I’ve got a pet peeve that might surprise you. I don’t know if it’s because I’m growing gray and AARP membership is contingent upon my ability to put the “grump” in grumpy old man or that some things just bug me more than they used to. For example, those who don backwards baseball caps indoors, often to hide some mop top of long unkempt locks. I don’t have a problem with baseball caps, or wearing them backwards, or unkempt hair, or indoors but put them all together and I want to claw out my eyes with a plastic fork.
As a follically-challenged man, I love a baseball cap to cover my bald noggin and protect my eyes from sun glare. Baseball caps were originally designed to be worn outdoors and in the sun (hence the brim), but not anymore. For centuries, tradition held a hat was always removed when indoors. It was the mark of a gentle man. I grew up in cowboy country and even the most hardened, harried and hair-gone-wild cowpoke removed his Stetson as he entered a business, home or church. But somewhere along the way, hat removal became culturally optional.
I have no doubt Jesus and the boys removed their camel-hair beanies when they worshipped while women covered their long hair. It’s biblical. Paul was pretty harsh on the subject. He said a man who wears a hat in church is “dishonorable” (I Corinthians 11:4) and if he sports long hair a “disgrace” (v. 14). It’s common to argue this was merely Paul’s opinion or some Corinthian cultural issue at play, but Paul splits no hairs in his teaching that includes a strict command: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (vs. 1). That tells me Paul (and Jesus) wore their hair short and uncovered. Furthermore, Paul concludes: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God (v. 16).” So we’re not talking something unique to Corinth or just Pauline opinion, for it was the “nature of things” (v. 14) and a tradition (v. 2) clearly held elsewhere. I don’t want to be “contentious” but it’s making my point: culture or not, some things don’t change. Hats and hair, for example. But I digress.
After all, culture can pervert Original Purpose and practice. God designs but man alters, perverts, enhances or reinvents. It may not be wrong, but it ain’t what God intended, like it or not. Sin can be renamed an alternative lifestyle or a choice or a social disease, but it’s still sin no matter how its dressed up. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, radical revisions don’t happen instantaneously. Rather, we change one degree at a time. What was once cool became warm, then toasty, then steaming, then sizzling. And the next thing you know someone sticks a fork in you and you finally get the point.
After two thousand years of church history, no denomination is immune from the infection of human tradition and theology. From Catholic to charismatic, Mennonite to Methodist, Episcopalian to emerging, we’ve all got our allergies, flus and colds Even non-denominational churches who immunize against human tradition, rule and ritual can sorely swallow theology less biblical than we care to confess. We’re all ill and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The problem is, like the first-century expression of Judaism, today’s religious culture and Church barely resembles the Original DNA. To be brutally honest, we’ve allowed pagan culture to define us far more than biblical instruction. Like the frog, the Church has been slowly boiled by human desire and molded by cultural relevance. Now don’t misunderstand, I believe the Church must be relevant, but I also believe it’s as heretical to over-assimilate cultural expressions as it is to under-assimilate them. God probably views the hip church with the same disdain as the church mired in 1975. We need to be culturally relevant, but not everything relevant is true, noble, right, pure, lovely or admirable (Philippians 4:8). Thankfully, I don’t have to decide that line for you, but I do believe Scripture is clear on the Original DNA. To disregard or dismiss these strictures is a dangerous decision and perilous path.
Like baseball caps, too much of the “church” is backwards, upside down or inside out. What if it was supposed to look completely different than it is? What if the Original DNA infused into the Church on the day of Pentecost is now some perversion into a distant, cross-eyed and genetically inferior step-cousin? Yes, we proudly boast our family name and heritage but in reality we harbor few of the original genetic characteristics and behaviors.
Before you dismiss that thought, don’t forget it only took two thousand years for the Jewish religious system to devolve into a Frankenstein faith that Jesus no longer recognized. “I never knew you,” he declared regarding this broken relationship (Matthew 25:12). In his final pronouncement to the Jews, the Christ mourned what they had become and issued an utter desolation upon the temple, a prediction that came true forty years later when Rome destroyed Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; 24:15-25, 34).
That’s what makes the early church so powerful. They followed a theological template for “church,” as revealed in the book of Acts and explained in various letters by significant leaders like Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude the brothers of Jesus. In these writings, we catch glimpses not only for how the early church practiced their faith, but also admonitions and corrections to retain the Original DNA. Unlike the Old Testament, which features law, poetry and prophecy, the New Testament is primarily a history and instruction book. It’s the owner’s manual for being and doing “church” in the culture. God wanted to be clear about how His Church should feel, think and behave.
Maybe that’s why the early church grew (rapidly) despite horrific persecution, heresy and crisis. It grew when opposed by religious and political powers. It grew when key leaders were slaughtered. It grew despite famines, wars and poverty. The early church grew without raising a sword, winning an election or a building campaign.
Here’s a thought: maybe we don’t need another church growth book. Maybe all we need is to repeatedly read and teach Acts, then relentlessly pursue and imitate the first-century church in theology, form and practice. We need to simply restore the Original Imprint of what God desired His church to look like. Nothing more and nothing less. Maybe it isn’t about buildings, billboards and bulletins. Maybe it’s not about guitars, candles and smoke machines. Maybe it’s not about coffee bars, stained glass and parking lots. After all, if God wanted his people to inhabit buildings, the Jerusalem Temple would still be standing. But God left that building long ago. God lives in the human heart not a baptistery. He dwells in our thoughts not in a programmed curriculum. He inhabits our praise not a stage. It’s time to take off our caps and do what they did, like it or not.
What did this first century church look like? In a nutshell the entire form and practice of the early church can be summarized in a mere nine verses:
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:38-47)
The first-century church was born into the cultural mall of its day. The early Christians met where Jews (and later Greeks and Romans) gathered en masse. Thousands traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival and 3000 accepted Peter’s message. Since most were not from Jerusalem only the natives continued to meet daily as a large group in the Temple (a place called Solomon’s Porch) to further share their faith and connect with people.
Theologically and practically, Christians were individuals who accepted the message, repented and were baptized (Greek: baptistheto, which literally means immersed, plunged under or submerged). As part of a faith community they daily gathered in the cultural malls to meet one another. They also created intentional community in private homes to learn from their spiritual mentors (apostles, later elders), to build friendships (fellowship), to eat common meals (breaking of bread) and to pray. No one in the community had a need and those who owned property voluntarily (and gladly) sold it to give to anyone (whether part of the church or not) in need.
What’s missing from this picture? No church building. No programmed worship. No preaching lectures, offertories or altar calls. No pastoral robes, hymnbooks or bulletins. No offices, church signs or board meetings. No central headquarters, no CEO pastor or denominational hierarchy. Just a bunch of people who had found Jesus (or better, Jesus had found them) and gathered whenever they could, wherever they could, to study Scripture, pray, eat, worship, share needs and finances. In some of these gatherings, particularly on the first day of the week (Sunday), these Christians also participated in the “Love Feast” or Lord’s Supper or communion. But it was no cuplet and chicklet, drive-by experience that many churches use today, nor was it administered in the morning to everyone in attendance. It was a special, believer-only evening meal that, like the Sabbath meal (Saturday night) was celebrated every Sunday night.
You see a lot of “church” traditions are the product of cultural assimilation and accommodation. As the Church evolved and assimilated into Greco-Roman culture it introduced various traditions ranging from infant baptism to ecclesiastical systems with bishops, archbishops, cardinals and pope (that looked remarkably like the Roman political system). Pagan celebrations like Yule and Samhain were recast as a “Christ Mass” and “All Hallow’s Eve” to accommodate cultural tradition. The Protestant Reformation abandoned many errant Roman Catholic traditions but also promoted sermon-centered, hymn worship. Later ecclesiastical expressions would infuse sinners’ prayers, padded pews, and Sunday School. Some denominations theologically watered down baptism (helped by the 17th century King James’ translators who refused to translate the word literally from fear of their king’s Anglicanism, which practiced sprinkling not immersion). In the past century, whether by convenience or conviction, many evangelical churches abandoned weekly communion. Today, it’s practiced monthly, quarterly or even annually. The Quakers don’t celebrate communion or baptize at all.
We’ve traveled many miles from Acts 2:38-47. Too far, in my opinion.
That’s why I’m calling for a New Restoration or a reboot to the Original Operating System. As the Universal Church, we need to rediscover and reinstall the Original DNA. We need to permanently erase all that cannot be reasonably defended in Acts 2. We’ve gotten cozy in our castles and learned to live with our theological and ecclesiological fevers, wheezes and sniffles. It still doesn’t make it right. God wants His Bride Pure and Productive, not simply comfortable and feeling under the weather.
It’s seriously time to get back to “church” and God’s Original DNA. Martin Luther sought to reform the Church with 95 Theses. Hopefully, I won’t need 95 posts to reveal the reboot, but it all starts with a re-definition.
And that’s up next.