Priorities for the Church - 1/2
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.
Many churches are unsuccessful because they don't know what they are trying to do. What are the objectives of the church according to the New Testament? We shall find out by looking at this picture of the first Christians in Jerusalem. Luke has given us this description as a pattern for subsequent companies of God's people to follow. There are four obvious and two less obvious activities. In this study we shall look at the first two.
It is obvious that teaching would have to stand at the head of the list for the first converts to the Christian faith, because they knew next to nothing about Jesus and the new way of life that took its start from him.
It continued to be so throughout the history of the early church. What is the New Testament if it is not a collection of writings that were meant to teach Christians? One of the most severe temptations for early Christians seems to have been false ideas about God and Jesus and the Christian way of life. It is essential to present people with the teaching that came from Jesus through his immediate followers - who had authority from him to teach others. 'Apostolic teaching' is what Luke calls it. Later in Acts Paul warned church leaders, that he feared the rise of people who would distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
I believe that the church today must heed the warning. In the 1920's there were theological teachers who affirmed that the Methodist Church's theology was a theology largely based on experience. The results were disastrous. By the time that I grew up in the church it had become largely weak and ineffective because people were not taught the Christian faith. Congregations had no idea what to look for when choosing a minister because they no longer had a criterion for discriminating between good and feeble ministers, and we experienced the long night liberalism. The result was that even Christian experience went down a vain track, and conversion, which you would think was utterly basic to Christian experience was largely forgotten. Happily, today, things are vastly changed in many congregations, and the apostolic teaching is regaining its rightful place.
Yet I gain the impression that there are church fellowships which would consider themselves orthodox and yet they give very little room to careful teaching of Christian doctrine and concentrate on testimonies to Christian experience. Therefore, I issue the warning that we need to concentrate our attention as a priority on apostolic teaching if we are to avoid something similar happening in the situation today. And apostolic teaching will mean both orderly exposition of scripture and also (something that is often forgotten) the systematic instruction in the doctrines of our faith.
It is not absolutely certain to what this word refers. It is a term that indicates some kind of sharing together by people in something common. There are two main possibilities.
First, we find that the first Christians lived some kind of common life in which people shared their possessions with one another. From the story it seems that the church contained people who were well-off and others who were poor. In a world which knew little or nothing of social security, pensions and the like, this was not at all surprising. The important point is that the Christians quickly saw that they had a duty to share their goods to help those who were in need, The rich sold property and turned it into cash for the sake of others who were needy.
Second, the word fellowship can also be used for the way in which people are brought together by a common interest and they help one another in pursuing it, and this in turn leads to the development of a close bond between them. Their common interest was in Jesus, and this bound them together in a new group of disciples. Their common faith in Jesus brought them together, and it was natural for them to meet together, even in this initial period on a daily basis.
So there are the two possible things that the word may refer to: the sharing of possessions and the meeting together to share their faith. But, whichever the word itself refers to, both these activities were in fact being practised, and I think that they are two aspects of a priority. To take the latter first, the church is a group of people who share together in their faith. The church which has its priorities right has both apostolic teaching by those who are gifted and called to do it; but it also has an important place for believers sharing with one another in love and encouragement to one another. They share together in faith and so they grow in grace.
As for the sharing of goods, it may well be that we need a fresh consideration of the significance of this in today's world, where the members of the average congregation are generally not as poor as the poorest in ancient Jerusalem. But we 1ive in a world in which all of us are rich in possessions compared with others in this country who don't belong to a church and with two-thirds of the rest of the world. Is not Christian Aid or Tear Fund or similar activity therefore a priority for us as Christians and not just an optional extra? Have we ever realised that giving to the needs of God's people is a basic Christian duty?