What was life like in an early church?
Before we begin, we should note that while all the local churches had some features in common, they were not all exactly alike in every way. Some churches were made up completely of converted Jews who still lived according to Jewish customs, and other churches were made up mostly, if not completely, of converted Gentiles. Other churches were a mixture of the two groups. Some churches were known for their affluent membership, others were dirt poor. Some were located in big cities, others in the backwoods. These kinds of features are not defining characteristics that make up a pattern for what a church should be. Perhaps that is a lesson all by itself. As much as we tend to think that a real church should be numerically large and prosperous, with a nice building and a diversity of age ranges within its membership, the fact is that no such picture emerges from the record in Acts. When we think of the church, we must use God’s measurements, not ours.
We begin with a simple but powerful fact: among the early Christians there were people of various levels of wealth, education, age, talents, and zeal, and in many of them there was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. It would have been relatively easy to maintain a church where every member was Jewish, wealthy, and mature. What we see, however, is that the church thrived with a great diversity among its members. This diversity would have been one of the most amazing and astonishing things to outsiders in the first century. Generally speaking, there was no place in the ancient world where you could go to see, on a regular basis, Jews and Gentiles associating together. You certainly could not go somewhere to see them worshipping together (unless the Gentiles had converted to Judaism, but in that case they are no longer typical Gentiles). There was no place you could go where you would see rich people and poor people eating together. The only place you would have seen these things, and all of them being done at the same time, was in one of the churches of the Christians.
What accounted for this? We should begin by reminding ourselves that every church in Acts was founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ. From Acts 2 onwards, it is always – without exception – the preaching of the gospel, the one faith, that created a group of believers (a church) in a place. The story of Jesus, with all of its implications, was the one foundation, and there can be no other foundation for a church (1 Cor 3.11).
We must also remind ourselves that in addition to having been called together by God’s truth, the churches were maintained through love. In Acts 2 and again in Acts 4 we are told about how the Jerusalem Christians sacrificed for each other, how they gave up valuable possessions such as land (the most valuable commodity of all in the ancient world) in order to help brethren who were needy. The Gentile Christians sacrificed for their Jewish brethren in Acts 11 and Acts 20-21 (as informed by 1 and 2 Corinthians). This love accounts for the amazing unity we see in the account. “All those who believed were together and had all things in common … continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2.44, 46). “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4.32). “They were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico” (5.12).
First and foremost, then, life in the early church was built on the bases of truth and love. Everything else we see about them is a product of these two things. They were like a body, made up of vastly different parts but all working together with a common aim and a common power. Their unity was created first by the common gospel they all believed and obeyed, and held together by their brotherly love. Nothing else in the ancient world had the power to unite such disparate elements of society.
But let’s note four related things that stand out in Acts about life in the early churches. First is the practice of honesty and truthfulness in dealing with each other and with everyone. In a world filled with deceitful dealings as people stepped on each other to get ahead, the church was a group in which lies and deception were not tolerated. The story of Ananias and his wife in Acts 5 stood as a stark reminder of how important this was to the Lord, as well as the story of Simon’s request in Acts 8. We don’t see corruption among the leaders, we don’t see the early Christians deceptively posturing for advancement, lying to avoid persecution, or telling half-truths to get out trouble with the authorities, etc. They spoke lived above reproach and spoke the truth even when it meant they were imprisoned (Acts 4) or died for it (Acts 7).
Another part of life in an early church was the presence of elders in every congregation (14.23) to guide its members to spiritual maturity in love and harmony. It was more than just the practical issue of a group needing some kind of leadership. It was a matter of each church maintaining the truth and love that created it and held it together in the first place. This was the basic job tasked to the elders. Each church, then, existed under the mature spiritual guidance of men who had the church’s spiritual well-being first and foremost in their hearts.
A third feature of life in an early church was the commitment to find ways to work through problems without division being the answer. In Acts 6 a serious problem arose that had the potential to split the Jerusalem church right down the middle, along ethnic lines. Ethnic differences are, by their nature, a kind of natural distinction between people. Even today, most people feel most comfortable around those of their own ethnicity. When problems arise in a diverse group, one of the natural “fault lines” will always be the ethnic differences among them. There was a very real danger that the problem in Acts 6 would split the church into a Hebrew church and a Hellenistic church. In fact, that would have been the easiest solution, but it was not a possibility for them because of their commitment to the truth and love of the gospel. In an even greater way, the Judaizing gospel had the potential to split the church into a Jewish church and a Gentile church (Acts 15). Again, such a separation would have been quite “natural,” but to the apostles it was out of the question. Instead they solved the problem based on the truth of the gospel on which the church was built in the first place. The collection among the Gentiles for the poor Christians in Jerusalem only helped to cement the bond of love between them.
For many early Christians, persecution was also a regular feature of their lives. Whether they lived in Jerusalem, Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, or Philippi, brethren learned very quickly that rejection, scorn, ridicule, slander, threats, and persecution came with being a part of the church. They were accused by Jews of being anti-Moses (Acts 7) and accused by Gentiles of being anti-Caesar (Acts 16 and 17). Other people became jealous of their successes and tried to eliminate them (Acts 5-7) or run them out of town (Acts 19). Persecution was such a common experience among them that Paul could say “All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3.12). In fact, many of these churches were born in circumstances of opposition and rioting against the preaching of the gospel. For many of these Christians, it had been an experience of persecution from the very first day! Yet they persevered. They knew that “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14.22).
Life in the early church was one of speaking truth, practicing love, following spiritual guidance, pursuing harmony, and endurance. May our churches be like them!