What Church can legitimately claim to be the first Church? Is a Chihuahua a wolf? What on earth do these two questions have in common? Give me a moment of your time and I will explain.
Many who claim their church is the “true church” do so by claiming to be the authentic church; the Church founded on the day of Pentecost in 33AD when Peter preached the gospel for the first time in the New Testament book of Acts chapter 2. The Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Celtic, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Apostolic and many other churches claim they are the rightful claimants to the title of “heirs to the first church.” A very good friend of mine recently posted this image on his facebook page…
These Churches look at other, less ‘successful’ segments of Christendom and say “our Pope holds the seat of Peter” in the same way that the priest in the temple at Jerusalem claimed to sit in ‘the seat of Moses.’ This becomes the most important issue of debate for them, because if they can prove they are the rightful descendants of that first Church then all other doctrinal arguments become null and void in their minds. For those who naively drink the cool aid, the issue is settled. ‘My church is the original church so our way is the right way. All others are false.’
The problem, of course, is that each of them only accepts the authenticity of their own documentation and reject the validity of the others’ documentation, so it is something that cannot be resolved.
So who has the true claim to authenticity? And if one could substantiate such a claim beyond refutation, would it necessitate (as is assumed by those attesting such things) that their church is, as a result of being the sole heir, the true legitimate church?
Jesus often turned to nature as a teacher in His illustrations and the apostle Paul also said “Doth not nature itself teach you…” Although my first education was in Theology, my second education was in the wildlife sciences, so please indulge me as I do a very Christian thing and take an illustration from nature.
Is a Chihuahua, Shih Tsu or a Lhasa Apso a wolf? Why that is silly! Of course not… or is it?
Geneticists tell us that all our dog breeds (including the Chihuahua) is 100% descended from the wolf. That is right, 100% of a Shih Tsu’s ancestry can be traced directly back to the wolf. Can you imagine, if dogs could talk, the debates they would have about who was the legitimate descendants of the wolf? Surely the malamute, German Shepherd and Siberian Husky would claim they have the most direct line because of their appearance. But genetic studies show that those breeds are some of the oldest lines of domesticated canids.
Will the real wolf please stand up?
I spent the better part of the last decade studying canids and working with them, both the domesticated (dogs) and the wild (wolf-coyote) types. Science has turned from its micro focused study, in recent years to taking a much more holistic macro view of nature (ecology). There was much discussion concerning the coyote wolf hybrids in my research. Should they be classified as wolves or coyotes? Should wolves be reintroduced or are they already here in a different form? The difference in the DNA was so minuscule that sound arguments could be made for either persuasion.
In order to answer the question, we needed to look beyond the DNA results from the lab and ask ourselves what role they are playing in the ecology of the forest. Are they behaving like wolves or coyotes?
See, all the while the dogs at the dog park are arguing who is the true descendant of the noble wolf, the wolf is still out there in the woods. And you don’t need to run a DNA test on one to know it is a wolf when you see it. To borrow the humorous example of inductive reasoning; if it looks like a wolf, hunts like a wolf, and howls like a wolf, then it is probably a wolf.
If you have followed my illustration, then the application is apparent. The Apostle Paul wrote,
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”
This applies to us as well, for all scripture is good for edification and reproof. One cannot hide behind a pedigree. A miniature poodle can profess to be a wolf and use it’s DNA test results to prove it, but the truth becomes obvious when it meets a real wolf in the woods. Likewise, someone can cite their religious pedigree and reject all others but their own, but what matters is the life, the light, that they live out in this world. If it looks like first century Christianity, lives like first century Christianity, and sounds like first Century Christianity, then it is serving that role in the world and is assigned that name.
Asking for someone’s religious pedigree is akin to asking a wolf for its kennel club registration papers.
So a church wants to claim to be the true Church established on the day of Pentecost in 33AD? Great! I don’t want to see a list of Popes, I want to see the features of that first century Church in Acts 2.
Here is a list of key characteristics of the church on the day so many claim to be their Church’s birthday. Take inventory and ask yourself if yours lines up.
The church birthed on the day of Pentecost:
- Encouraged speaking in an unknown prayer language (Acts 2:4)
- Preached the Gospel as- repentance, water baptism by immersion with the invocation of the name of Jesus and again, the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)
- Met for communion in one another’s homes (there were no Christian “churches” until Rome adopted Christianity and converted pagan temples into churches. Before the 300s, the Christians were themselves the church. Acts 2:46, Romans 16:5, I Corinthians 16:19
- Continued in the Apostles doctrine (not Justin Martyr’s or that of the Greek philosophers but of the Apostle’s teachings) Acts 2:42
- Fellowhip! (koinonia) Not just hanging out but a true communal sharing of wealth. Acts 2:42-46
- Breaking Bread (the Lord’s Supper is a central element to first century Christianity) Acts 2:42, 2:46
- Prayers Acts 2:42
These were the defining characteristics of the church founded on the day of Pentecost. If a church has ought with these points, it may still find its origins on that day in another verse of Acts chapter 2; “And others mocking said these men are full of new wine.”
Just as there were Esseness and the followers of John the Baptist who did not buy into the claims of the religious establishment of the temple, so today there are Christians that have not bought into the claims of such institutions. I believe Christ’s words to those who rest their salvation on the pedigree of their religious institutions of today would be the same as it was to those who did the same 2,000 years ago when he warned,
“And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” Jesus told us by what means men would know we were His disciples and it was not a religious pedigree, it was by the love that we would have for one another.
Walk like a disciple of Christ. Talk like a disciple of Christ. Love like a disciple of Christ. Be a disciple of Christ.