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