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What the young church did not have

Posted by on Dec 27, 2009 in books | 5 comments

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.


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  1. 12-27-2009

    “Organization did not come first; life came first.”

    This is such an important concept: every church I’ve been a part of suffers from getting it exactly backward and thinking that sequence quite normal. In fact, the very act of thinking how structure might be different is nearly impossible.

    Of course, the issue now is how to effect change without being a grouse.

  2. 12-27-2009

    If you have time, it would be good to hear a bit more about the church not having Sabbath rest.

  3. 12-28-2009

    Thanks Alan,
    simple enough. Letters were written to address problems, as you stated. The problems were often, situations concerning the law vs. grace for Christ having fulfilled the law.

  4. 12-28-2009


    The problem is that when we begin to think about life before structure, much of the structure begins to crumble… and we like our structures.


    By “Sabbath rest” Loosely means “the observance of one special, religious day – a day marked by the closing of shops and the cessation of work, by attendance at religious services and by conduct unlike that of other days.” (p. 51)


    Yes. Most of the Scriptures were written to help people understand what it means to live this new life in the grace and acceptance of God.


  5. 2-2-2012

    Alan, thanks so much for your insightful posts. I’ve been reading a lot of what you’ve been writing lately, God’s been speaking to me.

    Similar to the “Organization did not come first; life came first” quote above I recently told one of my friends who’s struggling to connect with the Spirit’s life in our worship that we’re not supposed to find God’s life from the songs we sing; songs are an expression of the life of Jesus already in us. Church in it’s most basic form is when two or more hearts touch each other with Jesus involved. If we get back to that- simple vulnerability & love then we’ll be surprised at how much life flows as we do the rest.


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