The Earliest Model Church (Tim Keller)

Tim Keller, lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, NY offers church planters insights to help clarify the purposes of the church based on the example of the early church in Acts 2:42-47.

Worship & Prayer

The worship of the early church had corporate form. In Acts chapter 2, verse 42, Paul literally says that "they devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread and the prayers ". This is almost certainly a reference to 'liturgy'-- to the service of the Lord's Supper and to a discipline of praying called "the prayers." It was not random. There was an order to it. It had both an informal and formal aspect. It happened both in homes and in the temple courts (v. 46). This surely means that there was both informal worship in the small group and more formal worship in the large group.

It is unlikely that Christians continued to offer sacrifices at the temple, but they evidently continued to go to the prayer services and they supplemented the worship there with their own meetings in the courts. Their worship was both joyful and reverent. Notice that in the small group worship, the emphasis is more on joy and gladness (v.46) but in the large group, there is an emphasis on awe (v.43). This means that both awe/reverence and joyous praise are to be the marks of our worship.

Learning & Edification

It was intense. They "devoted themselves" (v. 42). This means that there was a high commitment to learning. Spirit-filled is not set over against the intellect! It was completely centered on the "apostolic teaching." It was not learning in general, but rather the study of God's revelation as it came through the apostles. Today, of course, the apostles' teaching is in the Scriptures. It was accompanied by "apologetics." They were not just taught what to believe but given evidence for why to believe it.

This point is missed unless we realize that verse 43 is not an isolated statement--it follows verse 42. The apostles teaching (v.42) was validated and verified by their miracles and wonders (v. 43). These miracles were not naked displays of power, but were signs. Heb.2:3-4 show us that the purpose of miracles in the early church was to show listeners the truth of the gospel message the Apostles brought. A survey of the Bible reveals that miracles are not distributed randomly and evenly throughout history, but they come in clusters, when God sends a new set of messengers into the world with a new stage of revelation. We must realize that the principle of v. 43 was that people were shown evidence of the truth of apostolic teaching, so they would devote themselves to it.

Fellowship & Community

Fellowship was also intense ("they devoted themselves ... to fellowship" v. 42). It was therefore not something that just happened. They worked at it. This implies accountability with one another, a sense of responsibility to care and support and guide each other. It was daily ("every day "v. 46). They did not just see each other on Sundays, but were involved in each other's daily lives. It was economic as well as spiritual ("had everything in common "v. 44). They recognized not only that other brothers and sisters had a claim on their time and heart but also on their resources.

It was very small group/house church based, "they broke bread in their homes" v. 46. This statement as well as the one found in Acts 20:20, "teaching you in public and from house to house" and greetings to "the church that meets in their house" in I Cor. 16:9 and elsewhere-we can see the importance of small group community in the early church. They had regular meetings where this same set of ministries--learning, loving, worshipping--was conducted at the mini-level, so as to supplement what was happening at the "maxi" large group level. Their fellowship and community was extremely sensitive. They knew immediately who had "need" (v.44).

Outreach & Evangelism

The outreach and evangelism was dynamic. They experienced conversions "daily "v. 47. Their outreach was based on demonstration through community. One reason that people were saved is that the love and note of praising was highly attractive to "all the people" (v. 47). This cannot mean that every non-Christian loved the early church because there was certainly plenty of persecution. But it meant that overall the early church demonstrated the gospel in its community in such a way that was irresistible to outside observers.
Mercy & Social Concern

The ministry of mercy integrated both word and deed. Verse 44 seems to indicate that the economic sharing was mainly practiced within and among Christians. But we know the early church did not confine its deed ministry only to Christians. Paul says in Galatians 6:10 that Christians "do good to all, especially the household of faith." Their sharing was heavier inside the community, but their generosity went outside the church as well.

We can't read v.44 as forbidding private property to individuals. The Bible elsewhere makes it clear that private property is valid. This is therefore a voluntary, informal, but powerful sharing fueled by love not rules. (cf. Peter's rebuke to Ananias in Acts 5:4). Different Christian communities have voluntarily practiced this in different creative ways, some much more structured than others. Their social concern was very church-centered. When a person was saved, he or she was "added to their number" (v. 47) and incorporated into the church. Today many people are converted through ministries that have little relationship to local churches and the converts also have little relationship to a congregation. That was not the case in the early church.

Please let me know your thoughts

© 1998 Tim Keller's (Acts Curriculum, Evangelism: Equipping Believers in Mission and Outreach, Version 2.)