What can we learn from the early church about congregations? [VBO 24] 

Contact Chrisna van der Merwe at: 021-808 3624; cmer@sun.ac.za

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Presenters: Robert Vosloo, Ian Nell and Guillaume Smit
Date: 12 – 14 October 2010
Place: Stellenbosch

Congregations can learn much from the Early Church. Today congregations are facing different challenges than those which confronted the young Christian movement in die early Christian centuries. Nevertheless, those centuries were very formative for the church. Therefore this course attends more closely to how the early Christian communities embodied their faith (often in difficult circumstances). It is our conviction that such an engagement can be very fruitful, helping us to look with new eyes at our understanding of congregations and ministry today. Looking back at the past can provide resources that might enable us to reflect and act more faithfully and imaginatively.
There is currently a renewed interest in the historical and theologically study of the Early Church. This course wants to draw on some of this reflection and rethink the implications thereof for our own contexts.

Much is being said about what we can learn about congregations and ministry in the New Testament. The New Testament is indeed an important source in this regard. In addition, it is however also very valuable to look at the practices of the early Christian communities during the first centuries. In this course the focus is mainly, although not exclusively, on the period before Constantine. This course will address matters such as:

  •  Worship and liturgy in the Early Church. What can we learn from the Early Church about worship, baptism and the Eucharist?  What are the theological logic that comes to the fore in this regard? And what can we learn about the ministry of the Word (including from some of the famous preachers such as Ambrose and Chrysostom)? 
  • Membership. What did it mean in the first Christian centuries to be part of a Christian community? On which grounds were certain people included and other excluded? In this regard some controversies (such as the question of the “lapsed” or the Donatist controversy) makes for interesting test cases. 
  • The role of Christians in society. How did the early Christians (who were often persecuted) understood their identity as Christians?  What did their Christian identity mean for their everyday life, for their spirituality and morality?  
  • Organization and “leadership” in the Early Church. How did the Early Church think about bishops?  How did the different ministries of the church develope? 


  • To learn more about new historical and theological work pertaining to the Early Church, as well as to revisit some classical texts. 
  • To encourage a stronger theological engagement with the practice and theology of the Early Church.
  • To understand better the contexts in which the Christians of the first centuries lived out their faith. 
  • To learn more about views in the Early Church on worship, liturgical practices and spirituality and to integrate these perspectives wisely into our own theological frameworks and praxis.
  •  To develop the skills to bring our own contexts in a responsible way into conversation with the beliefs and practices of the Early Church.