A review of the latest book by popular La Croix International feature writer Thomas O’Loughlin
Whenever there is a matter of dispute in the modern-day Church, there is a tendency to ask what would be the opinion of those members of the early Church.
Those of you already familiar with the writing and teaching of Thomas O’Loughlin, professor emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, will welcome his new book, Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches (James Clarke & Co., 2022).
Tom and I share a friendship over many years, and we’ve both spent our professional live teaching, although in vastly differing fields.
I have come to this book as a layman whose theological background is nowhere near that of Tom’s. Nonetheless, I have found it to be a fascinating read.
The title answers the question about the early Church. There wasn’t a singular source from which all teaching grew in a linear fashion but a multitude of communities or Churches that carried the Christian memory forward.
“A Community that remembers and tells stories”
The first two centuries were formative and would not have been recognizable to us today. O’Loughlin quotes Johann Metz: “Christianity in not really a Community that interprets and gives arguments but rather a Community that remembers and tells stories”. (p 48)
We have such a memory in the text known as the Didache which is the oldest text we have that describes the practice and pattern of early Christian life. O’Loughlin, who produced his own translation of this short book a while ago, makes frequent reference to it in this text.
These Church groups varied in size, some being as small as house communities. It was to these varied groupings that the early scriptures, what we now call the New Testament, were read and from which they derived their teaching.
Even these scriptures, attributed to one writer, have a varied authorship. When Paul was speaking, those who were in awe of him often transcribed his words and so produced another text in the style of Paul.
We also discover that discipleship is about learning and discovering within a community.
Gathering around a table
“Discipleship is very much a matter that can be located within one’s calendar. This is service to one another: feeding, clothing, healing and helping. Moreover, it is not just to the known few or the circle of other disciples, it reaches out like the divine love to all humanity,” O’Loughlin writes (p. 99).
We must recognize the difference between those times, heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman structure and tradition and our own time.
“Christianity must have appeared a poor rival for the affections of a religiously minded gentile in that world,” the author points out (p. 97).
Gathering round a common table, not an altar, was a key aspect of those early Christian churches for “…one of the key scenes within the memory of Christians is the supper of Jesus with the disciples that took place just before his arrest and death” (p. 81).
It is ironic and sad that this common table has become a point of dissension amongst Christians today when it was clearly meant to be otherwise.
Meals and memory
So the meal was the centerpiece of the gathering, the sharing of food, one with another, crossing the boundaries of class and nationality “…to be a disciple meant knowing that meals were important in disciples’ memory and that the last supper was but the high point in the memory of the meals of Jesus” (p. 82).
An understanding of these early Churches and their patterns of understanding and practice would go a long way towards easing some of the stresses that we face in our Christian communities today.
This book has been a welcome challenge to read, respecting the perspective of the writer, his depth of understanding of his subject.
Having read it once, it now requires a return in the hope of discovering further insights into the practice of the early Churches.
You can pre-order a copy of Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches from the Australian-based Booktopia website here.
Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.