Early Church Meetings
We don’t have a lot of information on how the early church conducted their meetings. In Acts, they still met at synagogues. They also met at Solomon’s Porch, at the temple. Paul spoke at meetings in houses. The concept of house church, meeting from house to house, is the most usual form of gathering in the New Testament.
This would suggest a more informal setting for their fellowship. It is likely also that the meal, what we call communion, was the centre piece of their fellowship, along with prayer and encouragement about following the Lord Jesus. The meal was the symbol of their sharing, where discipleship, caring for each other, was portrayed as the central meaning of Christ’s kingdom. Their mission was to renew the world with this gospel, a gospel first lived out in love and then explained verbally.
There is little evidence of church buildings in the first 200 years. We don’t know much about the reason for this either. It’s possible they didn’t build halls because of the persecution they were suffering, and they also may not have been granted permission. After Constantine became Emperor, church buildings became common and lavish.
The lack of emphasis on church property in the early days is to be expected, when we consider that the main point to discipleship was Christlikeness, not establishing a new religion, with its centres of worship. I don’t think they saw themselves as setting up a new religion. They met in their usual contexts, in synagogues and other settings. They saw themselves as the fulfillment of Jewish and gentiles hopes, not as something separate. Their focus was in renewing the places they already belonged to, unless these places were considerably ungodly, and they had to separate.
I think its true that their lack of focus on property was part of what they considered to be Christlikeness. They saw in Jesus a simplicity of life, and they were determined to follow that, especially in the context of that time, of the extravagant living in the Roman and Jewish worlds. Simple living was a part of early discipleship.
This was stressed in the early tradition of the church. For example, Jesus commenting on the dress of the Pharisees, who liked to be important in the market places. They also built bigger barns for themselves, while most people around them suffered. This teaching of Jesus was etched on the minds of early disciples.
Peter spoke of this, when admonishing believers not to make their beauty outward, in their expensive clothing, but inward, in a caring life. James also, when he spoke of the centre of their faith, which was living a godly life, which meant not for themselves, as the world around them did, but instead, for the benefit of the widow and orphan.
So, I think that their lack of emphasis on church property may have had something to do with this as well. They deemphasised the sense of self -importance, sometimes later shown by the church by its properties and structures, and concentrated instead on the welfare of their community.
Not only was this simplicity part of their Christlikeness, but it was also part of their mission for peace in the world. Peace could only come by justice. And justice can only come by serving the poor and needy. It’s only by focusing on this mission towards their wider community, that their gospel calling of renewal in the world could be fulfilled. This was the teaching of the Prophets and of Christ.
So, the early disciples saw Christ’s emphasis on Lazarus, at the rich man’s gate, and understood Jesus’ teaching, that the failure to serve others and heal their community, brought about the selfcentred destruction and fall of Jerusalem. If the disciples were to form a different life, it must be one that renounced the life styles of the Jerusalem at that time. It must focus instead, not on a legalistic simplicity, but on a joyful simplicity regarding self-importance, that reached out to lift others up.
When the church became powerful this began to change. Its ministers became rich and its centres of worship became commanding, instead of serving. Violence then returned, to protect the wealth and power. As long as the church took on the likeness of the world, and not the likeness of Christ, it lost its saltiness.
Gradually, monastic movements arose to protest this worldly church, and try to influence it back to a genuine discipleship, as it had in its earlier days. These were movements of simplicity, movements of service, and movements that stressed love for enemy, rather than force of arms. The monastic movements had a significant impact in preserving the identity of the church, protesting power, and re-establishing the church’s task. Key figures included people like Francis of Assisi. They created orders that brought Christianity and mission back to millions of people all over the world.
We are in a similar place today. The separation between rich and poor is currently at a staggering level. This threatens global peace. Much of the church is at home with this, pursing our own lives, not really engaged with the world and its suffering. We need a renewal, like the earlier monastic movements brought to the world. Again, I stress, these are not movements of legalism, but joyful discipleship, with a fulfilment of meaning beyond that which a decaying world offers; real life in love and sharing. This beauty of the church must return.
The church will build, because it needs centres to serve the world. But our buildings aren’t to demonstrate our self-importance. They are to bring in the poor, to educate the common classes who can’t afford it, to care for widows and orphans, to train the wider community in skills for life, to house the displaced and refugee, to include our enemies for peacemaking and for their own human development. Our structures are not put up to show that we are important, but to show that humanity is important, and that the poorest among them must be reached and included in our service.
If the church doesn’t regain its first century discipleship, the futures of our wider communities are at serious risk, just like they were in early Jerusalem. Our nations will divide and break up and destruction will set in on a local and global level. The only answer to this is the church’s witness, which is service to the poor, our neighbour, our enemy, people of other faiths, the foreigner and the refugee. Only as the wealth of this world serves the common good, rather than divides us, can we have peace.
This is the law, the prophets and the gospel.