Do We Really Need to Go Back to the First Century?

I don’t think I can stand to hear another sermon, or read another book, based on Acts 2:42-47. I’ve heard these sermons and read these books since the 70’s, when I was growing up at a really weird time in both the church and its surrounding culture. I suspect people have been using this short passage to preach similar sermons since long before then.

There’s nothing wrong with this Bible passage, which starts with verse 42: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.” This is a nice description of life among Christians in first-century Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. It’s something to celebrate. It’s informative and exciting to read about what God did in and through these early believers in the first days after the Holy Spirit came to indwell Jesus’ followers and begin using them to turn the world upside down. But it’s not a commandment.

The problem is in the way these verses are often used, starting with a failure to recognize that they describe one small group of people living in one place at one point in history, and that those people, that place, and that point in history were radically different from 21st-century realities. These verses do not legitimately form a strong basis for church strategy or a sweeping sense of calling for all Christians. Yet they are often used exactly this way.

If only we would become more like the first-century Christians, some say, we would have a greater impact on our culture. Our churches would be more harmonious, we would share a stronger and more unifying set of convictions. Those were people who knew what it meant to be a church.

Really?

Here’s one problem with this kind of thinking: It’s a gross idealization of the people and circumstances of the time. It ignores all the other things that were happening in the early church that made life quite turbulent and colorful. Paul’s letters to early churches assure us that the early church was also full of people with serious problems and those who still clung to pagan ideas and practices. Acts tells us the early Christians–especially their leaders–were in conflict. It also tells us there was a huge disagreement over whether Gentiles should be accepted into the church, then over whether they needed to be circumcised first in order to be eligible for Christianity. Church history tells us there was much struggle to establish what was orthodox belief versus heresy, and it took hundreds of years of disagreement to establish the canon of New Testament Scriptures. And even this growing group of believers in Jerusalem did not live in utopian harmony. Just four chapters after this passage, in Acts 6, we read of discontent within their ranks, with Greeks complaining against Hebrews over allegations of favoritism in the distribution of food among widows. This disagreement was handled quickly and wisely, but it reveals a group of people saved by grace that they very much needed to overcome the consequences of their lingering prejudices.

Here’s another problem with using the first-century church in Jerusalem as a basis for calling our communities to live similarly: We are not first-century inhabitants of Palestine. Even modern Christians who live in Jerusalem would find it hard to reproduce the conditions under which the brand-new church grew. Many factors make our lifestyles different and call for a different kind of influence on the world around us. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that living in a post-Christian Western society calls for a different kind of witness than living under persecution as misunderstood members of a fledgling Jewish sect in the ancient Roman Empire. The people we read about in Acts could not have even imagined the kind of world we live in: our culture, our technology, the idea that Christianity would be the largest religion on the planet, the idea of a post-Christian society in a very religious culture, a world so deeply marked by Christian ideals and ethics that they are easily embraced by people who claim God does not exist.

It’s much too simplistic to say that we should be more like those first-century believers. Perhaps it’s also damaging. If we are waiting for the right conditions, the right place, the right people in power, or some kind of widespread communal lifestyle to emerge before our work in this world can be optimized, we will be sitting on our hands for the rest of our lives.

Generally, Christians would say the gospel is for all times and places. God’s Word is “alive and powerful,” just as true and effective now as it was when originally written and collected. God’s story continues. His righteous, just, and merciful hand still works. The transformational love of Christ still changes people. And Christian belief continues to spread throughout the globe, among people who are as different from those first-century members of the Jerusalem church as we are. We don’t need to become more like the New Testament church or the church in other parts of the world, any more than they need to become more like us. We can learn from anyone, but that doesn’t mean we must emulate everyone, as if the gospel is for everyone but us. We don’t need to withdraw from our place in space and time to find a “purer” expression of that gospel–it is as relevant as ever in our consumeristic, voyeuristic, confusing, and randomly violent world.

Rather than long for another place and time, I believe we will more boldly fulfill our calling when we embrace the idea that God has placed us here and now and called us to express what it means to be the church–full of flawed people–with the cultural conditions, personalities, and living conditions we are given.

In relationship to those first-century believers, we share a common calling. But we don’t share their conditions. We are called to live as Christians in the age of iPhones, drone warfare, global terrorism, teleconferences, fights over gay marriage, air travel, security cameras, cars, pollution, space exploration, drive-thrus, particle physics, the NSA and Anonymous, nuclear weapons, football, and 1-800-FLOWERS. We fool ourselves by believing our power to act as salt and light in this world comes in living communally, eating all our meals together, or existing in perfect harmony. The power at work within us is and through us Christ himself, who conquered the wind and the waves, sickness and demons and death itself. He is not threatened by the 21st century.

7 Comments
  1. dorothygreco says:

    Well said Amy. I have not thought about this passage in this way so i very much appreciate your insights.

  2. I agree with your points about trying to recapture a “Camelot” we are culturally unable to re-access. I’m more bothered we don’t look at the rest of Acts, with the church’s issues with nationalism, racism or selfishness to name a few. The good old day were just as messy as today.

  3. There has to be a way in which a sense of togetherness is expressed in our churches today. We should have programmes in which we help one another physically as well as spiritually in our churches. The passage helps us understand the need to divest ourselves of the selfishness and materialism that seems to rule the church today. Avoid a situation where the very rich feel they are more blessed than the less fortunate and look down upon them.
    The passage therefore is just as relevant today as it was then.

    • Amy says:

      I completely agree with you, Helmut. We need to find a way to do this within our modern cultural context, not by trying to live according to customs from another time and place. The passage is relevant; the cultural conditions are not.

  4. colleen w says:

    Amen. Thanks for processing this and sharing it with us. Many of us have not agreed nor relate to this type of teaching. We love the timelessness of God’s Word but see how this type of teaching is not helpful and even distacting from how we can apply God’s Word to our lives and allow His Holy Spirit to make changes in us that make us more like Christ and represent His church well.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.