Early Christian Community

Recently we heard a sermon on Acts 2:42-47 that described the earliest Christian community. One person mentioned that they wish the contemporary church was more like what was described. I’ve heard that complaint a lot and it does seem fair – we are far away from what is described by these few verses. I wanted to draw attention to two texts – one outside of the New Testament and one later in Acts.

First, the Epistle to Diognetus was written as early as 120 AD and contains a defense of the Christian faith. Chapter 5 contains a brief description of the manner of Christians during that time, which I’ve reproduced here in full:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

A few highlights:

  • Christians live by revealed truth – not “speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men”
  • Christianity transcended cultural boundaries and norms
  • Christian practice was decidedly pro-life over against a culture that permitted and encouraged the slaughter of children. Hence, “they do not destroy their offspring.” or more literally, “they do not throw away fetuses.” For more, see Tertullian’s around 200AD.
  • To paraphrase Tim Keller, pagans were “generous” with their bodies and strict with their money; Christians are generous with their money and “strict” with their bodies. We share everything except our spouses.

What kind of witness would this bring against a hostile culture?


The second text I want to mention is Acts 5;1-11:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

I’ll let D. A. Carson speak on this one:

THE ACCOUNT OF ANANIAS AND SAPPHIRA, whose names are recorded in the earliest Christian records because of their deceit (Acts 5:1-11), is disturbing on several grounds. Certainly the early church thought so (Acts 5:5, 11). Four observations focus the issues:

First, revival does not guarantee the absence of sin in a community. When many people are converted and genuinely transformed, when many are renewed and truly learn to hate sin, others find it more attractive to be thought holy than to be holy. Revival offers many temptations to hypocrisy that would be less potent when the temper of the age is secularistic or pagan.

Second, the issue is not so much the disposition of the money that Ananias and Sapphira obtained when they sold a piece of property as the lie they told. Apparently there were some members who were selling properties and donating all of the proceeds to the church to help in its varied ministries, not least the relief of the needs of brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, the man called Barnabas was exemplary in this respect (Acts 4:36-37), and serves as a foil to Ananias and Sapphira. But these two sold their property, kept some of the proceeds for themselves, and pretended that they were giving everything.

It was this claim to sanctity and self-denial, this pretense of generosity and piety, that was so offensive. Left unchecked, it might well multiply. It would certainly place into positions of honor people whose conduct did not deserve it. But worse, it was a blatant lie against the Holy Spirit — as if the Spirit of God could not know the truth, or would not care. In this sense it was a supremely presumptuous act, betraying a stance so removed from the God-centeredness of genuine faith that it was idolatrous.

Third, another element of the issue was conspiracy. It was not enough that Ananias pulled this wicked stunt himself. He acted “with his wife’s full knowledge” (Acts 5:2); indeed, her lying was not only passive but active (Acts 5:8), betraying a shared commitment to deceive believers and defy God.

Fourth, in times of genuine revival, judgment may be more immediate than in times of decay. When God walks away from the church and lets the multiplying sin take its course, that is the worst judgment of all; it will inevitably end in irretrievable disaster. But when God responds to sin with prompt severity, lessons are learned, and the church is spared a worse drift. In this case, great fear fell not only on the church but also on all who heard of these events (Acts 5:5, 11).

It is written: “He whose walk is upright fears the LORD; but he in whose ways are devious despises him” (Prov. 14:2).

The church has always been a mixture of both supernatural blessing causing good works and false believers doing evil.

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