Examine What the Early Church Did and Apply It
In part one of this post we looked at the first five practices of the early church as detailed in the Bible. They relied on Holy Spirit power, they worshiped God, they spent time in prayer, they fasted, and they lived in community.
Here are the other five characteristics of Jesus’s church as found in Scripture.
6. Breaking Bread
Food is essential to life. Except for when we fast, we eat every day. Most people eat multiple times each day. Though we could eat in solitude, we enjoy food more when in the company of others.
Sharing a meal is also a cornerstone of community. This isn’t a monthly potluck or an after-church fellowship hour. It’s a time of celebration of life around the table.
The New Testament sometimes uses the concept of breaking bread.
The phrases breaking bread, break bread, and broke bread only appear in the New Testament. Should we understand this idea of breaking bread as a euphemism for communion or simply for any time people share a meal?
Yes. It’s both.
We should remember that sliced bread didn’t exist two thousand years ago. Though they could have cut bread with a knife, it’s more likely they used their hands—the most convenient tool available to them—to divide a loaf and distribute it to everyone at the meal.
At the world’s first ever communion service, Jesus takes bread and breaks it into pieces so he can pass it out to his disciples.
This takes place during the Passover meal (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:19). Paul references this concept (1 Corinthians 10:16). And we see it used twice for communion in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42, 46).
Yet the idea of breaking bread also refers to an ordinary meal. After Jesus travels down the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, they sit down to eat. Jesus takes the bread, thanks God for it, breaks it into pieces, and passes it out to them (Luke 24:30).
Breaking bread, that is, sharing a meal, also occurs after Eutychus falls to his death and Paul raises him from the dead. In celebration they share a meal (Acts 20:7, 11).
Another time occurs when Paul is at sea during a terrible storm. The crew and passengers have given up all hope. Paul encourages all the people on board by telling them that though they will lose the ship and cargo, everyone will live.
He takes bread, thanks God for it, breaks it, and gives it to everyone to eat, all 276 people (Acts 27:35). Most of the people who eat this bread aren’t followers of Jesus. To them this breaking of bread is a simple meal and not a religious rite.
At the first Lord’s Supper, Jesus says the bread represents his body, which would soon be broken as part of his crucifixion.
At every meal afterward, Jesus’s followers would see this breaking of bread, and it would automatically remind them of Jesus’s body broken for them in the ultimate sacrifice.
Without speaking a word, the breaking of bread at each meal reminds Jesus’s followers of him.
In this, they see breaking bread as both sacrament and supper. In this sense, communion is a meal, and a meal is communion. May we embrace this understanding just like the early church.
7. Care for Their Own
The early church shares what they have with one another, and no one has any needs (Acts 2:44–46 and Acts 4:33–35). Notice the focus is on meeting needs, not fulfilling wants. It’s critical to distinguish between the two.
Needs refer to what we require to survive, the basics of life: food, clothes, and shelter. Wants are those items that go beyond basic survival requirements. It’s essential we help people with their needs, but supplying the things they want is optional.
God has a heart for widows and orphans. He commands we care for them in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 14:28–29, Psalm 68:5, and Jeremiah 49:11). These instructions carry forward to Jesus’s church (James 1:27).
Paul adds clarification about caring for widows in his letter to Timothy.
Paul writes that a widow’s children and grandchildren should put their faith in action by caring for her. And those who have no family members to support them, addressing their needs falls to Jesus’s church (1 Timothy 5:3–4).
A third example is Jesus’s followers in one area taking up a collection to help believers in another. This isn’t a command, nor is it a request by those in need.
It’s a voluntary action by those who feel led by the Holy Spirit to help other believers who struggle (Acts 24:17, Romans 15:26, 1 Corinthians 16:1–4, and 2 Corinthians 8).
Interestingly, this is the only time the New Testament talks about taking a collection or receiving an offering of financial gifts. It’s to help those in need, not finance a local church.
8. Value One Another
Throughout the New Testament we see instructions of how we should treat one another. Let’s call these the “one another” directives. We are to:
- Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10).
- Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16).
- Stop passing judgment on one another (Romans 14:13).
- Accept one another (Romans 15:7).
- Instruct one another (Romans 15:14).
- Greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Peter 5:14). We must discern how to best implement this command.
- Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10).
- Encourage one another (2 Corinthians 13:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13, and Hebrews 10:25).
- Serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13).
- Bear with one another in love. Be completely humble, gentle, and patient (Ephesians 4:2).
- Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Jesus forgives us (Ephesians 4:32).
- Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19).
- Submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus (Ephesians 5:21).
- Bear with each other and forgive one another (Colossians 3:13). That is, forgive others as Jesus forgives us.
- Teach one another (Colossians 3:16).
- Admonish one another with all wisdom (Colossians 3:16).
- Build up each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
- Spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
- Keep loving one another as brothers and sisters (Hebrews 13:1).
- Do not slander one another (James 4:11). This includes gossip.
- Don’t grumble against one another (James 5:9).
- Be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble (1 Peter 3:8).
- Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9).
- Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5).
- Have fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7).
- Wash one another’s feet (John 13:14). It’s up to us to discern if this is a literal command or a figurative instruction.
- Love one another (John 13:34-35, Romans 13:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:7, 1 John 4:11-12, and 2 John 1:5).
The charge to love one another is the most common of these one-another comments, mentioned ten times. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John all tell us to love one another. Jesus says that loving one another is his new command to us (John 13:34-35).
Another time Jesus says that the greatest commandment of the Old Testament law is to fully love God, and the second most important one is to love others as much as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:35-40).
In a world that has multiple meanings for the word and a distorted understanding of how it functions, what does real love look like? How do we fully love one another? The Bible explains that too. Paul says that love:
- is patient
- is kind
- does not envy
- does not boast
- is not proud
- is not dishonorable of others
- is not self-seeking
- is not easily angered
- keeps no record of wrongs
- does not delight in evil
- rejoices with the truth
- always protects
- always trusts
- always hopes
- always perseveres
From God’s perspective on the topic, love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). We can then understand love as an overarching principle, a foundation for all others. Afterall, Paul does say that love stands above all else (1 Corinthians 13:13).
As a church, however, we’re doing a poor job of following these one-another instructions. If each person individually did their part to apply these commands in their every-day interactions, our church would be a much different place. And the world in which we live would be better off.
If each person did their part to apply these biblical instructions on how to treat one another, our church—and our world—would be a much better place.
9. Help Others
We’ve talked about how we should care for our own and value one another. These examples direct our attention inward, telling us to care for those in Jesus’s church and instructing how we should act with each other.
This doesn’t imply, however, that we should dismiss those outside of our faith community. We should also reach out to them and seek to help them too.
As we provide for them what they need, we have an opportunity to tell them the good news about Jesus (Acts 5:42, Acts 13:32, and 1 Thessalonians 3:6). This aligns with what Jesus commands (Matthew 28:19–20).
In addition to helping widows and orphans, we’re also to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2 and 3 John 1:5). Quite simply, a stranger someone who we don’t know.
This may involve giving them money, but it could also involve helping them receive justice (2 Corinthians 7:11).
Another consideration is to offer them Jesus’s healing power. Though healing people in Jesus’s name was common in the early church, for many that ability has slipped from their practices today.
The Bible tells about people bringing their infirmed friends and placing them on the street where they expect Peter to travel. They hope Peter’s shadow might fall on the sick as he passes by.
Though the Bible doesn’t confirm that people received healing this way, why would they go to this trouble if Peter’s shadow hadn’t healed others in the past (Acts 5:15)?
Later in the book of Acts, we read about God doing astonishing miracles through Paul.
This supernatural power is so extraordinary that even handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul touches contain God’s healing power. They bring these garments to people who need healing.
The people who receive them are cured and evil spirits are cast out, even though Paul isn’t physically present (Acts 19:11–12). Is God still in the business of healing people like this?
Some Christians today claim that supernatural healing power died with the apostles, but there’s little biblical support for this position. Jesus said his followers would do all that he did—including healing people—and more.
We will do even greater things than he did once he reunited with his Father and they sent us the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26 and Acts 1:4–5).
We see that after people receive supernatural healing an opportunity arises to tell them about Jesus (Acts 3:1–10, Acts 8:6–8, and Acts 9:32–35).
10. Flexible and Informal Leadership
In the New Testament we don’t see much indication of a formal leadership structure. Yes, people do serve in leadership roles, but it’s not hierarchical or formally instituted. And the various church’s never vote on who should lead them. Nor do they hire a minister. So why do we?
After Jesus returns to heaven, the disciples assume a leadership role. This is natural because they know Jesus better than any of the newer converts and are in the best position to teach them (Acts 2:42).
Decision-making in the early church is not democratic. One time they cast lots to pick a leader (Acts 1:26). Another time the people recommend the first deacons. Then the apostles accept who they suggest and pray for them (Acts 6:5–6).
In Acts we see Paul and Barnabas visiting the various churches to appoint leaders. They make their selections through prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). Paul tells Titus to do the same thing on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5).
But mostly we see people taking initiative, doing what’s needed to advance Jesus’s church, as led by the Holy Spirit. For example, consider Apollos acting on his own accord to tell others about Jesus (Acts 18:24–25).
No one authorizes Apollos to be a missionary. He doesn’t need permission. He just acts.
Then Priscilla and Aquila take it upon themselves to expand Apollos’s understanding of Jesus (Acts 18:26). And no one appoints Priscilla and Aquila to further Apollos’s knowledge of Jesus. They see a need, and they meet it
The early church has a lot of lay leadership and functions in an almost egalitarian manner. In this, they rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them (Acts 15:28).
All 10 Early Church Practices
These ten practices of the early church serve as an example to guide our priorities today. In addition to having a new perspective on buildings, priests, and tithing, Jesus’s church models ten additional practices:
- They rely on Holy Spirit power and direction.
- They worship God.
- They pray.
- They fast.
- They pursue community.
- They break bread and eat together.
- They care for their own.
- They value one another.
- They help others.
- They a flexible and informal leadership.
How can you apply these in your church today?
Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.