The early churches first heard the scriptures read together. For instance, Paul writes 1 Thessalonians and asks for the letter to be read “in all the churches.” But what is it that brought them together to be the church?
We know that the churches served their cities, were located in houses, moved out to the ends of the earth, commissioned missionaries, cared for the poor, took care of the sick, appointed officers, ordained deacons, and so forth. As Rodney Stark suggests in The Rise of Christianity, this actually distinguished the churches from everyone else. But what is the glue that turned this collection of individuals into a community?
The book of Acts, the Gospel of John, and the letter of 1 John have a lot to say about these topics. For the sake of time and space, I’ve decided to focus on one of those books to start the discussion. What they learned about doing life together can assist us as we come together.
The word for this togetherness in Acts 2:41-47 comes from koine, or “common.” From this root, we derive all kinds of other words familiar to most folks: community, communication, communion. We also get the word “koinonia,” or what we call fellowship. They understood fellowship as everything from a lifestyle, to food, to hospitality.
Some biblical scholars have sort of snubbed their nose at this “primitive” community. They say, “This is how it started, but look who we’ve become now.” On the other hand, some scholars attempt to take the first century church and impose their view of it on the way true church ought to be.
The former approach misses the dramatic falling away that has happened since the beginning. The more we try to improve on the old, the more challenges we have as human beings. The Protestant Reformation tried to provide a corrective, and we’re still trying to get it right.
The latter would certainly shorten the length of the sermons, but relatively few people are ready to leave their current churches, move into the same apartment complex, and pool their possessions. The reality is whenever we try to form a church exactly like the first century, we usually come back with one that fits the kind of church for a membership of one: me. This method works for some new church starts, but the existing ones still have great potential to start from where we are now.
Instead, I’d propose that we can take the book of Acts as a charter document, to borrow an image from Mike Parsons and Markus Bockmuehl. Just as the U.S. Constitution is designed for Americans wherever we live, Acts is like a constitution for the church over the course of time and location. We take it and perform it in our own language and community as God calls us to do. That idea certainly calls on each church to revisit again what it means to be the community as it tries to reach their community. But isn’t that the kind of adventure the Holy Spirit empowers us to do? The Spirit falls in Acts 2, and suddenly with a blowing mighty wind, the gospel spreads from Jerusalem, to Antioch, to Thessalonica, and then Tallahassee. Each one takes the charter from Acts and performs and presents the message in community.
We learn, of course, that not only do we have something in common with each other, we have many things in common with nonbelievers. We too live in houses and work in offices with nonbelievers. We’re around the poor and the sick. We find parents and friends who are dealing with the same crises that we do. We begin with what we have in common with them and invite them to become a part of what we have together: the power of the resurrected and ascended Christ. As we share, the Spirit binds us together on the Way.
What is that you have in common with believers that binds us together as a community?