When we try to discover the historic faith through early sources, we look for areas of consensus among early Christians. Typically, those beliefs are the ones we should also share. Not, of course, because the pre-Nicene church was infallible, but because we want to live the original Christian faith, and they can help us understand what that was. But might there be any exceptions, times when we shouldn’t believe as the early church believed?
I think so. After all, some of our own beliefs are limited based on the historical context in which we exist. For example, many of us once thought that YouTube was a platform that had no use for intellectual or thoughtful content. Yet it is now one of the top places where people encounter intellectual and thoughtful content.
Principles of right and wrong never change. And the teachings that were delivered to the apostles will never change, at least until Jesus returns. However, it’s inevitable that, throughout history, societies will change. That means that specific, context-dependent facts may be true in one century and not true in the other. Consequentially, choices based on those facts may be right in one century and wrong in another.
In this article, I will suggest that the early church held to some context-dependent beliefs that seemed to them of utmost importance—yet were later rendered obsolete and even pernicious by historical circumstances. We should recognize that we need to leave these context-dependent beliefs in order to remain true to the unchanging apostolic teaching. And by being true to apostolic teaching, we are being true to what the early church most valued.
Is this far-fetched?
Is it far-fetched or wishful thinking to expect that the church would have some incidental beliefs that it would hold strongly, yet which would become obsolete in time? Not at all. There are a myriad of examples that show this category to be a very valid one. Here are some examples:
Light Bulb Burns Out
We all know that flipping a light switch will make a room bright. But if the light bulb starts to dim or actually burns out, it would be foolish of us to insist that flipping the switch will actually guarantee that the light comes on. Thus, the belief that flipping a switch brightens a room is a context-dependent belief. It depends on the context of a properly working electric circuit and light bulb.
World Chess Champion
At the time of writing this, Magnus Carlson is the world chess champion and the highest-rated chess player ever. He’s so amazingly good that there’s really no room for doubt of this fact.
Still, if you are reading this in a hundred years, I don’t expect you to believe that Magnus Carlson is the world chess champion or even the highest-rated chess player ever. My belief is perfectly compatible with yours, since mine was only ever intended to be time-specific.
The Pharisees played an important role in keeping the Jews in submission to the Law of Moses. They were a faithful people in a nation that historically had typically followed after false gods. However, in Jesus’ day, they had become concerned only with externals and formalities. Jesus told them,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt 23:23 ESV)
So it would have been foolish to think that the Pharisees, once zealous for God, were exemplary followers of the Law of Moses.
Mennonites and the Internet
The Mennonite church in which I grew up had a standard against internet usage, because of all the sinful content that one can find on the internet. Yet in a short time, internet was all but required for a business to operate. Still, they kept their rule verbatim, but made the qualification that they could on a case by case basis allow individual businessmen to use it for business purposes only. In time that also became all but untenable, and at the time I left, many members were using the internet even for personal use, even though officially the church still states once a year in a worship service, that “Internet connections shall not be used.”
In the few years before I left, smartphones became common, and many members purchased them. Since smartphones could easily access the internet, the church soon ruled that members couldn’t have smartphones, and most of them got rid of their phones. However, as time went on, most “flip phones” or “dumb phones” also became capable of accessing the internet.
The trouble was that though you could actually limit internet usage by installing parental controls on a smartphone, you couldn’t limit internet access for a dumb phone because their computing power wasn’t capable of it. So the new ruling actually soon made it impossible for my former church to achieve their goal. Yet, because the church was resistant to change, it kept the ruling. By now there are better options for them again, so their ruling may actually work again.
Many Years Have Passed
Since we are now nearly two millennia after the Christian church was formed, and the context of the church has completely changed, it’s inconceivable that some context-dependent beliefs wouldn’t have grown obsolete in that time.
We’re All in the Same Boat
Anyone who has studied early church history, except those who are so enthusiastic about their own belief system that they are incapable of seeing its flaws, knows that it is impossible, given history, to agree with the consensus of the early church in every particular. All Christian traditions are different from the early church in some way.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, though they maintain some context-specific beliefs held by the early church, don’t maintain the apostolic faith in its entirety:
- Where patriotic allegiance to a nation had been unacceptable, it has become acceptable.
- Where war and the use of violence had been unacceptable, they have become acceptable.
- Where venerating icons had been unacceptable, it has become acceptable.
Thus, all of us need to decide which beliefs we should retain and which we shouldn’t. What we need is a way of knowing which beliefs were context-specific, and which were essential to Christianity as they believed it. In the case of essential beliefs, we can’t disagree with those without turning away from the legacy of the early church. But in the case of context-specific beliefs, we might actually need to disagree with some of them, in order to maintain the legacy of the early church. History might have turned the tables on us.
When Should We Disagree With the Early Church?
Here are several criteria that show when we must actually hold to a different teaching than the early church did, in order to carry on their legacy and stay true to their faith.
- The teaching must originate from a fallible source, not an infallible one. As I said already, the doctrines of the apostles can’t be context-dependent or change. The apostles had authority from God himself, and he knows what doctrines will be good for all time. However, if a belief can only be traced back to Christians whose teaching or consensus is not infallible, then their belief may be wrong.
- The teaching must be about the stuff of history, and not about unchanging things like principles. In other words, this teaching must concern things that can change in quality or change with respect to their relative relationship with other such things. This could be things like people, communities, or churches that had certain qualities or played certain roles in one era, but could have different qualities or play different roles in another.
- Depending on how they speak of the stuff of history, we might not even disagree with them. If they said that something is the case, we can agree that in their day it was the case, while holding that it no longer is. In that case, we are being true to the early church in that particular, even if our own context-specific beliefs are different.
- But if they said that something will always be the case, we will need to disagree with them. Still, if their teaching was offered as an indicator of correctness rather than an essentially correct truth, we can be true to their values by agreeing with their goal if not with their opinion about what the future would hold.
- If their teaching was offered as an essentially correct truth, we may need to disagree with them entirely. We would hope this wouldn’t happen often. Still, by holding to the apostolic faith in its entirety, we are being true to the mindset and values of the post-apostolic church.
- The teaching must be impossible to maintain while being part of a church that teaches the apostolic faith. If there are churches that are teaching the apostolic faith and still maintain that context-specific belief, we should be a part of them. However, it’s possible that all the churches which stick to that context-dependent belief in a different context are actually no longer teaching the apostolic faith in its entirety. If that is the case, we need to find a church that teaches the apostolic faith. If possible, we should have both; if not possible, we should keep the apostolic faith rather than a context-specific belief.
What We Should Do?
If we want to stay true to the faith of the early church, and we find that they held a teaching that matches these three criteria, what should we do? We should see if we can discover the underlying principle or purpose of that belief, and apply that principle or purpose to our context today.
Examples from the Early Church
Enough about the theory; how does it work out in practice? Here are three beliefs held by some or many early Christians, beliefs which match these criteria and can no longer be held.
The early church valued having “apostolic succession,” or having leaders who filled church leadership offices in succession from the original leaders that the apostles ordained in those local offices. They valued apostolic succession being so close to the teaching of the apostles helped them remain true to the doctrines their recent predecessors had heard from the apostles themselves.
As my article on apostolic succession points out, however, the churches that still have apostolic succession today have actually changed in their view of apostolic succession. Since they know that the early church valued apostolic succession, these churches believe their apostolic succession is necessary in order for their leaders to be validly ordained.
But have they stayed true to the original purpose of apostolic succession? Unfortunately, they have ceased to teach the true apostolic faith in its entirety, as this website shows. And they have not shown themselves willing to return to the apostolic faith through reformation.
However, those of us who belong to Christian traditions that do teach the true apostolic faith in its entirety no longer have apostolic succession. The leaders of the shifting institutional church kept their hold of the local offices that the apostles entrusted to people who actually followed their faith. Thus, we must choose between apostolic succession and the thing it was intended to protect.
Here’s how apostolic succession meets the criteria I laid out:
- Apostolic succession was not taught by infallible sources.
- Apostolic succession helped show which churches of that day had the apostolic teachings.
- The churches with apostolic succession no longer teach apostolic doctrine in its entirety.
In this case, are we actually disagreeing with the early church? I suggest not. See, for example, what Irenaeus said:
“[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth” (ibid., 4:26:2).
From this tract.
It is entirely possible for us to agree that the presbyters in Irenaeus’s day had receive the apostolic truth, and that those who didn’t have apostolic succession in his day were heretics of perverse minds—and still recognize that, in our day, things are a bit different. Thus, we can easily retain the legacy of the early church without having apostolic succession.
One True Church
Some early Christians, like Cyprian and Firmilian, believed that there was no salvation to be found outside of the institutional church. Here’s how that doctrine meets the criteria I laid out.
- The doctrine of no salvation outside of the institutional church was not taught by infallible sources.
- This doctrine helped people stay in communion with the vast majority of other churches that had retained the doctrine and mindset of the apostles.
- This doctrine now separates people from vast numbers of Christians who have the doctrine and mindset of the apostles, and connects people with vast numbers who do not.
Remaining With Rome
Some early Christians, like Irenaeus, taught that people should hold to the doctrines taught by the church at Rome. Some, like Cyprian, taught that every church should stay in communion with the church at Rome. Since Rome was, in their day, such a strong preserver of apostolic truth, this was very important to them.
However, now the church at Rome has actually departed from the apostolic tradition, as this website shows. So the only option is either to reform the Roman church or to remain with a church that teaches the apostolic tradition. Since we haven’t been able to reform the Roman church (history records that we tried), we’ve had to take the alternate route.
Here’s how the doctrine of remaining with Rome meets the criteria I laid out.
- The doctrine of remaining with Rome was not taught by infallible sources.
- This doctrine helped people remain true to the apostolic faith, which had been faithfully taught by the church in Rome.
- This doctrine now doesn’t help people remain true to the apostolic faith, since the church in Rome has altered it.
How did context-specific beliefs become enshrined in dogma?
So we need to drop these context-specific beliefs. But if they were context-specific, how did they become so important to churches like the Roman Catholic Church? I suggest that this process occurred over time:
- Because these beliefs were true in that context, early Christians used them in arguments against heretics and dissenters.
- Over time, people began to think that these beliefs actually ensured apostolicity in some cases and were necessary conditions in other cases.
- Eventually, these beliefs, once a means to an end, were enshrined as a noble and wonderful things in themselves, and people started to simply assume that they would always lead to the correct end.
- These beliefs may well have been the church’s undoing as doctrine began to change. Convinced that there was one true church, which alone had apostolic succession and which had apostolically-founded churches like Rome—beliefs that had served them so well against the Gnostics—they blithely followed those doctrines instead of watching the doctrinal shift over the decades and centuries.
- Finally, these churches couldn’t support their beliefs from the apostolic deposit anymore, so they had to foreground these context-specific beliefs from the early church as though they were remaining true to the foundational beliefs of the apostolic faith.
A Common Mistake of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Converts
Many converts to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches see these doctrines in the early church, and believe that they have been lost or jettisoned by other churches. They see the context-specific beliefs, and they see that these churches have preserved the context-specific beliefs. Yet they fail to ask if the context remains the same, because they fail to recognize that they could have been specific to the early Christian context.
They mistake the means for the end. Because these churches have enshrined the means, they feel that the end must also be enshrined. But it’s not the case.
We know that many people appear to be wonderful examples of true religion, but are not actually living it as well as they should. The Pharisees are great examples of this. But there could—shockingly—be “publicans and sinners” who look unimpressive but are closer to the truth.
The Modal Fallacy
One of the mistakes often made in this context by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is to latch onto things that the early Christians said “are” true, and then they assume that those things “must necessarily be” true. That’s actually a logical fallacy.
The modal fallacy is to argue that, because a fact is true, that fact must necessarily be true. In other words, if a fact happens to be true, then there is no possibility that it could have been false. For example, a racecar driver might say, “It’s either true or not true that I will wreck and die in this race. So since whichever it is is already true, that means that it doesn’t matter how unsafely I drive—the outcome will be the same.”
But of course whichever outcome is true isn’t necessarily true. Whichever outcome is true, is true dependent on what actions the racecar driver makes. The outcome is true, but if the racecar driver acted differently, the other outcome would be true.
It is a similar mistake when a Roman Catholic apologist says that, according to Irenaeus, all churches with true doctrine had apostolic succession—therefore, according to Irenaeus, it’s true that all churches with true doctrine must necessarily have apostolic succession.
I will be the first person to rejoice, if the Roman Catholic Church and/or the Eastern Orthodox Church were to return to the historic faith, teaching only what came from the apostles. If that happens, we can come back into communion with each other again. But until then, these context-specific beliefs are not worth the price of passing over apostolic teachings.