The Progressive Churches of Christ: Community Disciplines

progressiveSo if it’s important that we think in terms of story and community and formation into the image of Christ, then the scriptures likely provide us with community spiritual disciplines that help this happen. And, indeed, it’s true.

For example, Acts 2 teaches us —

(Act 2:42 ESV)  42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  

As Luke describes the early church, we see that their practices were designed to form new converts into a community.

Apostolic teaching is mentioned first. They had no church building as such, and so this likely happened either in the Temple courts (very large public areas) or in the converts’ homes (holding no more than 30 at a time). We have to imagine that the early teaching was very much like what we read in the Gospels — sayings of Jesus combined with OT passages fulfilled in Jesus. The apostles would have passed along their understanding of the Kingdom, the outpoured Spirit, and the Messianic prophecies of the OT. That is, just as Peter had just preached from the OT — the Psalms and Joel — the apostles would have found ample lesson material in the Law and the Prophets to instruct the early church.

“The fellowship” is an interesting turn of phrase. The definite article suggests that the koinōnia of the early church was thought of as unique and very important — a marker of the church’s identity. The word can refer to a social fellowship or to contributing to the needs of others. Likely both are in mind: a community so close that they were knit together socially as well as in sharing of goods.

“The breaking of bread” is a reference to meals. Throughout Luke-Acts, references to “breaking bread” are about a meal but typically with a sacramental character. For example,

(Act 27:34-36 ESV) 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.”  35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.  36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.

This was not a ritualized weekly symbolic meal, but Luke clearly intends for us to see Paul’s sharing of broken bread with the ship’s crew as sacramental. The meal symbolizes God’s presence and so his protection. And this is so even though Paul shared the meal with unbelievers. He was inviting them into relationship with God through a common meal. This is very Christlike, and we are supposed to see the connection.

Just so, in the Jerusalem church, the breaking of bread references mutual hospitality and prefiguring of the Wedding Banquet of the Messiah promised in Isaiah 25. The early church was begun to realize the joys of the next age by eating together on Mt. Zion, as promised by the prophets.

This is the beginning of the Love Feast, common meals shared by Christians at which the Lord’s Supper was taken. In the ancient world, eating someone’s food was not mere hospitality but a promise of protection and acceptance. Eating together broke down social barriers as Zealots ate with publicans, Pharisees ate with Essenes, priests ate with prostitutes, and the rich ate with the poor.

Although Jewish society wasn’t as structured as Greco-Roman society, they had their class distinctions. The wealthy had privileges. The poor were often overlooked. And in the church, all ate at the same table anticipating the unity and leveling that would come with the resurrection of the saved.

“The prayers” is likely a reference to ritualized prayer in the Temple. The Temple was not only the place of sacrifice, but the place of prayer par excellence.  The Jews considered God to have a special presence there, so much so that heaven and earth merged at the Holy of Holies. Therefore, synagogues were oriented toward the Temple and prayers were spoken facing the direction of Jerusalem.

The early church surely prayed whenever and wherever they were together, but they visited the Temple daily to pray because that’s where Jews prayed to God (compare Acts 3:1).

(Act 2:43-47 ESV) And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.  

“Were together and had all things in common” was an expression of great friendship — so close to each other that they shared their belongings as families do. This was not a communistic system so much as a system in which the believers generously gave what they could as needs arose. “As any had need” suggests not a forced community of goods so much as freely giving up goods as needs arose.

V. 47 differs from the KJV. Rather than “added to the church” (KJV), the Greek is “added those being saved.” The point is not that they became church members when saved, but that God joined them into the community as they were being saved. Salvation was not only for remission of sin and receipt of the Holy Spirit (2:38) but also into the living community of the saints.

Community is not a mere human accomplishment. It’s something that Jesus creates for us, if we’ll let him.

Luke points out that the church originally had “favor with all the people.” As a result, more converts were made. The reputation of the church mattered.

In the contemporary church, it’s hard to emulate the Jerusalem church’s practices exactly. The apostles and Temple are no longer among us. But there are possibilities.

* Apostolic teaching, of course, remains available to us through the scriptures. We just need to get better at studying in group settings. The idea should be that individual study is good, but group study is better. We have more discipline when we have weekly class, small group, or breakfast study group we’re committed to and must prepare for. It’s not about obedience to a command so much as recognition that we need to be taught and that human nature will interfere unless we make a habit of it through a discipline.

And while a private quiet time is not a bad time, I think study with friends over a shared text is better — because you get the benefit of other perspectives and because your friends will hold you accountable.

* Fellowship. The sharing of goods we find in the early church is not easily replicated in modern society, in large part because we live so far from each other. We might drive past 20 churches to attend our preferred congregation. If my next door neighbor and I were to share a lawnmower or fertilizer spreader, we’d save money and have more to give to a worthy cause. But if we live 30 miles apart, the gas and time would eat up any economies that come from sharing.

It’s therefore not surprising that we earlier read Mark Love’s prediction that the church is headed back toward a neighborhood church model. We presently join churches based on denominational distinctives and quality of programming. But the church can better be the church in a neighborhood setting because it can better form community among people who live near one another.

We’ve lost the benefits of children growing up with friends who share church, school, and the neighborhood together. We are so comfortable playing ball with one group of friends, going to school with another, and going to church with another that we never really get to belong. We certainly don’t get close enough to share possessions. A neighborhood church model has much to commend it — even if it means worshipping next to someone who disagrees with me about transubstantiation.

Regarding prayer, Churches of Christ are very low-church, meaning we have no tradition of regular daily or weekly prayers. However, when Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, he said, “When you pray, say …” (Luke 11:1), which the commentators take to be a reference to ritualized daily prayer.

His opening, When you pray, say, shows that he intended the prayer to be used just as it stands.

Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 3; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 211.

The Jews said memorized daily prayers, and Jesus was providing a form of the Jewish prayers appropriate to the Kingdom. And yet we in the Churches of Christ rarely recite the Lord’s Prayer, much less any other group prayer. We are too individualistic to bother with such things.

But if were to take up the practice of memorized daily prayers, they would help form Jesus within us. Routine prayer of carefully chosen words, uttered daily over a lifetime, will be spiritually forming — especially if we are part of a congregation where our friends are doing the same.

And we’d do well to pray together at church. Recitation of prayer is a practice older than the NT, and was very common in the early church. The idea of a freely worded prayer led by a church member is actually more novel in church practice that the recitation of standard prayers — not to suggest that one is better than the other, only that our practice of having a freshly worded prayer led by a church member is not the only way to do it — and we’ve likely lost something as we’ve gotten away from standard prayers. I doubt that anyone would want to argue that our prayer life indicates that we’re good at this.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to The Progressive Churches of Christ: Community Disciplines

  1. John says:

    I enjoy using the Book of Common Prayer. One practice I have had over the last twenty years or more is, early morning on Thanksgiving Day I pray through the section of Prayers and Thanksgivings. It helps me think of the day as more than food.

  2. David Himes says:

    Personally, I wish we focused more on fellowship than on organization, as it relates to the ekklesia

  3. Dwight says:

    Amen, David. We go to assembly and spend most of our time setting up things, doing things, sticking to the program, rushing to the next item, instead of actually spending time with one another. Those in my conservative sect hate the fellowship hall concept and yet before, in-between and after we meet in the foyer (hall) and fellowship and sadly it is mostly time spent about secular things. It is a matter of semantics and judgments.
    If you don’t call something by a term, then it is not that, even it if preforms the function of it. A building dedicated to the worship of a diety used to be called a temple, but we call it a church building. Go figure.
    We want “Christian fellowship” to look dramtically different, with more religious overtones, than when Christians fellowship in general, but it is all fellowship or should be and strangley when we are in “Christian fellowship” in the church building in class/ hearing the sermon/ singing we are fellowshiping very little, we maybe doing the same thing, but we are not sharing with each other.

  4. Kudos to your call for more memorized prayers! We do this in teaching our children to pray. (“God is great, God is good, now we thank him for our food.” or “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”) Of course, we all encourage them to add their own special thoughts and blessings to these memorized prayers.

    Somehow, though, we leave these “childish” ways behind us as we become more “adult” – except that adults also stumble through “rote” prayers that are shallow.

    N.T. Wright’s book, The Lord And His Prayer, has a section in which he describes his thoughts as he slowly prays the Lord’s Prayer, which as an Anglican Bishop he does often. There is no reason on earth that any other memorized prayers couldn’t be treated similarly. This is not “vain repetition.” It is a help to spiritual formation and more effective prayer.

  5. BD says:

    Your advice about creating more communal study, readings, and prayer is well taken, and probably a useful corrective for many churches (especially in our tradition) that seem to answer every question about spiritual growth with, “You should just pray and study more” (implication: by yourself).

    On the other hand, as some comments have noted in other posts in this series, there is also a thread in Jesus’ teaching that emphasizes private devotion to God. In the very passage where Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer (which I agree was intended to be recited), he also warns against praying “standing in the synagogues” solely for the attention of others. Communal prayer is good and necessary, but it can present a temptation to make devotion (study, prayer, etc.) more about looking good in front of others than it is about genuinely connecting with God. Even the synagogue and temple prayers you mention very often included private times of devotion, albeit in the context of a public place (the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector comes to mind).

    I was raised in the Church of Christ, and I have found that our emphasis on the structure and proper practices of the assembly makes me vulnerable to the temptation Jesus warned about. We’ve worried so much about “performing” the assembly correctly that saying a good prayer or leading a good study can easily become a matter of pride. I have only recently added a more consistent practice of private prayer to my spiritual discipline, and it was a needed corrective for me.

    All that is to say, I think it’s an oversimplification to claim that private devotion is good, but public devotion is better (or, by extension, that private prayer is a less worthy use of the Christian’s time). I believe Jesus’ teaching demonstrates that both are appropriate and necessary in their proper place, and I have found this to be the case in my own life when one or the other gets out of balance.

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