The Exchange with Pastor Josh: The Early Church and the Church Today

Jesus commanded that we are to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It is a command that can be joyfully obeyed especially when done together with other Jesus followers. That is what “The Exchange with Pastor Josh” is all about. The questions and insights that are shared are not from Pastor Josh but rather emerge from a group of Jesus followers discussing and interacting with one another. I have tried to faithfully capture the insights and flow of the conversation here so that others can be inspired to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” as well. My acknowledgment and gratitude go to the group of Jesus followers gathered for The Exchange on March 17, 2021. The Lord and you know who you are.

Soli Deo Gloria

Question: How did the disciples practice church with one another, and how can we mimic or apply it in our own church?

We can best respond to this question by approaching it in two parts. First, we can explore how the disciples practiced church. Second, we can then consider how to adopt those practices into our own experience of church. Before diving into the first part of the question, we also need to define what we mean by “disciple.” For the sake of this conversation, we will define “disciple” as a follower of Jesus who experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit at or after the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2:1-4.

So how did the disciples practice church with one another? The classic description that many people point to is found in Acts 2:42-47. There is a cluster of descriptions in these few verses that shape our picture of how the disciples are practicing church. In no particular order, they are as follows: they meet daily (2:46), they meet in the temple as a large group (2:46), they eat together often in small gatherings in homes (2:42, 46), they practice radical generosity (2:45), they are under the apostle’s teaching and experience signs and wonders done by the apostles (2:42-43), many people are saved (2:47), and they praise God (2:47). This is a beautiful and very desirable picture of the church in practice. Who would not want to join that church!

However, there is more to the depiction of this church that is easily overlooked. By Acts 4, the scene takes a different turn. The apostles are arrested and opposition becomes targeted. This intensifies in Acts 5 and culminates in Acts 7 with the martyrdom of Stephen. A dark note is sounded in Acts 8:1, “On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria.” From that point in Jerusalem, and continuing until the Edict of Milan (AD 313), opposition and persecution would follow the church of Jesus with varying degrees of severity. While it is easy to want to emulate Acts 2:42-47, it must not be overlooked that opposition and persecution came with the experience of the Holy Spirit and life together as a church.

In addition, it is easy to idealize some aspects of the picture in Acts 2:42-47 and overlook that there were changes in the practices that developed even very early in the practice of church. Two examples will suffice. First, in Acts 2:46, we see believers meeting together every day. Some such as German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer have advocated that the church should do that today. He writes, “The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ…morning does not belong to the individual, it belongs to the church of the trail God, to the Christian family, to the brotherhood” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 41). It is a wonderful ideal, but it is not always practical. In fact, even in Acts, the early followers of Jesus do not continue the practice of daily gathering. In Acts 20:7, we read, “On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread.” As the church moved into the mission field, the practice of a weekly gathering replaced daily gathering. This would become known as the gathering “on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10) and is the common practice of Christians around the world.

Second, in Acts 2, the church practices radical generosity giving to each one as they had need. This is a beautiful ideal that some have attempted to emulate or mimic. However, as the church develops, it finds that it must nuance its practice of generosity in response to abuses. Abuse happens quickly as evidenced by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), but even more specifically, the Apostle Paul teaches restrained generosity to avoid abuse and taking advantage of the generosity of the church. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Paul rebukes “idleness” and goes so far as to remind them of his command “when we were with you” that “if anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The pattern of restrained generosity is further developed into wise distribution when applied to caring for widows in the church. Paul instructs Timothy not to support every widow but only those who meet certain criteria so that the “church (would) not be burdened so that it can help widows in genuine need” (1 Timothy 5:9-16). These two examples demonstrate the caution that we not idealize the depiction of the church in Acts 2:42-47 and overlook the development that occurred as Jesus followers wrestled with how to live a Holy Spirit-filled life in the midst of opposition from outside the community and corruption on the inside of the community.

One final observation is important as we consider how the disciples practiced church. There is not “one church” that we encounter in the New Testament. We see multiple churches forming and navigating the reality of life filled with the Holy Spirit and in community with one another. We have discussed the Jerusalem church in Acts 2-8 as well as the church of Thessalonica and even the church of Ephesus that Timothy was charged with leading (1 Timothy 1:3). Revelation is addressed to seven churches across Asia (Revelation 1:4, 11)! What is more, there are some churches in the New Testament that none of us would want to mimic! The church of Corinth was anything but radically generous as some were getting drunk while others were starving (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). Not only that, but they were known for deep division and internal competition (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). We clearly do not want to apply their practices! But we can be grateful that despite their mistakes, they experience the grace of God (1 Corinthians 1:4). If God was generous to them, then there is hope for our flawed, failed attempts at practicing church together too!

In light of what we have learned in answer to how the disciples practiced church, what can we mimic or apply in our own churches? This a deeply significant question that Christians have been asking from the beginning, but we can highlight a few themes and take-aways. First, the early Christians were nothing apart from the Holy Spirit filling and empowering them. Therefore, we too must seek the Holy Spirit’s power and direction. Rather than evaluating our experience of church by the standards of therapy (“my church really meets my needs”) or of marketing (“my church is reaching a lot of people”), we should evaluate based on the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. What would that look like? That is a great question for another time, but Galatians 5:16-26 would be a good place to start!

Second, the early Christians were nothing if not resilient in the face of opposition and persecution. Therefore, we too must develop resilient faith and disciple people for resiliency. How we parent to how we practice membership to what we teach in Sunday School needs to be examined in light of its capacity to develop resilient Christ followers. Third, the early Christians were nothing if not a community together. Therefore, we must abolish lone ranger notions of spirituality from our imagination. We need each other to be faithful Christ followers! Fourth, the early Christians were nothing if not engaged in redemptive mission in their cultures. Therefore, we too must thoughtfully and proactively engage with our culture rather than hiding in fear or abandoning it in condemnation. We must be a preservative force whether we are welcomed or hated. In so doing, each generation of Christians carries on the long legacy of Holy Spirit-filled, resilient community on mission with Jesus. That is a practice we can and must mimic!

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