Its funny how as a writer you go through dry spells when it seems you have just run out of ideas. And then all of a sudden ideas start buzzing around your head like a swarm of angry bees! That is what happened to me last week when I was mowing my lawn. I mow a large area – far more than I need, but I like to keep the place looking fairly neat, so I have a lot of time to think as I tool the Cub Cadet round and round. (To be perfectly honest with you, though, most of my musings occur while I’m in my recliner! May be because I spend most of my time there!)
In my previous two posts I have been laying a foundation to the actual ideas that I was pondering that beautiful, sunshiny day. I want today to start laying out those thoughts. Then what I want to put before you is an application of the ideas I presented in a lengthy series of posts last winter which are detailed in my recently released book, A Better Way.
As we have already noted, the creation story was considered by Jesus, by Paul and I strongly suspect by John as well, to be the foundational or normative way in which all human relationships and responsibilities are to be fulfilled. I say this about John, not because he makes any particular arguments based on the creation account, but because of his appeals to “That which was from the beginning” and his repeated reference to the old/new commandment they had had “from the beginning.” Most commentators think this refers to the beginning of the gospel among John’s readers, but I strongly suspect that John is connecting the commandment to love one another with the One who was from the beginning. That would make love the eternal, enduring, causative and governing factor in all of creation. That would mean that love is built into creation as the normative for all aspects of the things God has made.
Now for the “What if…”
What would this mean for the church? We know the model most people who claim to be Christians have accepted – the Roman/Reformation/Restoration model is dubious at best and a failure at worst. It is what we referred to earlier as the institutional model. That may take on many different forms, but basically it is the idea that the church is a separate, organizational entity to which people are attached as “members” not unlike being members of a fraternal or social club. Pay your dues, attend meetings, contribute some time to special projects and you are counted as a member in good standing. From this you receive a good feeling of belonging to something worthwhile and have the advantage of a network that provides some advantage or gain to you. And, oh yes! There is the part about “going to heaven when you die.”
If we take the creation model (as is inherent in Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:22-33) concerning the husband and wife relationship being analogous to the relationship of Christ and the church, that presents us with a normative or foundational concept of what the church really is intended to be.
The idea of God’s relationship with his people as marriage is dramatically presented in Ezekiel 16. The picture is that of the faithless nation of Judah whom God loved, found as a just-born infant, unloved and uncared for from the moment of birth whom he had cared for, healed, adorned and took to himself as a man takes a bride. But she did not live in the love of her husband but became unfaithful to him. She became as a prostitute – an adulteress – going after idols and became worse than Sodom and Samaria in their wickedness. Still in all this God loved them and would provide a new covenant under which they would find redemption
Behind Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is this same concept. This is the kind of love pictured in Jesus’ love for the church. He cleansed her, he adorned her, he takes her as his bride. Those who make up the church are the family of God just as a human family results from the love of a husband and wife. As we have already seen, God views the church as his family.
2Cor. 6:18 “…I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
I believe this has great significance as to how we should view ourselves and how we should function in this world. We should function as a family. Members of a family do not join their family as one would join a club – they are born into it. They do not pay their dues and attend family meetings to stay in good standing in the family organization. They do not stay in their family because they believe the right set of doctrines. If they mess up they are still members of the family and will be loved back into a right relationship even if that relationship has been strained or ruptured. Members of a family love one another because it simply is natural or right or harmonious or “good” to do so. It is in family that love is not so much taught as “caught” and practiced, not as duty, but as nature.
Now, think about some of the practical applications of this idea of the creation model of family as being foundational for the church. We can see this from the very first. For example, think about the meetings of the earliest Christians. The only references outside of the time they met in the temple in Jerusalem is of them meeting in the homes of various families (Acts 2:44-47).
Colossians 4:15 “Give my greetings … to Nympha and the church in her house.”
Philemon 1:2 “…and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:”
Acts 12:12 “…went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”
In the first century when the head of a household became a Christian, his or her whole family became followers of Christ also (see Acts 16:15; Acts 16:34). The families in those houses became the nuclei of the churches “in their house.” The family dwellings of that day were not like the residences of the twenty-first century. Then the homes of people were semi-public. People just wandered in off the street, especially if there happened to be something special going on in a home. That is seen on several occasions in the gospels like in …
Matt. 9:10 “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”
We see the same thing happening in …
Mark 14:3 “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly…”
This was the concept of house or home that was brought to the practice of the church in the first century. This kind of custom is so very different from what we experience that we can hardly conceive of anything like this going on in New Testament times. It is so different from our western concept of “church” that there is very little comparison. Today in our individualistic society and in our locked, air-conditioned, shaded and shuttered, burglar-alarmed residences, if someone were to just wander in off the street we would call the police! If we have guests in our homes it is only at our invitation – and even that is a rare occurrence over the most of our society today. With this kind of openness it is no wonder that the church of the first century grew.
What would their meetings have been like in those days with the family/home aura permeating everything they did? The very first mention of what the new Jewish converts did is recorded in the second chapter of Acts. This would have occurred in the days immediately following Pentecost. There is first a general statement in verse 42 …
Acts 2:42 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Then the more specific things they were said to have done in the following verses …
Acts 2:44-47 “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
We must read this without imposing our western institutional “church” concepts as the lens through which we attempt to understand what was going on here. When we remove our 21st century blinders and look at this as the new creation that it was we will see people living and acting together as families. Instead of attempting to read a communistic concept into their having all things in common as some have done, think of this as a return to the ideal of Eden where God had blessed man with everything he needed and these people looked with love upon those who needed and shared their blessings God had given them, freely and without reservation.
After the gospel had gone to the Gentiles this same spirit prevailed – or at least the apostles did everything they could to bring this understanding to both Jews and Gentiles. We see the same spirit of loving generosity repeated in the fourth and sixth chapters of Acts. As soon as the gospel went to people other than pure ethnic Jews, when a famine arose the Hellenistic Jews in Antioch “determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.” (Acts 11:27-30). The same spirit was what was being cultivated in the Gentile believers in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. This was not the “work” of the institutional church, but the love of family in practice.
We will look further into what was happening in these new family/house oriented churches in our next post.