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What is a Church? (3)

Continuing with the look into how the word church is used in the New Testament and at what constitutes a church, the next usage in order is found in Acts 5: 11 – “So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.”

The great fear imposed was in result to the stir following the deaths of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, when they had sought to deceive God.

Following this, the next occurrence is found in Acts 8: 1 – 4.

“Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem ; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria , except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”

Here you should note that persecution first comes to the churches following the death of Stephen, and due to the work of the Jews. Oddly enough though, and contrary to what we might think, this persecution served rather to spread Christianity and was the beginning of even more assemblies: “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles,” and “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”

By the time of the next occurrence (perhaps some 1 to 3 years chronologically) we see further proof of this last note: ” Then the churches throughout all Judea , Galilee , and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9: 31), and we should note that this first persecution was then relatively short lived, and did not accomplish the desired result of eliminating or limiting the spread of Christianity.

The next listing is found in Acts 11: 21 through 30:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem , and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch . When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a great many people were added to the Lord.

“Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch . So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch .

“And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch . Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea . This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”

It is through the local church that teachers are sent out to other regions, and here we find relief and aid (in the form of money) sent to churches also under the aegis of a local church. There is no listing of other agencies; no council or alliance of churches – but apparently the work of the support of the ministry and spread of the gospel, and the assistance to meet critical daily needs fell upon each of the local churches and missionary or special ministry societies were altogether unknown. The giving was not mandated or listed as some part of a tithe, but was “according to (each disciples) ability.” Here also the disciples are called Christians – which rightly means “of Christ.”

There is one other thing here that also requires notice. The support from the church in Antioch was put together and then dispatched to “the elders” in Judea through agents chosen by the sending local church. Now the word elder might mean simply “older persons,” however, it appears here to mean someone in an identified position of authority within a local church (as we have nowhere been discussing anything else).

So what have we learned in this third installment? First, the persecution of the church served to spread rather than hinder the cause of Christianity. Second, apparently both the ministry and benevolent work of the church was a duty and responsibility within each local church and not of some other higher or mutually supported organization. Third, the disciples (and therefore the members of the church) are called Christians. And finally, as further evidence of organization, elders are mentioned and are shown to be in a position of authority within the local churches.

So in all, in part three of this series we have found more evidence of both form, structure, function and organization in local churches, and we have as yet found no evidence of any wider organization working either with or in place of the local churches, and no evidence that churches organized into some group bigger than the local church. We will see in the succeeding parts whether or not this pattern holds.