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How Did the Early Church Differ From The Church Today?

How is the church of today different from the church during the apostle’s day?  What are the major differences?  What is missing from the church today that was present during the church’s beginning?

The Birth of the Church

The church was actually born on the Day of Pentecost [1] when the Holy Spirit came upon believers.  This is recorded in Acts 2:1-6

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting and divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.  Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.”

What an amazing testimony to the power of God.  Since those who were witnesses to this event, where each heard these things in their own language, God was saying that the message of salvation was not only for the Jew but for the whole world…for all languages and all nations.  Contrary to what many Christians believe, God has never fully excluded the Gentiles who would chose to join themselves to Israel.  Rahab the prostitute was no exception (Joshua chapters 2, 6).  The Gentiles could be joined with Israel if they would obey His laws.  We see this throughout the Old Testament.  Jonah [2] is a great example of God’s desire that no one perish and hundreds of thousands in Nineveh repented and were spared the judgment of God (2 Pet 3:9).

House Churches

In the New Testament, the Christians had to meet in homes and often did as Acts 2:46-47 says,

“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” 

One difference about the early church was that they met daily, in most circumstances, and they also ate together.  Nothing can make a church draw closer together than having meals together.  This was the custom of the early church…perhaps the first church pot luck ever!  Today churches meet in larger facilities and infrequently eat together except on special occasions.

As in the churches today there were divisions in the early church as we see Paul addressing this problem in his letter to the church at Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). So the early churches were not that different from churches of today in that there were divisions and man-made doctrinal obstacles placed before believers, such as requirements to be saved (works) or to be a member of a local church (like “proper” baptism”).

Early Church vs. Todays Church [3]

The early church was much more evangelistic than the church is today, with exceptions of course. The early church did not tolerate open and unrepentant sinning as some churches do today.

The Early Evangelistic Church

The church in the first century chose the leadership similar to the way they do it today and the organizational structure of pastors, deacons, and elders was almost identical to what churches consist of today (Acts 14:23, 20:17-35, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9).  One of the major differences between the church of today and the beginning of the church was that the early church was much more evangelistic (Rom 15:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8, Acts 13:1-26:32) as Paul testified in Romans 1:8 writing, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.”  Maybe evangelism was taken more seriously because the Great Commission [4] given by Jesus was still fresh in the minds of the apostles as Jesus commanded, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) but it may be been due to the severe persecution that spread out the gospel message to different parts of the Roman Empire (Acts 8:1, 4-40, 11:19-26).

Baptism and Ordinances of the Early Church

The importance of baptism was stressed for believers and is what is called today “the believer’s baptism.”  There were also the sacraments like communion that were held on a regular basis.  This has not changed much in the church of today although today many churches have communion every week, some once a month, while others have it about once every quarter (every 3 months).  Both churches also had similar authoritative structures where members could be disfellowshiped for a time until repentance came about by the sinning member.  The Corinthian church is a great example of church discipline. See how Paul handled this in 1 Corinthians 5:1-7

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.  And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.  When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.”

An openly sinning and unrepentant believer was put out of the congregation until such a time that they repented.  Why?  Paul explains that believers are  “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one…Purge the evil person from among you” Paul commanded (1 Cor 5:11-13). Sin spreads like leaven and so these must be put out of the church for their own sake and for the sake of the purity of the church (1 Cor 5:6).

Conclusion

The early church was much more evangelistic than the church is today, with exceptions of course.  The early church did not tolerate open and unrepentant sinning as some churches do today.  Many churches today accept unrepentant homosexuals and even ordained, openly homosexual pastors and members.  This would have been inconceivable in the early church.  The early church also met and broke bread (ate) together more frequently than the churches today.  It seems that many churches have lost that “first love” that the early church had and like new Christians have today.  Sadly, that first love, that zeal for God, and that evangelistic fever has faded somewhat today, but it is still not too late for revival in the world.  Revival must begin with the Christian and inside the walls of the church.  Revival will never spread outwardly unless it begins inwardly.  Those are the major differences between the early church and the church of today.

Related Reading: What Does The Bible Say About Church Membership and Attendance? [5]

Resources: New International Version Bible (NIV) THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide

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