First Century Church

I try to imagine, sometimes, what it would be like as a new Christian in first century Rome. How hard would it be to leave my former life, either as an orthodox Jew, or a Samaritan worshiper of Jehovah, or a gentile worshiper of the gods? What would have to change in my home life? My work life? My politics and philosophy? What would it be like to hear Paul or Peter preach? To meet someone who could still recall the gentle inflections in Jesus’ voice, and the wrinkles in the corners of His eyes?

I try to imagine, sometimes, what it would be like to have a new family of fellow first century believers. What would we spend our conversations together talking about? What would we do together? Would I love them so much that I long to be with them when I can’t, when I’m working or traveling?

I try to imagine, sometimes, what our Christian gatherings would be like. Would we always meet in homes with a smaller number? Are there times when more Christians would gather for larger meetings? Where would we meet for those? By the river? In the temple courtyard? Under a tree or on a high hill outside the city?

What would we spend our meetings doing? Singing? Praying? Sharing a meal or two? Would someone always “preach” a prepared exposition of scripture? Or, would we preach to one another with knowing and love-filled eyes as we sang to one another, shared our struggles, encouraged one another, and told each other how much we love each other and Jesus? Would the schedule of the gathering be planned? Two songs and a prayer followed by two more songs? Or would each person share, start a song, lead a prayer when the thought, song, or thanksgiving came to him?

What would the Lord’s Supper be like? A pinch of cracker or flatbread? A sip of grape juice? Would we eat lamb every so often, as Jesus and His disciples did the day He first shared the Supper with them? Would we enjoy a good, old-fashioned potluck, bringing enough food to share with those who may not have as much? Would we sit in somber silence reflecting, or converse in feast-like fellowship about the Savior who died for us?

I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like as a new Christian in first century Rome. I also wonder what that Christian would think of “church” today.


9 thoughts on “First Century Church

  1. I have studied 1st century Christos/Jewish messianic/Gnostic and would have to say your experience would depend on where you were. Established Churches probably didn’t exist in Rome until the 2nd century.

    Jerusalem had the Pillars of the new movement driven out or killed by 70ad. They maintained Jewish law.

    Syria, where Paul was from, was a center of mystery religions–converts would likely come from these faiths.

    It took several centuries to settle on a single doctrine, even then there were heretics.

    I think you would be disappointed with 1st century Rome. Their way of thought did not encompass exclusion of Gods and they would and did try to make Christianity mesh with their ceremonies and beliefs. Thus all the letters from Paul then Clement . . .

    • bdrex,

      I think you are right, to an extent, that the experience of Christian fellowship and gatherings would be somewhat different from place to place in first century Rome. However, there seem to be some unifying qualities found in a majority of the churches.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “established churches” when you claim they “did not exist in Rome until the 2nd century.” Even if we were only considering the city of Rome (which I am not, but maybe that’s what you mean), Paul still wrote to various churches with his letter we call “Romans.” Though they did not meet in buildings, have a hierarchical leadership structure, or any other trappings of “establishment,” they were none-the-less well-established. So much so, in fact, that Paul could tell the Roman audience to greet different churches characterized by where they met and who composed their “membership” [see Romans 16]. Paul, by the way, probably died around 65-70AD, so Romans had to be written before then.

      Acts also records an early “established” church…from the beginning of the book, in fact. The end of Acts 2 records the organization and unification of the first Christians in Jerusalem. They spent time together every day, and they were devoted to very clear purposes: the apostles’ doctrine, breaking bread, fellowship, prayer.

      This record also indicates that the primary doctrine was singular and settled from the very beginning. In fact, Acts 4 even claims that these early Christians who were devoted to the apostles’ doctrine “were of one heart and soul.” I don’t think I would be disappointed in that first century Roman church.

      No, early on there was a certain continuity to the church that was lost over the next couple centuries. 1Corinthians 14:26 indicates that Christian gatherings involved the participation of everyone, and were to be focused on encouraging and “building up” everyone present. Paul, in this context, even appeals to the practice of “all the churches of the saints” (v33) to make his point that the Corinthians, if they resist his instructions, are departing from the conventional ways of the church. Such an appeal would require that there be some standards of convention, some unity of practice among churches empire-wide.

      Now, I am sure you are right that I would be disappointed in the problems and errors that Paul, et al., addressed in their letters. And, yet, there is that simplicity, purity and love in the “good” churches, such as the churches in Philippi, Ephesus, and the first church in Jerusalem recorded in Acts. That is the first century church I imagine and wonder about, the church where every Christian was welcomed, loved, provided for, built up, and readied to serve others in the same way.


    • Thanks, Dwight. I appreciate your encouragement.

      I also failed to comment, but I really appreciated your last blog post, The O’Malley Method. I especially agreed with your critique: “Somehow we have been deceived into thinking that the most important part of Christianity is the assembly.”

      But, how do we solve a centuries-old problem that is ingrained in the culture of the church? I wish I could ask Paul that question…or, better yet, Jesus.

      In Christ,

  2. “{Acts also records an early “established” church…from the beginning of the book, in fact. The end of Acts 2 records the organization and unification of the first Christians in Jerusalem. They spent time together every day, and they were devoted to very clear purposes:}”

    I understand why you would think this is the Christianity we know, going on the Bible alone. However, Paul answered controversies and unless we know what he was answering it is hard to fully understand his letters. And in Jerusalem, their established purposes were not established doctrine, of today.

    The group from Jerusalem, according to the distinguished Clement, was led by James, the brother of the lord, for 26 years or 30 depending on which letter we accept.

    James, we know from several historical documents, was a law abiding Jew. Laws included Kosher eating and over 600 other Jewish traditions in the Torah. James the Just (Just–means blameless or sinless to Jews) was said to have knees so calloused from praying that he was called old camel knees. Clement also said James was quoted as saying “forgive them they know not what they do”, when he was killed.

    Clement never mentions the quote in the Gospels. It was as if he heard it for the first time.

    The Torah, was called the laws in Greek translations. These first 5 books of the Old Testament were the laws of God, written by Moses and Jesus even said he did not come to change one iota of the Mosaic law.

    In acts, a peculiarity occurs, one half is first person and the other third person. This is even more drastic in form, in Greek. The later chapters identify James as the Jerusalem leader and it is likely his disciples who inspire Peter to return to Kosher eating habits.

    Christians down-play James, with quotes of “supposed Pillars” yet these representatives inspired enough respect to cause Peter to denounce Paul’s teachings and eat Kosher. James was revered and called a lord himself–entering the holy of hollies, which could only be done by an anointed Bishop. Anointed, christ (Christos), and lord are all equal in semantics.

    Disrupting your faith does not motivate me, I point these things out because there is evidence they are true. Yet, traditions, called law, like eating Kosher and circumcision, were not required of gentiles, even before Paul (Noahide law allows for non-Jews to follow their own traditions).

    The Jerusalem church looked very Jewish and was. Paul brought Jesus to non-Jews–actually in accordance with already established Jewish tradition and law.

    Church fathers have acknowledged “Churches” were a late 1st to 2nd century development. Thus some of Paul’s letters are said, in seminary, to be from Paul’s camp. Not written by him, but from his teachings.

    Much of what we believe, has been orchestrated by the Catholic Church, to command allegiance. Leaders thought we ordinary citizens couldn’t take the slightest imperfection (and they wrote this many times).

    It doesn’t bother me to think a letter credited to Paul was written by someone else-in accordance to his teachings. The 2nd destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and other comments show that these letters were written after Paul’s death.

    I got my info. from letters, Bible (Church history Several versions) and religious writings found recently. Everything I’ve said can and will be disputed by someone, however, taking all evidence into account–points to a varied Christianity. Which is okay.

    • bdrex,

      I think you are making my point here:
      You said, “I understand why you would think this is the Christianity we know, going on the Bible alone. However, Paul answered controversies and unless we know what he was answering it is hard to fully understand his letters. And in Jerusalem, their established purposes were not established doctrine, of today.”

      But the point of my post is that Christianity, and specifically “church,” today IS very different from the Jerusalem church.

      As for the rest of your comment, I appreciate your study and the input you have provided. I agree whole-heartedly that there are many aspects of Christianity (in a broad sense) today that were later developments…even “churches” as we know them meeting in a “church building” for a scheduled period of “worship,” etc. But, again, that’s the point of my post. That what we call “church” today looks much different from what the first churches did, meeting in homes for more informal gatherings to eat together and encourage one another.

      As for what Jesus said about the Mosaic Law…I believe your comment is inaccurate. You said, “Jesus even said he did not come to change one iota of the Mosaic law.” What He actually said was, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) He says nothing about not changing them. In fact, by saying that He is fulfilling them He is necessarily saying that at least some will be changed. This is the point of the book of Hebrews, but I won’t get into that right now. In the very least we must say that Christ’s sacrifice made all other sacrifices ineffective. So, that means we don’t HAVE to offer animal sacrifices as the Law prescribes…but it doesn’t mean we can’t offer them as a sign of our devotion to God (as evidenced by Paul).

      As for the James/Peter/Paul controversy, I think you’ll find if you look closer at the story that it was not James who was involved, but his students. In fact, it was James, in Acts 15, who said that they should not trouble the Gentiles with regulations of the Law. In Galatians (the controversy you referred to), the issue was disciples of James avoiding Gentiles, and Peter being tempted to do the same. Peter did not denounce Paul’s teachings. Peter was tempted to avoid the very people that God had told him were clean. So, Paul rebuked him for it.

      Now, James very well could have kept some of the laws. Paul, himself, was known to offer a sacrifice or make a vow. He even circumcised Timothy, though he told the Galatians that if they received circumcision they would be cut off from Christ. But, the whole point of Galatians is that the Law must not become a requirement for salvation…for Jew or Gentile. Salvation (justification) is by grace through faith, not by law. That doesn’t mean Jewish Christians can’t observe some of the OT laws, but it means they must not view them as essential to their or others’ salvation.

      As for your comment about the Church fathers…I am not exactly sure what you are referring to when you say they claimed “‘Churches’ were a late 1st to 2nd century development.” Again, if you mean that the kind of churches we have today, meeting in buildings intended as places of worship, hierarchical leadership, church budgets and business and all of that, then I agree. But that’s not what constitutes a church. A church is just a group of Christians in the same location who meet together to serve, fellowship, worship, encourage, and learn. And that, according to the great historian, Luke, occurred very soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection (about 50 days).

      As for Paul’s letters not being written by Paul…I have seen no convincing evidence that they were not written by him. If you have any, I would love to see it. (Mentions of AD70 do not necessarily constitute evidence for later writing, unless of course you discount the possibility of predictive prophecy.) On the contrary, Paul’s letters fit so well in the historical narrative of Acts that there is much more evidence that they were written by him…or in the very least during his lifetime.

      Oh, and as for the peculiarity in Acts where Luke sometimes uses first person and sometimes third, this can adequately be explained by the fact that sometimes Luke was present for the events he records, and sometimes he was not. He uses “we” when he was there, and “they” when he wasn’t, just as you would if you were recording what happened to you and a group of friends last week.

      Well, thanks, again, for your input and discussion. I can tell you have put a lot of thought and study into this. And you and I at least agree that the early church doctrines and practices were quite different from much of what we experience in modern Christianity.


  3. Thanks for your response. I could respond to all your points but won’t. As for Paul, Peter and gentiles, there were Noah-hide laws already in existence. They allowed gentiles to convert without following all the Laws.
    So, this was not a new teaching but a continuation of Jewish teachings. The dead sea scrolls give some clarification on this. This is why I believe Jesus was not changing or completing a doctrine, but, like you said, fulfill it. I don’t see this statement (fulfilling) as saying change or status quo, we choose how to read it.

    Because we left the Jewish Laws behind we assume he meant change. But again jewish law allowed gentiles to follow their own customs, so that conclusion is ill-informed. Bdrex

    • I must have my wires crossed on our discussion, because I am no longer exactly sure what you are trying to say. Maybe we’re talking on different levels, or I’m just not reading well enough to follow…

      So, here’s what I understand and agree with from your last comment: that Christianity is a continuation of Jewish teachings. I think this is absolutely true. But, at the same time, Christianity is a “new covenant,” as Jesus called it (in contrast to the “old covenant” into which Jews were born and Gentiles were proselytized). It is a continuation, but not the same…”transition” might be the most helpful term for me…”fulfilled” still remains the term Jesus used.

      In any case, my desire is to keep looking for what Jesus intended Christianity to be…nothing more, nothing less. And I hope others do the same.


  4. The Pharisee Hillel came to prominance just before Jesus. Many of Jesus’ teachings are in essence the same as Hillel.

    There were several movements according to Josephus’, Antiquities…Pharisee, Shammai pupils may have been the hypocrites attacked (although Jesus view on marriage seems closer to Shammai)

    What I was saying is I don’t think Jesus was starting a new religion, but bringing the sects together. Yet, Jews of diaspora and gentiles could be Jewish with existing law.

    What did Jesus intend for Christianity? My answer, compassion–follow his two commandments.

    I find it odd that we still have Pagan practices in our Churches. Lighting candles-Rome sold the official alter candles to earn money (Pagan times) Easter egg hunts are fertility rituals adopted to entice Pagans. ODD. Bdrex

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