Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
A number of years ago, I saw a cartoon of a backpacking group. Each member had his eyes locked on the feet of the person in front of him—and the man in front, his nose buried in a map, was stepping off a cliff.
We laugh over such cartoons, yet Jesus warns us of doing the same thing in the verse above: “Whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” In other words, consider the end results of their actions. Is that how you want to end up?
Just because somebody claims to be obeying Jesus or has truth, doesn’t mean we should blindly follow them wherever they lead us. Such is the early church.
It is easy to put the early Christians on a pedestal because they had access to the apostles or those who knew the apostles; because it was “original” Christianity; because they lived closer to Jesus’ time than we do; because they knew Greek (at least some of them) and we don’t. If what they wrote is contrary to what we believe, should we accept their beliefs as superior for the above reasons?
Let’s apply the verse from the beginning to this question. How did the early Christians end up?
For three hundred years, the early church remained firm against persecution. Despite hideous tortures, they remained faithful to Jesus and His teachings. In 313 AD, Constantine’s Edict of Milan gave freedom of religion to Christians. He subsequently made Christianity the state religion. In turn, the church became just like the world—in fact, part of the world, joining in the armies of the world, the business of the world, the ruling of the world. The result was the Roman Catholic church and near-extinction of true Christianity.
Why would the church crumble in just a few short years, going from the persecuted to becoming persecutors of heretics by AD 325? I know of only one way—if the lay people were following the leaders instead of Jesus. As long as they were told to obey Jesus, they did so, but when the leaders stepped off the cliff, they did the same. We know, too, that the leaders were not following Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, because they turned from following Him so quickly. We need to remember, despite whatever they may have said, that the church crumbled quickly when Satan changed his tactics.
In studying the writings of the early church, I have read many interesting things and good teachings. However, I have read way too much opinion stated as fact. It seems they were just like us—susceptible to tangents and misunderstandings. They were human.
For example, I believe it was Clement of Alexandria who wrote that it was wrong for a man to shave his beard, because that is how God made him. Yet he wrote, in the same letter, that it would be fine for a man to shave his head. Huh? We can’t have it both ways!
The New Testament is timeless. Almost everything in it is as absolutely relevant to today as it was the day it was written. I believe that God did not spell out certain things so that we can adapt to the culture. For example, God did not command men (or women) to wear robes, or only to walk instead of ride, or only to ride oxcarts instead of horse-drawn wagons.
The early Christian writings, on the other hand, are set in a specific period of time. They do not have the timeless element of the Bible. They are not inspired by God like the Bible. I do not want someone to hold up this article 2000 years from now as though I am somehow closer to God than they ever can be. Neither should we do the same with the early Christians.
If Jesus were like Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius or any other dead religious leader, it would be vitally important to read the writings of the early Christians, because they would be most likely to contain true Christianity. But Jesus is not dead. He is alive! He gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13), and we can have just as great a relationship with Him as the Apostle Paul! Do you realize that Paul received his teachings by revelation from Jesus, not by learning from the apostles?
But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The same Jesus who inspired Paul is still available to each one of us today. It is the Holy Spirit Who teaches us what the Bible really means—not the Early Christians. We do not need to dig through nine volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers to know how to obey Jesus—and then wonder if we know everything we need to know.
Do we throw away the early Christians’ writings and begin anew? No, they have things that they can teach us. We need to remember, however, that just because two men wrote a certain thing doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire church practiced that way. For example, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria both wrote about headcovering—and both called for women to veil their faces for modesty’s sake. They were the only two men I know of who taught on the subject. Yet, Christian art from the Catacombs shows women with unveiled faces. They did not veil their faces in Rome, at least—just their heads.
Jesus tells us to obey Him. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, He gives us the order of headship:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
(1 Corinthians 11:3)
The head of every man is Jesus—not the pastor, the deacon, the TV preacher. We need to obey Him first of all. He is quite capable of leading us to do His will if we ask Him.
If we do not know what Jesus meant by a certain command, we need to seek His instruction. Even the early church might have gotten it wrong.
Jesus is the real leader we need to follow. He will not lead us off a cliff. If He leads through a leader in our lives—parents, pastors, etc.—we need to be sure that we observe the results of their teachings and confirm that we really are following Jesus. We need to be checking in the New Testament to make sure they really know the right path to follow.
Keep pressing on the narrow way to Heaven!
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.