the weblog of Alan Knox

They just weren’t organized enough yet

Posted by on Sep 13, 2008 in books, members | 10 comments

Have you heard this before? The early Christians did not have buildings and hierarchical leadership and programs because they just weren’t organized enough yet. The suggestion is made that once the early Christians became more organized, they moved out of the infant church stage into a stage in which a more mature and right church existed.

Daniel J. Harrington makes a similar point in The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001). Harrington is a professor of New Testament at Westin Jesuit School of Theology.

While describing “how early Christians worshiped” (his chapter title), Harrington says:

Where did early Christians meet for worship? It seems to have been at the private homes of relatively well-to-do members. The earliest Christians did not have a system of animal or produce sacrifices, as so there was no need for a temple. Nor did they have the membership necessary for erecting separate buildings (“churches”). (49)

So, the reason that the earliest Christians did not erect buildings is that they did not have the membership (and the corresponding financial resource) to build a building.

However, according to Acts 2:41, about 3000 “members” were added to the church in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. (By the way, many people who say that large churches are okay point out that this was the first “mega-church”.) So, were 3000 (plus the original 120) too few members to afford to erect a building? Well, some of these were obviously pilgrims who may have returned to their homes. Perhaps after the festival and after everyone returned home there were far less than 3000 in Jerusalem (oops, but that hurts the argument for “mega-churches”).

Of course, in Acts 4:4, the number of believers had grown to 5000 – seemingly because of the power displayed by the apostles. But, there were apparently still too few “members” to erect a building. In fact, later, we find that some disciples are meeting together in “Mary’s house” for prayer (Acts 12:12).

So, how many “members” would be necessary to erect a special building? Perhaps the problem is not with the number of Christians. Perhaps those early Christians did not want or need a special building to meet in – regardless of the number of Christians in a city. Of course, that would be even harder for us to explain.

(By the way, I enjoy reading Catholic exegesis of the NT Scriptures concerning the church. Why? Because, for the most part, they tell it like it was. They use a simple hermeneutic to explain what Scripture says about the church. But, since most Catholics believe that their later traditions can add to the scriptural understanding of the church, there is no contradiction between the early church and the modern church. However, for modern Protestant exegetes – who believe that Scripture tells us what we need to know about everything, including the church – many have to jump through hoops to make the Scriptures align with modern practices.)


10 Comments

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  1. 9-13-2008

    If they gave degrees for hoop jumping I would have had a Doctorate at one point.

    Of course, recently it’s been really hard trying to jump through those hoops going the other direction. It seems I am going against the flow.

  2. 9-13-2008

    Hi Alan, I have a question for you. Based on your study, how many years did it take before the Jerusalem church was dispersed due to the persecution of Saul and the Pharisees? In this intervening period, what does the evidence suggest about their participation in Synagogue life?

  3. 9-13-2008

    Mark,

    To be completely honest… I’m still good at jumping through hoops.

    Joe (JR),

    One dispersion happened after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1). We’re not given a time for this, but it could have happened fairly soon after Pentecost – maybe a couple of year. However, the church in Jerusalem did not die then. In fact, it seems to have continued to grow in number to the point where Paul had to collect money from several churches to help them during a famine.

    Actually, we have very little information about the extent of the early Christians’ participation in the synagogues in Jerusalem. But, then, there is very little information about synagogues in Jerusalem at all.

    Why?

    -Alan

  4. 9-13-2008

    I can’t argue for or against this guys book since I have not read it, so my questions are not about this guy’s view of buildings.

    I am more interested a couple parts of your depiction of the church.

    You quoted Acts 2:41 and made the assertion that the church did not need any special buildings to meet in so they just met in houses. You also mention Acts 12:12 and give the impression that meeting in homes is all they did. But interestingly you chose not to quote Acts 2:44-46 says, ” And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, “

    You are right to say the early Jerusalem church did not build any special buildings. Nor do we have any record that special buildings were built by any other churches in this early period. It seems instead the folks in Jerusalem sold their possessions and property and lived a strongly communal lifestyle. In part, to take care of the thousands of pilgrims who possibly settled in Jerusalem to learn from the Apostles.

    So…

    First, I think I recall reading on your blog that you rent a facility for your meetings. Is my memory right? If so, is there a historical record that the early church rented community halls, Synagogues, or hotel conference rooms for their church gatherings? If not, why do you use your money to rent a building designed to host larger gatherings instead of meeting in a house and giving the money to those in need? If it is wrong for a church to spend money buying a building, why is it right to spend money renting? Or maybe I misunderstand your position on buildings, so please correct me if I am mischaracterizing it in any way.

    Second, the part of your post when you talk about not building “special” buildings, you skip over the fact that the Jerusalem church did meet in the Temple. I just was not sure why you would skip this detail and only talk about the house meeting and ignore the Temple meeting? True, the early Christians did not pay to build the Temple, but do you not consider this a special building designed for the meeting of the congregation? Or do you consider the Temple the same as a house?

    Third, regarding the Synagogue itself, this is really a separate issue from Temple since most of the churches were not in Jerusalem. I asked because Paul had his habit of going to Synagogue when seeking to share the Gospel, but of course eventually the Christians were kicked out of Synagogue, alienated from their Jewish community, and persecuted. We don’t have a record of the church meeting in Synagogue, but neither does the Scripture prohibit meeting in Synagogue. This made me curious if your studies indicated any specific participation in Synagogue life. I have not studies this particular aspect of early church as much as you have, so I was interested to see if you had any deeper insight.

  5. 9-13-2008

    Joe (JR),

    I’m not against church buildings – either owning or renting. The purpose of this post was to point out a flaw in the following statement that Harrington made: “Nor did they have the membership necessary for erecting separate buildings”. I would argue that from Pentecost the church had enough memeber to erect a separate building if they so desired.

    Harrington’s argument is part of a larger argument that says that the early church was less organized because it had not matured yet. Part of that maturing would be an increase in numbers. I do not think this is a valid argument.

    By the way, the church did meet together in the temple courts, in homes, in synagogues, and in schools (Tyrannus) in the NT. I do not think meeting location is the issue.

    -Alan

  6. 9-13-2008

    okay, thanks for clearing that up and I better understand the context of what you were saying and why. I would also agree that “organization” and size were not the issues at stake.

    I also agree that “where” we meet is not the pressing issue discussed in the NT.

  7. 9-13-2008

    Alan & JR,
    Paul Barnett (The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years) makes an argument that Paul's Damascus Road experience happened within the first year following Jesus' death and resurrection. SO this would place the dispersion of 8:1 within the first year, if he is correct.
    - Chris

  8. 9-13-2008

    Hey Christ, I suppose anything is possible, but I am not familiar with this work.

    Alan, one other question for you.

    Let’s assume the church had money to build a big gathering place. And let us also assume they wanted to. Do you know, would they have been allowed to build such a thing since they were not a legally recognized religion by the Romans and mostly thought of as a pagan sectarian split from the Jews?

  9. 9-13-2008

    Joe (JR),

    I don’t know what the legal requirements would have been for building in Jerusalem. I do know that Christianity was considered part of Judaism by the Roman government for many, many years. Since Judaism was a legal religion, and since they were allowed to build synagogue buildings, then I would assume that Christians would have been allowed to build as well.

    Chris,

    I’m not familiar with Barnett’s book, but I’ll look into it for my dissertation research. Thanks!

    -Alan

  10. 9-13-2008

    Alan,

    Didn’t you know that ones expertise at hoop jumping is the mark of ones maturity :)

    How hard it is to unlearn!