The Church the Apostles left behind
In the Bible we see different forms of the Church. It took time for the followers of Jesus to settle down and fix on how they would name the different features of their way of life – their office-holders, their institutions, their Christian way of doing things. The process was slowed down by the fact that the earliest Christians were convinced that the world was coming to an early end.
The Apostles obeyed the command of Jesus to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:10). They established Christian communities over a wide area of the Roman empire. As long as they lived, community life was organised around these Apostles. But what would happen after they died? How would the Christian communities survive the death of the Apostles who had founded them? Scholars have identified and described six answers to this problem of survival.
- Rely upon Church Structures
This was the solution which was adopted by certain churches set up by Paul. Church leaders were appointed who would safeguard the teaching that Paul had given them. It is very clear in the “Pastoral” Letters, i.e. the 2 Letters to Timothy and the one to Titus. They date from about the year 90 or a bit later.
The Christians used to meet in certain houses (1 Tim 3:15). Now that Paul could no longer look after the various house-churches, Titus was to “appoint elders in every town” (Tit 1:5). Read
1 Tim 3:13 – the qualities required in community office-holders
2 Tim 4:1-15 – it is the duty of Timothy and other community office-holders to preserve sound doctrine.
These three letters reveal that all was not always well in the house-churches. Some members wanted to try out new ideas. There was to be much fragmentation of the communities in the years that followed.
What we see in the Pastoral Letters is one attempt to deal with a set of church problems which have tended to reappear through the ages: set up structures and see that everyone sticks to them.
- Love the Church, the Body of Christ
In the letters to the Christians at Colossae and Ephesus different things are emphasised. The underlying problems, however, are the same: disunity and the threat of new ideas.
Eph 4:1-7 & 11-16
The tendency to fragment is here being countered by a moving appeal for unity within a single Church. Within that Church there should be love, of the kind Jesus shows for his Church – in other words, an immense love. In the following chapter this immense love is conveyed by means of an image that would have been very meaningful in the setting of the house-church structure: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:28-30).
- Be guided by the Holy Spirit
The gospel according to St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were originally a single continuous story: from the announcing of Jesus’ birth (Lk 1:31) to Paul “preaching the Kingdom of God . . . quite openly and unhindered” in Rome (Acts 28:30), via Jesus’ public ministry, his death and resurrection and his sending of the Holy Spirit to continue his work.
For Luke, the survival question is no problem because the Holy Spirit acts throughout Church history. Throughout Acts it is the Spirit that gives the power to preach (1:7-8), that determines the location of the missionary journeys (13:3-4), selects community leaders (6:3), is involved in decision-making (15:28), etc.
The Holy Spirit is seen as having been given to the Church at Pentecost and then to individual converts at Baptism. Continuity is ensured by successive laying-on of hands of Church leaders. The Spirit is given only when the Twelve are present or a member or delegate of the Twelve is on the scene. Luke has the vision of a Spirit-guided organised Church. Precisely who is in charge of which Christian community is quite secondary in Acts. It is the Holy Spirit indwelling each Christian community that is important.
- See yourselves as the People of God
This is the solution that appears in I Peter. The Letter originated in Rome and is addressed to some Christian communities of Asia Minor that are thought to have been set up originally not by Paul but by the Jerusalem Christian community. We think that they had been going through a period of identity crisis, ostracism from the surrounding tribes, and perhaps also persecution from the local Roman government.
I Peter counters these problems by encouraging these communities of mixed tribal origins to take a real pride in their new identity as the People of God, the successors of the People of God of the Old Testament, through Christ the chosen cornerstone who was rejected.
Read 1 Peter 2:1-10.
History shows that the chances of a group surviving are greatly increased when they have become conscious of themselves as a people. This was, and is, certainly true of the Jewish people, and it was probably Jewish Christian missionaries who had founded the communities addressed in I Peter. So long as the group maintains its identity as a People, the continuity of its ideals and membership is assured.
- Have a personal love for Jesus and his Paraclete
The communities addressed in the Gospel according to John and the three Letters of John were to survive the death of Jesus by fostering in each one of their members a true and personal love for Jesus. The mainstay of the community is to be the love which the disciples are to have for one another.
Read Jn 15:1-7.
The image of the True Vine is the counterpart of Paul’s analogy of the Body of Christ (Eph 4). There, as we have seen, Paul was concerned with the harmonious working together of a hierarchy of community ministers. Here the Gospel according to John is concerned with the source of life-supporting nourishment for the individual disciple.
In matters of Church organisation, the Gospel according to John adopts positions which are often in stark contrast to the first four “solutions” we have looked at above. Each of the four solutions so far have prioritised the apostle as the link with Jesus and the feature of community life that they all have is a series of charism-endowed ministers. By contrast, the Gospel according to John never once even uses the term “apostle”. Instead, it gives importance to the loving disciple himself or herself as the link with Jesus. Moreover, it dispenses with certain of the ministries, such as the ministry of teaching (1 John 2:27). Continuity of teaching is assured by the “Paraclete” (John’s word for the Holy Spirit, sometimes translated as “Counsellor” or “Advocate”). The Paraclete dwells in the loving disciple (cf. Jn 14:16-17).
This way of looking at the Church makes for greater egalitarianism in John’s communities. There can be no second-class citizens, not even female ones. In the tradition of the Pastorals women are often portrayed unflatteringly (1 Tim 2:9-15; 5:13). 2 Tim 3:7 mentions some “weak” women who “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth”. Hence women are to “learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silent” (2 Tim 2:11-12).
By contrast, women feature frequently and favourably in the Gospel according to John (e.g. the Samaritan woman, and Martha and Mary). As a loving disciple, indwelt by the Paraclete, the female has the same access to God’s truth as the male disciple.
- Observe the Law of Christ
The Gospel according to Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels actually to use the word “church”. The author took this term from Deuteronomy 23:1 and applied it to the “assembly of the followers of Jesus.
During the last years of the 1st. century AD, the survival of Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Church was a more urgent problem then elsewhere. Christians were expelled from the synagogues after AD 70, and the Jewish-Christians had had theological differences with Paul, especially regarding the standing of the Old Testament Law in the new life in Christ (e.g. in Gal 2:15-16 Paul states that “in the works of the Law shall no man be justified”). This Gospel gives us a lot of information as to how the Jewish-Christians faced these problems and how they saw their “Church”.
Read Mt. 5:17-20 Christians are to observe the Law as brought to fulfilment by Jesus.
The Christian community of Matthew saw itself as continuing the on-going story of the O.T. They viewed everything in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus as a fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had called his people to a standard of observance of the Law that was higher than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. They would survive if they were faithful to Jesus’ radical re-interpretation of the Law during the Sermon on the Mount.
The Jewish-Christian Church took over certain features of O.T. worship, organisation, and authority. In Isaiah 22:22 God gives Eliakim “the key of the house of David: he shall open and none shall shut; he shall shut and none shall open.” In Mt 16:19, Jesus is seen giving “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” to Peter, assuring him that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The Jewish-Christian Church had a stronger sense of the need for authority than any other of the Churches.
Next: The Relevance to our time