DNA: you can trace the origins of church congregations back to the New Testament. There has been a lot of evolution in the way things are done, but the basic purposes and functions of the church can be observed in Acts and the Epistles. Para-church organisations such as mission agencies, in contrast, can trace their origins back to William Carey in the 1790s. Other organisations have a much more recent heritage. There are those who try to argue that modern mission agencies can be traced back to Paul’s missionary band in Acts, but I dispute this. While it is clear that there have always been structures which exist alongside the church to support its work, our modern structures are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those found in Acts. Carey’s proposal to found a society which would use “means for the conversion of the heathen” was radical because he was proposing something very new, something based on the commercial societies of the time.
The voluntary societies and parachurch organisations – even the Protestant missionary movement as a whole – are a modern phenomenon rather than some kind of timeless form.
But I reckon the same goes for today’s local congregations.
There is one key sense in which our local congregations are not like the first communities of the Way: material or economic life.
For us today, the local congregation is a coming together of people who may otherwise lead materially separate lives: we own our respective possessions or property, we live in separate houses, we do our own shopping and transport, and we cross paths with one another outside of Sunday perhaps only if it is prearranged. While we have some different beliefs and behaviours to the surrounding society, in material ways our lives may not be noticeably distinct—and we may not believe they ought to be either, not in that sense. Material things are a matter of personal freedom, aren’t they? It’s not a sin to own your own car, is it?
Yet the followers of the Way did not live like this. Their communities were new families, new households, ‘another sort of country’, a city-within-the-city, in which people began to live materially different lives to those around them. That is the reality being described in Acts chapter 2. It is what explains the extraordinary web of issues and arguments and instructions in the Epistles. These were people who held all things in common, who were becoming interdependent in every conceivable way. Alan Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, is very illuminating here.* These communities were able to include women and the poor, and create that strangely compelling witness, because they shared a common life.
We gloss over this, saying that Acts 2 is descriptive, not prescriptive. We do not want to be primitivists, trying to wind the clock back to a more pure starting point.
Yet while our local congregations today still sing, pray, teach, administer the sacraments and so on, can we really say that in doing so, we have covered all the basic purposes and functions of the church?
I have said previously that I’ve observed an invisible dilemma with missional communities: are they ordinary fellowships, or ‘second decision’ fellowships? Are they believers meeting in their ordinary course of life, or have they taken on extra habits or vows that commit them to something beyond that? For a while I have thought it must be either one or the other; try and do both and you will come to grief. And certainly, followers of the Way have made good on that distinction over the centuries.
Yet it now strikes me that the first churches managed to do both. They nurtured their own as well as serving those around them. However, the key to this was their material life: they had all things in common. My impression (correct me if I’m wrong) is that the quest among missional communities and house churches for a more shared existence has typically let the status quo of private ownership go unquestioned. Meanwhile, conventional local congregations believe that a more shared existence is optional.
Of course, we will never stop meeting together. But what if those material aspects are not as… immaterial as we might have thought?
Our friends in Australia who are beginning to experiment with intentional community (or whatever you might call it) believe not just that this way of life might be better for us, but that it has the power to reflect Most High’s new creation intentions in deeper ways. Beyond ethical living, it is a tangible sign and demonstration of a different Kingdom.
A few months ago I asked for input on the question of how to pool resources, or hack private ownership as we currently experience it. Our friend Geoff pointed out that Australian Christians started having a go at this in the 1970s, so I’m conscious that this is not a new question.
The most fleshed-out example I’ve heard of is Seeds Community, as detailed here. As Jonathan Cornford says, this was not programmed, but organic, a coming together of people who ‘all in some way accept that following Christ has implications for our material lives and are all concerned about the impacts of the consumer economy upon people and the planet.’ They offer a one-year internship for people wanting to get a taste of it.
* See for example Kreider’s list on page 122. The phrase ‘another sort of country, created by the Logos of God’ from Origen is quoted here.
Image credit: ‘Now You Are The Light Of The World And Salt Of The Earth’ by Lalo Gutierrez
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.