To say that something is fluid envisions flux, change and perhaps substantial differences. Just how fluid or homogeneous was the early church?
A recent presentation led me to ask some historical and theological questions. To what degree did cultural forces shape the early church? Did it possess a mooring prohibiting divergent practices? Can we know? Does it make any difference for us today, whether they were quite fluid or solidly homogeneous?
Academics have proposed several different ways to classify ancient associations and clubs. As one might expect, early congregations can be grouped among such organizations and analyzed sociologically. Researchers might assume that understanding the dynamics within one type of association will cast sociological light on others.
Ancient documents have shed light on how some of these organizations managed specific policies and activities. Sometimes, their practices reflect Christian behavior, such as in the sharing of wealth (Acts 2:45; 4:32; Polybius, Histories, XX.6.1,5-6). Because similarities can exist, might such organizations and their practices inform us how ancient churches functioned?
Could this line of reasoning yield insight for advancing women’s studies regarding the ancient church? It has been pointed out that women held prominent positions in other ancient religious assemblies (Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations). Might this suggest that the church also reflected such practices in some places? For example, among the Montanists women played a greater role in prophesying.
Everett Ferguson’s astute observation tempers what might become unwarranted speculation. “There had been many places where women functioned as teachers and prophets in New Testament times, and the attempted revival of prophesy in the second-century Montanist movement gave women once more a prominent speaking ministry. … The setting in which they did their prophesying is not clear. Even in Montanism there was no regular practice of women speaking in church” (Ferguson, The Early Church and Today. Vol. 1:135,136).
He further points out, “Except in some heretical and schismatic groups, the churches in the early patristic period, as in the New Testament, evidence prohibitions on women speaking in the assembly and serving in leadership positions of bishop/presbyter or presiding at liturgical functions” (Ferguson, 137). Thus, while at times the early church did share some similarities with other groups, on other occasions, for one reason or another, it took a counter-cultural position.
It seems to me that without direct evidence on the early church, to pursue a line of inquiry that analyzes other associations to try to draw affirmative conclusions about the early church is at best simply suggestive of possibilities. At worst it would be misleading. Even if, the early church was highly fluid, so what?
Let’s cut to the chase. Even in the New Testament, we find evidence of some degree of diversity in doctrine and practice often highlighting degrees of spiritual health (Galatians 1:6-7; 5:4; 1 Corinthians 3:1; 11:17-21; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Revelation 2:6,15).
What is significant for both historical and theological inquiries is recognizing that God’s word called(s) churches then and now to conform to what God has determined is spiritually healthy. In biblical parlance, this is the language of “soundness” and what “ought” or “should” be pursued (1 Timothy 3:15; Titus 1:9,13; 2:1; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34).
In some quarters, to be “sound” is negatively equated with a human constructed list of what is right. And that list just might include requiring three songs followed by a prayer! Let’s not lose good biblical language to such stereotypes. Scripture uses this language to reference what is healthy and good. We need to be healthy!
Spiritually healthy teaching produces Christian behavior that should be passed on to others (2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2; Titus 2:1). We do not determine what is spiritually healthy; God’s word does.
To the degree that churches then or now embrace(d) God’s message shaping them into the people God desires, they are worthy of imitation. However, while the church should be a carrier of God’s truth, the existence of a church does not prove that it is.
The bottom line guiding how our congregations should function is found in neither ancient nor contemporary church practices. Rather, God’s word should shape our congregations. What any particular church might do is incidental. God’s word remains normative.