In the first chapters of the book of Acts, Luke picks up exactly where he left off in his gospel, reviewing Jesus’ last moments on earth eating with and teaching the disciples before ascending to heaven. The disciples, now referred to as apostles by Luke, return to Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension to wait for the promised baptism by the Spirit. They spend the next fifty days praying with believers (in Acts 1:15 Luke says there were about one hundred and twenty gathered), until the day of Pentecost. From this point onward, the fellowship of baptized believers grows under the preaching of Peter and the apostles.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
This passage in Acts 2 contains several important clues about how “church” may have operated in those earliest days. Obviously, there were no church buildings or church staff, no pews, fellowship hall, or Sunday school rooms for the first Christians, and no trained clergy, except possibly for converted Pharisees and scribes with a schooled understanding of the law. There was no set liturgy, no New Testament gospels or letters yet written, nor any prayer books or hymnals to use. In other words, the early church had no formal infrastructure, and no real recognizable identity through a set, much less standardized set of Christian practices across the Roman Empire.
From a sociologic and historic perspective, nascent social undertakings often rely heavily on the infrastructure already present in society at large. For example, when we plant a new church today, it is common to meet in an existing school or office building otherwise empty on Sundays. Likewise, when a new belief system is born, it will often be imbued with elements of the culture out of which it emerges, and Christianity, born in Jerusalem during Roman occupation in the Hellenistic era is no different.
We know from Scripture that these earliest Christians met together on a consistent basis. In Jesus’ day there were two main ways people regularly met together, at the temples (Jewish or pagan), and at meals. In other words, worshipping together and sharing meals were common social practices of that era. Peter and the apostles prayed at the temple and taught in the temple courts where Jewish religious teaching in Jerusalem had always been done, until this became increasingly difficult because of the opposition of Jewish leaders. This leaves the shared meal as the one standing social practice by which early Christians could meet together in small groups.
We should ask ourselves why we don’t do the same.
~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.