Perhaps you are ready to concede that the modern church is a sinful one in need of correction. But surely the early church was different! Surely the churches of the apostolic age were exemplary congregations, their holiness refined by the fires of martyr-making persecution!
With the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia, Jesus Christ finds something to correct at each of the churches of Roman Asia: Loveless orthodoxy at Ephesus (Rev. 2:5), heretical teaching at Pergamum (2:14–15), sexual immorality at Thyatira (2:20–23), hypocrisy at Sardis (3:1), and spiritual apathy at Laodicea (3:15–17).
The pages of the New Testament are replete with even more examples of the sins and shortcomings of the first-century church. Take Jesus’ handpicked inner circle, for example. The Twelve constantly bickered over their respective positions on the apostolic organization chart (Mark 9:33–37). James and John—nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder”—had anger management issues (Mark 3:17, Luke 9:51–56). Judas stole from the apostolic purse (John 12:6) and betrayed Jesus unto death (Mark 14:10-11, 43–50). Peter denied Christ three times (Mark 14:66–72). Thomas doubted (John 20:24–29).
“No church ever existed in a pure state,” writes Eugene Peterson. “The church is made up of sinners. The fleas come with the dog.”[i]
In late August 2002, I traveled to northwestern China with my father and several male relatives to visit churches in the cities of Xining, Lanzhou, and Guide. Most likely, you have never heard of those places, but they are a prominent part of my heritage. From the late 1920s to the late 1940s, my grandparents—as well as my great uncle and great aunt—served as missionaries in that region of the world, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with people who had never heard it. Working with national Christians, they started several churches that, by God’s grace and the skin of their teeth, survived communist persecution and the Cultural Revolution.
A driving force in those churches’ survival was Pastor Mung, who has since gone to be with the Lord at the ripe old age of ninety-five. In the face of imprisonment, discrimination, and ill health, Pastor Mung led the church of Xining (and outlying areas) through a long period of growth and spiritual renewal. Because of advancing age, however, he had divided his pastoral responsibilities between two younger colleagues. When my relatives and I entered China, we learned that these two young pastors did not like each other, would not cooperate together, and were allowing their personal animosity to poison the Christian community.
The fleas come with the dog indeed.
And yet, perhaps there is a note of hope in the recognition that there is no “golden age” of the church, neither in first-century Roman Asia nor twenty-first-century China. The same God who shed grace on those imperfect churches can shed grace on us. He used them to accomplish his will; he can use us too. All that we need to do is what he called them to do: “repent” (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19).
[i] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 51.