In his book The New Testament and the People of God N.T. Wright notes what distinguished early followers of Jesus more than anything else was their radical new community. Wright quotes the report by Pliny to the emperor Trajan:
“They met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purposes, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind. . . .”
Wright also quotes the apologist Aristides, who defends Christians by saying:
“Their oppressors they appease and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies . . . they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial . . . .”
Certainly, this last quote has to be taken with a grain of salt, for it comes from a Christian defending his own. Still, as Wright notes, the early community of believers “did not expose their children [in pagan Roman society unwanted children were left exposed to the elements to die], nor did they indulge in sexual immorality. What is more, they did not attempt to overthrow governments; did not commit suicide; and in particular – astonishing in a world where trust and affection were normally confined to family and friends – they cared for one another across the barriers formed by normal culture.”
What can we learn and apply from these descriptions of the early church? A lot; but let me just mention three things:
One, although only implied in the first quote, it is obvious their belief in and experience of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord so completely transformed their lives that this community lifestyle was inevitable and authentic. A saving encounter with Jesus not only changes a person’s heart, it radically changes his relationships. Do our churches reflect this type of radical community? Being driven to the margins will expose a local church’s faithfulness to the word and its practice of community.
Two, therefore, the definition of “family” changes. Jesus addressed this himself in Matt. 3:31-35 and elsewhere. It is wonderful when a biological family follows Christ together, but many times that is not the case. The new, Biblical family is made up of those “after the spirit and in God.” As the church is further marginalized, hard decisions will have to made by many.
Three, although the early church community was often ostracized, marginalized, and even persecuted, they somehow practiced patience, love, and grace. They did this among themselves and toward their adversaries, their enemies, and to strangers. They gave, they fed, they provided. They lived honestly, sought peace, and died to self. Are we willing and able to do the same? Seek peace when attacked, return good for evil, be willing to die to self and to our “rights” and not have to win every time?
I certainly don’t know what the future holds for the American Bible-believing church. I do think, however, that we will have to individually and corporately seriously examine who we are, how we act, and what we do. Scripture is our ultimate and infallible guide, but those disciples who have gone before us can teach us a lot.