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The Ancient Church

April 1995 | by Douglas Wilson

We do not know who the first church member was. It may have been Adam, or perhaps Eve. Scripture does not say explicitly. But at the very least, God had called out a people for himself by the second generation of mankind. Abel is identified by Christ as ‘righteous’, and the author of Hebrews tells us he was a man of faith. ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks’ (Hebrews 11:4).

We also do not know who the last church member will be-the final sinner washed and sanctified before the Lord raises the dead at the time of the last judgement. Whatever his name, he will count himself fortunate indeed. But the Lord is long-suffering, and is not willing that any of his people should perish – he will delay that final day of judgement until all his people are safely saved.

Between these two, the first and last sinner forgiven, exists one, and only one, church. That church is the church of all the redeemed, throughout all time. When we repent and believe, into this one church we come.

Temple Mount, Jerusalem
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‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel’ (Hebrews 12:22-24). If a man is redeemed by Christ, then he is a member of this one church – a church founded in God’s decree before time existed, and by the grace of God manifested in history as long as sinful heirs of Adam have lived.

Enter the modern rootless evangelical who, with a bemused detachment, is able to tell you only that the church he attends was founded in the late fifties by a gifted preacher. Historically isolated from other periods of the church, this church member’s faith is very much anchored to the present moment, and his present needs and concerns. For many evangelicals, this historical provincialism is perfectly acceptable to them; they enjoy life in the provinces. They have not been taught to appreciate the importance of history, and so, for them, it falls easily to the ground.

But for others, such ecclesiastical rootlessness is intolerable – and rightly so. In search of roots, and not wanting to belong to any church that apparently has no more of a historical pedigree than the average cult, they begin to look around. Not surprisingly, they soon encounter a church which lays claim to antiquity – a church which claims continuous existence back to the time of the apostles. Against such a claim, what can a church founded in the late Fifties say?

This desire to belong to an old church is certainly a noble and scriptural one. ‘Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, which you have redeemed – this Mount Zion where you have dwelt’ (Psalm 74:2). But at the same time, caution is in order. Someone with a need, even if the need is legitimate in itself, is someone with low sales resistance. If a historically naive individual wants to belong to an old church, it does not take much to impress him.

The church which Christ purchased with his blood is not the only thing which is ‘of old’. Scripture shows us the serpent has been lying from the beginning (1 John 3:8; Revelation 12:9). The truth is ancient, but within the experience of our race, lies and deceit are almost as ancient. The antithesis between true righteousness and self-righteousness between the right worship of God and idolatry, has existed since the time of Abel and Cain. So raw historical data, mere antiquity, does not provide the criterion for evaluating history. After all, Cain was the elder brother!

It is therefore not surprising when rootless evangelicals, who have not been taught a biblical approach to church history, prove themselves to be incredibly naive in historical matters. When confronted with historical distortions, which claim the mantle of apostolic antiquity, they quietly submit. After all, they reason, the one who speaks so confidently about the past must be right, while the one who says nothing must be wrong.

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
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But the problem with Eastern Orthodoxy, and with Rome, is not their antiquity. The problem is that they are not old enough – they are not part of the ancient church, characterized in all ages by the righteousness of faith. Abel lived under a different administration of the grace of God than did Moses, or the apostle Paul, or Polycarp. But all of them wore the white livery of Christ – the righteousness of faith.

Every age has seen the mummeries of self-imposed worship, and in every age God has been pleased to call out a people for the sake of his name. How may we distinguish the two? The answer has always been the same; God’s people are always marked by the righteousness of faith. So just as Israel did not obtain what they sought – righteousness by law – so the Orthodox have not obtained what they prize above all – the righteousness of old. In the wisdom of God, the simplest evangelical, however distressingly ignorant of the antiquity of his faith he may be, nevertheless remains a member of that ancient congregation. And in the judgement of God, those who naively want the feel and smell of antiquity are condemned to continue to act as though they were born yesterday.

‘You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which you have sworn to our fathers from days of old’ (Micah 7:20).