The Early Church

When the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked the Pharisees if he should crucify their King (John 19:15), they cried out:

“We have no king but Caesar!”

And so the Roman state, at the behest of the local state empowered Pharisees and the Herodians, put Jesus to death by crucifiction.

But was this Roman/Herodian system an aberration? Was it merely a rare, unusual and exceptionally evil form of government – rather than the norm?

World history would strongly indicate otherwise – right up to the present day. Nevertheless, most Christians are taught by their church to believe that the kingdoms and governments of this world are intended to be a tool of God on earth.

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Could government’s divinely appointed purpose really be to advance the Kingdom of God and to see that justice is done? Should Christians therefore support and obey government as a matter of moral obligation, not just to avoid arrest – and not only as a sacrifice for the Lord’s sake, to avoid hindering the Gospel message?

The early church leaders were faced with just such a choice from the very beginning.

Like today, believers then were far from perfect, but the church was led by the founding Apostles, who were directly instructed by Jesus. Of course, in and of themselves, they too were flawed human beings. But they were also specially inspired by God to put down in written form, an accurate point of reference for us to follow:  The letters and books of the New Testament.

One of these, the Book of Acts, decribes how the Apostles of the newly established church acted, how they prayed and how God responded, in regard to human government – when it tried to silence them:

So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them,

“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.”

So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way of punishing them, because of the people…

So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said:

“Lord, You [are] God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.’ For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together…”

And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.  – Acts 4:18

The truth is, this kind of public prayer would never be heard in most churches today. Instead, leaders would cower and plead for permission to meet in private, while reminding members to honour the powers that be.

But in the early church, whenever necessary, they openly opposed and prayed directly against government rulers. In the Acts 4 passage, they even quoted Psalms chapter 2, in which it is revealed that God treats government leaders not with honour, but with derisive laughter:

Why do the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed, [saying],

‘Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.’

He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision. Then He shall speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure:

‘Yet I have set My King On My holy hill of Zion.’

Christ the true King is here portrayed to be in direct opposition to the kings and government rulers of the earth – hardly consistent with prevailing Christian ideas about their divinely ordained origins.

Surely, if governments really were a part of God’s practical earthly prescription for sin; might we not expect them to behave rather better than ordinary people?

But instead, we see the state as the consistent enemy of Christianity, and we see this reflected throughout the New Testament:

  • The early Christians were jailed and some killed by the state empowered local religious police, and later by Caesar.

  • The early Christians openly defied free speech restrictions.

  • Paul escaped from the hand of a city governor in a basket lowered down the city walls. (2 Corinthians 11:33)

  • Peter was miraculously broken out of prison and then went “on the run”. (Acts 12)

  • The early church were taught that as a baby, Moses was saved by his parents, because, “they were not afraid of the king’s command“. (Hebrews 11:23)

  • The early church were taught that Moses himself went on the run – having broken Egyptian law he, “forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king.” (Hebrews 11:27)

  • The early church were taught never to go to the judicial systems of this world for justice (1 Corinthians 6).

Certainly, some of the scenarios described in the Book of Acts were unusual events. So what about government in the daily lives of the early church members?

Welfare Without Government

Unlike many churches of today, in the early Church there were no political campaigns to “make poverty history” (with other people’s money). And there were no calls for “social justice” by lobbying the government to steal money from others and distribute it to the poor.

Instead, the early church took the instructions of Jesus seriously – that each believer should personally give to the poor. There was no threat of confiscation. And no condemnation or manipulation – unlike much religious fundraising of today. In the place of manipulation, there was accurate teaching underlining free will; and in the place of condemnation, there was hope:

I thought it necessary to exhort the brethren to go to you ahead of time, and prepare your generous gift beforehand, which you had previously promised, that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation.

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written:

“He has dispersed abroad,He has given to the poor;His righteousness endures forever.” [Psalms 112:9]

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God. – 1 Corinthians 9:5-11

Note that giving was to be as each one, “purposes in his heart” – entirely an act of free will. The church simply functioned as one effective distribution hub for those voluntary gifts that members chose to contribute through that channel:

Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. – Acts 34-35

And church fellowship was certainly not in the form of a commune. This was underlined when a man called “Ananias” and his wife broke a promise in regard to funds from a property they had publicly dedicated to God. The Apostle Peter rebuked the man for lying, but specifically upheld his private property rights:

“While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” – Acts 5:4

Nevertheless, in accordance with the very strong words of Jesus, this church based hub of distribution was in no way permitted to replace basic family obligations. The natural family framework of social welfare was always upheld as absolutely fundamental to the Kingdom of God:

He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God… For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you… no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother… making the word of God of no effect…” – Mark 7:9-12

But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. …But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:4-8

Although Western Christianity has always been very flawed, it has still had a long history of cultural prevalence – that is, until very recently.

One primary reason for this rapid cultural and moral collapse in just the last 60 years or so, is to be found within those two verses above: Western Christianity has “denied the faith” by abandoning family duty for systems of government bureaucracy.

But to the rapidly growing, world changing early church, this would have been unthinkable:

They knew that calling for Caesar or Herod to take over their own personal family responsibilities under the Kingdom of God, would have been to deny the faith. And just as Jesus emphasised, they knew that abandoning such duty was a capital offence under the Old Covenant – and an evil anti-Christ doctrine under the New.

Law Without Government

Unless hauled before government courts e.g. for speaking freely, believers of the early church were specifically taught to avoid the world’s systems of “law and order”. They were emphatically told that this applied to all matters of dispute – including crimes like fraud. The Apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian church quite severely on this matter:

Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?

…If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?

But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? – 1 Corinthians 6: 1-8

But today, primarily for financial gain, many ministries are literally built upon threats of copyright enforcement by government against their fellow Christians. A church might well be threatened with court action, just for singing a contemporary song of worship without copyright payment and approval.

And yet despite this environment, in some churches there are entire services dedicated to honouring the world’s systems of law enforcement. While at the same time – in direct disobedience to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 6 – they have no system of their own in place for judicial resolution between members.

National Security – Without Government

Their feet are swift to shed blood:

Destruction and misery are in their ways:

And the way of peace have they not known

There is no fear of God before their eyes.

– Romans 3:15-18

Unlike today, reverence for government military force played no part in the early church.

To them, as with the general population, the Roman military was an occupying force. Roman soldiers did not represent security, but the violation of their rights as free people. Unless that is, they were collaborators or beneficiaries, as were many of the state-privileged religious leaders.

It is true that a number of Roman soldiers did become believers. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Christ, spoke to some of them – but certainly did not “thank them for their service”. He rather warned them not to bully or to take money from innocents. What was not required, was that they immediately desert – which would have been a capital offence in the eyes of the Roman system:

…the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” – Luke 3:14

However, by warning them not to mistreat innocent people, a line was drawn that could well lead to a life or death decision, should their commanding officers order them to do so. Herod’s soldiers for example, had been ordered to murder babies in an attempt to kill the Christ child. No believer could participate in that, no matter the cost.

Today, there are many soldiers who have crossed that line. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed in places like Iraq because of soldiers who are “just following orders”. Many of those doing the killing are believers. And contrary to the teaching of Jesus and John the Baptist, many churches and para-church ministries even teach these Christian soldiers that they bear no moral responsibility.

But is security really to be found in mass murder? That is not what the early church believed. Does it really take so much faith to believe that God can protect us without destroying innocents?

Early believers were well aware of the many examples of God’s protection and security, even against overwhelming odds, in the Old Testament. In not one of these were innocents targeted and in some cases, including at the walls of Jericho, God went to great lengths to save even a single innocent. For more on this, including some notes on the question of the children of wicked enemies being killed see the message, “Is God Pro-War?“.

Personal Security – Without Government

For practical personal security, the Lord did tell his followers to buy a sword – as a priority, even if it meant selling personal property. The teachings of Jesus also included examples of landowners protecting their own property with armed force.

The Apostles of the early church were there in person when words such as these were spoken by the Lord:

“…he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” – Luke 22:36

“…But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard. Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers” – Mark 12:7-9

And contrary to longstanding misinterpretation, a proper understanding of Romans 13 actually shows that the early church was specifically taught both to use and to respect armed force. But not by governments to enforce ungodly taxes and burdensome rules – only by those with legitimate God-given authority.

Such legitimate God-given authorities would include: Heads of household, property owners, proprietors, managers, captains of vessels etc. The early church was taught at length about these authorities in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5 and by Peter in his first epistle, chapters 2 and 3 – and in many other places. But those passages do not include governments, which gain their power only by force or threat and by violating and stealing from legitimate authorities.

However Peter did instruct the church that, due to the will of human beings in choosing government instead of God, an exception can be made when the state deals with actual wrongdoers – as defined by the principles of God. More on this can be found under the title, “Romans 13: Armed Liberty“.

In summary:  To the early Christians, faith in God’s protective promises offered the greatest invisible force of security possible. But the Lord also said it was impossible to avoid all problems in this life. So, in accordance with the instructions of Jesus and in accordance with Romans 13, the early church members were taught to carry weapons and – when appropriate – to be ready to use them for personal, family and business security.

But what about using those weapons in a war of liberation?

The early church was not compelled to take up arms, but to deliver a message that was far more powerful. There are many in the Bible record who through faith, “subdued kingdoms”  (Hebrews 11), but this always required special wisdom from God in the specific circumstances.

Jesus certainly did not call for an immediate physical confrontation with the Roman or Herodian state. Instead, by obeying the Lord’s commission to preach and to teach the Kingdom of God, the early church was to be much more effective than any civil insurrection – and so transformed the whole world forever, from the inside out.

Final Word

The early church was not in league with the kingdoms of this world because it preached the all sufficient Kingdom of God under Christ the King.

By revealing God as our Heavenly Father, Jesus showed that in the Kingdom of God, the oppressive, centralised, multi-layered, bureaucratic systems of this world are replaced by the single, most decentralised level of authority possible – the patriarchal family order.

If churches today want a return to anything like the transforming power of the early church, then it is vital that this divine framework be upheld. To compromise this or to proclaim any other message is to pollute the preaching of the Kingdom of God:

I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. – 1 Corinthians 11:3

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her… This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. – Ephesians 5:22-33

…the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit  …is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord… Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered. – 1 Peter 3:4-6

This Gospel message confronts the kingdoms of this world; but neither Jesus nor the early church taught that open disobedience to earthly government systems or their rules was obligatory or wise.

Yet, Jesus and the disciples certainly did so on occasion, whenever necessary or even desirable – by picking ears of corn on the Sabbath for example. Peter, Paul and the other early church leaders also did the same, especially when necessary for the Gospel message, even if it meant jail – from which they were then supernaturally rescued.

However, in no way did the Apostles ever give deliberate offence to the unenlightened, which could only harm the reputation of Christianity. That could never help in spreading the word of Christ – and nor would constantly landing in jail over minor matters.

In fact, had Jesus given the early church a mandate of physical resistance, it could have meant only one thing: outright war.

But the Gospel commission is not a call to earthly war, nor to imprisonment for petty infractions. According to the Apostle Peter, speaking under inspiration of the Holy Spirit; like the early church, our objective is indeed to live “as free” people, within the constraints of living in a morally upright way. But he also added mention of complying with the rules of ungodly men insofar as is possible – as a sacrifice “for the Lord’s sake” and the Gospel’s.

“…when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice…” – 1 Peter 2:12-16

Therefore, in dealing with government rules and regulations, the Kingdom principle at work is exactly the same as it is for taxation:  On this matter, Jesus made clear to his disciples in private that, The sons are free. But he also said that rather than provoke a physical confrontation, and in order for his message to be heard, we should comply, “lest we offend them…”

“From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them… give it to them…” – Matthew 17:25-27

However, the very foundation of such slavery is undermined when Christians introduce the oppressed to the knowledge of liberty and the supremacy of the Kingdom of God under our eternal King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was fundamental to the message of the early church and the same message is desperately needed today. A mixed and polluted faith can produce only limited results at best. How can God fully work with and confirm a compromised message, such as we have today?

The Gospel of Mark concludes with this verse:

And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through accompanying signs. Amen.

Only the pure message of His Kingdom will produce the same results as the early church – with the “greater works” that Jesus promised all who would continue to believe only in Him:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” – John 14:12