First Century Theology

An article from SVM Summer 2010

By Duane Nicol

The followers of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in the first century church were zealous and engaged after having learned of the Messiah’s wonderful and saving ways. Through our study of first century church history, we will learn how close we can be to the same fervor and commonality of purpose despite being plagued by many distractions, frustrations, and cares in the tumult of the twenty-first century. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:13, we are to grow “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Paul understood unity to be problematic in the church and provides guidance, hope, and direction in his words.

With the exception of the Worldwide Church of God, until the early 1970s there were very few Sabbath keeping churches other than the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the various incarnations of the seventh-day keeping Churches of God. Forty to fifty years later there literally are hundreds of Sabbath keeping churches, organizations, and ministries with many variations of doctrine. Where among them is unity of and in the faith?

At this juncture in the history of the Church of God, unity unfortunately seems to be elusive. In I Peter 1: 1 we read, “Peter an Apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” Peter notes separation of the early church by geography, not by doctrinal issues. Was the situation in Peter’s time in any sense the same as what we experience in the church today? What is certain is that Peter emphasized a basic principle of the faith in I Peter 3: 8: “Finally, be you all of one mind.”

Through the writings of Peter and of Paul, we are encouraged to seek “oneness of spirit.” Achieving this sort of unity is something that requires self-control and a sense of community.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers tells of a hardy group of people from the Roseto Valfortore in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia who migrated to America from 1882 to 1894 and settled in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania in an area they named Roseto. Among their more notable characteristics was a strong propensity toward unity, and over time the Rosetans became a tightly knit community.

In the late 1950s a physician named Stewart Wolf, a teacher at the medical school at the University of Oklahoma, came to a farm close to Roseto. He was invited by the local medical society to give a talk. After the talk one of the local doctors told Wolf about the anomaly of the Rosetans and how he never found anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease.

In 1961 Dr. Wolf decided to investigate this unusual phenomenon. With the help of students and the assistance of John Bruhn, a sociologist from Oklahoma, residents were interviewed concerning their dietary habits and social activities, and information was gathered from their medical records. Local business activities were observed to find any additional information that might shed light on the Rosetans’ unique cardiovascular health and longevity. The study concluded the typical death of a Rosetan resulted from old age. Interestingly the community experienced no suicide, alcoholism, or drug addiction as a rule and had very little crime.

Apparent in the study was the singular cohesiveness of Roseto’s social structure. Many homes had three generations of a family living under one roof. Families attended weekly mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and enjoyed feelings of belonging and the peace that church life brought to them. Over twenty-two separate civic organizations had formed in this town of just under 2,000 people. Also noted was an egalitarian ethos within the community that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures. What made this community so successful overall? The study concluded it was because the Rosetans were a comm-unity. What a wonderful example for us to emulate!

Paul writes that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given to us for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Why do we fail to properly edify—and unify—the body today? Is it Christ’s will that we have the proper conditions extant at this time to achieve edification? We are warned in I Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies (factions/divisions) among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you . . .”

The ones manifested must remain steadfast and hold to the truth. Proved through trial they must not flinch under pressure. The apostles who wrote these actual words were persecuted during their lives and eventually martyred for their faith. In spite of all hardship, they continued in helping the called ones to hold fast in truth. Do we remember what Jesus said of the pearl of great price? Consider how pearls are developed through agony and hardship by their host. A molecule of sand or pebble enters the oyster and forms an irritant and activates the oyster’s immune system. The oyster’s immune system releases crystalline nutrients of conchiolin, calcite, and aragonite to cover the irritant in several layers known as nacre. The process continues until the pearl is removed or the oyster dies.

Edification is achieved through development and work. The Bible tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Edification can be achieved. We are called to teach others. This work is not limited solely to ordained apostles, prophets, and pastors but to all believers called to do His work. We are called to be kings and priests with Christ. We have a duty to grow in grace and knowledge as we experience pain and agony in our individual lives.

Paul reminded Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned to fables”. (II Tim 4: 3-4)

We know, for example, that many in the early church fought against circumcision and that it was a bone of contention that had to be broken. The Jerusalem Council headed by James decided the matter, and the apostles went their way preaching that circumcision was not required for salvation. A meeting of the ministry made a sound decision that became the new doctrine of their day. There was to be no more dissention over a divisive doctrine of the church.

From the Systematic Theology Project that was created many years ago in the Church of God, we have developed our manifold statements of belief which most understand and accept as doctrine. Yet in our time we must heed with diligence Paul’s plea in Ephesians 4: 14, i.e., “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive,” for today strong winds of doctrinal division abound. From church eras to God’s government on earth with a hierarchical premise, to the place of safety, to naming the two witnesses, to prophecy or headline theology, to the beast and false prophet and the 666 scenario, to sacred names, to calendar issues, to Israelites and the U.S. and British Commonwealth, to the day and date controversy over Passover & Pentecost, to watching Germany, to obsessing with the Bible being one-third prophecy, to naming your group Philadelphians and others Laodiceans, and finally to attempting to predict the date of the return of Christ, these winds of doctrine have not edified but have created doubt, misunderstanding, and division.

A sobering admonition from the writer of Hebrews also is worthy of our earnest consideration: “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we must give an account” (Hebrews 4:13). All followers, all teachers, all preachers, and all parents will give an account to Jesus Christ upon His return. All doctrinal winds are open unto the eyes of Him to whom we will give this account. There is no need for undue worry or consternation, however, if we are diligent to remain close to the trunk of the tree of biblical faith and understanding and walk faithfully in the footsteps of our Lord.

A final word of encouragement from Paul bears examination. Our mission, if we decide to accept it, is stated in Ephesians 4:15: “But speaking the truth in love, may [you] grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”

We all must speak the truth. As Pilate asked long ago, “What is truth?” The real gospel message is truth, and it is good news. And what is the good news? A partial answer is found in John 10:10, “…I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” True believers are assured of an abundant life. Many who struggle through divorce, sickness, job losses, and a plethora of other conflicts may not believe that they really can have an abundant life.

But we all can have such a life in Christ! We are assured of a prosperous life when we are obedient. We are promised eternal life if we continue in the faith and continue in truth until our death. The real gospel message gives hope. There is no room for any doctrinal winds when we are busy living a full life, growing in grace and knowledge, and overcoming as Jesus instructs in Revelation chapters 2 & 3.

As we read Ephesians 4:11-16, we can imagine the mosaic of a man created by the depiction of hundreds of images of a head, an arm, a leg, and all other body parts. “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part” (verse 16).

Paul is describing a human body. He is relating to us that this body works together in unison and for the good of the whole like our human bodies do. When the lungs dispel carbon dioxide the heart does not say, “What are you doing that for?” Or when the nose gets clogged and has to expel mucus the heart does not say, “Would you hold down the noise, please?” A pictorial mosaic is an art form that is often used to show a figure with multiple pictures that give it shading, texture, and form for the viewer. When looked at from a distance we can see the form. When we look up close, we can see the individual faces of real people. So it is with the mosaic Paul has created for us in his admonition to the brethren at Ephesus.

Let us look at the mosaic that is the Church of God from a distance and then up close. Let us examine it from a first century perspective on theology and from a contemporary one. If we do we will see each of our faces and those of our brethren throughout the ages in the glorious, unified picture of His family the Eternal is preparing.