Jesus' Two Great Commissions
From the first moment the good news of the
resurrected Jesus was preached, Scripture presents the church as a community of
believers. In the center of this community is mutual love for and commitment to
Jesus, the crucified, resurrected Savior. He alone makes the community's
existence possible. The revealed teachings of God, the loving Father, governs
the community. The cohesiveness of the community is created by a bond of mutual
brotherly love founded on a common love for the Father and the Savior. Their
love for each other is the direct result of Jesus' love for each of them.
When is that community, collectively and individually, actually functioning in the understanding that God's purposes are to be achieved in and through them? It functions in that understanding when each individual places the community's well-being above his personal ambitions.
In this community a member's greatest achievement, his highest honor will be found in serving, in becoming the servant of all. The attitudes, motives, emotions, values, and commitments which are to characterize each member are embodied in and exemplified by Jesus during His earthly ministry.
The Law of Community
Unfortunately, many Christians have neither learned nor understood the basic law
of community. Any community composed of individuals who selfishly regard their
personal ambitions as being more important than the well-being of the whole
community is doomed to ineffectiveness and eventual extinction. That community
will be disemboweled by the selfish, self-centered acts and attitudes of its
members. As they increasingly function in the "every man for himself' attitude,
they slowly kill the community, eventually reducing it to a lifeless skeleton.
Any community composed of members who mutually exist to care unselfishly and lovingly for the needs of all in the community will grow in strength and cohesiveness. That growth guarantees its survival to the mutual benefit of all, even in the most difficult circumstances.
A Fundamental Failure
Many churches of Christ have failed to understand that the basic nature of the
church as revealed in the New Testament is that of a community. In the careful
attempt to define "the church" in biblical terms, many have overlooked
Scripture's basic concept of the church. Too often their primary focus has been
on the restoration of the government and structure of the church without
considering restoration of the fundamental nature of the church.
This failure has not been the result of intentional neglect or conscious oversight. It is the result of a well-intended but sometimes misdirected concern which arises from the struggle against the perceived greatest enemy--denominationalism. The American restoration movement was born when concerned people rejected the denominational concept of the church. Many restorationists in each generation tend to define and measure the success of their restoration effort by taking note of denominational creeds and practices which have been replaced with New Testament teachings. However, in each generation of restorationists, many seem to retain the denominational concept of the nature of the church. Many in each generation seem to assume if the worship, the doctrines, the government, and the purpose of the church is restored, the Christ-intended nature of the church will naturally come into being. That has not been the case.
Unquestionably, Jesus' great vision for the church was a community of believers who were one as were He and the Father.1 However, churches of Christ collectively have been plagued in most generations with one internal crisis after another. Major crises have resulted from questions concerning instrumental music, missionary societies, located and supported preachers, communion, the use of study literature, cooperation among congregations, the use of the church building, etc. Often, the church has addressed these questions at great cost to the community.
Individual congregations are too often plagued with unbrotherly attitudes, jealousy, power politics, rivaling parties, divided loyalties, fractured fellowships, self-appointed policemen, domineering elders, self-willed preachers and teachers, etc. Again, these conditions exist at great cost to the community.
Commonly, such questions and problems are discussed and debated by focusing primarily on the biblical structure and government of the church. Too seldom does the biblical nature of the church factor in those discussions and debates.
The nature and diversity of those questions and problems make it self-evident that no single cause is the source of all the difficulty. However, it is correct to note that two contributing factors often are (a) the failure to allow Scripture to reveal the basic nature of the church, and (b) the failure to form a common dedication to restoring that nature.
A Common Misconception
How often will a Christian who is asked to define "a congregation" base his
answer on the concept of "a community of those who believe in, are devoted to,
and follow Christ"? How often will a Christian who is asked to define "a
congregation" base his answer on a street address, a building in which members
assemble, and the physical boundaries of an eldership's oversight?
There is no definition of "a congregation" in the New Testament. In the first century neither a street address nor a site of assembly was a part of the definition of "a congregation." There was no single building in which the thousands of Jerusalem Christians assembled each Sunday.
No discussion or declaration concerning the physical boundaries of an eldership's oversight is to be found in the Scriptures' text. Further, no discussion of congregational autonomy or congregational cooperation is to be found in the text. No passages, studied in context, discuss the use of church buildings. Such discussions do not occur in the text because these were not matters of first-century concern. There was no denominationalism in the first-century world; thus problems created by denominational concepts did not exist.
While there was no need to discuss such matters in a first¬ century church, there has been a critical need to discuss such matters from the time denominationalism became an established reality. Long before the American restoration movement began, the need to distinguish between a denominational concept and creed and a New Testament concept and teaching existed.
If restoration was to occur, denominational creeds had to be evaluated on the basis of Scripture. Denominationalism stood as the immediate, primary obstacle in the path of restoration. As restoration continued, the primary opposition against returning exclusively to Bible authority was denominationalism. Thus, it has been too convenient to fix the focus of restoration on opposing denominationalism rather than to fix the focus on the goal of rediscovering New Testament concepts. As a result it has been too easy to define restoration as "fixing" the church by eliminating human creeds, rather than "rebuilding" the church by rediscovering New Testament concepts. It is possible textually to refute and to reject every errant teaching and concept of denominationalism and still fail to restore New Testament Christianity.
When one uses as a basis for his definition of a congregation a street address, an assembly site, and the physical boundaries of an eldership's oversight, he has accepted at least in part denominationalism's concept of the nature of the church. The New Testament's concept of the church's nature is a community of believers, not a group of Christians who assemble at a specified street address.
The Jerusalem Church
The first congregation of Christians was the Jerusalem church. It began when
about 3000 Jews and proselytes responded to Peter's Pentecost sermon by being
baptized.2 One of Scripture's clearer presentations of the nature of the church
is found in the activities of this congregation. This presentation produces a
striking contrast when the nature of that congregation is compared to today's
commonly accepted nature of a congregation.
Immediately, all those baptized believers involved themselves on a continuing basis in four activities: receiving instruction from the apostles, maintaining fellowship with one another, breaking bread, and prayers.3 This was not a group who merely assembled weekly at a building for a period of worship. These were people who shared a common bond which exceeded all other ties.
What was this powerful common bond? A shared culture? Common hometown roots? Common economic backgrounds? Long shared friendships? A common family tree? No! If the facts are considered, the existence of this powerful bond in such a diverse group would seem highly improbable. Acts chapters 2, 4, and 6 document the following facts about this group. (1) Some were converted from those Jews on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from provinces throughout the Roman empire.4 Though they could communicate in Greek, the common business language of that world, they spoke many different native tongues.5 (2) For some converts, Jerusalem was their home town.6 (3) Since both Hebraists and Grecian Jews were converted,7 many cultural differences existed among them. Cultural and religious differences between these two groups often generated sharp disagreements and feelings of prejudice. (4) Since some were proselytes,8 physically speaking these converted Gentiles were not even family to those born Jews. (5) It is unreasonable to assume that all these converts were even acquainted prior to baptism. For some, it is likely that the first time they actually met anyone within the congregation was the day it came into being.
Then what created this incredible bond which generated such closeness and sharing? Their bond was forged from their mutual acceptance of and love for the crucified, resurrected Jesus. Salvation in Jesus was the foundation of their relationship. The one thing they had in common was absolute faith in Jesus.
Their fellowship stands in distinct contrast to what is considered fellowship in many American congregations today. Acts 2:44, 45 describes their fellowship. All that believed were together (ASV, RSV, NIV), continued together in close fellowship (TEV), lived together (JB). Just how much togetherness did this congregation share? They regarded their private possessions and properties as existing for the common good of the whole congregation. They shared everything they had. With whom? With anyone who had become a part of their community by being baptized into Christ--be he a fellow Jerusalem citizen, a Galilean acquaintance, a previously unknown Jew from Mesopotamia, or previously unknown Gentile proselyte from Rome.
First, a Christian possessing goods or possessions sold them to create a fund used to care for any personal need within the congregation.9 Presumably, both the local residents and visitors took this action. Later, lands and houses were sold to keep the fund active.10 Presumably, this primarily involved local residents.
Anyone in need had his/her need met. Those who had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost from distant Roman provinces did not have unlimited resources. They left home expecting to return to home before travel funds were depleted. Remaining in Jerusalem to be taught by the apostles guaranteed financial hardship. This community met such needs as they occurred. The community as a whole saw the importance of these Christians staying in Jerusalem.
Nor was this merely the initial response of enthralled, excited new converts. Later, in Acts 4, all these believers were still one in heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership to anything. 11 All privately owned possessions existed for the common good of the entire group. This sharing and mutual commitment to meet individual needs was so effective that there were no needy persons among them.12 The selling of possessions continued, and the funds were entrusted to the apostles to see that distribution was made to those in need.13
Did this occur because these Christians were commanded to do it? No such specific command is found in Acts or any other New Testament writing. Peter confirmed the opposite was true. When Ananias was condemned for lying to the Holy Spirit about his contribution to this fund, Peter asked, While you still owned the land, wasn't it yours to keep, and after you sold it wasn't the money yours to do with as you liked?14
Becoming a Christian did not destroy one's right of ownership nor one's right to use his money and possessions as he chose. All such acts of generosity and sharing occurred by the choice of the individual, not the command of God. This did not occur because they had to do it; it occurred because they wanted to do it. It occurred because they knew they were part of a community, a community created by the love of a Savior who dared be crucified in their behalf. They understood that the preservation and well-being of that community was more important than their personal prosperity and in every Christian's best interest.
The genuineness of this fellowship is confirmed by other actions. Acts 2:46 reveals that daily they met together at the temple. They met in homes to have their meals together. Their association was characterized by joy and humble, sincere hearts. Only the concept of community describes the nature of this congregation.
The cohesiveness and vitality of this community was threatened when Grecian (diaspora) Jews complained that the Hebraists (Palestinian Jews) were neglecting their widows in the daily food distribution. 15 The apostles responded in a manner which sought to preserve the community. They called all the disciples together and declared that it was not right for them to neglect sharing God's word to oversee the proper distribution of food.16 The whole body of disciples was instructed to select seven Christian men who were of good reputation and known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.17 The apostles would appoint these men to see that the food was distributed equitably, and the apostles would devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.18
This solution was obviously fair to all within the community, made the community a participant in the solution, and guaranteed the men selected would meet with the community's approval. The objective was to restore the loving interrelationship which would protect and preserve the community as well as correct the problem. The problem was not reduced to determining if there was a prejudicial act or a wrong accusation. That action would have destroyed the community by dividing it.
While the word edification does not occur in regard to the activities of the Jerusalem congregation, the works of edification, building up the body of Christ by encouraging and building up Christians, are clearly seen.
From the beginning, a congregation was a community of Christians. The basic
nature of the church as it existed in first¬ century cities was that of a
community devoted to Jesus, guided by God, and committed to each other. While it
is essential to JESUS' TWO GREAT COMMISSIONS restore the structure, government,
worship, and purpose of the church, it is equally essential to restore the
nature of the church. Restoring and preserving the nature of the church is the
work of edification. QUESTIONS
1.What is the law of community? THOUGHT QUESTION
2. Discuss this statement: Too often the primary focus of restoration within churches of Christ has been on restoring the government and structure of the church without concern for restoring the nature of the church.
3. How do the continuing internal divisions within the church verify that many Christians do not understand the nature of the church?
4. Why did New Testament writers not discuss denominational problems and concepts?
5. Is the purpose of restoration to "fix" the church or to "rebuild" the church? Explain your answer.
6. Use Acts 2-5 to illustrate the fact that the first congregation functioned as a community.
What is the difference between a congregation which views itself as "a church to
attend" and one which views itself as "God's community of believers?" What
difference will exist in the way the members of these two congregations relate
and interact in their congregations? ENDNOTES
1 John 17:20, 21
4Acts 2:5, 8-11
5Acts 2:6, 11
8Acts 2:10; 6:5.
10 Acts 4:34.
12 Acts 4:34
13Acts 4:34, 35.
14Acts 5:4, JB
Chapter 7 Chapter 9
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