We are people of the text. Christianity is a religion shaped by the written and preserved canon of Scripture, and belief in Scripture's authority provides parameters for orthodox belief. For evangelicalism in western culture, the democratization of Bible reading after the advent of the printing press and the growth in literacy of the masses through broader education efforts has brought us to view individual reading of Scripture as a critical practice. We hear this in the emphatic appeals from leaders and teachers to be faithful in having a personal "quiet time."
As we read, we relive the stories of the faith of past saints, and we sense the vibrant power of the messages of the prophets in the Old Testament and the letters of the apostles in the New Testament as they spoke to their faith communities. The natural and appropriate response is to want to relive these experiences, to see the powerful acts of God in our own time and experience the passionate joy of a relationship with God in our own faith communities. Those who expose themselves to the accounts of the heroes of church history will often experience the same feelings of wonder at God's past works and a desire to live out these same kinds of experiences in our own lives. May this passion burn in our hearts and spur us on to good deeds, deepened fellowship, active evangelism, and warm piety towards God!
But let us remember something. From the times of the earliest faith accounts until now, no matter how carefully and eagerly we search, we will not find a perfect age of church history. The fact is, there is no ideal age of the church. Generations of church leaders have thought and worked carefully to devise the ideal way to practice "real New Testament church life," only to have the next generation point out the faults and inadequacies in their methods and put forth new ideas on what perfect church life looks like.
Whether it be the New Testament church, the reformation, the Patristic age, or the modern age, we cannot find a time period that gives us a faultless example of Christianity. If we look throughout the world today, this search is frustrated again; persecuted churches in hostile settings can be idealized for their tenacious faith, but with more scrutiny their faults appear (sometimes in the form of serious doctrinal problems). Churches freshly emerging in new places tend to repeat mistakes from early church history in other places rather than giving a fresh, clean and pure form of Christianity, as may be imagined. In prosperous and peaceful areas of the world with the advantage of developed Biblical, historical, and theological study can use these resources to carefully define accurate doctrine only to find that the response to this highly accurate and developed teaching is apathy, as the distraction of wealth and comfort makes radical faith an entirely uninteresting concept.
In the content of the New Testament, there is sobering reality that the glowing descriptions of the early community of believers is quickly followed by descriptions of various controversies and problems, and that many of the letters were written to give correction and rebuke to erring churches with rebellious members. In the earlier fascination of protestantism to imitate the reformation ideals we do not find perfection. In the liberal attempts to make Christianity into modernism with a Jesus label pasted on top, ideal Christian practice remains far out of reach. In the recent postmodern fascination with the early church fathers and the spiritual disciplines and contemplative practices of the middle ages, there will again, despite the benefits of imitating the positive practices of these eras, be glaring faults as their weaknesses also carry over. The next generation will passionately decry these faults and seek a new example to follow.
So am I merely spouting off a pessimistic monologue to weigh you down with hopelessness? No, because in spite of these faults God's redemptive power still triumphs. I raise the issue to make an appeal that we approach Christian thought and practice with the recognition that we can't get back to the "good old days" when the church was pure and ideal, because there were no such days. Instead, let's seek to learn from the strengths of the New Testament church, and every subsequent age, as well as from each period's failures. Our standard in every age remains the principles, patterns and ethics taught by Scripture. If we seek fervently to live these out in our age, fleshing them out in continuity with the essential beliefs of all church history, but with a unique incarnation in our own context. In this way we can avoid high-minded condemnation of others who do not practice "Biblical Christianity" as we do and instead humbly allow their approaches to instruct us as we seek to do the best we can with the time we have and pray that God will redeem even our own faults and blind spots in the way only the sovereign and gracious God over the people of God in every age can. The question is not "how do we get back to how things were when the church was the way it ought to be?" but "How do we learn from what was in an effort to get closer to what ought to be?"