Does following first century church practice matter to Jesus? In view of the unique relationship between Jesus and His apostles, we should be very careful about neglecting the practices they established in the churches. Significant blessing awaits God’s people through adopting the example given for us in the New Testament by the early church.
Oxford University church history professor Stanley Greensdale stated, “the church exists to promote the worship of God, the inner life of the spirit, the evangelization of the world and the molding of society according to the will of God.” The premise is that the apostles knew the best methods to achieve these objectives and purposely patterned them for us in the churches they established. They should constitute normative and universal church practice. The LORD gave patterns and commands for the Tabernacle and worship under the Old Covenant. Did He fail to give patterns and commands for the Church and worship under the New Covenant?
Fee and Stuart, in How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, state: “Our assumption, along with many others, is that unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way.” We agree. No one, for example, would advocate following Jephthah’s tragic example in Judges 11:29ff. The problem is it is common for believers to dismiss New Testament patterns for church practice as optional. What evidence is there the apostles intended their examples to be normative?
Proof #1 — It Is Logical
It is logical — it just makes sense — to follow the church traditions of the apostles (as recorded in Scripture). If anyone truly understood the purpose of the church, surely it was the apostles. They were handpicked and personally trained by Jesus for three years. After His resurrection, our Lord appeared to them over a forty day period. Jesus then sent the Holy Spirit to teach them things He had not taught them. Paul received a revelation of Jesus on the Damascus Road and then further revelations in the wilderness plus the fourteen years following. The things Jesus taught these men about the church were naturally reflected in the way they set up and organized churches.
Paul boldly offered himself as an example to be followed with regard to his faithful service for Christ: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy . . . to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” To also imitate Paul’s ways in Christ regarding church practice would arguably be a wise choice for any fellowship.
Titus 1 deals directly with church practice. In verse 5 Paul wrote, “this is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” It is evident from this passage that the apostles had have a definite way they wanted certain things done regarding the church. It was not left up to each individual assembly to find its own way. There was obviously some kind of order, pattern, or tradition that was followed in organizing the churches. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 11:34 (a passage about the practice of the Lord’s Supper), Paul wrote, “The rest I will set in order when I come” (KJV, italics mine). It is logical — it just makes sense — to prefer the church traditions of the apostles. If the apostles were to return and saw how modern day churches function, would they be pleased or shocked? Would they come to us with a rod of discipline or with love in a spirit of gentleness (1 Co 4:21)?
Proof #2 — It Is Praiseworthy
1 Corinthians 11 concerns church practice. In 11:2 Paul praised the church for following his traditions: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” The Greek for tradition, paradosis, means “that which is passed on.”  This same Greek word (in verb form) was used in 1 Corinthians 11:23 with regard to the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper (that it was passed on). Gordon Fee pointed out that paradosis in the context of 1 Corinthians 11 refers to religious traditions regarding worship. Thus in 1 Corinthians 11 we see an apostle praising a church for holding to his traditions regarding worship. The words “even as” in 11:2 indicate the degree of their compliance with these traditions: exactly as passed on to them.
An interesting paradox can be observed about tradition. The same word (paradosis) used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2 was also used by Jesus when He asked the Pharisees, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Pharisaic tradition essentially broke God’s commands. Whereas Jesus blasted the tradition of the Pharisees, Paul blessed the Corinthians for following his traditions. Apostolic tradition is consistent with the teachings of Christ. Holding to the traditions of the apostles is thus praiseworthy, as seen in Paul’s praise for the Corinthians (11:2).
It is noteworthy that the word “traditions” in 1 Corinthians 11:2 is plural. Paul had in mind more than the one tradition dealt with in 1 Corinthians 11a. Mosaic legislation was paradigmatic in nature. It was case law. Only a few legal examples were recorded by Moses. The believer was expected to apply those case studies to other areas of life not specifically mentioned. Similarly, we argue that adherence to apostolic tradition is paradigmatic in nature. If we observe that the apostles were pleased when a church followed one specific tradition (such as in 1 Corinthians 11a), then we are expected to apply that approval to other patterns we see modeled by the apostles in their establishment of churches. The Church is too eternally important to allow her as the Bride of Christ to outside the patterns given by the Lord and His apostles. God’s spiritual Temple must be built upon the Chief Cornerstone both in doctrine and sound practice.
Proof #3 — It was Universal
The churches of the New Testament universally followed apostolic traditions of church practice. 1 Corinthians 11 begins a four chapter section on church practice. Paul quieted those who might disagree with these practices by appealing to the universal practice of all the other churches: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1Co 11:16). This statement was designed to settle any objections. Paul expected all the churches to be doing the same thing. Prior emphasis had obviously been given to certain practices that were supposed to be done the same way, everywhere. Just to realize that one was different was argument enough to silence opposition. This indicates a uniformity of practice in all New Testament churches.
In 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 (yet another passage about church practice), Paul mentioned something else that was true universally: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches” (italics mine). Paul again appealed to a universal pattern that existed in all the churches as a basis for obedience.
All churches were expected to follow the same patterns for church meetings. The Corinthians were tempted to do things differently from all the other churches. Thus Paul chided them, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” The obvious answer to both questions is no. These two questions were designed to keep the Corinthians in line with the practice of all the other churches. Holding to apostolic traditions (New Testament church patterns) was universal in the first century. Perhaps it should be today as well.
Proof #4 — It Brings God’s Peaceful Presence
The church at Philippi was told how to have the God of Peace to be with them: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” The Philippians were instructed to put into practice what they 1) learned, 2) received, 3) heard from Paul, or 4) saw in Paul. The context concerned such things as imitating Christ’s humility, putting others first, and rejoicing in the Lord. By extension could it not also include the way we see Paul organized churches? It is clear from Scripture how the apostles set up the early church. To bypass apostolic tradition in this area may be to bypass some of God’s blessing. Could it be that those fellowships which also follow apostolic church practice may enjoy even more of God’s peaceful presence?
Proof #5 — It Is Commanded
Although apostolic traditions may make for interesting history, many think following them is never commanded. However, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 actually commands believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” (2Th 2:15). It is not just apostolic teachings to which we should adhere, but also apostolic traditions (as revealed exclusively on the pages of Scripture).
The overall context of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 refers to the apostles’ teaching tradition of end-time events, not church practice per se. Yet again the word “traditions” (2:15) is plural. The author had more traditions in view than merely the one teaching tradition about the second coming. Would it not also apply in principle to his traditions regarding church order, as patterned in the New Testament? We are to follow the traditions of the apostles, not only in their theology, but also in their practice.
Early Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg believed that the apostles “have taught us by example how to organize and govern churches. We have no right to reject their instruction and captiously insist that nothing but positive command shall bind us. Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life . . . respect for the Spirit by which they were led should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.”
Roger Williams planted the first Baptist church in North America (1638). He believed churches should strive to follow as near as possible New Testament church forms and ordinances. This belief led Williams to found the Rhode Island colony on the New Testament pattern of a separation between church and state.
According to E.H. Broadbent, church historian and undercover missionary to closed nations, “Events in the history of the churches in the time of the apostles have been selected and recorded in the Book of Acts in such a way as to provide a permanent pattern for the churches. Departure from this pattern has had disastrous consequences, and all revival and restoration have been due to some return to the pattern and principles in the Scriptures.”
Chinese church leader Watchman Nee said, “Acts is the ‘genesis’ of the church’s history, and the Church in the time of Paul is the ‘genesis’ of the Spirit’s work . . . We must return to ‘the beginning.’ Only what God has set forth as our example in the beginning is the eternal Will of God. It is the Divine standard and our pattern for all time . . . God has revealed His Will, not only by giving orders, but by having certain things done in His church, so that in the ages to come others might simply look at the pattern and know His will.”
It was missionary martyr Jim Elliot’s firm conviction that “The pivot point hangs on whether or not God has revealed a universal pattern for the church in the New Testament. If He has not, then anything will do so long as it works. But I am convinced that nothing so dear to the heart of Christ as His Bride should be left without explicit instructions as to her corporate conduct . . . it is incumbent upon me, if God has a pattern for the church, to find and establish that pattern, at all costs.”
A.W. Tozer wrote, “The temptation to introduce ‘new’ things into the work of God has always been too strong for some people to resist. The Church has suffered untold injury at the hands of well-intentioned but misguided persons, who have felt that they know more about running God’s work, than Christ and His apostles did! A solid train of boxcars would not suffice to haul away the religious truck which has been brought into the service of the Church with the hope of improving on the original pattern. These things have been, one and all, great hindrances to the progress of the Truth, and have so altered the divinely planned structure that the apostles, were they to return to earth today, would scarcely recognize the misshapen thing which has resulted!” He also concluded, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
What are some apostolic traditions for church practice? (Remember there is general consensus in scholarly circles, regardless of denomination, as to how the early church functioned).
- Meeting weekly on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Believer’s baptism by immersion.
- The separation of church and state.
- Participatory worship services.
- Celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly as a fellowship meal.
- A plurality of co-equal elders leading every congregation.
- Church government by elder-led congregational consensus.
- Roman villa sized churches.
Most churches follow some of these patterns, but not all. Again we wonder why not? We argue for consistency. The burden of explanation ought to fall on those who deviate from the New Testament pattern, not on those who desire to follow it. This consistency is especially important since the apostles evidently expected for all churches to follow their traditions just as they were handed down (1Co 11:2). Perhaps these patterns of church practice are part of what gave the early church the dynamic that churches today are sometimes missing.
Why is it that the majority of church leaders have not adopted the practice of the early church? Perhaps it is because little attention is paid in seminary to the role apostolic traditions should play. Most churches today are firmly entrenched in cultural church traditions that were developed after the close of the apostolic era. We suspect many pastors have simply adopted historical traditions inherited from their denominations. Is there not a danger of neglecting the inspired tradition of the apostles for the sake of more modern tradition (Mt 15:1-3)?
What can be concluded about God’s interest in your church adhering to New Testament patterns for church practice? Remember the earlier quote by Professors Fee and Stuart that what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way? In the second edition of their book they changed their statement somewhat. It now reads, “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way — unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.” We have attempted to demonstrate on other grounds that the apostles did indeed design for churches to follow the patterns they laid down for church order. Doing things their way is logical, praiseworthy, was universally practiced in first century churches, brings God’s peaceful presence, and is even commanded. The question is not, Must we do things the way they were done in the New Testament? Rather, the question is: Why would we want to do things any other way?
It bears repeating that without Christ at the center of things, these patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell (Jn 15:5). We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine. Yet both have their place. Either one without the other is problematic (Lk 5:36-38).
At the end of a very long life of faithful ministry, seminary professor L. Reginald Barnard cautioned that one can have a very scriptural idea of how the early church did things and yet miss the real idea of the church entirely. Even if our church is identical to the apostolic ideal, we would have accomplished nothing unless that church was holier by far than the church we started with. Heaven forbid at the end we present a form to God, instead of a holy people redeemed by the Gospel.
We must ever remember the church is people, the living body of Christ. Jesus died to sanctify His bride, presenting her to Himself without spot or wrinkle, holy and blameless. There is no perfect church. The church is the most relative thing God owns. Yet God will do His perfect work in His imperfect church, for it is His church.
The church traditions of the apostles are simple, strategic, and scriptural. The most neglected practices are smaller congregations, participatory worship, the Lord’s Supper celebrated weekly as a fellowship meal and elder led congregational consensus. Incorporating these approaches into our churches today can result in tremendous blessing. Small churches have a bright future and tremendous potential if their leaders maintain a focus on disciple making as dynamic, Spirit filled early church practice is adopted. It is a divine design!
Click here for practical considerations on adopting timeless apostolic traditions
- How can the axiom form follows function be applied to how the apostles set up churches?
- What in the New Testament indicates whether or not there was a basic uniformity of practice in all early churches?
- Jesus criticized the Pharisees for holding to Jewish traditions (Mt 15) yet Paul praised the Corinthians for holding to his traditions (1Co 11). Why the difference?
- Why is it important to make a distinction between apostolic traditions found in the New Testament and later historical traditions?
- Mosaic Law was paradigmatic in nature. How would the paradigmatic principle apply to commands in the New Testament to follow specific apostolic traditions (2Th 2:15, 3:6)?
- What would give the apostles authority to establish patterns all churches are obliged to follow?
- What is the difference between holding to apostolic traditions and mindlessly copying everything seen in the New Testament (wearing sandals, writing on parchment, studying by oil lamps, dressing in togas, etc.)?
- Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. The Jerusalem church practiced communalism. How can we determine what is and is not intended to be an apostolic tradition?
- What should we make of the fact that there is scholarly consensus regarding the actual practice of the early church in the New Testament?
- Some think it folly to try to recreate the primitive church, since it was far from perfect. They assert that God expected His church to mature, to grow up, beyond the infancy state. As much as anything, early believers are seen as examples of how not to function as a church. Besides, they argue, it is impossible to behave exactly like the first century church since we no longer have the original apostles with us. How would you respond to this argument?
 Stanley Lawrence Greensdale, “Early Christian Church,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. Warren Preece, Vol. 7 (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1973), p. 844.
 Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 97.
 Acts 1:3.
 John 14-16.
 1 Corinthians 4:16-17.
 Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), p. 423.
 Beuer, Arndt, Gingrich & Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 615.
 Gordon Fee, New International Commentary on the New Testament, The First Epistle to The Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 499.
 For help with this topic, see “Women: Head Coverings,” NTRF.org.
 Matthew 15:3.
 Fee, p. 500.
 For help interpreting 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 see “Women: Silent In Church” at NTRF.org.
 1 Corinthians 14:36.
 Philippians 4:9.
 Imperative mode in Greek.
 Apostolic tradition as recorded on the pages of the New Testament is to be distinguished from the later historical tradition of the Catholic and Eastern churches.
 A similar attitude toward tradition is expressed in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7a. Tradition here refers to practice more than doctrine. The apostles clearly wanted the churches to follow their traditions of both theology and practice. Should we limit those apostolic traditions that we follow only to eschatology and work habits?
 J.L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), p. 84-86.
 Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams In America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), p. 106.
 E.H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, (Grand Rapids: Gospel Folio Press 1999), p. 26.
 Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life (Colorado Springs: International Students Press, 1969), p. 8-9.
 Elizabeth Elliot, Shadow of The Almighty: Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 138-139.
 James Snyder, Tozer On Worship And Entertainment (Camp Hill, PA: Wind Hill Publisher, 1997), chapter 17.
 “A.W. Tozer on The Holy Spirit & Today’s Church,” Patheos.com. Accessed October 16, 2016.
 Fee & Stuart, 2nd Ed., p. 106. Italics mine.
 L. Reginald Barnard, letter to author, May 15, 1991. Barnard was professor of historical theology at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.