My apologies for the delay in submitting the second blog concerning “Is Israel the OT Church?” Finally, here is the second of three installments. In this section, I will consider the background for the development of the Church (founded on the Day of Pentecost – Acts 2), to examine why the Body of Christ morphed into an institution called the “Church.”
In the Book of the Acts, we see the beginning of the Church with the conversion of three thousand (Acts 2:41) to be added to the original one hundred twenty (Acts 1:15). Thus began the “church in Jerusalem.” Shortly thereafter, the fellowship rose to some five thousand (Acts 4:4), and continued to grow rapidly (Acts 5:14.)
Several things should here be noted. This burgeoning community was still but a fraction of the hundred thousand or more of the Jerusalem area residents – likely less than ten per cent. Secondly, this was clearly a new work of God, rather than a new faction of Judaism, as the ongoing and increasing antipathy of the bulk of the Jewish people both in Jerusalem and elsewhere showed. And, thirdly, every one of the original fellowship were undoubtedly Jewish, although, as Stephen recounted (Acts 7), this movement was the legitimate end of the days of Abraham. Stephen points to a sharp departure created by the refusal to accept Jesus as the true Messiah (Acts 7:48-53).
How can we be certain this was a new work? First, gentiles were accepted into the fellowship (including Samaritans (Acts 8:5ff). In Acts 11, a gentile, Cornelius, was accepted. That did not happen in Judaism, even including Cornelius, who was something of an “auxiliary.”
Then, Peter commented about Cornelius, that the Holy Spirit “fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.” What beginning? Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, following the ascension of Christ. In Matt. 16:18, Jesus said He would build His church – clearly, then, the church was not in existence prior to that time, and at it was yet future. In 1 Corinthians, we are told that the body of Christ, the church, was developed by baptism, by the Holy Spirit. This was never the case with Israel, for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was a future promise (cf. Ezekiel 36 and 37), associated with the coming messianic kingdom. Finally, in Ephesians 1:23, we see the church is HIS body, not the nation of Israel. The church is specifically identified with Jesus, the Christ.
So, how and where did this early group of believers gather, in Jerusalem? There would be no place they could regularly gather 3000 to 5000 or more. Clearly, they met in small groups, probably most often in private homes, as we see in Acts. Thus, the Jerusalem Church actually consisted of perhaps 100 to 200 groups, who met on Sunday EVENING (for Sunday was a regular workday). Perhaps Peter, James, and John and others circulated regularly among the various fellowships. Each fellowship was the Church at Jerusalem, and the aggregate of fellowships were the Church at Jerusalem.
For the first 200 to 300 years, they did not have church buildings. There would have been little need for a hierarchy of “clergy.” Clearly, some would wield more influence, as did the Apostles, while still living. But the leadership was one given to those who earned it with their understanding, teaching, and care of the flocks.
It was not until near the time of the Emperor Constantine that the churches began to be The Church, a public institution, complete with clergy and administration and bureaucracy. This became necessary to govern the resulting Church, which was to be the arm of God for spiritual matters, while the Emperor became God’s arm for physical matters. The Church then began to model itself after the Empire system, complete with rites and rituals, pomp and circumstance, fine robes of office, complete with Laws and Statutes, just like Rome.
This also became necessary when the Roman citizens clamored for entrance into the Church, which had now become prestigious with the blessing of Constantine. How could an informal church handle the demand and influx of people, many of whom perhaps had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Pause with me for a moment, and try to envision a Peter, a James, a John, or a Paul gathered in brilliant robes, helmets of office, and carrying out formal rites and rituals. Can you imagine that? Neither can I.
The churches described in Acts were small fellowships, knitted together by the substitutionary sacrifice and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and little else. They met in small groups, often secretly in times of persecution. They had a “communion service” in their homes as an integral part of their gathering for praise, prayer, singing, and sharing the Word.
But, you might say, they would need powerful authority to control and keep out false teaching and false practice. Well, they had that even in the very early years of the church, as the various Epistles make clear. Yet, the Apostles depended on the local Elders to deal with that (cf. Acts 20:18-32.)
No, the church was never intended or designed to be a great denominational power. That was imagined and fostered by man’s natural attempts and desires to become lordly and powerful. That is why the teaching of Acts regarding the fellowships is so totally different from the practices of our churches and denominations today. The power was to flow from the Holy Spirit’s work in redeemed men and women, who were to carry out the work of ministry, having become equipped to do so by the teachers and leaders God provided (Ephesians 4:11-16).
In the final post of this three-part series, I’ll point out some of the problems that have arisen due to this shift, and suggest some ways we might, in part at least, remedy some of this and draw closer to the biblical churches of Acts. I’ll try to be a little faster on this followup. Bill.