more traditional brothers came up from Jerusalem later. (Galatians 2:7-14)

It was the question that brought about the first church council in Acts 15. It was to answer this question that Paul wrote the book of Galatians.

What doesn't come out so easily in a quick reading of the book of Acts is however clear when one reads Acts carefully in reference to letters of Paul and the others. There were people who were going out from Jerusalem, claiming to speak for the "real" church, who traveled behind the apostles and tried to bring their brand of "correction." These brothers brought with them letters of recommendation from other Jerusalem elders, saying that they were authorized to correct Paul's false teachings.

What they basically taught, is that all of these new Gentile believers in Asia minor, in Greece, in Rome (or in India or Ethiopia for that matter) had to do things the right way: they had to be circumcised, eat kosher, keep the rules of the Sabbath according to the rabbis, and so forth! In short, they had to become Jewish proselytes before they could become followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul gave his clear answer to this false teaching in Galatians 3. Paul defined for them and for us when and how a person becomes a part of Israel. It is not by following rules and rituals. It is by the very act of believing in Jesus himself that a person instantly and immediately becomes an Israelite!

As he explained it, the old covenant was not what saved a person in the Old Testament times, it was their faith in God through a faith like Abraham's, the father of faith. When any person, even a Gentile, accepts the offer of salvation by faith in Jesus they enter into the promise given to Abraham. This promise came before the covenant and supercedes it, he said.*

Even in the Jewish Talmud (oral law) this truth was occasionally understood. As one ancient rabbi said, the high point of scripture's teaching is: "The just shall live by faith." (Habakkuk 2:4)

There appears to have been a constant tension about these issues for decades, especially among Jewish believers. Some held on to the way things had always been done, loving (rightly so) the God-given Torah but focusing their attention in almost a fear-driven way on fulfilling the letter of the law to earn the Lord's favor.

Others, such as Peter, recognized that the Way that Yeshua had revealed was one that is relationship-based, not rule-based. They understood that the only power for obedience and for knowing how to please God was to live by the indwelling Spirit. Unfortunately, the old ways die hard, which is why some of them, such as Peter, occasionally slipped back into old habits.

Yet others like Paul, Barnabas and Silas had the new Way burned into their innermost being and would not turn back at any cost, though they had to learn how to oppose the ritualists without losing their love for these brothers. This is why the letter to the Galatians, Paul's first, is the most fiery and in-your-face. Later letters came after the Holy Spirit had corrected him and shown him a better way. He had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to protect His own churches instead of taking the battle upon himself.

These tensions played a pivotal role in weakening the power and vitality of the first century church, as we will see clearly later. 

The Seductive Need to Appear Wise 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2:22-24): "For Jews request a sign and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

There was another trend that began to appear in the middle of the first century that likewise contributed to the weakening and downfall of the early church. This was a seduction that was aimed directly at the Greek and Roman mindset of the Gentile believers.

The Greek culture loved to think, to discuss and to debate points of views about all manner of knowledge, including religious knowledge. In fact, the Greek philosopher Plato was among the very first to make a change from trying to find out what the gods required, to setting themselves above the gods by delving into knowledge about the gods and becoming experts about the nature of the gods. In other words, they became the first theologians.

Theologians study God. That is a hugely arrogant area of study to take on oneself, if you think about it! No one had ever dared to do that before the Greeks. Gods were to be obeyed, not taken into the laboratory and studied under a magnifying glass!

As a result of all of this, the Greek culture had developed a huge respect for people who could figure out how things worked, how nature worked, how God worked. They had an oversized appetite for knowledge, especially for deeper knowledge that no one else knew. Everyone wanted to be one up on everyone else.

Greek thinking permeated the Roman world and the Gentile churches were not immune to its enticing call. (If you hadn't noticed, Greek thinking permeates the modern western world today as well.) As a result, it wasn't long before the desire for deeper, more sophisticated knowledge about God began to pull at the Gentile churches. I believe that it was actually a directed plan by certain secret societies in the ancient world to destroy the church.

However it came about, more and more Christians began to be sucked into philosophical theories that weakened their faith and destroyed their vitality. The most prevalent of these philosophies was called Gnosticism.

In a nutshell, gnosticism taught that knowledge was everything. That which went on in the mind and in the spirit was everything, while the natural world and the body was inherently evil. Did you catch that? The physical world and the physical body was evil by nature in their eyes.

They taught that Jesus did not come physically, because everything physical was evil. He only appeared to be there in a body, while in actually fact only his spirit was there. They also taught that Jesus came to bring knowledge to mankind.

John battled this philosophy in his letters. In chapter one he says clearly, that he and the other apostles had seen, heard and touched this Jesus that he was proclaiming. In other words, Jesus was physically there and they were eyewitnesses. In chapter four he says that the spirits should be tested. Any spirit who denies that Jesus came in the flesh is not from God!

These influences can still be seen in most modern churches today, even evangelical and pentecostal churches. Most churches put a high value on knowledge and theology. Growing in spiritual maturity for most Christians means growing in knowledge about God and the Bible (instead of growing in the knowledge of God, which means growing in our experience of walking with Him and knowing Him intimately). Salvation is thought of as being assured when the seeker begins to believe the correct information about Jesus and God, such as that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. While true, it is our love for and trust in Him which saves us, not our opinion about him.

It can also be seen in the focus on heaven so prevalent in churches today. The scriptures say little about heaven, and do NOT reveal heaven as our eternal destination. Rather, they say that our destiny is with the Father and with Yeshua ON EARTH! We may be temporarily in heaven with the Lord after death, but eventually we all return with the triumphant Jesus to earth where we will forever be together with God. For a gnostic, this idea of God coming to earth and living with us on earth would be repugnant.

First Steps down a Long Road to Spiritual Death 

I believe that these two influences, legalistic judiazers and the seductive pull of Greek philosophy where the main things which led to the weakening of the church, and which eventually led to the loss of life and vitality of the first century church.

Before the apostles died they were already battling these persistent influences, and in many cases they were losing the battle. Yeshua had prophesied that a falling away from the faith would come. The apostles prophesied it too. By the late 50's and early 60's it was happening. Even the church in Ephesus began to reject Paul's teaching and correction. The apostles pleaded with the churches to listen to them, but for some churches it was too late. They had entertained these other teachings for too long.

As the battle grew hotter for the soul of the church, most churches took a step, a very logical step, which in the end did far more damage than the other dangers ever could. It was, once again, a borrowing from their own culture which seemed wise but did not come from God.

What was this horrible, insidious and destructive step that they took in order to win the battle against legalism and pagan philosophies?

Surprisingly, the step they took was to ask their elders to be strong leaders! They felt that, rather than continuing as fellowships with every member functioning, with every member having the right to speak and help and feed every other one, that they would be safer if just a few, the leaders, would take over these functions and tell them what to believe, tell them what to do and do the work of the church.

Not every church was foolish enough to take this step, but with time almost every church eventually did. By 107 Ignatius of Antioch taught that only the elder, or bishop, was allowed to teach or minister in any way, that that he was to be given the same honor as Jesus himself.

Because we are so much children of our culture as well, this seems an obvious and even wise thing to do. But in fact it is very dangerous. The work and the life of the church was taken out of the hands of every believer and put into the hands of an elite few. Elders began to rule over the churches, something that Jesus had explicitly forbidden.*

Just as bad is the fact that strong leadership means that whatever is decided is engraved in stone for future generations, especially when these leaders start to develop networks of control over multiple congregations, as it gradually began to happen. At the beginning no bad apple congregation could greatly affect any others, because those assemblies were grounded in the Word and each and every believer would have to be convinced before it could affect them. Now, a few leaders could gain influence over many others, train up the next generation of leaders to act as they did, and the false teaching is extended into the future.

So how did the first century end? With an apparent progress against the forces of legalism and gnosticism, but at the cost of a church which was dramatically transformed, a church which had lost its freedom and in which the Spirit of God could no longer move as freely as in the beginning. These changes laid the groundwork for worse changes to come. The church still had great vitality, but it was tapering off. The first control structures over the people had been initiated and the church had take its first steps towards becoming an institution instead of a living organism.

* For more detailed information see my book, "Responding to the Shofar's Call: Rediscovering Hebraic Christianity in Light of God's Original Purpose."

  1. Who is God really?
  2. Restoration of the Church
  3. The First Century Church

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