A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a graduate school class on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that class, read several commentaries and lots of articles. One of my favorite reads was Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III.
Here is one particularly insightful quotation from Witherington:
Careful attention to the historical and social matrix of the Pauline communities makes it clear that the early ekklesia [church] was far from perfect. As often as not, Paul was busy exhorting Christians to change their ways. If we believe that the Christian community of today should in some sense be biblically shaped and if we hold up the example of the Pauline communities, then we must say “go and do otherwise” at least as often as we say “go and do likewise.”
One reason we tend to commit the fallacy of idealism when we reflect on the early ekklesia is that we have assumed that the “determining factors of the historical process are ideas and nothing else, and that all developments, conflicts and influences are at bottom developments of, and conflicts and influences between, ideas.” Such a premise too often leads to the false conclusion that if we get our ideas about the faith right or if we emulate “the pattern” of the early ekklesia, then our Christian community will be what it ought to be.
But if we read Paul’s letters carefully, they reveal that right living and proper social interaction both within the Christian community and with the larger world were at least as much of a concern as right thinking, and evidently the early Christians had difficulties with all these matters.
Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth, p. xv
As many readers know already, and as I have written about before, I am a spiritual descendant of the American Restoration Movement, which is based on the premise that Christians should seek unity in God’s church by emulating the teachings of the New Testament and following the example of the early church. I believe that such an approach is fundamentally valid, but I think Witherington provides some important words of caution.
When we read about different congregations of the early church in the pages of Scripture, we come across some like the church at Corinth or some of the seven churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation that serve better as negative examples of what not to do rather than examples that we should try to follow today. So, when we say that we want to be like the church of the New Testament, we need to understand that we don’t exactly mean that, because the various New Testament congregations of which we are aware varied greatly in practice, and not all of them are worth emulating. Because of that, sometimes we might clarify our restorationist goals by saying that we want to be the church of the New Testament as conceptualized and instructed by apostolic teaching. But Witherington provides a caution here too, since having the right ideas and beliefs does not necessarily lead to right practices. And after all, what does it matter what we think if we don’t live right?
To me, none of this discredits the validity of the Restoration principle, but it does mean that we should be careful when we talk about it and as we seek to apply it. For example, rather than seeking to emulate the practices of the early church in wholesale fashion, we should examine biblical texts carefully to see where and how first century congregations were affirmed or reproved for their beliefs and practices, and choose to emulate them accordingly. Furthermore, we need to realize that faithful Christianity is about more than simply believing the right things; it also entails living in a certain way. As Witherington points out, the latter does not necessarily follow the former. At the same time, while it is true that right ideas do not guarantee right practices, it’s also true that wrong ideas make right practices nearly impossible.
God is concerned with both: He wants us to believe certain things, which in turn empower us to live a certain way. And from this perspective, the positive and negative examples of the early church, along with apostolic teachings preserved in the New Testament, are incredibly helpful.