The apostolic church in the first century was a fascinating time unlike any other in church history. Here are three vital things we need to know about the early church and learn for our contemporary church in India.

The Apostolic Church Was Not Perfect

Seeing the schisms, corruption, and lukewarmness in the church today it can be tempting to see the apostolic church through a rosy, romantic lens, idolising it as the perfect church. We may imagine it was pure in doctrine and practice and growing tremendously. However, the reality is a different picture.

Sins, Conflicts, and Divisions

The apostolic church suffered from hypocrites, liars, and false men (Acts 5:1-11, 2 Tim. 4:10). The church struggled with sexual immorality such as adultery, orgies, homosexuality, fornication, and even incest (1 Cor. 5:15-20, 6:9; Gal. 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Thess. 4:3-5, 1 Cor. 5:1). What was rampant in Roman culture was visible in the church.

The church suffered cultural divisions between Jews and Gentiles, as well as class divisions between the rich and the poor (Acts 15:19-20; Eph. 2:11-13, 1 Cor. 11:18-21; James 2:1-9). There were conflicts between individuals and some believers were even bringing civil lawsuits against another (Phil. 4:2, 1 Cor. 6:1-8).

Even among the leaders in the church, we see rivalries and disagreements (Phil. 1:15-17). Men such as Paul and Barnabas had to separate and go their own way (Acts 15:36-41). The church was also greatly divided in how they worshipped God (1 Cor. 14:26-33).

False Teachers and Heresies

Considering the apostles were alive, we may expect the early church to be united in doctrine. Not so. False teachers, whom Jesus called ravenous wolves, were rife in the early church (Matt. 7:15, Acts 20:29-30; Jude 3-4; 2 Peter 2:1-3).

The early church was no utopian community of believers.

The church faced many heresies. They saw the Judaizing tendency of the Jewish Christians, which even led the apostle Peter into hypocrisy (Acts 15:1; Gal. 1:6-7, 2:11-14). Other prevailing heresies were the pagan conception of Gnosticism, asceticism, and Nicolaism (Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20, Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 4:3, Rev. 2:15).

The early church was no utopian community of believers. It consisted of messy people who struggled with sin, battled doubts, and in many ways failed to live up to the holy standard of God. However, the early church believed in a perfect God who would one day make the church perfect—free from all sins, strife, and divisions.

The Apostolic Church Was Devoted to the Ordinary Means of Grace

The apostolic period was a time of extraordinary signs and wonders. These incredible events are often over-emphasised in our study of the early church. However, it was the ordinary means of grace that marked the regular spiritual life of the church, not these extraordinary miracles.

As it says in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” (WSC Q&A 88).

In the apostolic church, the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

The Centrality of Preaching

Only a steady diet of God’s word makes the man of God complete and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 4:11-12). So it is no surprise that the public reading and preaching of God’s word was central in the church (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2).

Preaching needs to constantly remind believers they are sinners in desperate need of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, it needs to remind believers they are saints saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

Only this message of grace can truly enable a believer to have greater faith and repentance in their lives. It is only the Spirit-filled Word of God that can bring transformation.

The Fervency of Prayer

The apostolic church was also a praying community. Today, prayer meetings are usually the most poorly attended meetings in a church. Yet, regular corporate prayer was one of the hallmarks of the early church (Acts 1:14, 4:31, 6:4, 16:16; 1 Thess. 5:17-18).

The spiritual pattern of the early church was the simple ordinary means of grace.

The early church knew their desperate need for the grace of God in their lives. As the Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “Prayer is the asking of some alms, which requires humility. The lower the heart descends, the higher the prayer ascends.”

As the Jewish and Gentile authorities persecuted them, the young church faced tremendous challenges. So they knew they could only triumph with the power of God, which they sought by communing with God in prayer.

The Vitality of the Sacraments

The church was a sacramental community. The early church met and shared in the breaking of bread (Acts 20:7). This means they did more than simply eat together. They celebrated the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as Christ instituted it (Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16, 11:20-26).

At the Lord’s Table, when believers participate by faith, God makes them partakers of Jesus’s body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace (WSC Q&A 96).

So we must ensure we make diligent use of Holy Communion to enjoy that blessed communion we share with Christ Jesus and all believers in him.

The Supper we celebrate today is not only a memorial of the victorious death and resurrection of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It is also a foretaste of the great marriage supper of the Lamb where we will join the saints of the early church and fellowship with Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

The spiritual pattern of the early church was the simple ordinary means of grace. We would be wise to emulate this pattern in our churches today to live authentic Spirit-filled lives.

The Apostolic Church was a Missional Church

The apostolic church was constantly growing as new numbers were daily added (Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4). Jews and Gentiles were included in the church as equals. This is what Jesus commanded in the great commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He also prophesied that the church would be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in all Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Sacrificial Living

The apostolic church specially commissioned officers in the church as missionaries. They sent Paul, Barnabas, and Silas to take the gospel to unbelievers and to plant new churches (Acts 13:2-3, 15:40).

God calls every Christian to know Christ and to make him known.

However, it was also the laity—ordinary everyday believers—who were integral in the spread of the gospel. As the Christians scattered from Jerusalem due to the persecution that followed the death of Stephen, they spoke of the gospel wherever they went (Acts 11:19).

The church at Antioch was largely founded by the efforts of certain ordinary Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene whose names we do not even know (Acts 11:20-21).

Sacrificial Giving

The saints of the early church supported mission work by their gifts and donations. (Phil. 1:5, 4:15-17). They also supported each other to aid believers who were in financial need (Acts 4:32-35; Rom. 15:25-26). Even in their poverty, they gave sacrificially, for the love of God compelled them to be greatly generous (2 Cor. 8:1-5). Thus, by word and deed, they testified to the love of Jesus.

The modern church should resist the urge to “outsource” missions to the “professionals.” God calls every Christian to know Christ and to make him known. As the missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “the church is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship.”

We ought to ensure we serve Christ our King with our time, talent, and treasure. Our great assurance is that even through our meagre efforts, Christ will build his church and extend the influence of his kingdom in this world.