In my previous post on the New Testament Church, I used the word “uniformity.” On MySpace, the use of this term was controversial to one responder and he thought that a better word would have been “unity” rather than “uniformity.” I want to focus on that one word today, though. Uniformity. I believe that one of the marks of the New Testament Church, the church that Jesus built, is uniformity. I want to try to build a case for this today.
Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. (Acts 2:44 HCSB)
According to the Faith in Action Study Bible, Acts 2:42-47 “provide a snapshot of early Christian community life.” If you read the passage in its entirety, here is what you will find:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and 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. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV, Emphasis mine)
Our culture is so individualistic that this Biblical example of community may seem strange – even suspect – to us.
(Faith in Action Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2005. 1793-1794.)
I believe this is why we say that we have a problem with the idea of uniformity. We have no qualms with the idea of unity. In fact, within the tradition that I was raised, unity is kind of a catch phrase. But uniformity…I think to many Protestants, this smacks of the Papacy. But I think that there is something in that aspect of Catholicism that we can learn from.
Everything is pretty much the same at every Catholic church you go to on Sunday morning. They all have mass at around the same time and do the same things and say the same prayers and partake of the elements. And they all hear a message from the same passage of Scripture. This is a generalization, of course, but you get the idea. And this sameness transcends culture. No matter what language you speak or what country you live in, Mass is the same. There are little things here and there that individualize things for each separate congregation, but all of the crucial elements are the exact same and happen in more or less the same order.
The same idea was present in early church life as well.
If we jump back to the very beginning of Acts 2, we find this little detail:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place…Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. (Acts 2:1, 5 ESV)
The early church started doing things within the framework of Judaism. In fact, at the inception of the Jesus movement, “Christianity” was a sect of Judaism. They did things the Jewish way. They had some different ideas about some things, just like every other sect of Judaism did, but they were still Jews and practiced their religion in pretty much the same manner. In fact, one theory, espoused by John Shelby Spong, about the writing of the Gospels and Acts is that they were written in midrash form for the purpose of compiling the teachings and ideas of the Jesus story into reading to accompany the Torah readings throughout the Jewish Liturgical Year*. By this theory, even the Gospels were written within the framework of Judaism, and in such a way as to keep the Christian gatherings in uniformity with each other and Judaism.
Moving deeper into the New Testament, beyond Acts and into the Pauline Epistles, we find statements like this one, which further prove that there was a uniform manner of doing things within the newly formed Christian context:
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-34a ESV, Emphasis mine)
I emphasized the first half because I don’t want to deal with the issue of women here. My point is that there was a certain order to how things were to be conducted in “all the churches of the saints.” The Corinthian church had an issue, and Paul, who had planted the church, was seeking to bring that church back into conformity with the Law and the proper way of doing things. The early church was not a free-for-all where everyone did as everyone pleased. In fact, he even seems to have addressed this kind of attitude when he stated,
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?…What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:1, 15 ESV)
Just because we have freedom in Jesus does not give us the right to do and act as we see fit. This is directed at the individual, but I believe that it also applies to us on the corporate level as well. Yes, there is freedom in Jesus, but that does not mean that we can do and act however we want as churches. There is some sense in which we must act in certain ways and do certain things and even teach certain things for us to be able to call ourselves a church.
What are these things that we must do to call ourselves a New Testament church? We’ll begin looking at those next time.
- By mentioning this, I am not saying that I agree necessarily with this theory, I am just using it illustratively.