Much more than a single article could be written detailing all the ways in which American evangelical Protestantism looks very different from the early church. Certainly not all of the developments in our external circumstances or internal practices have been for the worse.
But one key way in which American evangelicals have not been closely hewing to the faithful biblical example of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers is in the basic attitude and response we often have towards what to do about blatant unfaithfulness within the church itself.
People often romantically long for the purity of "the New Testament church." But in the New Testament I read, I see a church with some really serious problems.
In the Revelation to John, we see Jesus Christ not giving up on but still loving certain churches, calling them to Scriptural holiness, even when the Ephesian church had forsaken its first love, the church in Pergamum included people devoted to false teaching and sexual immorality, the church in Thyatira tolerated Satanic teaching and a woman leading others into sexual immorality, the church in Sardis was spiritually dead, and the church in Laodicea had not yet repented of being so infamously lukewarm.
Members of the church in Rome were harshly judging and being stumbling blocks for each other. The very first "reconciling congregation" in church history, which took an "open and affirming" stance towards sexual sin, was the one in Corinth, which also included members with a scandalously nasty habit of dragging each other to court. The Galatian church was being led to follow a false Gospel, and heard from Paul about his own experiences elsewhere with "false brothers" who "had infiltrated our ranks." To the Philippian church, Paul noted that some preachers of Christ were driven by insincere motives of selfish ambition and jealousy. The Colossian church was plagued by a heretical false teachings that mixed in elements from non-Christian belief systems and struck at the very heart of the Gospel. The Thessalonian church had its own struggles with practice, needing to be warned against sexual immorality and then having problems with sinful, mooching laziness. The churches in Crete, overseen by Titus, had within them a disruptive faction who were spreading false teaching, and who had become part of the church despite not even knowing God. The church folk who first received the epistle of James appear to have had an ugly habit of treating rich people better than poor people. Peter's second letter strongly warns against the inevitable problem of churches being infiltrated by dangerous false teachers. The recipients of John's epistles were apparently in churches in which people were evidently believing the claims of spirits and false prophets who were not from God, there had been the spread of false teachings so dangerous that they endangered Christians' eternal salvation, and there was even a corrupt man in a church leadership position who was slandering faithful Christians and abusing his power to put some faithful Christians out of the church. Finally, Jude's little epistle is worth taking a moment to read in its entirety. He was addressing a church into which false teachers had "secretly slipped in," people who "pervert[ed] the grace of our God into a license for immorality." Sound familiar?
I fear that for too many American Protestants, their first reaction if they heard of a church experiencing even one of these problems would be "if something like that was going on in my church, I would just leave and go to another church – even if that meant abandoning a faithful local congregation because of something happening in the wider denomination!"
This is a profoundly unbiblical mindset. The New Testament presents us with a number of responses to such church problems: Teaching that explicitly refutes false beliefs. Church discipline. Patient endurance. "Contending for the faith" – and note that when Jude gave that command, he was talking about fighting unfaithfulness within the church itself! Warning about the ultimate eternal consequences of persistent unfaithfulness. Waiting for eventual justice for enemies of the Gospel. Even rejoicing over some good preaching by very corrupt individuals!
But what I do not see in Scripture is this idea that when the false teachers have gained a small foothold in or even overwhelmed a local church, we have any right to just surrender everything to them, give them full, unchallenged leadership over the local flock, just run away and quit, and maybe try to rebuild everything from scratch somewhere down the road.
As long as God sustains our ministry, the Institute on Religion and Democracy is committed to contending for the faith once delivered, rather than surrendering the church to those who would hijack it for lesser agendas.