Do We Make a Mistake in Romanticizing the Early Church?

Jason Micheli —  October 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

acts-2-42In his sequel to the Gospel story, Luke reports that after the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Jesus’ community of disciples:

“…devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Pentecost, the Spirit’s anointing manifested itself in the believers sharing their prayers, bread and money with one another in a community of faith.

But is this, I wonder, meant to be a good thing?

Does Luke intend for us to see here in Acts 2 a blueprint for how we should do Church?

Typically theologians and preachers romanticize the Church of Acts 2. It’s there that we find the closest approximation of the ‘true Church.’ I know I’m guilty of unrealistically lauding Acts 2 as the ideal after which today’s Church should strive to embody.

Not only is the Acts 2 model unrealistic, I now wonder if it’s even a good, faithful model of the Church Jesus intended. After all, a community of believers sharing their possessions together, eating together, gathering together, teaching and praying and fellowshipping together just may entail too much togetherness.

What if the Acts 2 Church about which preachers so often wax poetic was actually a contravention of Jesus’ final commandment?

To take the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.

As easily as one can romanticize the Acts 2 Church, it’s just as easy to view it as a static, inward-focused community- both static and stationary, camped out in Jerusalem.

Maybe what we’re supposed to see in Acts 2, especially when contrasted with the rest of Acts’ unfolding, is not a romantic ideal but the caution that Christian community is not an end in itself.

In fact, I’ve come to think that a better reading of Acts understands the actual birth of the Church, in the sense of the community of disciples living up to and living out their calling, happening in Acts 8.

It’s not until Stephen’s bold ministry in Acts 6 and 7 provokes persecution and eventually martyrdom that the disciples disperse beyond their community.

It’s in fleeing that the disciples inadvertently find their former calling: to be a missionary people, a community on the move.

If this is a fair reading of Acts then I think it follows to say that Christians do not seek community as an end in itself but rather community is the result of us seeking other, larger ends.

We build community not for its own sake; we build it incidentally, as our hearts and energies are captured by the greater cause of proclaiming the Gospel message

The anthropologist Victor Turner distinguished between ‘community’ and what he labeled ‘communitas.’

Whereas ‘community’ can be described: as something to be built, as inward-focused, centered on encouraging one another and creating a safe space, Turner says ‘communitas’ is the experience of deeper bonds, support and relationships of people who undergo a shared ordeal.

What Turner labels ‘communitas’ is what people on mission trips often experience as the ‘spiritual high’ of their time serving the poor. With a cause bigger than ourselves, community just sort of happens on its own.

Communitas is only experienced by taking risks together, suffering together, and working together for a cause greater than the community itself.

In other words, when it comes to the ideal Church Turner would have you think of Saving Private Ryan more so than Acts chapter 2. Too many churches miss this experience of ‘communitas’ for no other reason than that they avoid shared ordeals. They opt for a safe, secure environment. Indeed they make a safe, secure environment their goal.

Alan Hirsch explains ‘communitas’ this way:

“…it is a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality…It’s the kind of community that happens to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.”




Jason Micheli


3 responses to Do We Make a Mistake in Romanticizing the Early Church?

  1. Or, maybe the traditional take IS the right take.

    I’m afraid this is another response longer than your own post, but it get me where I’m at. My own ministry touches on these issues.

    I am very slow to alter an understanding which the Church has maintained in general for over 1900 years. Let me start there. There were a lot of guys in the past that knew a whole lot more than I, and could handle Greek and Hebrew a lot better than I ever could! They lived close to the fire of fellowship and martyrdom themselves, forging much of their understanding of scripture on the anvil of unbelievable suffering and sacrifice. I think they have a lot to bring to the table of thoughts and ideas regarding scriptural interpretation.

    I think this is one of those traditional takes which the ‘Historic Understanding’ got right. And if over-romanticizing Acts 2 is a problem, think about over-romanticizing Acts 6 – 8! I find a heck of a lot more over-romanticizing of Missions then ever the Acts-2 Church of Pentacost. And often with tragic results.

    I run the College ministry at our Church, which is located very near one of the largest international Mission organizations currently active, the name of which I won’t mention because too many folks who may read this know both myself, my church and this organization. More of this in a minute.

    In the course of my own ministry, and our church’s ministry at-large, we do a lot of ‘picking up the pieces’ of shattered lives. Because we take on many of the local missionaries as lay leaders, we have had to deal in depth with unbelievable baggage brought home from the field, some resulting in wholesale detonations of families, careers, ministries, none of which gets “air play”.

    To cut to the chase, I find a lot more damage done to the Church Body at large, and to the individual Saint, by what we call “Outreach” than ever inflicted by “In-reach”. My own ministry experience has taught me that before you can ever have an effective Outreach, one that is healthy, and by that I mean which is Holy Spirit breathed and berthed – is by way of an equally effective and Healthy – Holy Spirit breathed and berthed – In-reach. This means the development of Community of the Saints.

    I have grown suspect of the perspective that truncates outreach over in-reach, and the directed inference too often drawn that one is subordinate to the other. It sounds great, but upon close inspection, fails muster.

    Take the example you shared. You imply that the Church did not become missional until James was killed and the church was forced to flee, and that it was only then that the Apostles began to fill their office. Or something along those lines. I don’t know where you get that. The truth is, we don’t know this to be certain. Scripture does not tell us, we have to read that between the lines, and these days we seem to do a lot of that.

    Martyrdom is no guarantee of Missionary activity anymore than Clinical Treatment is a guarantee of health.

    What I find in these conversations is that the Holy Spirit is rarely mentioned. It’s “our” outreach, it’s “our” in-reach, it’s “our” activity, it’s “our” community, usw.

    Let’s correct this right off the top. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and as such is His, to have and to hold, emphasis on “hold”.

    As such, it is His outreach, His in-reach, His community, and if there any ‘communitas’ stemming from this, it’s His, not ours. We – participate. He – generates. It is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to take that which is His – and find a landing place in our hearts, we who are part of the Body Corporate. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job and ministry to take a dead heart and infuse the Life of Christ in it. Not ours. It is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to infuse the Fellowship of the Saints with the supernatural power to build itself up. Another phrase for that is Making Disciples.

    I dare say, there is nothing ‘incidental’ in this. It is very purposeful.

    If I read Paul correctly, the Church at Corinth had this very problem. “Incidental Community”. They were large, multi-cultural, very socially relevant (too much so!) and what we would call very hip. They were actually many individual fellowships ( Read: a Church planting ministry!) that would come together for corporate worship. Their In-reach was almost non existent. Paul’s point was to indicate how the several Spiritual gifts were not given for self indulgence, but for each other, to build each other and the Body Corporate. Spiritual gifts, when empowered by the giver of those gifts, worked supernatural wonders. And from that supernatural in reach flowed an equally supernatural outreach, and by extension, that word my Spell Correct chokes over. Communitas.

    If Saving Private Ryan teaches me anything, it’s that the group sent out to rescue the Pvt. was sent by a “home” center that was NOT on the battle field (London, actually), and that each of these men were trained. You don’t train on the battlefield, you train at home, then having been equipped, you go. Battlefields don’t train, they harden. Again, community spawns communitas. Ya cannot have one without the other.

    Is ‘communitas’ even a word? My spell correct is choking. Comunitas? Nope, still choking.

    Jesus’ command is to make disciples. Over the past century the meaning has morphed over to “winning souls”. That’s not making disciples. That may be a PART of it, but it is neither the sole charge, or the prime directive. Again, the changing of the heart is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is why the traditional Mission of the Church has been the preparing of the Saints for the work of Ministry. That is what making disciples is about. Again, we are back to the building up of the Body, and we are back to trusting in, clinging to, and relying upon, the supernatural work of God Himself, the Holy Spirit.

    I might recommend reading my fav. pagan, Thomas Cahill’s “How the Irish Saved Civilization” to get a good picture of Patrick of Eire’s concept of community and outreach. And remember, Patrick was instrumental in winning five of the seven Kingdoms of Ireland without firing a shot or pulling a swor – oh, King Milliuc killed himself.. But Patrick and the ministry he developed could not have had such an effective “outreach” without his exemplary, even over-the-top manifestation of “in-reach” so essential to the Patrician ministry.

    As such, when we fellowship, when we “in-reach”, it is no less Supernatural than any out-reach. Both are generated and energized by the Holy Spirit. And what I see in Acts 2 is an order in which Churches grow: first and foremost from the building up of the Saints as disciples. A community that so cares for it’s members that pagan historians can write “Oh, how they love one another”. A community so different that the surrounding non-believers cannot comprehend it, except that they care deeply one for another. That was the early Church’s Calling Card!

    I cannot tell you, having lived in the Amish country between Phoenixville and Lancaster, how much I really wished I could, as a teen, be part of their community. How they did everything together, how they did the barn raisings, how they taught their own kids, how they even let their 16 year old kids go among the ‘English’ in their “Fruehjahr” (or whatever the local dialect calls it) to let them see for themselves whether they wish to be member of the community or live outside it. Oh, and no, those very, very few that chose to stay in beautiful downtown Boyertown, Pottstown, Reading, Lancaster, &c., were never shunned. But they were not part of the community either. They could visit, their families always had warm welcomes for them, they would encourage them back into the fold, but never were they ostracized. Not the Alten Ordinungen I knew about, anyway. Amish had a great rep, good street cred, and their amazing response the School shooting a few years ago, have won almost universal accolades.

    And they never need to go out recruiting, which is kinda what most of our Churches see as outreach, functionally. Selling “Christianity”.

    But then the Amish are not looking for big numbers. They know that the way is narrow, and few there are that find it. Even fewer who want to dress like that and have no electricity. To our evangelical eyes, the Amish appear cultish, isolationist, weird, even a little obsessed. And maybe some are, I don’t know them all. But those whom I knew of or about, what I have read, and the testimony of the good Welchmen of Tredyffrin Township and the Delaware Valley indicate to me that for 300 years, maybe the Alt Ordinung Amish may have the best working example of what Jesus had in mind regarding the “Great Commission” of any congregation in America.

    I’ll conclude by observing the last verse of Acts 2: God added to their number.

    God honoured what they were doing, at least that’s my take. And we have the proper identities performing their proper ministries. God, the Spirit did the adding to the numbers. The disciples taught, the community fellowshipped, supported each other, and worshiped. God was accurately described (Doxa), and was Glorified. A great “In-reach”, which resulted, in time, with an equally great “Out-reach”. And, as we learn from Scripture,

    . . . if Christ be lifted up, He will draw all men ( whom the Father has given Him, per Gospel of John ) – to Him.

  2. I really appreciate your post Jason. I’ll take it a step further and say it really depends on what one expects to find in the Bible. Is it a legislative piece with chapters and sub-chapters, sections and sub-sections, addenda and amendments giving instructions as a local municipality would? Or is it an account of events past that are intended to give us guidance in a much more general way? I personally think much of the frustration and “mystery” of the Bible is trying to make it into something it isn’t. Trying to force it to tell me the 2 allowed ways worshiping God, the 4 God approved uses of money, the 3 approved ways of attempting to help “sinners”, etc… If the Bible tells us anything it tells us that Christianity is a matter of the heart. It’s definitely not taking something someone did in history and somehow turning that into the only approved way doing something.

    I grew up in a religious tradition that spent it’s entire energy attempting to divine the “rules” that are most certainly hidden in the text to ensure we never did anything wrong. I came to witness how paralyzing that is because it’s easy to assign many logical meanings to the same passages. We were one talent people burying our talent because we couldn’t figure out what the EXACT right thing was. We spent our time debating the meaning of every minutiae instead of helping people in need. We strained gnats only to swallow camels. The Pharisees, Sadducees and religious leaders had all the traditionally “right” answers but Jesus tells us (and them!) they were actually all wrong because of the condition of their hearts. Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. As long as these two concepts rule your heart you’ll be just fine.

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