The Early Church – From Movement to Organization

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.

  1. The apostles discovered the problem. They were close to the people and willing to listen.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The congregation discussed the proposed solution and came to consensus if not unanimity, both on the plan and on those chosen.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Conclusion

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.

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The Growing Church

Jesus told His disciples to go to the uttermost parts of the earth and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1). For 2000 years the Church of Jesus Christ has shared the good news of the gospel throughout the world. The body of believers has grown from 120 members in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15) to over 2.3 billion people, out of a total world population of 7.3 billion, today. While the Way of Christ is growing by leaps and bounds in places like China and sub-Saharan Africa, progress seems to have stalled in Europe and North America. In the heavily Muslim areas of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia, Christians comprise a tiny fraction of the people. Growth feels impossible, and some become discouraged.

Sometimes Christians have effectively demonstrated the saving grace of Jesus to those around them, but other times have not. Many people reject Christ because they don’t have a clear idea who He is. Dedicated believers have often looked to one of the most exciting periods in the history of Christianity, the early Church, for guidance on how to grow. This is a great practice, for the earliest years of any new religious movement (NRM) are the most dynamic. Since few NRMs survive their founder, early Christianity was an example of how to grow and sustain growth over the decades, centuries, and millennia.  This article will examine Acts 2:41-47, which describes the earliest days of the Church, to look for clues about how to grow and sustain the Body of Christ today.

How to Grow the Church

It had been an amazing month. Jesus the Christ had been executed, but many of His disciples said that He had risen again. Believers saw Him, or in the eyes of skeptics claimed to see Him, alive after death. No one who did not believe in Him made a similar claim. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, His followers spent much of their time together in an upstairs room in Jerusalem praying, reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and waiting for guidance on what to do next.

Unusual events occurred at Pentecost, the Jewish feast of the first fruits, ten days after Jesus’ ascension. The Upper Room was filled with people when a powerful wind and something that looked like fire rushed in. It was the Holy Spirit of God. The disciples of Jesus started to speak in languages that they could not have known, and then the Apostle Peter explained what it meant. He must have moved outside the house into the open air to preach because hundreds and even thousands had gathered, far too many people to fit in one room. Peter told his hearers that he was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, and implicated these hearers in His death. The crowd was shaken and asked what they could do to be saved. Peter told them to repent, be baptized, join the group of Jesus’ followers, and receive the Holy Spirit of God. Three thousand people became what would later be known as Christians on that day.

These events were exciting, but while excitement rapidly wears off, God’s work is enduring. Anyone who has ever gone to a Spirit-filled church service or a powerful political rally knows that the initial enthusiasm doesn’t last long. If people are not directed into meaningful action within a supportive community, they will not stay with the group, and the group will not endure. Acts 2:42-46 shows how to take initial enthusiasm for the cause of Christ and transform it into the everlasting Church.

The first thing that the early Church did was dedicate themselves to the teachings of the Apostles. These men were not the richest, the best looking, or the best public speakers available. They did not say only what people wanted to hear. The disciples’ teachings had four characteristics:

  1. They were authoritative. These men had seen Jesus, heard Jesus, and lived with Jesus, so they had the best knowledge of the Savior.
  2. They were truthful. The disciples were honest men. Furthermore, since they had lived together they would be able to correct each other and hold each other accountable.
  3. They were important. Jesus’ apostles did not spend time with gossip, political intrigue, or trivial matters. They had a story to tell to the nations and they told it.
  4. They were edifying. Peter’s sermon was built on a firm Hebrew foundation that this Jewish audience would recognize. It dove into the depths of guilt for the crucifixion, but then ascended the heights of grace in God’s work of salvation.

The first thing, therefore, that the modern Church must do to grow and sustain the Body of Christ is to dedicate ourselves to authoritative, truthful, important and edifying teaching. We must choose carefully whose teachings we will follow, but then we must follow them. Christians ought to discuss sermons, Sunday School lessons, articles, and other Bible teachings with family and friends throughout the week. Teachers must help each other and hold each other accountable to provide truthful, important and edifying words. Lastly, leaders must challenge those they follow. The Word of God is always good but never easy.

Students can learn on their own but the richest learning is in the presence of a teacher and other students. Learning, like most everything else in life, is a person to person activity. Many non-Western societies consider the written word dead and the oral word alive. There are some good reasons for this. Written words lack a speaker who can place these words into the right context for the hearers. Written words can’t answer a question about themselves, and they last in print longer than they may be useful. Spoken words die the instant they are spoken, remaining only in the memories of the speaker and the hearers. But for that very reason, spoken words are powerful, moving from the soul of one man to the soul of another. The early Church learned in community.

Secondly, the early Christians dedicated themselves to fellowship. Put another way, they dedicated themselves to the fellowship, that is, other believers. Man is a social and emotional creature more than a rational and intellectual one, and so the best teachings could not alone sustain the Church. Rather, man must be in a community if he is to thrive. Early Christians made community in several ways:

  1. As noted above, they learned together.
  2. They shared experiences. To validate their teaching, God gave the apostles the ability to perform mighty works. These works were done in the presence of believers to strengthen their faith as well as non-believers to help them believe. While such miracles are not commonplace today, at least in the West, Christians should still share powerful experiences. Nature, music, other arts, and missions work can provide powerful emotional experiences of worship and service, the kind that can generate and maintain enthusiasm over a lifetime.
  3. They cared for each other’s needs. No movement can succeed without shared knowledge, shared experiences, shared purpose, shared support, and shared work. Part of the work of the early Church was reaching outsiders, and part of it was caring for insiders. People who left Judaism for Christianity could be ostracized by the Jewish community, and they needed another community where they could go. Christians provided food for the hungry, funds for the unemployed, and resources for others in need.
  4. They ate together. Every culture and religion understands that there is something special about eating together. The breaking of bread forms a lasting bond. Christians ate together in an intimate setting; each other’s homes. They did it often, with groups of Christians getting together daily. This does not mean that every believer ate with other believers at a different house every day, but that every day some group of believers met with another group.
  5. They prayed together. Prayer, the time when men and women present themselves before God, is one of the most solitary things that modern Christians do, but it was often a group event in the early Church. Believers prayed for themselves, for brethren, for outsiders, and for any other need (Matthew 6:9-13).
  6. They controlled their attitudes. Early Christians chose to be steadfast (42), to revere the work of God (43), to agree on the important things (46), to be grateful for what they had been given (46), and to align priorities (46).

As a result of what the early Church did, the Lord gave them favor with the people of the community. Furthermore, He added to their number every day (47).  One reason for the intensity of action among early believers was their small number. Another reason was their belief in the imminence of Christ’s return. A third reason was how distinct they were from the surrounding culture. All of these factors made for a tight Christian community in the first century. The community was close, but it still welcomed outsiders.

Mistakes we make

In growing and sustaining our churches, modern Christians make many mistakes compared to our early brethren. We choose whoever looks or sounds the best, or says what we want to hear, to be our leader. We ignore God-given authority. We believe lies that are “supported” by pseudoscience but are inconsistent with the Bible. We spend our time in trivial pursuits. We ignore guilt, pretending to be without sin, or we wallow in guilt, forgetting that we have been saved by grace. We try to learn alone.

Western culture holds to the primacy of the individual over the group. While there are advantages to this way of thinking, there are disadvantages too. The main danger is mistaking individualism for isolation. The Church will grow if modern believers share experiences of God. It will grow if we care for each other’s needs.  It will grow if we eat together and pray together. The Body of Believers will get stronger if we as individuals control our attitudes.

Conclusion

The Church of Jesus Christ is the largest religious movement on earth. Empowered by the Almighty Himself in ways that we do not fully understand the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. However, Christians can and must do a better job of sharing the Good News of Jesus with the world. The early Church provides a good role model for us to do exactly that.