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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists

CHAPTER 16: The Early Church

16.1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive

As we read through the New Testament, we can so easily get the sense that they were there, and we are here; they lived then, and we live now; they were as they were, but life forces us  to be only as we are. We can see them as historical characters, and forget that they were truly our brethren and sisters, just as surely as we are brethren and sisters of each other. The body of Christ is one; and that body is united not only over space but also over time. We are but an extension of who they were. We can’t hive off the first century in our minds, as it were; we believe the same things, follow the same Lord, struggle against the same flesh, hope for the same Hope, know the same grace. This leads us to examine the degree to which we as individuals and as a community live up to “first century Christianity”. My analysis finds that in a few areas we are better; in many ways we need to urgently bring ourselves into line with their example.  

16-1-1 " With one accord"

There are a number of words and phrases which keep cropping up in Acts, especially in the early chapters, which are kind of hallmarks of that early ecclesia. “With one accord” is one such. We begin in Acts 1:14: " These all continued with one accord in prayer" . Then 2:1: " When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place" .  Now over to v.46: " Continuing daily with one accord...breaking bread...with...singleness of heart" . And on to 4:24: " They lifted up their voice to God with one accord" . Now to 5:12: " They were all with one accord in Solomon's porch" . There is another example in 15:25 too. So it's quite obvious, then, that the fact the early ecclesia was " with one accord" in those early, heady days is stamped as a hallmark over this record. But this phrase " with one accord" is also used in Acts about the united hatred of the world against those early brethren and sisters. The Jews ran upon Stephen " with one accord" (7:52), those of Tyre and Sidon were " with one accord" (12:20), " The Jews made insurrection against Paul with one accord" in Corinth (18:12), and at Ephesus the mob " rushed with one accord" against Paul (19:29). The same Greek word is used in all these cases (and it scarcely occurs outside Acts). It's quite obvious that we are intended to visualise that early ecclesia as being " with one accord" . But we are also supposed to imagine the world around them " with one accord" being against them. The difference between them and the world was vast. The world was actively united against them, and thereby they came to be strongly united with each other.  

We must ask: are we “of one accord” as they were? There was a time when they broke bread daily in each others’ homes, and of their own volition (so it seems) sold what they had so as to distribute to their poorer brethren. Poor believers in Corinth and Philippi collected money for the even poorer brethren in Jerusalem. Is this happening amongst us? Are [say] Indian or Russian brethren seeking to send a few dollars to help our refugee brethren in Mozambique, who escaped the Congo war with scarcely the shirt on their back? Are Western brethren donating as they could to the poverty of (e.g.) Moldova? Do we have a sense of concern even? Does the thought arise, that we could send even something? Perhaps it is because we don’t sense the massive gap which there is between us and this world, that we don’t sense the intensity of unity between us as believers which has been created “in Christ”. We don’t sense enough, perhaps, that this world is not just passively disinterested in God. All outside of Christ are active enemies towards Him, subjects of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:3,15). This isn’t how we tend to see the world around us. But to the first century believer, it was clearly so. The greatness of the gulf that divides was clearly felt. Our world is (overall) more tolerant than it has ever been; but let’s not forget that the ruling powers are ‘satan’, an embodiment of the flesh. All around is subtly articulated enmity against true spirituality and the cause of Christ. The more we see that, the more we will realise how close we are to each other who are the other side of the great divide, “in Christ” along with us. What differences of emphasis and personality there may be between us we will more naturally overlook.  

The incredible and radical generosity of God in giving His only Son to die for us, we who as a race rejected Him… the lengths to which God went to reconcile with us… all this lays the basis for an extraordinary unity within Christian communities. And it was seen in the first century church. We read of Priscilla and Aquilla ‘risking their necks’ for Paul’s life (Rom. 16:4). According to Deissmann, this Greek term refers to the possibility of being murdered in the place of someone condemned to death (1). Likewise 1 Clement 55 speaks of Christians serving prison terms for each other: “We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to bonds, in order that they might ransom others”.

The early believers were initially members of the synagogues, and Paul always visited the synagogue services in his travels. Peter and John went up to pray in the temple at the ninth hour along with everyone else (Acts 3:1). Early ecclesial meetings were based upon the synagogue system (James 2:2). The Lord didn’t tell them to leave because they might catch some ‘guilt by association’. He knew that if they forthrightly preached the Truth, they would be excommunicated: “the time will come when they will expel you from their synagogues”, He had foretold; as if He expected them to stay there until they were chased away. Those who reject the Lord Jesus will treat us likewise (Jn. 15:18-21- which says something about the way many Trinitarians are so abusive towards us non-trinitarians. The trinity is not merely a matter of interpretation, therefore). However, it must be said that the Lord was perhaps making some concession to the weakness of His new people by allowing them to remain members of the synagogue system, and keep parts of the Law. As the New Testament period progressed, the Holy Spirit through Paul increasingly urged upon the believers the need to cast out the bondwoman of Judaism, to trust completely in grace not law. Consider, too, Paul’s command in 1 Cor. 11 that brethren do not wear head coverings in ecclesial meetings. Assuming this to have been a universal principle which he intended to be followed in all ecclesias [and the reasons he gives are based upon universal principles], this was really signalling an exit from the synagogues, where men had to attend with covered head. Now they could no longer go on attending the synagogues to fulfil their Christian worship; they had to realize the extent of the implications of the Lordship and Headship of Christ, as the image and glory of God. Yet sadly, as we will explore later, the brethren increasingly returned to the synagogues rather than separated from them. 

One of the things which has damaged our being “of one accord” has been a preoccupation with ‘fellowship’; which believers we will fellowship, and which ones we won’t. The Lord’s attitude seems to have been that we should teach the Truth, and those who are not of the Truth will in the end cease association with us. Many  readers will have found this; once they started preaching against the trinity in their former ecclesias, they were excluded. No paid up Trinitarian wants to fellowship with the likes of us. So the question of whether to leave or not is taken out of our hands, if we forthrightly teach the Truth. And so in the more delicate matter of our relations with other brethren. If we create in our ecclesias an environment that loves and teaches the Truth from Scripture, those not of the Truth will leave themselves. But let us get on more with being of “one accord” with our brethren, rather than seeking for reasons not to be. The essential demarcation 2000 years ago was between the believer and the world, not believer and believer. Peter even appealed to people to save themselves from the surrounding generation by being baptized (Acts 2:40). Paul explained baptism as a leaving Egypt (1 Cor. 10; Heb. 3,4). Martin Luther King used to say (quoting Billy Graham) that Sundays at 11:00 a.m. was America’s most segregated hour; and sadly it could be that it is ours too. This really should not be... Our unity can convert the world. But unity isn’t uniformity, and neither is diversity, division.  

One of the impressive things about the early church was the way the formal preaching expeditions were comprised of people from such diverse backgrounds, who each in their own contexts had left behind the things of the world. Think of the four man team who evangelized Macedonia: Paul the ex-Pharisee from Tarsus, Silas the new Hellenistic recruit from Jerusalem, Luke the Gentile doctor; and half-Jewish, half-Gentile Timothy (Acts 16:6-10). Likewise small groups of similar diverse composition have made a huge impact in their missionary work. When small groups comprised of Poles, British, Lithuanians and Canadians started taking the Gospel to remote parts of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, the obvious question we met was: “How ever did you come to be together, living in that van, coming here with your message?”. Our unity is indeed a witness as it was in the first century, even moreso. The importance of unity is reflected in the way Luke structured the book of Acts. Structurally, the key position in the book, bang in the middle of it, is the account of the reconciliation achieved at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. I think that reflects how Luke was so impressed that reconciliation between two opposing parties in the brotherhood was achieved (even though the unity achieved there doesn't seem to have lasted long, according to Paul's letters). For Luke, that achievement of unity was the king-pin of Christian missionary achievement; he saw unity as so central and crucial to the growth of the church which he was historically recording.


(1)   Adolf Deissmann, Light From The Ancient East (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978 ed.) pp. 94 ff.