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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


16-2-2 Dirty Politics In The Church

As in our own community, this tension between right and left manifested itself in many ways. There were dirty politics in the church. The Greek speaking Jews and the Hebrew speaking Jews within the ecclesia started arguing over welfare payments in Acts 6. It was the old tension- the liberals against the orthodox, with the orthodox unwilling to give much of the welfare collection to those they perceived as more liberal. This squabble was tackled by Stephen, and the record then goes on to describe his murder, almost implying that it was Judaist Christians within the synagogues who set him up for this. After all, there was big money involved- Jews were used to paying 10 or 20% of their wealth to the temple, and if this was now going to the ecclesia, with thousands baptized, there could well have arisen a power struggle over who controlled it. It could well be that the division between Paul and John Mark was over this matter; after they had baptized the first Gentile in Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, John Mark went back to the Jerusalem ecclesia (Acts 13:13). Acts 15:38 RV speaks of how he “withdrew from them from Pamphylia”, hinting at spiritual reasons for his withdrawal. It must also be remembered that Christianity was a new, unregistered religion in the Roman empire, increasingly subject to persecution and discrimination. Judaism was registered and tolerated. It was so much easier to remain under the synagogue umbrella, to deny the radical demands of the Lord Jesus, and to accept Him half-heartedly, in Name but not in reality.  

The Jerusalem ecclesia played a part in these dirty politics in the church. They thought that they had the right to be the senior ecclesia, because Judaism was Jerusalem-dominated due to the presence of the temple there. They sent their brethren up to Antioch to enquire whatever was going on- Gentiles were being baptized! And they summoned poor Peter before them to explain what he was doing, eating with Gentile Cornelius. Then later they sent more messengers to Antioch to bully the Jewish brethren not to break bread with the Gentile converts. The subverters of Corinth ecclesia came with “letters of commendation” (2 Cor. 3:1 cp. 4:2; 5:12; 6:4; 10:12,18; 12:11), and one wonders whether these letters were not from Jerusalem too; for in the synagogue system upon which the early ecclesia was based, the Jerusalem rabbis issued such letters. Recall how Saul had such letters to authorise him to persecute the Damascus Christians. Their tactics were political and aggressive- they made Peter so scared that he forgot all the lessons the Lord had taught him through the conversion of Cornelius, that from fear of them he refused to break bread with Gentiles when their representatives were present.

James, the leader of the Jerusalem ecclesia, got Peter and John to join him in making Paul to agree to preach only to Gentiles, whilst they would teach the Jews (Gal. 2:9 NIV). This was contrary to what the Lord had told Paul in Acts 9:15- that he had been converted so as to preach to both Jews and Gentiles. And Paul took no notice of the ‘agreement’ they tried to force him into- he always made a priority of preaching first of all in the Jewish synagogues and to the Jews, and only secondarily to Gentiles. He did this right up to the end of the Acts record. Paul got drawn into politics in the church. Although he went along with the Acts 15 decree and even agreed to propagate it, he never mentions it in his writing or speaking, and later he writes about food regulations and the whole question of Gentiles and the Law as if he disagreed with it. Perhaps as he matured, he saw the need to speak out against legalism in the ecclesias rather than go along with it for the sake of peace. 

The whole nature of the agreement in Gal. 2:6-10 could be read as smacking of dirty politics- Paul could continue to convert Gentiles and not force them to be circumcised, but James and Peter would continue their ministry to the Jews, and Paul would get his Gentile converts to donate money to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It all could be read as having the ring of a 'deal' rather than an agreement strictly guided by spiritual principles. James [not necessarily the same James who wrote the epistle] seems to have acted very ‘politically’. He sent his followers to pressurise Peter not to break bread with Gentiles in Antioch (Gal. 2:12). Then there was a conference called at Jerusalem to discuss the matter. There was “much disputing”, there wasn’t the clear cut acceptance of Gentiles which one would have expected if the words of Jesus had been taken at face value, and then James said ‘Nobody ever came from me telling any Gentile they must be circumcised and keep the Law. They are all welcome, just that they must respect some of the Mosaic laws about blood etc., and keep away from fornication’. This contradicts Paul’s inspired teaching that the Mosaic Law was totally finished. Gal. 2:12 records that James had sent brethren to Antioch trying to enforce the Law upon Gentiles! (1) And then later, the Jerusalem ecclesia boasted of how many thousand members they had, “and they are all zealous of the law”. They then asked Paul to make it clear that he supported circumcision and keeping the Law (Acts 21:19-24). In passing, we note how hurtful this must have been, since Paul was bringing funds for their ecclesia which he had collected at the cost of damaging his relationship with the likes of Corinth. He meekly obeyed, perhaps it was playing a part in the politics in the church, although he had written to the Colossians and others that there was no need for any to be circumcised nor keep the Law, indeed these things were a denial of faith in Jesus.  

It can even be argued that Paul's extended allegory in Gal. 4:24-31 about "Jerusalem which now is" has some reference to the Jewish Christian elders in Jerusalem who had made the deal with him about making the Gentile converts keep at least some of the Jewish laws. The heavenly Jerusalem which is "free" would then be a reference to the freedom Paul felt for his Gentile converts; and the persecution of those born after the spirit would then be a sideways reference to the trouble he was experiencing from the Jewish-Christian attacks upon him. Paul observes earlier that " I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man's covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void, or addeth thereto" (Gal. 3:15). His speaking humanly was perhaps because he was tongue in cheek alluding to the human covenant of Acts 15, to which he believed the Jewish Christian elders in Jerusalem had "added" by still demanding that Christian converts lived in a Jewish manner.

It is hard to piece together what was really going on in these dirty politics in the church, because Paul seems to have submitted to their wishes apart from where essential principle was concerned. Luke and Galatians 2 make the record sound so positive- as if the conference in Jerusalem solved all the problems, even though it is clear that it didn’t, and the Gentile believers were still classed as second rate. Note too how Paul later wrote: “As touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth” (1 Cor. 8:1). This sounds like an allusion to the agreements hammered out at Jerusalem-‘we all know what was agreed’, Paul seems to be saying. There was nothing wrong in itself with the compromises agreed. But it was love that edifies, not a legalistic use of those decrees as ‘knowledge’. It all sounds as if there was joy at the conversion of the Gentiles, even though there was “much disputing” about it. And yet it is observable that the whole Acts record doesn’t reflect the spirit of controversy and struggle against apostasy which the epistles so insistently reflect. Paul didn’t protest being told not to teach Jews by his brethren- but he got on and did so. The Jerusalem ecclesia told Barnabus to go only as far as Antioch; he didn’t tell them how wrong they were to boss him around. He went beyond Antioch to Tarsus, took Paul, and then went down to Antioch (Acts 11:22,25). In the end, whilst we must respect those who deserve it, we are personal servants of the Lord who died for us, and we must follow Him according to our personal conscience. The lesson from this is that we should seek to be as positive as possible in the midst of this tension between right and left- especially in the way we write or speak about the problems. We should seek to move the Gospel forward, whatever unhappy disagreements there are between those already baptized. 1 Cor. 10:25-27 and Rom. 14 certainly do give the impression that Paul either ignored or severely modified the prohibitions agreed upon in Acts 15, especially in relation to eating blood (unless the Acts 15 decrees were only relevant to "Antioch, Syria and Cilicia"). Perhaps with later reflection he realized he had compromised too far; or, more likely, he re-interpreted the decrees and sought to keep the spirit of them, which was that there should be unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. 

Selling Out

Acts 8:1 records that the entire membership of the Jerusalem ecclesia was scattered; the way we read of them numbering thousands by the time of Acts 21:20 suggests that to avoid persecution those who remained reconciled themselves with the temple, becoming a sect of Judaism, presumably with the tithe and temple tax going to the temple rather than to the ecclesia. These “thousands” of Acts 21 were probably largely converted since the persecution that arose after the death of Stephen. The original Jerusalem ecclesia had gone and preached to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19,20), which wasn’t what the later Jerusalem ecclesia supported. Indeed, Acts 11:22 goes straight on to record that the Jerusalem ecclesia sent representatives to find out what was going on. In order to escape further persecution, the Jerusalem ecclesia threw in their lot with the temple and orthodox Judaism. Finally Paul wrote to the Jerusalem ecclesia, as recorded in Hebrews. He sorrows that they fail to see the supremacy of Christ over Moses, and that despite initially enduring such persecution and loss of their goods (during the early persecutions), they had lost their real faith in Christ. The fact they weren’t then  being persecuted indicates they had reconciled with the temple. They needed to hold on, to keep the joy of faith they once had, rather than become hard hearted, judgmental, works-centred. But they didn’t listen. Likewise Paul warns that the Galatian Jews had suffered so much but in vain, seeing they were returning to the Law (Gal. 3:4). It is no accident that Gal. 4:25 draws the contrast between the two Jerusalems- perhaps a reference to the Jerusalem ecclesia, who had returned to the bondage of the law, and the spiritual Jerusalem. And now Paul goes so far as to say that the Legalists must be cast out of the true ecclesia (Gal. 4:30). Circumcision shielded from persecution in Galatia (Gal. 6:12)(2) in that it was the Jews and their “false brethren” who infiltrated the ecclesias (Gal. 2:4), and who were responsible for the deaths of many of the first century apostles and prophets. This suggests that the circumcision party within the ecclesias was linked with the Roman and Jewish authorities, and therefore ‘satan’ is a term used for them all. It got beyond dirty politics in the church. This would explain why Paul uses legal language in describing his conflicts with the Judaizing element in Corinth: “My defence [apologia, a technical legal term] to those [in the ecclesia] who examine me [another legal term, anakrinein]…” (1 Cor. 9:27). The false teachers were taking the likes of Paul before the civil authorities- they were hand in glove. Rev. 17 and 18 describes ‘Babylon’ as the system which was responsible for these deaths. Whatever other interpretation we may give these chapters (and I would agree there is a strong similarity with the evils of the Roman Catholic church), it cannot be denied that they are full of reference to Old Testament passages concerning Jerusalem, the Jews, and the temple, which became a spiritual Babylon (3) . I suggest that it was from within the Jerusalem ecclesia, linked up as it was with the temple system and Roman authorities, that there came much of the persecution of the early church. And this is why ‘Babylon’ in its first century application refers to these things. 

There shouldn’t have been these politics in the church, groups within the ecclesia calling themselves “the [believers in] circumcision”, “the sect of the Pharisees who believe”, or “the sect of the Nazarenes”. The Jerusalem ecclesia shouldn’t have assumed that their views must be accepted by everyone else. It’s easy to see what was wrong. But we can ourselves so easily form into groups of brethren and ecclesias, papering over our differences as happened in Acts 15, adopting a hard line (as Jerusalem ecclesia did in Gal. 2:9 over Gentile believers), then a softer line in order to win political support (as in Acts 15), then back to a hard line (as in Acts 21). We ought to be men and women of principle. We look back at the senior brethren of those days arguing so strongly about whether or not it was right to break bread with Gentile believers, “much disputing” whether or not we should be circumcised…and it all seems to us such an elemental disregard of the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus and so many clear Old Testament implications. But there were background factors which clouded their perceptions, although they themselves didn’t realise this at the time. And so it can be with us, if we were to see ourselves from outside our own historical time, place and culture, it would probably be obvious that we are disregarding some most basic teachings of the Word which we know so well. Like them, our blindness is because the environment we live in blinds us to simple Bible truth. We live, for example, in a world where pornography, bad language, lying, accumulating personal wealth, greed for bigger and better everything, unfaithfulness, flirting with another person’s partner… are all the norm; and we can get into “much disputing” in our own minds about what our attitude ought to be, when Scripture and the pattern of life we see in the Lord are crystal clear. 


(1) It's interesting to observe all the connections between the letter of James and the Acts 15 council. Note some of the more obvious: The salutation (James 1:1 = Acts 15:34); "Listen, my brothers" (James 2:5 = Acts 15:13); "The name which was called upon you" (James 2:7 = Acts 15:17); "Keep unspotted from the world" (James 1:27 = Acts 15:29); and there are at least three Greek words which occur only in James and Acts 15 (James 1:27 = Acts 15:14; James 5:19 = Acts 15:19; James 1:16,19,25 = Acts 15:25). Perhaps the letter of James is in some way his retraction of his wrong attitude, an example of where a man comes to understand what works are really important... or perhaps it was to dissociate himself from those who are called "certain persons who came from James" (Gal. 2:12), as if he was not actually behind them. Perhaps, however, it was that James saw through church politics for what they were, and focused upon the need for real, practical spirituality, the works of faith and spirit rather than mere legalism.

(2) Another complicating factor in the picture of politics in the church is pointed out by Raymond Brown, The Community Of The Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist, 1979) p. 43: “As long as Christians were considered Jews, there was no specific legal reason for the Romans to bother them. But  once the synagogues expelled them and it was made clear that they were no longer Jews, their failure to adhere to pagan customs and to participate in emperor worship created legal problems. Second-century Christians accused Jews of betraying them to Roman inquisitors. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 13:1 says that “the Jews were extremely zealous, as is their wont” in preparing material for burning the saint…indirect participation in executions through expulsion from synagogues may have been part of the background for John’s charges against “the Jews””. I have elsewhere commented how the Jews are described in the NT as a ‘satan’ persecuting the saints.

(3) The following links are taken largely from H.A. Whittaker, Revelation: A Biblical Approach (SC, USA: The Honest Truth, 1976). 

Double unto her double

Jer. 16:18; Is. 40:2

Sound of the millstone no longer heard…

Jer. 25:10

In her was found the blood of the prophets

Jer. 2:34; Lk. 11:50 [the blood of all the prophets was required of Jerusalem in AD70]

Great whore 17:1

Ez. 16,23; Jer. 2,3; Hos. 1-4

Arrayed in purple and scarlet

Ez. 28:5,6,8- a priest, cp. Jer. 4:30

Precious stones

The High Priest’s breastplate

Golden cup full of abominations

Ez. 23:25, 32-34 cp. Mt. 23:28

Upon her forehead a name written

A parody of ‘Yahweh’ written on the High Priestly mitre

Mother of harlots

Ez. 16:44-52

Drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus

The first century martyrs

Burnt with fire

The punishment for harlotry cp. Ez. 16:37-41

The habitation of demons

Mt. 12:43-45

Come out of her my people

Implies they were already within her, as God’s people. Ref. To Lk. 21:20,21 and the need for the Christians to leave Judaism.

Her plagues…death, mourning and famine

Jer. 18:21

18:12,13 the things traded in

All used in the temple worship cp. 2 Chron. 2:4,7,8.

Rejoice over her thou heaven…for God hath avenged you

Dt. 32:43 LXX re. Israel

A great millstone cast into the sea

As happened to Judaism / the temple mount as a result of faith in Christ (Mt. 21:21; 18:6)

Harpers harping

In the temple

A candle

The menorah

In her was found the blood of the prophets

A prophet didn’t perish outside Jerusalem (Lk. 13:33).

Babylon is “the great city”

Which in Rev. 11:8 is where Jesus was crucified, i.e. Jerusalem.

Babylon divided into three parts for judgement

As Jerusalem was (Ez. 5:1-4; Zech. 14:1-4).