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When the Church was Young

Posted by on Dec 24, 2010 in books | 2 comments

When the Church was Young

Last year, I wrote two posts on the book When the Church was Young by Ernest Loosely. I have combined those two posts into one here.


What the young church did not have

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.


What the young church DID have

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, while in the second part (reviewed in this post) he describes three things that the early church DID have: an experience, a store of teaching from Christ, and a Gospel.

To begin with, Loosely said that the early church had an experience of living with Jesus Christ. This began with the early apostles and disciples who spent three years with Jesus:

With Him through months of success and popularity, with Him through seasons of gloom and apparent failure; with Him in city and village, in the country and by the seashore, on mountain and lake; with Him while He was teaching and working miracles, while He was meeting the arguments of hostile Pharisees, and while He was taking little children in His arms; with Him in the crowds, and afterwards in the silence and the solitude; and all the time the wealth of His soul was being outpoured into their lives. (p. 63-64)

The church continued to experience the presence of Jesus after his ascension through his indwelling presence. This presence gave them “a sense of power, of adequacy, of readiness to cope with any situation that arose.” (p. 66) They presence of Christ also gave them a sense of joy and a desire to share what had happened to them with one another and with others.

In fact, the experience of the abiding presence with Jesus was a replacement (and a better replacement) for the experience of the physical presence of Jesus. In fact, later disciples (Paul, for example) would write about knowing Christ in a way that went beyond the physical. As Loosely explains:

Paul had arrived at a sense of communion with Christ of the deepest and most intimate kind. It is a fellowship far closer than that of mere physical nearness. Far closer! (p. 66)

But, what does Loosely mean by “an experience”? He explains further when he begins to describe the young church’s possession of “a store of teaching from Christ”:

When the church was very young, it also had a store of teaching received from Christ. An “experience” might possibly be thought of as an emotional state, a transient sentiment. Had that been all the church had when it was young, it would quickly have subsided, the members in the movement left flat and spiritless. But Jesus had given to the disciples something so profound, we are thinking about it still, with a growing conviction that there is food for thought not only for their age and ours, but for all those yet to come. (p. 71)

Yes, their experience was more than emotion or sentiment. It was an encounter with the living and risen Christ, and it continued through his indwelling presence.

Simultaneously, they continued to learn from Jesus through one another. They contemplated and meditated on the teachings of Jesus. In the same way, Loosely says that the church today must preserve for ourselves and proclaim to mankind the words of Jesus.

How do we proclaim them? As gospel – “good news”! This is the third possession of the young church according to Loosely. The earliest disciples were amazed at the good news that was proclaimed to them by Jesus and that currently reshaped their lives. Everything was different!

They found that the news was so good that joy flooded all circumstances and situation, such that the good news became better than oppression or suffering.

Eventually, they found that this “good news” also affected people who lived in other cultures with different backgrounds. The gospel became even better news as it reached across cultural, economic, religious, ethnic, and all other barriers to change the lives of people.

Loosely closes this short book with this:

When the church was very young, it had a gospel; and now that the church is no longer young, but tempted to think of itself as entitled to the reliefs and relaxations of advancing years, the church has nothing better than the gospel to give to the world. (p. 78)

I don’t know about you, but this is a reminder that I needed moving into the new year.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-26-2010

    It is a great reminder. I have spent the last few months reading only the Gospels, and it brings a different sense to the church and to how I think. I may just continue that this year for a while, thinking on what you shared here.

  2. 12-26-2010

    I read Loosely’s book last year, based on your references to it and enjoyed it very much. It was so refreshing to be reminded of what and who the church actually is and how we have lost sight of the gospel in the midst of all the ecclesiastical and cultural baggage we have piled around it. Thank you…again.