Sunday, March 18, 2007

Christian groups in Acts

Stuart is right to raise the question of terminology in Acts (see the post 'Shoved into Action' and Stuart's comment). In particular, I am increasingly uncomfortable using the term 'church' to describe any of the groups we encounter there.

The reason for this is simple (though the explanation sometimes gets a bit convoluted). When we use the word 'church' we interpret it with 1500 years of Christian history in these Islands where 'church' has come to mean a pretty fixed community, with a structure of belonging and leadership, a geographical location and boundaries that mean it can be easily identified by friend and stranger alike.

None of these things were true of the groups of Jesus followers that we encounter in Acts. They didn't call themselves Christians (the Romans did that - look at E. A. Judge or Bruce Winter for the evidence there) and the term ekklesia which they settled on as a label for their gatherings was not a religious badge but a political or business one, a label drawn from the world of associations so prevalent in the Roman Empire.

This means, at the very least, when the outside world looked at the gatherings of the followers of Jesus, they weren't sure whether they were seeing something political, something like a network of like-minded business people or something religious. Of course, the likelihood is that they didn't make such neat separations in their thinking as we do.

So when we get to Acts 15 and the meeting that took place in Jerusalem, what are we seeing? And how would other folk in Jerusalem have seen it? I think what we're looking at is two very loose groups of Jesus followers - one more settled and more structured and resident in Jerusalem; the other more fluid but increasingly taking shape and resident in Antioch. I'm not sure anyone else is there; I'm not sure anyone else is invited.

It's not that others weren't interested. If I am right about Galatians (see the introduction and a couple of Digging Deeper sections of my Crossway Bible Guide for my view), then Paul wrote it ahead of the meeting in Jerusalem because the issue of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be followers of Jesus was affecting the believers in Lystra, Derbe, Pisidian Antioch and the other places in Galatia where Paul and Barnabas had planted groups on their first missionary adventure (Acts 13:1-14:28). And Paul returns to those places - interestingly with Silas as part of his team; Silas, one of the prophets from Jerusalem sent to Antioch to explain the outcome of the conference - to report that what he'd said in his letter to them was what was agreed at the conference in Jerusalem.

So, I'm not sure that we can take our baptist local congregation and association language and place neatly over the Acts story and expect to see a fit that makes any sense.

I've got to go to church now, so I'll finish this later....

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