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The Anatomy of the First Church

What did the first Christians do?

Returning to the original Church, in those home churches they would perform many functions very familiar to us today, such as water baptism (sometimes of whole families), laying on of hands (in a sense of focussing attention on an individual) and eating together:

When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:20-21)

The Greek word used here for "Supper" implies that the Lord's Supper was not just a section of liturgy, grafted into a structured order of service, as we see today. Instead it was an actual meal, just like the Last Supper, the Passover meal enjoyed by Jesus and his disciples before his arrest. Surely a re-reading of the verse above makes more sense with Holy Communion being shared as part of an actual meal, doesn't it?

In fact, the act of breaking bread does not necessarily refer to the "holy act". At the beginning of a family meal, even with religious Jewish families today, bread is broken as a blessing:

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem, min ha aretz: Blessed are You, O LORD our God, King of the Universe, Who has brought forth bread from the earth.

But we mustn't be pedantic about such things, because there is also sufficient evidence for the traditional understanding.

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

So, sometimes there is room for alternative explanations. More of this later. One other thing to mention is something that, in our age of materialism and individualism, has all but disappeared from the Body of Christ, and that is the idea of sharing possessions with each other and supporting each other financially.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. (Acts 4:32)

These days many of us Christians share our houses with our mortgage companies, rather than with each other. This is not an indictment of the modern Church, just a comment on how we in the Western World live our lives today in an age of individualism. There was another way that Christians helped each other in these house meetings. This was through the exercise of spiritual gifts. We are told that everyone has been supernaturally given at least one gift.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)

So everyone who met in these churches had at least one of the following gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment, speaking and interpretation of tongues. These gifts were apportioned by the Holy Spirit and they were for the common good, to help other Christians. How this has changed. The topic of spiritual gifts has become divisive in today's Church. Some ignore them entirely. Some explicitly teach that they are not for today's Church. Some wield them like weapons of self-promotion, as marks of divine favouritism. Where are the modest assemblies, that are truly exercising these gifts in the quiet but powerful way that God intended? They are probably around, but too busy getting on with it to declare their opinions from the rooftops (or Christian TV).

This is a good time to examine how these early Christians organised themselves. What was the management structure? Which Church model did they follow - episcopalian, national, presbyterian or congregational? How did they divide themselves into bishops, archbishops, popes, priests, pastors and all the other offices with which we are familiar?

Well, isn't it amazing what 2,000 years of Church history can produce (though most of this was done within the first couple of centuries)? This is the product of Greek thinking, organising structures and building hierarchies. These early believers, mostly Jewish, preferred the Hebraic model, which "co-incidentally" was also the Biblical Church model.

Those early home churches were just meetings of disciples, believers in the risen Christ. For matters of organisation and discipline, just two offices were created, elders and deacons, though apostles also had their role to play. It was a lot simpler in those days.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book To Life!)

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