How should Christians live together? The earliest church in Jerusalem paints a picture of life together that has inspired and haunted Christians for centuries. It inspires us because it demonstrates a level of trust in our lord and devotion to fellow Christians that exceeds anything we have ever known. It haunts us because its communal outlook seems completely unworkable in any human society we know.
The kind of intimate sharing of domestic and economic life described by Luke in the earliest Christian community was an anomaly. We know that the Jerusalem church quickly grew to several thousand people. It no doubt attracted the poor and indigent of the city, making the demand for resources much greater than the supply available through the wealth of those involved. It does not take an economist or a community organizer to see that this arrangement would not work long term. For a community where everyone lived the new life in Christ, walking by the Spirit, it is much more achievable than it seems on the surface. However, the common sharing of wealth and fellowship is more a vision of heaven than a practical guide for life on earth.
The story of the first Christian congregation in Acts illustrates this clearly as we see sin quickly beginning to break down the hopes of heaven on earth. Ananias and Sapphira conspire to hold back a portion of their gift for themselves. The Hellenists complain that their widows are being neglected in the regular distribution. Eventually, under the threat posed by Saul and his cronies the earliest church is scattered from Jerusalem to Samaria and then outward into the world. As the Christian church disperses it returns to a more natural social and economic structure based on households. However concern for the poor in Jerusalem remains an ongoing mission for the Christian Church as it stretches itself to earth’s ends.
So what do we learn from this for the benefit of our life in Christian community today? First we must say that those who advocate a return to communal life like the earliest Christians are not carefully reading the lessons of Scripture. The Bible clearly advocates the standard community organization of interdependent households that has been so common throughout human history. We believe that this is the way God created human society to be. However, Jesus clearly commanded a new kind of interdependence. Our walk in the spirit means that faith calls us to carefully consider the needs of our Christian community when making domestic decisions of our own. This does express itself in the financial and physical needs of our congregation, but even more important is the spiritual well being of our fellow members.
As Lutherans we express our concern for the spiritual well being of a Christian congregation in the phrase, “good order.” That means the way we organize and function as a congregation is in fact one of the ways we love each other. An example of this is our practice of reserving “presiding” at Holy Communion for only “called” leaders. That means the congregation selects who will be given custody of the Lord’s Supper so that it is administered in consistently Christian ways and not at the whim of individuals.
This same concern for loving each other through “good order” carries over into the congregation’s constitution and bylaws. These contracts instruct us how to live with each other in the congregation. They describe proper ways to communicate with and care for each other. They call for leadership through a church council and a pastor. Now the “good order” expressed in our congregation’s constitution and bylaws is not taken from scripture. But it is based on Scriptural teaching, particularly when it comes to encouraging sinful human beings to love one another. And when compared to the situation in the earliest Christian Church it clearly demonstrates that we have learned a lot about how to be one in Christ over the years since. If we can have this perspective then it may be easier for us to honor our heritage and indeed love one another as Christ has commanded.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)