In my nearly thirty-nine years of ordained ministry, I have met lots of people who longed to return to what they perceived to be the “simplicity” and the “purity” of the New Testament churches. When I was presenting my missionary ministry in churches across the U.S. and parts of Canada, I once spoke in a church that called itself “The New Testament Church.” It seemed to be a fine local church, with members who cared about evangelism and missions. Still, I doubt that it was any more exempt from problems than was the first century churches the Apostles had to deal with.
To ask whether the first century churches had problems is like asking if they had people. As someone has pointed out, wherever there are people there are problems. There are no problems on the moon right now, but when there were people up there, there were problems! "Houston we have a . . ."
The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that threats would come to the church both from within and without, as soon as he turned his back, so to speak:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30 ESV)
Among the problems Paul addressed in his epistles were the following:
· Sexual immorality
· Fraud and lawsuits among professing believers
· Arrogance and favoritism
· Personality conflicts
· Doctrinal errors
· Abuse of spiritual gifts
· A servant’s theft from a Christian master
· Lack of forgiveness by a church toward a repentant member
· Disgracing the Lord’s Table
· Et cetera
Many of these problems troubled the Corinthian church and damaged its testimony. But even that precious church in Philippi, the only consistent supporter of Paul’s ministry, had problems with unity and interpersonal conflicts. Paul had to exhort two women in that church, women who had helped Paul in his ministry of the gospel, to resolve their differences:
I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel . . . (Philippians 4:2-3a)
In reading again the Apostle John’s little epistle to Gaius (III John) I was impressed again by the presence in Gaius’s local church of a character all too common throughout church history: Diotrephes. John describes this man pointedly:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. (III John 1:9 NKJV)
The original Greek text is even more pointed. The phrase “who loves to have the preeminence” is actually a translation of one word – philoproteuon – “lover of preeminence.” And that phrase comes before the name in the original: “. . . but the preeminence-lover among them, Diotrephes, does not receive us.” There is no type of person who causes more grief, who more enslaves a congregation, than one who insists upon being preeminent, being first in everything, being in charge! I have seen this kind of person paralyze a church.
The name Diotrephes was rare, occurring in secular literature only twice and only here in the Bible. At the time of Homer the name, which means reared by Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, was reserved for people of noble birth. Commentator G. G. Findlay observes that Diotrephes was likely from a high-ranking family. Diotrephes’ sin was pride of position, and whether he exercised his power through the office of elder or by “personal force” and “social status” (Findlay), he was able to hinder the evangelistic and missionary outreach of the church, probably the church at Pergamos. He did not welcome the traveling missionaries and forbid the church to do so. One might wonder how one member could wield so much influence or power, but I have seen a number of churches, especially small churches, controlled by one or two powerful personalities, especially when they are big givers!
The early churches also had false teachers who disturbed their peace and undermined their spiritual life. Paul warned about legalizers who substituted rules and rituals for a vital relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit. (See Galatians, Philippians, & Colossians) On the opposite side were the libertines who “turn[ed] the grace of God into lewdness,” and in doing so “den[ied] the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4 NKJV). The book of Revelation warns against this type of licentiousness in Chapter 2, when it warns against the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, and of Balaam, as well as the twisted teachings of one Jezebel in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20-21).
Along the mystical, falsely “spiritual” line, the abuse of spiritual gifts, especially by those who claimed to be receiving special revelation from God, greatly disturbed the peace of the church in Corinth. The quest for higher knowledge (Col. 2:8) and “worship of angels” (Col. 2:18), and asceticism (Col. 2:23) threatened the church at Colosse.
Did the first century churches have problems? Indeed they did, and the problems look just like the problems churches have today! Disruptive people, controlling people, misguided people, immoral people, and heretical people in the local church are not a new phenomenon. And the remedy is the same today as it was in the first century: church discipline guided by the Word of God and prayer.