The Golden Age of the Church

The idea of a golden age discounts the shifts in redemptive history

“I understand the frustration in reading the book of Acts and concluding that the Holy Spirit was more visible in His work in the early church. But the Spirit that came upon those at Pentecost is the same Spirit that indwells us. What’s the difference, then? The primary difference is with regard to methodology, not source.”

 

In the summer of 1949, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the National Basketball Association (NBA), a league made up of seventeen teams. Since then, the game of basketball has undergone significant changes in almost every area imaginable—style, pace, attitude, strategy, rules, fan base, and revenue, among others. But it’s worth noting that this development didn’t occur over one or two seasons. In fact, if you were to analyze the history of basketball, it wouldn’t be difficult to divide the NBA into eras based on players whose presence significantly changed the game. Bill Russell, for instance, played for the Boston Celtics beginning in 1956, bringing eleven championships to the franchise in his thirteen-year career. Then, in 1959, came Wilt Chamberlain, who would score one hundred points in a single contest in 1962. Following Wilt were Oscar Robertson, Moses Malone, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At the beginning of the 1980s, two NCAA championship rivals—Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—began their almost two-decade-long NBA rivalry. Only a few years later came Michael Jordan. The start of the twenty-first century ushered in Shaquille O’Neal and then Kobe Bryant, who recently passed the baton to the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Have you ever witnessed a debate between people representing different generations concerning who is the greatest NBA player of all time? Everyone thinks the players they grew up watching represent the golden era of the NBA. For example, the perennial debate from about 2009–14 was whether LeBron James had surpassed Kobe Bryant. The younger crowd largely heralded LeBron, while the ’80s and ’90s kids didn’t appreciate the premature disrespect of Kobe. The underlying culprit of these debates is a lack of consideration for historical development. People romanticize a particular era. If you don’t believe me, try to reason with a Chicago native (like me) that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, and he’ll chronicle Jordan’s career as if he never missed a shot.

Chronicling the NBA in terms of its greatest players also misses the point that each era has its drawbacks. From the slow pace of play in the early decades, to the lack of defense in the 1980s, to the eschewing of set plays in favor of hoisting three-pointers today, the point is that each NBA era has had its share of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There was no golden age.

Golden Age of the Church

Discouragement with the state of the modern church and an overly optimistic view of church history have caused some Christians to believe that the church once had a golden age. It’s often suggested that the early church represented this age. We must correct our drifting and return to the values and practices of the early church, the argument goes. They want the church to be more “Apostolic.” They want it to be more communal (see Acts 2:44). They want it to be free of denominationalism and separation. The natural consequence of this well-intended attitude is a disparagement of the modern church.

In many ways, these critics are right—there are many things that the church needs to heed from our earliest forefathers. The early Christians faithfully employed the divinely ordained means of grace (v. 42), they shared the gospel with deep fervor, they exhibited tremendous generosity, and so forth. We would do well to reform our piety and practice to better conform to Scripture, which reform perhaps was modeled better by previous generations of Christians. This is the heart of the Reformation principle semper reformanda—the church is continually reforming itself to the teaching of Scripture. But to identify the early church (or any other age) as the golden era and to yearn for its exact replication is misguided and dangerous for a number of reasons.

  1. The idea of a golden age discounts the shifts in redemptive history.

I understand the frustration in reading the book of Acts and concluding that the Holy Spirit was more visible in His work in the early church. But the Spirit that came upon those at Pentecost is the same Spirit that indwells us. What’s the difference, then? The primary difference is with regard to methodology, not source. The extraordinary, foundational Apostolic office—with all its accompanying gifts—eventually gave way to a more permanent church structure featuring the simple offices of elder and deacon. This doesn’t make the church any less “spiritual”; rather, it accounts for the intentional shift from the Apostolic foundation-laying stage to the more permanent ordinary age. If we are to lament anything in the modern church, it should be our susceptibility to neglect those ordinary means of building the church in search of something more extraordinary. In reality, the early church devoted itself to the same things that we should be devoting ourselves to—the sacraments, the Word of God, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42). The Spirit who made the ascended Christ present to them in and through those means is the same Spirit who does so for us today. Grasping for the gifts of the past implies a distrust in the redemptive plan of Christ.

  1. The idea of a golden age venerates the early church.

Again, it would be unfair to discount the exemplary characteristics of the early church. It may be equally unfair to overlook their failures while persistently recounting our failures. In many ways, the early church looked just like us. The first Christians dealt with moral failure—sexual immorality (Romans and Corinthians), greed and dishonest gain (Jude), disunity and quarrels (Philippians and James), and laziness (Thessalonians). There were doctrinal failures—legalism (Galatians and Hebrews), false spirituality (Colossians), and pretentious, heartless religion (Ephesians; see Rev. 2:1–7). There were wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; Col. 2:8; 2 Peter 2:1–3) and church officers falling (3 John). Paul had to rebuke his fellow Apostle Peter for abysmal conduct with regard to prejudices (Gal. 2:11–14). Ecclesiastically, there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). Moral and doctrinal failures will permeate the air until Christ’s second advent. If perfection is the criterion for an age to be classified as golden, the early church didn’t qualify any more than ours does.

  1. The idea of a golden age misconstrues the headship of Christ.

We need to be careful that we don’t deny that Christians in certain eras got certain things more right than Christians in other eras. We need even more care to ensure we don’t unintentionally usurp Christ’s authority as sovereign Head of the church. As Head, Christ will complete the work that He has begun (Phil. 1:6). To that end, He prayed to the Father to “keep them in your name, which you have given me” (John 17:11). Those whom the Father has given Christ will be protected—because Jesus’ prayers are efficacious. What about those professing evangelicals who are dropping like flies by rejecting orthodoxy? Such compromises are discouraging, but, as many have noted, the stark contrast between true disciples and false disciples is becoming well defined. The winnowing fork is separating the wheat from the chaff before our eyes (Matt. 3:12). Those who fall away prove themselves to be those for whom Jesus hasn’t prayed (John 17:9) and those who never truly belonged with us (1 John 2:19). But these situations aren’t unique to the modern church. The visible church has always been a mix of true and false believers. For the life of the church between the first and second advents of Christ, there have always been Judases among Peters. The final separation won’t happen until the consummation of the kingdom. That will be the true golden age—the age when the church triumphant will be made up of only those for whom Jesus prayed and the Great Commission will have ceased (Jer. 31:34). This is the eschatological path the church is on.

Conclusion

Comparing the modern church against the early church is like comparing Bill Russell with Michael Jordan. Depending on your perspective, such evaluation either romanticizes what was and disregards what is, or it romanticizes what is and disregards what was. Seeking the peace and purity of the church should involve a healthy evaluation of church history, but it should never romanticize an era at the expense of denigrating the modern church. We only need to reorient our doctrine and practice according to a particular church era inasmuch as they reflect Scripture. We study church history both to know what to do and to know what not to do.

This presupposes there is no golden age of the church, only multiple eras of the church during which the affection of Christ rested on her even in all her mess. On the other hand, the golden age of the church is yet to come. It is true that Christ’s bride doesn’t look like she should, but it’s equally true that she will look exactly the way she should at the wedding of the Lamb. This much He has promised. Therefore, we should be patient with Christ’s bride because we know that she will make it to that final day. Only then will she exchange her rags for the unblemished wedding dress her Husband has prepared for her (Rev. 19:8). That will be golden.

This article previously appeared on TableTalk and is used with permission.