The real question is not whether we should shape our faith-lives by patterns but, instead, which patterns are truly worthy to shape a life and a movement. All religious movements dip into the reservoir of paradigm and most choose one or two patterns by which to define themselves. Because we are finite creatures, we rarely have the capacity to embrace the rich variety of patterns found in Scripture. We tend to emphasize one or two at the expense of others.

The pattern we place on center stage of our thinking and our lives will be the pattern that shapes us and defines us and (to a certain extent) dominates us. Because pattern matters, choosing the right pattern is important.

Of all the patterns and paradigms we (the Churches of Christ) could have chosen to emphasize, it was the first-century-church-model that became the blueprint on which we built our church. We became students of the church in Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome. We modeled ourselves and our congregations after those congregations. We set about the challenging work of replicating in modern times the ancient and primitive rites of first century faith and practice. We identified and catalogued the early churches’ modes of worship, methods of outreach and cooperation, their structures for leadership, the names by which they called themselves, the ethical standards by which they lived, and the means by which they expressed and maintained community.

We chose this as our defining pattern because we believed that when we perfectly restored the first century pattern, we would usher in a revival of first century power and effectiveness. Function would follow form. We convinced ourselves that the harmony, fervor, and holiness we saw in the ancient church would break out afresh in the modern church-if only we could reinstate the church-pattern they followed. By “doing church” in the same way the ancients “did church,” we too could become a church that turned the world upside down, changed lives, and brought glory to God.

I’ll leave it to you to judge whether the evidence of the past one hundred and fifty years has proven that conviction true. Has our obsession with New Testament church-models resulted in more loving, united, and faithful communities of faith today? Has our close examination of the roles and methods of early church leadership translated into a vivid and compelling model of strong, faithful, visionary leadership in the church of our time? After all the dust has settled from our debates over the particular means by which disciples were saved and sanctified in the first-church, are we now known for producing passionate, committed, mature, bold, and evangelistic disciples?

The question I would pose instead is simply this: In choosing the first-century-church-model as the pattern at the heart of our movement and lives, did we run past an already existing pattern recommended by Jesus and the Apostles? What if identifying and focusing on the right pattern for life and church is so important that the choice of which pattern was never really left to us at all?

[This article was first published as a part of a Wineskins special publication edited by Edward Fudge on “Patternism”–]