Bill Easum and Tony Jones are in the midst of a conversation about the Emergent Church at the Emergent Village website … it’s called a Blogologue. I’m keeping up with it and enjoying the ride. One of the comments on “Part 2” caught my attention though, and in the midst of another conversation I’m having with a local pastor, it got me to thinking about one of the most common misunderstandings about the early church.
There’s a saying that when you’re lost in the woods it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. That’s never more true than when the average Christian picks up the book of Acts and reads about the early church. Because we are so embedded in our culture, whenever we see the word “Church” our enculturation takes over. Sure, everyone knows that church isn’t a building, it’s a people … a called out people at that. But the fact is, I’ve yet to meet the pastor, let alone the lay person, who doesn’t slip by saying that they “go to church” or that there’s a meeting “at the church.” In our culture, church is a place and Christians are the people who go there.
And so when the average reader reads the book of Acts … or any of the letters following Acts … then it’s difficult not to allow the brain to impose much of today’s culture on yesterday’s church. So, try something. For a moment think about the church at Thessalonica. Paul wrote at least two letters to that church. What do you suppose that church was like? Ask yourself questions like (1) How many members did the church have when Paul wrote the letter to them? (2) Where did they meet? and (3) What would “worship” have looked like?
As for members, first remember that the New Testament never speaks of members … the elect, yes … members, no. There were definitely believers and non-believers, but that was pretty much the dichotomy. As for numbers, there were probably only a handful or two at first. Where did they meet? In homes, in the marketplace, here and there. What did worship look like? Good luck with that. Remember that they didn’t have Bibles … though they had a couple letters from Paul, they certainly would not have considered them holy writ … and the Hebrew Scriptures were pretty much reserved for the Jewish folk, plus you had to be fabulously wealthy (and literate) to afford a single scroll, let alone a complete set. So, no scripture reading, no psalms, etc. In fact, the clearest picture we have of their gatherings is found in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 20:7-9. In both of those passages, we see that informal was the order of the day. They ate together, they hung out together, and when there was “preaching” it was dialog, not monologue or even “proclamation.” Conversation. Try that this Sunday during the “sermon time.”
Was the church a diverse community? In it’s larger manifestation, yes. In its local manifestation? Not very. Check out 1 Corinthians 1:26 where it’s clear the majority of the participants were of the lower classes. Because the local manifestation of the church met in homes, they tended to be more homogeneous than not. The larger church was clearly multi-ethnic, but there’s little evidence that this translated into the local setting. Indeed, the opposite is actually the case. Sure, some Jewish Christians hung out with some non-Jewish Christians, but that behavior was rare, as evidenced by the practices in Acts and the letters.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a swing at what we practice in our “doing” church today. It would be nice, IMHO, if the church practiced being the church rather than waiting until Sunday morning to “do” church, but that’s not the point. The point is that when the emergents and the incarnationalist and the organics talk about the early church, we can’t stop at the Reformation or even the early pre-Reformation church to get an idea of what the early church looked like. And we can’t presuppose that it’s anything like today’s church because it wasn’t (try telling your congregation that from now on they’ll be spending most meal times with each other and that they will need to hang out with each other daily from now on; that the local weekly meeting will be in homes, not a church building … and each local manifestation will only be as large as what will fit in a living room; – oh, and no more preaching, but dialogos – conversations – beginning immediately; and I’m not touching the implications of Acts 4:34 where the church made sure that NONE of their brothers or sisters were in need).
One last comment … we are given very little guidance on how to “do” church in the New Testament. However, there is a LOT about how to “be” church in the New Testament. Perhaps that’s what’s really important. I’ve always thought that if God wanted to give us a model for doing church, our New Testament would look like our Old Testament and we’d even know what materials to build our baptismal fonts … or the dimensions of the baptismal pools.