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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


16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century

Gamaliel made the powerful point that false Messiahs were exposed by the fact that their followers “scattered” as in the case of Theudas, or “dispersed” as in the case of Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:36,37). The implication was surely that the followers of Jesus would likewise disunite if He were anything other than the real and legitimate Son of God. The unity of the community thereby is a witness to His reality and legitimacy. And so it was in the first century. 

The link between holy living and powerful preachers is made apparent by the following quotation from Justin: “We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring all we have into a common stock and share it out to all according to their need; we who hated and destroyed one another and on account of their different manner of life would not live with men of another tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live happily with them, and pray for our enemies and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, so that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God” (First Apology, 14). The genuine love of true believers on the opposing sides in areas of ethnic cleansing, in the former Yugoslavia and also in Central Africa, has likewise been a powerful witness to the world. Our disunity will have, and does have, the expected and opposite effect: it will diminish the power of our witness. This is what happened in the 2nd Century.  

Speaking of that time, we read in [the uninspired] 2 Clement 13:3: “For when the heathen hear from our mouth the oracles of God they wonder at their beauty and greatness; then, discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is all a myth and delusion”. The rich variety of good works which the spirit of Christ brings forth were reduced by the later church into a cold abstention from, e.g., the more gross sexual sins; but the dynamic and positive agape of the first believers, with all its varied manifestations, was lost. And so one fears it can be with our community; we may not commit the grosser sins, but the dynamic of love in positive action has perhaps been lost. One gets the impression from the 2nd century writings that the joy dropped out of Christianity; and yet the joy of the converts, and the urgent need to retain that first joy of conversion, is a major theme in the NT (e.g. Acts 8:8; 13:52; 15:3). This strange joy must have been a major factor in confirming the Gospel as authentic. And it was cumulative. John had no greater joy than to hear that his spiritual children walked in truth (3 Jn. 4). Paul told the Thessalonians that  they were his glory and joy (1 Thess. 2:19). There is a great joy in converting someone and seeing them grow. There’s no joy like it. The early church were nearly all converting others. It must have been a wonderful place to be, building itself up on its own momentum, a momentum which made them so credible in their appeal to men. There is a definite link between the power of witness and the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that bears witness (Jn. 15:26); and yet we are the witnesses. We evidently don’t possess the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit today, and all spirituality must involve our allowing the word of God to work upon us. So the Spirit bears witness in us in that the spirit of Christ, the joy, peace, love which we show as individuals and thereby as a community, gives as much credibility to our witness as did the performance of miracles in the 1st century. And so Paul told the Thessalonians: “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance”. The “assurance”, the power of confirmation, was in the credibility which the Spirit of Christ in their examples gave to their preaching of the word. And likewise in 1 Cor. 2:3-5: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God”.  

The unity between Jew and Gentile must have been especially impressive. Philo records of Jamnia: “There lived a mixed population, the majority of them Jews but the rest a number of foreigners who had nested there as vermin from neighbouring territories”(1) . And there are many other such references to the bitter hatred between them. This “enmity” between them was taken away for those who were in Christ (Eph. 2:11; Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28). It must have made a startling and arresting witness. And yet sadly, it didn’t continue; the old tensions and feelings rent apart that unity. 

The extraordinary unity of the early believers was compounded and expressed by the development amongst them of a specific kind of vocabulary and traditions. This was totally different to the cultus developed in most of the other religions; it was all a sign of their special and loving unity. Terms like “ecclesia”, “elect”, “calling” etc. all took on a new and specific meaning. “Ekklesia” in ordinary Greek referred to the voting assembly of citizens in a free Greek city, but the term came to have a highly specific meaning. Christos would have meant ‘ointment’ to the ordinary Greek; and yet within Christian circles it came to define the Messiah. 

Baptism was seen as the major divide between the church and the world, and this led to the sense of Christian unity there was in the first century. The Jews often baptized themselves after various incidents, but Christian baptism was a one off and permanent crossing of the threshold between the “dirty” world and the clean community in Christ. The people of the world are described in the NT as “outsiders [1 Cor. 5:12,13; 1 Thess. 4:12; Col. 4:5]…darkness…without hope…who do not know God [1 Thess. 4:5; Gal. 4:8; 2 Thess. 1:8]” compared to the light and hope within the community. Remember that there were few pure atheists in the first century- most professed some kind of faith in a god. Yet the world is described as not knowing God at all.  1 Cor. 5,6 presuppose a conception of the Christian community as pure and holy, and of the outside world as impure and profane. Those who departed from the faith didn’t just drift away; they were formally pronounced anathema (1 Cor. 16:22), delivered unto the satan of this world.  And it follows that within a community with such tight boundaries, there would be strong identity with each other who were within those boundaries. The joy and elation of new converts (1 Thess. 1:4,6) was due to having crossed such a major boundary- it was a joy which those who joined another religion would not have so felt. It explains why Paul could feel “so affectionate toward” his converts (1 Thess. 2:8), and why he felt “bereft of you for a time, in person but not in heart” (2:17). This pain of separation from each other, this longing to see each other, was quite unknown to the other religions. 1 Cor. 2:6-9 stresses how they possessed a truth which nobody else apart from them could know. Whilst this feature of true Christianity led into the arrogance and pride which eventually doomed the early church, when and whilst used properly, it bound them even closer together. Nikolaus Walter observes that the first century generally “did not experience religion as a binding force that was capable of determining everyday reality by offering support, setting norms, and forming community”. And yet the Truth enabled just such things to occur. In this, as today, the example of the community is the ultimate proof that the doctrines we teach are indeed the Truth and of themselves demand conversion. 

The amount of travel by the early brethren was extraordinary, and could only have been impressive to the world around them. The same could be said of us today, regularly travelling for days across Russia and North America to attend gatherings, flying and hitch hiking around Africa to meet each other…driving hours to meeting. The NT letters feature passages which served as letters of recommendation (Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:10-12 cp. Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9; Eph. 6:21; Philemon 22; Rom. 15:24). Thus hospitality became a required Christian virtue (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:8). Even ordinary Christians could count on this hospitality. Yet “security and hospitality when travelling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful, who had relied upon a network of patronage and friendship, created by wealth. The letters of recommendation disclose the fact that these domestic advantages were now extended to the whole household of faith, who are accepted on trust, though complete strangers”(2) . This was the practical outcome of the doctrines believed; a member of the ekklesia of God would be welcomed as a brother or sister in Laodicea, Ephesus, Corinth or Rome. And so it largely is amongst us today.  

Celsus,  a hostile observer of Christianity, commented about the unity of Christians in the first century: “Their agreement is quite amazing, the more so as it may be shown to rest on no trustworthy foundation. However they have a trustworthy foundation for their unity in social dissidence and the advantage which it brings and in the fear of outsiders- these are factors which strengthen their faith” (3). Sadly the “fear of outsiders” was what led the church to its tragic downfall.

The social mix amongst believers must have been startling. Excavations at Ostia near Rome have revealed how the spacious homes of the wealthy stood right next to the insulae, the blocks of squalid flats in which the poor lived. There was little differentiation of rich and poor according to which neighbourhoods they lived in. So when we read that the wealthy believer Gaius was ‘host of the whole church’ (Rom. 16:23), we are to imagine this wealthy man opening his spacious home to the urchins who lived in the neighbouring blocks who had come to Christ. This must have been startling for the surrounding populace. Such was the witness of true Christian unity.

The family based structure of the first century is hard to fully empathize with from our distance. Family was all. Peter comments that the disciples had “left our own homes” (Lk. 18:28 RVmg.), and the parallel Mt. 19:27 says “left all”. Your home was your all. To have to leave it for the sake of Christ was the most fundamental thing you could do. Hence the real meaning in the first century of the Lord’s response that such converts would receive families in this life, i.e. in their relationships in the ecclesia. And yet the radical call of Christ is no less demanding and intrusive as men and women meet it today, the only difference being that the starkness of the choices is less pronounced today- but just as essentially real.

The Community Is The Witness

Summing up, the community of believers and the nature of it was the essential witness. Every man and woman in that early church saw it as their duty to witness to Christ, by every means at his or her disposal. And this is perhaps where our community is sadly different. The urgency of our individual and collective task seems not to be perceived as it should be. We are not preaching a system or entry into an organization; we are preaching a person, Jesus Christ. In that sense men and women  can only be brought face to face with Him insofar as they see Him manifested in the real life men and women around them. True witness to Him must almost axiomatically be through personal contact. Think of how John can so passionately write of the Jesus whom he had seen with his eyes, handled with his hands, and therefore he proclaimed Him. There was no need to spend time talking about methods of preaching. The fire and the passion was within them; to the extent that Paul, albeit under inspiration, breaks some of the rules of grammar, invents new words, in his passion to get over the message. Love found its way. They told others the news of the love of their lives. And this is just the same today; and it’s why new converts are always the most effective preachers. Witness to the man Christ Jesus can in no way be resigned to certain speakers or committees of brethren. There is something urgently and insistently personal about it. It has been observed that the most fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism was that Christianity was founded on a person rather than mere ideas(4). We must be careful to preserve this emphasis: essentially upon a living, real, historical and yet now ascended person, not just an endless set of propositions and ideas. The records of early Christianity speak as if the ‘Christian problem’ was caused by a ringleader who was then alive. Thus in AD49 Claudius “expelled Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances impelled by Chrestus” (Suetonius, Claudius 25.4). The historians and authorities assumed that this Chrestus / Christ was alive and inciting rebellion. There was such a clear link between the invisible, living, ascended Jesus, and the actions of His brethren on earth.  

One of the major social problems in first century society was that Rome had enforced economic and political unity by herding together [especially in the cities] people of many ethnic backgrounds, with the result that  blazing ethnic hatreds were created.  Ramsay MacMullen has written of the immense " diversity of tongues, cults, traditions and levels of education" encompassed by the Roman Empire. And yet it is almost with allusion to this that Paul can write that for those in Christ there really is no Jew or Gentile, male or female. In the cities of the Roman empire, people of many cultures, speaking many languages, worshipping all manner of gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter. And yet Christianity gave people a new nationhood and ethnicity- the new Israel. The contrast with the bitterly divided world around them must have been arresting to the eyes of those who saw it.


(1) Quoted in E.M. Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule (Leiden: 1976), p. 175.

(2) E.A. Judge, The Conversion Of Rome, North Ryde, Australia: Macquarrie Ancient History Association, 1980 p. 7.

(3) Quoted in Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967) p. 54.

(4) R.T. Herford, Judaism In The New Testament Period p. 227 comments: “Paul grasped the fact that the Christian religion was founded on a Person, not an idea”.