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[Note: This speech (given at the Xiamen International Fellowship--XICF) started with the Lord's Prayer--Matthew 6:9-12.] Click here for another XICF message about the early church.


The Church Community

Michael Krigline (November 16, 2014)

A strange Greek translation


            The XICF small group that meets at our home is talking about the way the early church looked and operated. We’ve mainly been looking at the picture presented in the AD 50s, about 20 years after the Resurrection, but there’s an intriguing snapshot of a much earlier “church”—right after the Church was born, so to speak, on the day of Pentecost.

            Acts 2: 42-47 tells us this: “42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 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.”

            Many parts of that description look very appealing to me, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

            In my Bible, a marginal reference pops up on the word “together,” taking us a few days before Pentecost, for another snapshot: Acts 1:14 says that the Apostles “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

            Oddly, the same Greek term* is used in both verses. Why, I wondered, did the translators translate the term “together” in chapter 2 and yet “with one accord” in chapter 1; and more importantly, does this word help us to understand the way the church should function?


            As I said, I’ve always felt that some aspects of the picture in Acts 2 are very appealing. When I was a new Christian, I even thought the communal lifestyle presented there looked great—until I had frequent contact with a communal church in the UK, and read about similar experiments in history. I still think it is a great idea, but these churches, which (quote) “have all things in common”, don’t seem to last long, and they often end up with dilapidated community property [it’s not “mine” so why should I paint it, change the oil, replace the batteries…]. Worst of all, the volunteerism that so rightly flourishes in a mature body of believers, tends to disappear in communal sects, giving rise to overbearing leaders who must “lord it over their flock” to get things done, replacing volunteerism with mandated community service. That’s not the picture we see in Acts 2.

            But even if “communal” living falls short in practice, the picture of community remains very appealing to me. They shared meals, met in each others’ homes, devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, shared with those in need, had glad and generous hearts, praised God together…and witnessed wonders and signs, had favor with all the people, and saw friends and neighbors saved, increasing in number day by day. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a church like that?

            But this kind of “community” doesn’t just happen by itself. As I saw, even in the communal churches, people drift toward selfish behavior, and something supernatural must be needed to replace human nature with a community spirit.


Looking closer at Acts 2


            Let’s take a closer look at the passage in Acts 2.

            We saw in 2:42 that they focused on four things: the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread (likely a reference to Holy Communion), and to “the prayers” (likely including memorized Old Testament prayers, as well as petition for their needs and praise for God’s many gifts). Verse 45 adds ‘meeting needs.’ It seems to me that if a church is not focused on these five things, it is no wonder that they have a weak sense of community. After all, we reap what we sow (Gal 6).

Overhead: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” –Gal 6:7-9

“Community” is in essence a spiritual phenomenon, and if we don’t sow spiritual seed we can never reap spiritual fruit. But the key here isn’t their activity, but the spirit behind it. They are choosing to do things together. But let’s see what else the passage tells us.

            Verse 43 talks about wonders and signs done by the Apostles, and a sense of awe or fear. Those miracles probably helped to draw people to them, and that starts the process of hearing the truth that can change lives. But Jesus didn’t say He would build His church on signs and wonders, but on repentance and faith (which to the Hebrew mind included “faithfulness”). In Matt 12:39, for example, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign”—so I don’t think He would choose “signs” as the cornerstone for “community.” The “signs that follow” follow—they don’t proceed.

            Verses 44-45 show remarkable generosity and selflessness: they had all things in common, and distributed the proceeds from private sales to all in need. Surely this is yet another “miraculous sign” because who but the Holy Spirit can make normally-self-centered people generous? And again, this generosity would attract people, but the crowds I’ve seen outside soup kitchens are no more likely to form a thriving community than the people who followed Jesus around looking for a free meal. You’ll find that in John 6:26; Jesus told such a crowd: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes…” Instead, come to Me, the Bread of Life that you really need.

            Interestingly, when I helped with soup kitchens in the US, I did see “community” but not in those who ate—it was among the volunteers who shared each others’ lives to regularly serve those in need. But my point is that even miracles and generosity don’t seem to automatically create community, any more than just regularly hanging out in the same place. It has to come from somewhere else.

            Trying to summarize what we know about these earliest of Christians, they had listened to the testimony of others who knew Jesus, repented of their sin, received grace and forgiveness, and submitted to Jesus as Lord; these are individual responses to the truth of the Gospel. But the “deciding factor” in creating community seems to be when these individual choices in turn led to the collective choice to come together often--for study, fellowship, prayers, to care for others needs—but also to share in each others’ lives. [I get that most clearly from 1 Thess 2:7 – “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”].

            You see, “community” isn’t about “going to church,” even regularly. It is about sharing our lives, led by the same Holy Spirit, and yielding to His supernatural influence in our lives in a way that leads to unified action. And this brings me back to that strange term in verse 46, translated as differently as “together” and “with one accord.”


Common thoughts combined with passion result in action


            You see, the Greek word doesn’t refer to location—such as “being here together every Sunday.” It refers to thinking the same things at the same time, with the same passion, so that the resulting actions are the same. [Yes, that’s complicated, so it’s no wonder that the translators opted for the simple word “together.”] Put simply, this term seems to refer to the synthesis of thought and passion, resulting in unified action.


            Perhaps it will help to look at other ways Luke uses this term, often in secular situations.

            Acts 7:57 says that those who heard Stephen, the first martyr, were so passionately angry that they “stopped their ears and rushed together at him,” carried him out of the city and stoned him to death. The passionate crowd was thinking the same thought, and it resulted in unified action.

            Next is Acts 18:12. In Corinth, after Paul had been working for 18 months, “the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the [Roman] tribunal.” The wider context of the verse again shows the same pattern: thought and passion led to unified action.

            In Acts 19:29, a silversmith named Demetrius started a riot, aimed at stopping Paul. In verse 29 we read that the city was filled with confusion, and an angry mob of enraged Ephesians “rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.” For the next two hours the mob shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”, allowing no dissent or discussion. Again we see united thought, intense passion, and resulting action.

            I also understand that the term also applies to birds in a flock, shifting at the same time (swallows or starlings). I saw a video recently of thousands of starlings doing this at the same time, in a single flowing mass at very close range. It was amazing! And scientists apparently don’t know how they can do it. It looks like a super-natural ability.

            Wouldn’t it be great if the world looked at us, XICF, and marveled at the super-natural way our unified passion led to unified action?


            Strong’s* says that this Greek term—homothumadon—is a compound of two terms, meaning to “rush along” and “in unison.” It says, “The image is almost musical; a number of notes are sounded which, while different, harmonise in pitch and tone. As the instruments of a great concert under the direction of a concert master, so the Holy Spirit blends together the lives of members of Christ’s church.” It concludes that this term “helps us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community.”


Community is central to our faith


            Is this “community” central to our faith, or just one of many “menu options”?

            On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed about our unity three times; here are some of the last words of our Lord: 22 The glory that you [Father] have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:22-23)


            I’d say that makes unity, and thus community, pretty central to Body of Jesus Christ!


            I don’t think Philippians 2:1-2 uses the same Greek term, but it certainly presents the same idea.

            “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

            After telling us to have the same love, be in full accord and of one mind, Paul holds Jesus up as our example: the One who rightfully could have claimed all the rights and benefits of being equal with God, but instead emptied himself and became a servant.


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           You see, the church community isn’t about me, my rights, my benefits, my preferences, my plans—not even satisfying my own spiritual hungers. The church community is about Jesus, bringing His kingdom, promoting His will—on earth as it is in heaven. If we are “in Christ” then we are His body on earth, many parts working together to achieve His goals.

            “Community” affects our ability to achieve His goals, in part because it affects how unbelievers see Him. As John (1 Jn 4:12) put it, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” In other words, no one has seen God, but if we love one another, they can see God in our community. You probably know the cliché: YOU are the only Bible some people will ever read. But how can any one of us reflect God? However, together, led by the Holy Spirit to unified thought and passion, resulting in unified action—just maybe, those around us can catch a glimpse of God. It was such a glimpse that drew me into His Kingdom.

            Our desire—together—to care for those in need, our passion to thank Jesus, our commitment to become His disciples, result in unified service to one another, events reaching out to those lost or in need, comprehensive classes for our children, and unified worship that exalts Jesus as Lord.

            If we do our part, God will take care of the rest, just as He did for Jesus. That passage in Philippians doesn’t stop with Jesus “obedient to the point of death” on a cross. It goes on:9 “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

            We find that same Greek term used in Rom 15:5-6: 5“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now THAT’S community: living in harmony with one another AND Jesus, “rushing along in unison” with one mind that leads to unified action to glorify God.

            I see the same concept in Eph 4:1-6. In jail, Paul writes:

            “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

            Again, Paul is calling on Christians, urging them/us, to make the choices that produce community. He tells us to be humble, gentle, patient with each other, glued together with the supernatural bond of peace. He reminds us of the things we have in common: one hope; one lord, faith, baptism; one God and Father of all. Paul invokes the image of our community as a unified body, with every part working together. Don’t you get the picture that Paul (and Jesus) see Christianity as a team sport, not a personal fitness program?

            The goal of salvation isn't heaven, but becoming at one with God—abiding in His love as an integrated part of His body. In the process, we get beautiful relationships with each other, which in part points others to God. So Biblical unity is a big deal, a central part of our faith, not a menu item.


Community takes time and energy


            This kind of community takes time and energy, and it is made up of continual choices. One of the first impressions one gets from the passage in Acts 2 is that they were busy people. They were continually devoting themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, in the temple and house to house. That takes a lot of time and energy. Didn’t these people have to work—I don’t know, make tents, shear sheep, go fishing or something?

            And what about us? Many of us are active in both jobs and volunteer ministry opportunities, or even professional charity or social work. If we take the time to build a biblical community, wouldn’t “ministry” suffer? Is that a choice we have to make—between ministry and community? But look at Acts 2:47. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” You can’t argue with that kind of results!

            That’s part of the paradox of the Kingdom, isn’t it? Divine blessing isn’t as tied to our effort as to our obedience; results don’t seem to flow as much from ability as from availability. God can (and I think wants to) use our natural giftings, but He also wants to pour His spiritual gifts through us in such a way that there’s no way we can take credit for the results. Now, I’m preaching to myself here, believe me, but when we submit to God’s wisdom over our own, He tends to bless us in ways we don’t expect.

            But there is a cost in time and energy. The Greek word that started this meditation is often translated “together,” but that translation falls short because community doesn’t automatically take place, even if people share a location. As that passage in Philippians put it, we need to share the attitude—the mind—of Christ, who washed His disciples’ feet and then told them to follow His example. Thought (or choices), combined with the passion of Jesus, result in action (washing one another’s feet; serving one another), resulting in true community.


“Becoming” servants; rising to the challenge


            And I want to repeat something here that I told our Sunday School teachers a few weeks ago. A servant mentality must be passed on to our children at an early age. I believe that if children graduate from XICF’s elementary classes thinking that Church is a place where the goal is being entertained, educated and blessed, a place where I can complain if things aren’t going the way “I” like them, then I think we’ve missed the mark. Character development is a life-long process, but our children pick up ideas early, defining what church is all about, mainly by watching and listening to us (that is, ALL of the adults around them, not JUST their parents, so college students and singles, you are not off the hook! In fact, older kids tend to prefer to learn from young adults than from their parents, but that’s a subject for another time). Our church-related service [every one of us… our service], our giving, our comments need to help our children learn to focus on “Jesus” and not on our own likes and dislikes. And that isn’t easy in our selfie-obsessed world. Our world’s public education systems and advertisements work hard to mold children into passive knowledge containers, and covetous sinners, but Jesus wants them to be disciples and servants who find their contentment and worth in Him. Nate has some great ideas on how to help us, as a church reach this high goal, but it’s going to take a lot of cooperation, and a biblical sense of community.


            Of course, XICF faces some challenges that our churches back home don’t face. I’m talking about the differences in our nationalities, denominational backgrounds, languages and cultures. Someone pointed out that none of us will take our nationality or denomination to heaven, so why not hold them a bit more humbly now? 

            But it also occurred to me that the early church DID have to face similar issues. In Acts 15, at what some call the first church council, Luke records the clash that took place between Jewish and Greek Christians as the Gentiles began to get saved. There is every indication that there was much debate over deeply-held cultural and theological convictions. In the end, the leaders in Jerusalem wrote a letter to the Gentile churches and that letter uses the exact same word we have been talking about to describe their unity of mind and action. “It has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you… [instructing them about a few minimal requirements.]” (Acts 15:25)

            Notice how the letter says they became of one accord. Apparently, they started the meeting divided, but together found that place where we think the same things, have the same passion, and push forward in the same direction as a result.


            Thom Rainier, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, talks about another challenge. He reports that there is a common dysfunctional cycle in churches everywhere. First, people are attracted to a church, perhaps because of a glimpse of God in the church community. They experience a spiritual awakening, and dive into service [for me, this happened when I was in college], but while serving—while actually working together with others—they start to see imperfection in the church and its leaders. [Of course they do; we all fall short of the Glory of God. Church leaders can appear “perfect” up on stage, but if you have a share a crowded bus with them on the way home, you may see things they are still working on!] This point in the cycle is crucial (this place when we start to see imperfection), because if our choices at this point lead to discouragement, many end up leaving the church. Sometimes they start the process over at another local fellowship, but often they just drift away into a fruitless personal belief-system. [Their Christianity, whether they are part of a church or not, becomes a personal training program.] Mr. Rainier says that such people leave churches, in part, because they think “church” is about “themselves.” He writes: “[But God] placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel.” (*p6)

            In other words, church isn’t about “ME”, it is about “JESUS” and about the community that gathers in His name, and the service that flows from that community. I wonder if those discouraged people who leave the church would drift as fast or as far if they had plugged in to a real community, seeing vulnerabilities and imperfections in both themselves and others, but in a loving and accepting context? I hope they wouldn’t drift as far. And I hope that such a supporting atmosphere is what you find in XICF’s small groups, ministry teams and classes.


You need to find community -- somewhere


            And finally, I want to challenge everyone here to find community somewhere. If you are just visiting, that means wherever you call “home.” If you live in Xiamen, I know XICF is not the only place to find community. People come here for different reasons. Some see this body as their “church home” while others see it as a “church home while away from my church home.” Some come for the sake of their children; some are under extreme pressure and just want a place to worship or find encouragement; some just sort-of know they should be in church, but deep inside they aren’t sure why. All of those people are welcome here.

            But brothers and sisters, I’m here today to remind you that we all need to find community somewhere. As Pastor Rick Warren put it: “Following Jesus involves far more than believing; it involves BELONGING.” (*p vii) We were designed for community, in part because we were made in the image of the One God who has always existed in the community of the Trinity. If you feel that you already enjoy this level of community with an extended family group, or even a group related to your work—that’s great! We’re happy for you. Work to create in that community a place where Spirit-led thought and passion combine to result in unified action. But if you are still looking for community, visit an XICF small group, join a ministry team, or just take a little risk today to talk to the people around the Welcome Table downstairs after the service. Remember that it takes time and energy to develop Biblical community, but the benefits can be out of this world.



*All scriptures are quoted from the ESV: The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

*Strongs Concordance (electronic LOGOS file) 3661. ὁμοθυμαδόν hŏmŏthumadŏn, hom-oth-oo-mad-on´; adv. from a compound of the base of 3674 and 2372; unanimously:— with one accord (with one mind; with one purpose)

*Thom S Rainer, I Am a Church Member, 2013, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN. Mr. Rainier is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. The quote from Rick Warren is from the same book.

© 2014 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print or copy this article, or link to it, for personal or classroom use.

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