So I find myself somewhere in between Nugent, Thompson, N. T. Wright, Christopher Wright, McKnight, Hunter, Hauerwas, Yoder, etc. I find much of great value in what they teach, but the truth, I think, is somewhere in between. (Scot McKnight is probably closest to my thinking.)
I agree with Thompson and Nugent that the early church was not focused on evangelism. The heart of Christianity might be found in the Great Commission, but it’s more the part about making disciples. And as I love to quote Ray Vander Laan saying, a “disciple” is a follower of a rabbi who wants more than anything to be just like his rabbi.
The goal of converting the lost isn’t to create a new evangelist (as great as that would be) but to create a new follower of Jesus — a disciple. And followers of Jesus do evangelism, but evangelism is not their beginning or their sole focus.
I also agree with Thompson and Nugent that the early church was not focused on benevolence and social justice — although these were not foreign concepts by any means. They began by seeking to be faithful — that is, obedient to God’s commands. But, of course, obedience is really a poor substitute for regeneration and transformation by the Spirit. And the early church was all about being led by the Spirit to be transformed into the image of God found in Jesus.
Hence, the first mission of each Christian and each congregation is to become like Jesus, to follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to have faith in Jesus (which includes trust and faithfulness). The first thing — the most important thing — is not what you do but who you become. And the heart of Christianity is becoming like Jesus.
The trouble is that most of us haven’t studied Jesus well enough to know how to do that. Chapter 7 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is one of mos influential chapters I’ve read outside of scripture itself. And he makes the point that the NT writers never cite Jesus as an example of meditation, solitude, prayer, singleness, etc. we should follow. Rather, Jesus is only held up as an example of service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering. It’s all about the cross. To follow Jesus is to follow him to the cross.
All the ethical teachings of the NT are about this. For example,
(Gal. 5:22-24 ESV) 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
How do I follow Jesus on the cross? By crucifying the flesh (our fallen natures) so that the Spirit may produce fruit in us. What kind of fruit? Well,the kind of fruit that makes us like Jesus — fruit that makes us into submissive, serving people.
Now, this seems too easy. The theology is deep but not hard. I mean, who could argue with Christians learning how to love one another? But, of course, it’s much, much harder to do than to say or to understand!
If the first part of being a Christian is becoming like Jesus, then to whom are we to be like Jesus? Everyone? Potential converts? Well, first and foremost, the people it’s hardest to be submissive to — our fellow church members. Other Christians.
Why do I say it’s so hard? Well, first because I’ve tried it and found it very hard indeed. But also because we Christians obviously do just a terrible job of this. After all, if we truly loved one another as the Spirit wishes us to do, we’d not be so divided. We wouldn’t have so much anger against our leaders. We’d not worry nearly so much about change. We’d be far more generous. And that’s just the first of the fruit of the Spirit! We struggle with all nine.
And that list doesn’t include some of the hardest sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM). Or Rom 12. Or 1 Cor 13. In fact, I think one reason we so prefer to dig wells for strangers is that it’s just so hard to love each other. It’s easier to love strangers.
The same scholars help us to see all this from another perspective: being a disciple means living today the way we’re destined to live in the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE). After all, we’ll be with the same people we attend church with today, and we’ll be worshiping God together. Church should be a preview of heaven — and there are moments when it really feels that way. But …
If the church would truly become the church, that is, if discipleship would become real, if we were to really follow Jesus, if we were to worry more about others than ourselves by emptying ourselves as Jesus did — then that would actually be enough. Everything else would be just the natural consequence of this one thing. But if we get this one thing wrong, everything else becomes warped and distorted — like Bizarro Superman.
That is, if the church were to live the SOTM, and be filled with true disciples of Jesus, evangelism and benevolence would be the natural outgrowth of who we are. Evangelism would be like —
(Acts 8:3-4 ESV) 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
(Acts 11:19-21 ESV) 19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
What was required for the gospel to be preached across the Empire? Merely that Christians leave Jerusalem. Even though they left to escape persecution, the result was the spread of the gospel as the Christians went to other parts of the world. Not because someone followed them haranguing them to attend Tuesday night door knocking. Rather, it’s the nature of disciples to share the good news they enjoy. Persecution only serves to speed the spread of the good news!
People share what they’re excited about. If we aren’t sharing, then we’ve got the wrong gospel. I’ve heard far too many sermons on “Get excited!” No. If what the preacher preaches were exciting, we’d be excited already. If you have to tell us to get excited, then you’re preaching the wrong gospel.
Acts doesn’t have a lot to say about works of benevolence or charity. But what it does say is significant —
(Acts 4:32-5:1 ESV) 32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
We aren’t told why there was such a great need in Jerusalem for mutual financial support. It might be that conversion triggered expulsion from the synagogue and the inability to trade with non-Christian Jews. Or perhaps there was a famine. Or perhaps many converts were from out of the country and decided to stay but had no local means of support. But regardless, the church took care of its own. And perhaps Luke doesn’t share with us the reason for their poverty because it didn’t matter.
(Acts 9:36-40 ESV) 36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.
It’s obvious that Tabitha is being held up an example of an ideal Christian. Peter will choose to raise her from death because of her good works.
And these good works are all targeted toward fellow Christians. The church did not do benevolence as a marketing ploy to convert the lost. It did benevolence for fellow Christians because there was a need, and love could do no less.
Now, as we’ve already seen, especially in the sayings of Jesus, it’s clear that the church’s charitable work is not limited to care for fellow Christians — but its mission is first to its own.