I’m not near as good at describing the Church as the Chinese that came from Watchman Nee’s Little Flock movement. I’m a pretty good storyteller, but I can’t spin the tale of the church like Gene Edwards can.
I can, however, paint you a picture and hope God gives you revelation.
Almost no one has experienced church life as the apostles envisioned and taught it. Almost no one even knows they’re missing anything.
This is how the church used to live:
They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers. … All that believed were together and had everything in common. … Continuing daily in one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:42,44,46)
A lot of people think this only happened at Jerusalem. Not true. This pattern was followed everywhere.
We who formerly … valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them. (Justin, First Apology 14)
That was written around AD 150, over a century after the church of Jerusalem was formed. Another half century later, and we read:
It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to label us. “See,” they say, “How they love one another!” For themselves are animated by mutual hatred. … They are angry with us, too, because we call each other brethren. … But perhaps the very reason we are regarded as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, Apology 39)
Both of these quotes are defenses of Christianity attempting to explain to the emperor, or to whatever Roman official they could get to read the letter, how Christians typically behave. They were not portraying an ideal they were striving for, but they were claiming that is the way Christians lived, just as Luke claimed the Jerusalem church lived that way.
It’s no surprise, really. A much earlier document gives commands to the church to live this way …
You shall seek out the faces of the saints every day so that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace …You shall not turn away from him that is in need, but you shall share all things with your brother and shall not say that they are your own. For if you share what is immortal, how much more things which are temporary? (Didache 4)
Though I reference The Didache for this quote, it is almost certainly from a tract that circulated in the early churches that we now call “The Two Ways.” That tract is also found in the Letter of Barnabas. Those two writings would put “The Two Ways” in the very early part of the second century, if not the first.
If this sort of complete sharing among Christians was normal, then why doesn’t Paul talk about it? Paul talks several times about rich Christians, and so does James, who led the church in Jerusalem some time after the persecution that Paul led before his conversion (while he was still called Saul).
It’s important to look at Paul’s commands to rich Christians.
Command those that are rich in this world not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who richly gives us everything to enjoy. [Command them] to do good, to be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to share. (1 Tim. 6:17-18)
Yes, there were rich Christians, just as there were in Jerusalem, where giving was just as optional as it was in Paul’s churches. Before God, it is inappropriate not to give, but the church never forced sharing on Christians. Giving was to be done from a cheerful and willing heart.
It was no different in the early churches …
They who are well-to-do—and willing—give what each thinks fit. (Justin, ibid. 67)
Each puts in a small donation, but only if it be his pleasure and only if he be able. For there is no compulsion, all is voluntary. (Tertullian, ibid.)
Let every man give as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or by compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (1 Cor. 9:7)
Paul may have said it differently, but he clearly expected the Christians in his churches to share every bit as much as the Jerusalem church did:
It is not that other men should be eased while you are burdened, but there should be an equality. Right now it is your abundance supplying their lack, so that their abundance also may supply your lack, so that there may be equality. (2 Cor. 8:13-14)
So first of all, the church shares.
If this is the first time you’ve had to face the story of the church and how it lived, you may be wondering if I’m describing—or worse, prescribing—forced communism. I have already clearly said that early church sharing was not compulsory, but that’s hard to notice when you feel like someone is ransacking your bank account to share it with the poor around you.
That is what God wants you to do with your bank account, though.
He just wants it to be voluntary.
Tithing and a Professional Clergy
Have you noticed all the collection agents God has? There are a long line of preachers who will be happy to take your offerings to God as his representative.
If you want to make sure your offering gets to God, give it to the poor, or to someone you can trust to get it to the poor:
He that has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay what was given. (Prov. 19:17)
That’s how the early churches saw it, too.
There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. … These gifts … are to support and bury poor people, to supply the needs of boys and girls destitute of means and parents and of old persons confined now to the house. They also benefit such, too, as have suffered shipwreck. And if there happen to be any in the mines, banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church; they become the nurslings of their confession. (Tertullian, ibid.)
I am not against paying shepherds and teachers. I have been told that elders in the early churches did not receive a salary. However, I said at the outset of this series that I would never hold to a doctrine that seems to have even a verse or two that seems to contradict it. I can’t honestly read 1 Timothy 5:17-18 in any other way than suggesting extra salary for elders who lead well.
I do need to point out, though, that Tertullian does not mention paying church leadership or staff among the uses of their church’s treasury. Justin gives a similar description of the uses of the church’s money, and he also does not mention paying church staff. It may be allowable to give salary to elders or other servants of the church, but it certainly should not be the priority.
I am sure this sounds bizarre in the light of modern congregations, which require a huge staff and a huge time commitment from at least the pastor.
This was not so in the early congregations raised up by the apostles. There, the saints share everything. They lived like family. While it was not normal in those congregations to give the elders a salary, it was customary to support them. The churches of the second century had not just elders and servants (deacons), but usually also an order of widows and of virgins who were supported by the church. As a general feel in reading through descriptions of church life in the second and third centuries, it seems that the overseer (bishop), elders, and servants were supported exactly as the widows and virgins were if they were supported at all. They were supplied with food and necessary items only.
The early churches were like a family. Just as grandpa might live with mom and dad on the farm and pull his weight with his wisdom as much as with his body and be paid simply with sustenance, shelter, and love, so the elders—the grandpas of the congregation—pulled their weight with service to the flock, and they were paid by being a part of the family of God. They never went without because no one went without because they sought each other out every day and called nothing their own.
Again, this probably raises up extreme ideas in the minds of those used to the modern institutional way of doing church. Much of the world still lives the way I am describing even outside of the church. A hundred years ago, even much of the western world lived this way. Family and extended family did everything they could to take care of one another, even sharing many of their possessions.
Christians have exchanged their families for the family of God. That is why Jesus said that if you love father, mother, son, or daughter more than him, you cannot be his disciple. That is why he could tell Peter that if he gave up everything, he would receive a hundredfold of houses and parents in this life. I’m not making that up!
“Everyone that has forsaken houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, wife, or children for my name’s sake shall receive a hundredfold and shall inherit eternal life.” (Matt 19:29)
Luke 18:29-30 specifies that this hundredfold return will happen in this current age.
Can this really be done? It must be done.
One first step is to reduce the size of our churches. In the next post, we will talk about how Jesus’ method of reducing the size of the flock and what we can do to follow him.