Ernest Loosely divides his book When the Church was Young into two parts. In the first part, Loosely describes several things that the early church did not have. He says these same things often distract the modern church. The author says the young church had no buildings, no denominations, no fixed organization, no New Testament, no vocabulary of its own, no dogmatic system, and no Sabbath rest.
Before anyone jumps on Loosely for this list, we must admit that he is correct in each instance. Notice that Loosely doe not claim that it is wrong for the church to possess any of these things, but that in each case, a focus on one of these things could cause the church to lose site of something that is more valuable.
For example, concerning organization, Loosely said that the early church had “no fixed organization.” Does he mean that the early church had no organization? Not at all. Consider this:
The early Christian documents show a development which was not absolutely uniform nor identical in every place. Development was marked by local differences and modifications. This again is exactly what we might expect, if we believe that life fashions form and not that form produces life. They disposed of the idea that one form is essential or unalterable. (p. 27)
Notice what Loosely said, because it is important for his entire argument, “We believe that life fashions form and not that form produces life.” Yes, there was organization in the early church, but it was organization that flowed from the pre-existing life among the church. Organization did not come first; life came first.
I know that many of my readers are probably wondering about Loosely’s statement that the early church had “no New Testament.” How can it be distracting for us to have a New Testament today?
Loosely begins by noting, “The first impulse of the disciples was not an impulse to write, but to preach.” (p. 31) Thus, in the early days of the church, the followers of Jesus were intent on proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah who had been crucified and had risen from the dead. This was their Gospel – their “word” or “message” or “story”.
The writings of the New Testament came about as a way of proclaiming that message and of dealing with problems related to living out that message. As Loosely explains:
The literature arose out of the situation. As the church developed, men wrote to speak to needs, needs dealing specifically with the church! Neither the gospels nor the epistles can be really understood apart from the actual circumstances of the church’s development. Simply to sit in the study and compare and analyze and dissect the documents is a very imperfect method of reaching an understanding of the New Testament or the church when it was young. The church, and her literature, are the product of a great surging spiritual movement. She must be understood in relation to that movement. (p. 32)
So, the early church did not set about to produce a literature (New Testament) that would be used to propagate the movement. Instead, as Loosely explains, the movement was propagated by the Spirit, and the literature arose secondarily in order to deal with issues that arose afterwards.
Does this mean, then, that Loosely places little importance on the New Testament? Absolutely not. In face, he states that we now have a literature that was produced “in the good providence of God… in a way that was wholly of God.” Yes, it is good that the modern church has the New Testament, but the young church did not. The young church was part of a movement of the Holy Spirit, out of which the New Testament developed.
Each chapter of this book if provocative and filled with statements that should make us all think. For example, concerning dogmatic systems, Loosely says, “To define is only too often to divide.” (p. 49)
In my next post concerning this short book, I’m going to cover that last section, in which Loosely describes what the young church did have.