There seems to be much for Christians in America to be discouraged about in 2016. Conventional wisdom holds that while the Church is growing quickly in China and the developing world, Europe and America are in the “post Christian” doldrums. The 2016 presidential campaign has taken twists and turns that have distressed some evangelical believers. In her book Confessions of a White House Speechwriter, Peggy Noonan writes that growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, a woman who attempted suicide was a celebrity because no one else did it. Divorce and even adultery were unheard of. Sixty years later, such cultural morality seems a distant dream. Christians have more children than their secular counterparts, but then lose many to an implacably hostile school system.
The paragraph above reflects the feelings of many, but contains some statements that are true and others that are false. Even if every word were true, believers in Jesus Christ should never be discouraged. Over the course of dozens of recent conversations in church and at home, I have tried to reassure my brethren with the promises of God in Scripture (John 16:33, Romans 8:28). While these verses can be encouraging, many people need more visible encouragement.
Looking at the world from a secular liberal point of view, things look bleak. The “secular hypothesis”, the idea that with the advance of science and humanistic culture religion will fade away, has been false since Kant. The major religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are growing, not shrinking. Scientific research, when it is fair and well done, is discovering that Christian faith and practice builds homes, strengthens communities and prolongs lives; not the contrary. The promise of meaning in life without God sucks its hapless believers into an abyss of nihilism, drug abuse and suicide. Atheist voices are getting louder out of desperation, not victory. The Church, skewered by the rapier wit of Voltaire and left for dead by his generation, is the most powerful organization on earth.
How did this happen? How did one Man in only three years in a backwater of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago found a movement, and then an organization, that leads the world? This article will examine that question.
The Development of the Early Church
The Gospels tell the story of God the Father’s work through God the Son, the man known to history as Jesus Christ. Near the end of them all, Jesus Christ is dead and about 120 followers remain. At the end, however, Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven with a promise to return. Before the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were hiding in confusion (John 20:9-10). Within days they had returned to their former lives (Luke 24:13-31, John 21:3). The Jesus movement, which had no other name at that time, seemed like it was about to die.
Why had Jesus said that He needed to return to the Father (John 16:7)? Because at that point the Church could not grow with Him physically on earth. Jesus was a polarizing figure, making claims to divinity that endeared many and infuriated others. He was one Man and was therefore limited by space and time. Jesus could not linger long on the earth – people could not understand His words and were intimidated by His power. Finally, Jesus’ followers could admire Him, love Him and even worship Him but they could not relate to Him. Such is the nature of being the God-Man. The gospel had to be carried in purely human vessels, the kind that struggled with sin, suffering, and death, to change the lives of humans.
Acts begins with Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem worshipping in the Temple, praying, and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. It tells of the early preaching, the mighty power of God manifest in Pentecost, healings and other miracles. Only a few months after Jesus’ crucifixion, the 120 disciples of Christ had grown to 3,000 (Acts 2:41). Several months later there were over 5,000 Christians (Acts 4:4). Jesus’ original disciples were preaching, teaching, worshipping, praying, and studying the Scriptures (what is known to modern Christians as the Old Testament). Lay believers were doing the same, while still going about their daily work as farmers, craftsmen, priests, soldiers, or merchants. The early Church shared resources informally, providing for the needy among them at a time when government-run economic safety nets did not exist. They did all this expecting that Jesus would return and take them to heaven any day.
The Lord, however, tarried. The early Church, a large local informal movement, could either shrink and stay local and informal or grow and become an organization. Jesus’ instructions were clear; He had commanded His followers to go throughout the world and preach the gospel, making more disciples to Him. Staying put and shrinking was not an option. The Book of Acts records the transformation of the Church in obedience to this command.
All movements need a certain critical mass to render them plausible in the minds of members and outsiders alike. The miracle at Pentecost supercharged Christianity, providing that critical mass. Further miracles provided further publicity and followers, while the Holy Spirit was active in individual’s lives. The blatantly unjust execution of Jesus engendered sympathy in the hearts of listeners, especially in light of the excellent conduct of His followers.
One of the first trials faced by the Church was persecution by the Jewish religious authorities (Acts 4). Such persecution could have discouraged the disciples and curbed the movement, but instead it emboldened them. The simple fact that religious and political leaders were paying attention to the early Christians provided credibility, and the more they tried to suppress the apostles, the more outsiders were attracted to this “forbidden fruit.” As long as the persecution did not get too harsh, early Christianity was sexy, trendy, and perhaps even “Avant garde”. Peter’s bold stance against the Sanhedrin, a classic David against Goliath story, was “made for television” (Acts 4:8-21).
The second trial faced by the burgeoning Church was internal. While the “front door” of the movement was open to all, many were joining the body of believers for the wrong reasons; personal ambition or social welfare. The “back door” of the Church had to be big enough to rid itself of those who did not belong and the leadership had to show the will to expel such people. God Himself made a dramatic example of those who should not stay in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). A group that may have seemed like a party to some acquired a threatening overtone, and it is likely that some people quietly slipped out of church.
Persecution could have increased, but Jewish leaders realized that their actions had had the paradoxical effect of making the Church grow. Christianity remained popular with many in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin could not risk cracking down too much lest riots result and the Romans displace the Chief Priest and other leaders. Caiaphas’ statement that it was better for one man to die than the whole nation (John 11:50) was applied to Jesus, but the Romans could also have applied it to Annas, or to Caiaphas himself.
The third trial for the Church was also internal. It had been perhaps five years since Jesus died and still He did not return. Social security was an important part of early ministry and a powerful draw for the common people. Yet in this ministry racial and ethnic division grew; the Jewish widows of Greek background were not getting equal treatment compared to the Jewish widows from Judea. The Greeks’ complaint was valid, and the apostle’s response was the single most important step in transforming the Church from a movement into an organization.
- The apostles discovered the problem. They were close to the people and willing to listen.
- They recognized the racial, cultural and ethnic factors involved and addressed them. Bias did not play a role in their response. The apostles also deemed the issue important enough to act quickly and firmly.
- They prioritized their work. Those who had walked and talked with Jesus had unique credibility for preaching and teaching. For them to have placed social ministry over religious ministry would have been to neglect the ultimate reason for the existence of the Church. Others could preach and even work miracles, but the apostles’ had been placed in a one-of-kind position.
- They empowered the Greek community to address their own concern. The Greek members elected their own leaders to do their own work for their own people. The apostles did not choose the deacons but rather set reasonable criteria – good reputation, wise and full of the Holy Spirit. Then they appointed those whom the people had chosen.
- The apostles did not relinquish their authority. Once the Greek-Jewish members had chosen their leaders, the apostles assigned these deacons to their duties caring for widows.
- The congregation discussed the proposed solution and came to consensus if not unanimity, both on the plan and on those chosen.
- The apostles conferred formal authority on these “deacons” before the entire congregation in a formal ceremony familiar to the people, the laying on of hands.
- They let the deacons do their job with appropriate oversight but minimal interference.
If one were to draw organizational charts of the Church over time, the first chart would feature Jesus and about 120 people. The second would feature Jesus, then Peter, then the other apostles, and then the congregation. The third would include Jesus, then Peter, then the other apostles, then the deacons, and then the rest of the congregation. The fourth might have Jesus, then Peter (over the Jewish Christians) and Paul (over the Gentile Christians), then the other apostles, then the deacons, and then everyone else.
By appointing deacons, the apostles acknowledged the importance of the social ministry, demonstrated that they valued different cultures and ethnicities in the Church, prioritized ministry appropriately, and added a level of middle management. The episode in Acts 6 marks the transition of the Church as a movement to the Church as an organization.
The fourth major trial in the development of the Church was the high intensity persecution precipitated by the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7). The Sanhedrin could no longer stand the Christians that they had been trying to tolerate and enlisted a young and zealous Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, to lead their efforts. Trying to save their lives, Christians fled Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria and other regions of the Roman Empire. The small local movement had grown to a large local movement and then a group of small widespread movements. The Church in Jerusalem undoubtedly shrank when fierce persecution began, both from nominals withdrawing their allegiance and dedicated believers fleeing, but the Church overall grew.
The spread to other regions raised more ethnic, racial and cultural issues. The apostles and the congregations had to overcome their natural Jewish antipathy for Samaritans (Acts 8) and later Gentiles (Acts 10). These biases were grounded in the prevailing interpretation of the ancient Hebrew religion and could only be overcome by direct acts of God. By giving the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans and the Gentiles in the same way as He did to the Jews, and by giving Peter a personal vision (Acts 10), the Lord invalidated those prejudices.
We cannot overestimate the import of the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15). Large numbers of Gentiles followed Christ under Paul’s ministry, and some Jewish Christians tried to force them to follow the Mosaic law. The leaders of the Church met to seek God’s will on whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews to be Christians. A “yes” answer might have consigned the Way to remain a small sect of Judaism forever, or even perish, while a “no” answer would seem to open the door to all sorts of God-dishonoring behavior.
Consider how Christianity would look if the apostles had forced Gentile Christians to follow the Law of Moses. We would have had dietary restrictions like Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. We would have prescribed, culture-bound rituals and even sacrifices. We would have a favored language, Hebrew, like Islam favors Arabic. We would have a political structure, similar to the kings of the Old Testament, like the Caliph in Islam. All of these factors would make Christianity more culture specific than universal. The very rules would exclude large groups of people from the Faith. Furthermore as the apostles stated in Acts, if the Hebrews themselves couldn’t keep the Law, why burden the Gentiles with it?
The religion of Jesus Christ today is the largest on earth in part because it is so culturally flexible. The number of external requirements, such as abstaining from sexual immortality, is small. Christianity works in every government, in every culture, and in every era.
The organization, apostles, deacons and the congregation, which was developed in Jerusalem accompanied the gospel wherever it went. It transplanted easily to different contexts, maintained both the religious and the social duties of the Church, and formed the basic structure for the local church.
Successful movements transition into organizations and then new movements develop within those organizations in a never ending cycle. As persecution spread to Samaria, Damascus, Asia Minor and Egypt, Christians moved to Europe, India and Africa. Local pastors took over the role of the apostles, and congregations appointed deacons to serve in the local church.
The fifth major trial of the Church was the death of its leaders. Jesus died first but His parting occurred before the Church existed. Peter and Paul lasted over 30 more years and John lived until almost 100 AD. Thus the Church had major leaders whose lives overlapped each other, providing continuity. By the turn of the century, leadership in the churches had become well established.
The sixth major trial of the Church was the identifying of the canon, the list of books comprising the Holy Bible. Delegates to the Counsel of Carthage (393 AD) ratified the entire Hebrew law, writings and prophets (the Old Testament) and accepted the books (like Paul’s letters) with apostolic authority and consistent with teachings of Jesus that were recognized by the then-current Church.
By all rights, Christianity should have perished on Calvary. Most new religions do, and that is what the Jewish elders were hoping for on that dark spring day. Why didn’t it? The simple answer is because God ordained the Church and made it grow. The more complicated answer is that leaders of the Church had a fervent zeal and ability to teach while still making sound organizational decisions. Both answers are correct and both are equally miraculous. The apostles were certainly remarkable men but they were made so by a remarkable God.
How can Christians know that Christ will ultimately win? How can they know that things will turn out alright? Because God Himself will make that happen. He has done so before.