Postmodern Christians live with an uncomfortable tension between primitivism (going backward) and progressivism (moving forward). On the one hand, they are progressing, with the postmodern culture, out of the prison-like structures and strictures of modernism and the sometimes scientific approach to dogma that stripped the Christian life of its mystery. On the other hand, postmoderns sometimes see themselves as returning to the unity and diversity of the first century church, when the earliest Christians were joining together to find the right way to express their faith, hammering out Christian doctrine and practice in unique cultural contexts, and learning and teaching theology by doing and living theology. Those must have been exciting times as the church was emerging from the explosive event of the resurrection of Christ toward the rise of the worldwide body of Christ. Indeed, the first century church probably looked a bit more like the emerging church movement than do mainline churches, which probably look more like the churches of the second and third centuries.
But is this a good thing? Do we really want to retreat back to a first century, pre-catholic, pre-canon, pre-creedal Christianity?
The Spirit led the church universal out of that period of infancy. Doctrinal standards were established. Scripture was collected and defined. The church has emerged. Paul wrote:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11–16)
In Paul’s mind, the church was going to “grow up.” As in life, we learn from our childhood years and sometimes long for the innocence, nurture the naiveté, and wish we could relive some of the memories . . . but we cannot become infants or toddlers again. We must allow the youthful ingenuity and energy to continue to revive and revitalize us, but not to the detriment of maturity and wisdom.
The emerging church is not the only primitivist movement in Christianity. It is simply the latest. Every now and then we have groups of Christians that see themselves as direct heirs of the apostles, who want to plot themselves in the New Testament and stay there. They rewind the reels of history to around AD 100, chop off 1900 years of the Spirit’s recorded work, and try to splice their own strange version of Christianity at the end, hoping nobody will notice the inconsistency. In fact, they often re-interpret the early years of Christianity to support their new ideas.
But God sent the Spirit to lead the church into all truth. The Son did not leave us as orphans. He didn’t just throw us a thick book and tell us to keep struggling with the same conflicts as the Corinthians or to build on the same foundation as Peter and Paul. God has been building the body of Christ by the work of His Spirit for nearly 2000 years. Governed by the normative theology of the Bible, let’s continue to build on what has already been worked out in the history of the church.
And while we’re at it, let’s give up that strange idea of going back to the first century.
The church has emerged . . . deal with it!