Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Do We Need More Church Meetings?

Christians love the church of Acts 2.

Now they’re not wrong about that. The church in Acts 2 is certainly lovable. It looks, at least potentially, like a solution for many of the world’s societal and culture-related ills. It looks like a community steeped in the teaching of Christ and demonstrating practically the various spiritual truths about which he told the world.

It looks, to nick the words of someone or other, like a foretaste of heaven.

There was fellowship. There was sacrifice. There was love, faith and truth on display daily, and miracles too. There was moral and practical teaching and authoritative exposition of the Old Testament on a scale never again replicated in the history of the Church from twelve men who had walked daily with Jesus for three years. There was … well, all this:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
What an impressive picture! Really, it was the kingdom of heaven camping out on earth for a very short time. Any serious Christian would love to have seen it, and anyone who loves the Church of God today wants it to be more like this picture.

Normalizing Acts 2

But was it normative? Is this what the Head of the Church expects of his Body today? Have we failed the Lord to the extent we have not managed to recreate this scenario in our day?

Some Christians think so, at least just a little. Usually they jettison the bit about having “all things in common” as being just a little too socialist for their tastes (that part gets a little fuller treatment in Acts 4), and they acknowledge that the apostles are no longer among us, and even that miracles don’t seem to be taking place these days and maybe that, too, is the purpose of God (though a few feel it might be a lack of faith on our part).

But apart from that, why not?

Toward New Testament Church Fellowship

Can’t we at least, for instance, replicate their fellowship? One New Testament Church enthusiast writes:
“What a fellowship they must have had! What a connection within the body of Christ! Every single day they got together to worship, fellowship and grow together. Is it any wonder that people were being saved EVERY day?”
This is a fine aspiration, as long as we carefully consider what actually took place in Acts 2. This is how one blogger understands the word “together”:
“This is such a far cry from many churches … where the vast majority of believers only get together on Sundays. Even the ‘faithful few’ are adding one, maybe two extra days to serve alongside their fellow believers.”
I may be misreading him, but there seems to be a tacit (or at least unaddressed) assumption here that “together” = “at church”; that is to say, everyone in a single location, presumably for some kind of organized activity that is considered part of church life.

The usually-solid GotQuestions website takes this assumption for granted as well:
“Church is the place where believers can love one another, encourage one another, ‘spur’ one another to love and good works, serve one another, instruct one another, honor one another, and be kind and compassionate to one another.”
Er, yes, of course.

“Church Is the Place …”

But it’s not the ONLY place, and in many cases it’s not the BEST place to do these things. It’s worth noting that not a single one of the passages to which the GotQuestions quote is linked limits any of these activities to church gatherings. In fact, we would almost surely agree that to limit these activities at all would be absurd and unchristian: to be kind and compassionate to one another, to be loving, or to be engaged in service only between 10 a.m. and noon on Sunday mornings is to make a mockery of the teachings of Christ, and we certainly wouldn’t want to do that.

I simply don’t believe a faithful recreation of the early Church’s commitment to one another is best realized through a bigger slate of regular meetings or activities centered around a single location.

Further, is that even really the pattern established in Acts 2 and Acts 4? I don’t believe it is.

All Who Believed Were “Together”

When it says that “all who believed were together”, surely we should not picture a commune or a place outside the city where Christians pitched tents? Luke’s narrative in Acts makes it clear what being “together” actually entailed:

·        “Together” meant in the same city. All the Christians of that day lived in Jerusalem (and only for a very short period of time, I might add). This same statement is never made of Christians in other cities later in the New Testament era, mostly because it has never been true of all believers since, and indeed cannot be.

·        “Together” meant they attended temple as one (the believers met in Solomon’s Portico). They formed a united, recognizable public bloc. They were easy to find. But again, this was short-lived. Persecution inevitably and quickly compelled them to disperse and obey the command of the Lord to go into all the world and preach the gospel, and a common meeting of all was no longer possible.

·        “Together” meant they agreed, and most of the time they did. They were of “one heart and soul”. They all wanted the same things. There was characteristic love and unity, and we would do well to imitate them in that. But this is the ONLY sense in which modern believers can be together precisely the way the early church was together.

For a brief period the circumstantial proximity of believers to one another gave them opportunities for fellowship on a scale no local church since has ever had, but their situation was hardly normative. I suspect those who needed to work and raise families carried on doing so very much as they had always done while enjoying whenever possible a very large number of closely-knit, readily available fellow believers.

From House to House

But these believers were not all physically together all the time. They broke bread in smaller groups in their homes, or “from house to house” as some versions have it, not in some central location. For certain functions of a local church, no other arrangement was possible.

Property and lands were certainly sold for the support of fellow believers, but for the church to continue meeting “from house to house” necessitated that there be unsold houses to meet in. And it is clear from Peter’s words to Ananias that the sale and communal redistribution of all a believer’s property was neither demanded nor expected.

In other words, life went on as normal with the exception of an amazing amount of sacrificial generosity, a daily public display of unity at the temple and the introduction of a lot of people on a very regular basis into homes of neighbours or acquaintances they may have only just met, and probably vice versa.

But note that this “house to house” aspect of church life is every bit as characteristic of the early church as sharing, public gatherings and corporate testimony.

In times of persecution it would become even more characteristic.

Hospitality and Church Life

It is this “house to house” aspect of church life in which I feel we are increasingly deficient. It is not just a feature of the church at Jerusalem. Paul mentions house churches in Romans, Colossians, Corinthians and Philemon.

While these seem to represent local churches small enough to fit in a single home and to engage in all the normal activities of the Body of Christ there, the point is that there is substantially greater authority in the book of Acts for carrying on what we would call “church life” between the walls of our homes than there is for purchasing a communally owned piece of property and trying to live out our spiritual responsibilities there.

For many of the most important functions of Body Life and for use of most of our spiritual gifts, there is no better place than our homes. Perhaps this is why there are so many New Testament commands to be hospitable.

Conversations may be longer and deeper that those held over coffee or in a noisy lobby. Food and drink may be shared. Needy believers may be provided for in a very personal and direct way. Questions may be asked that would never be aired in a room full of hundreds, and that might not be welcome there. Relationships deepen. Both service gifts and teaching gifts may be exercised by a greater number of believers than in any other place.

In fact, almost every quality deemed important to the “church meeting” is more effectively actualized in your living room.

Hospitality and the World

The Greek equivalent for the word “hospitality” in the New Testament translates literally as “love of strangers”.

We Christians love our buildings, and some of us have invested millions in them. In many cases the physical structures provide the most tangible evidence to the world that we exist. But Christians that prize fellowship only when it occurs in these formal, centralized locations and involves all believers coming together risk giving short shrift to one of the most significant reasons Christians have been left in the world. If the only things that matter to believers are finding out more about Christ, worshiping him and waiting for his coming, then sure, we could be a closed society operating in our own little world and probably manage quite well. Others have tried it.

But we are not a closed society, or at least we shouldn’t be. And getting the unsaved into church to hear the gospel is no longer a particularly effective strategy, if it ever was.

The church in Jerusalem could meet every day of the week and prioritize one another as they did because its members had established relationships they could mine for the Lord, many of which were fellow Jews steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament and waiting for the Messiah. The witnesses on the Day of Pentecost saw miracles that authenticated a message they instantly understood. Those present either accepted or rejected that message, but few needed a great deal of time or study to investigate it further. Even fewer had never heard of the Messiah in the first place.

Our look at the young Church in Acts 2 catches it at the perfect moment, when all these relationships and encounters with fellow religious Jews were bearing fruit. But once that initial influx of converts in Jerusalem had been brought into church life, the patterns we observe in Acts 2 would surely have had to change at least a little. But we don’t see that happening because persecution came to them first.

For us today, there is no huge untapped devout audience familiar with the Old Testament, searching the scriptures and waiting for the salvation of God. Yet this is precisely the ready-made audience into which the word of God was introduced in Jerusalem in the first century.

Those to whom you and I have to communicate the message of Christ are frequently utterly ignorant of scripture and, for the most part, in need of an entirely different approach, one that can be labour-intensive and time consuming. We often encounter people who may never have considered seriously whether there is a God at all, and who know nothing about the Bible or Jesus Christ other than that his name is occasionally employed when you have a bad day at the office. For people like this, especially those who initially seem to have little perceived need for the message we have to offer, we need to establish reasons they should want to hear what we have to say in the first place.

This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves today, and to which hospitality is the biblical solution.

For us, there may be no better way to reach others for Christ than by inviting them into our homes, feeding them and getting to know them. There is no better way I can think of to authenticate the truth of God’s word than by reaching out with it in a way that is no longer common in this world, especially to those to whom we are not naturally drawn or inclined.

Fellowship is not Cheap

Real fellowship does not come cheap. It’ll cost a little. You’ll spend more money on food if you are constantly inviting believers (or unbelievers) into your home. You’ll sacrifice some privacy and some precious family time. Expensive furniture will wear out faster, and fussy habits and preferences about our personal living arrangements may have to be abandoned for efficiency of use. But the rewards are immense, and impossible to realize any other way.

Acts 2 is a wonderful window into what fellowship can be like, but we are not living in Jerusalem in the early first century. It is still possible to be “together” in the most important sense the early church was, but this does not require that every single member of a local church be physically in the same space each day of the week.

Being “connected” does NOT require more activities, more use of buildings or more meetings of the church.

That would be way too easy.

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