The goal of these articles thus far has been to expand our understanding of Christian unity. I also hope that they have challenged our own practice of Christian unity. Of course, it is possible that we have been so stretched and tested that we might doubt whether such a lofty ideal is attainable. Sometimes when we are presented with a daunting task we are prone to despair. We say, “There is no way that we can do this. There is no way that I can be part of a unified, dynamic group of believers.” In this concluding article we examine the biblical example of the early churches as an answer to this concern. The church in Acts 2 says to you “Yes, you can be part of a dynamic, unified Christian community, and we are proof.”
One of the purposes of biblical examples is that they remind us that our situation is not entirely unique. They remind us: “Others have done this before you.” Jay Adams illustrates this point in his book, Preaching with Purpose. “There is a sign at the ‘Narrows’ in the Garden of the Gods, just outside Colorado Springs, where the road disappears into a narrow crack in a rock cliff—so narrow that it looks as though you couldn’t drive a VW through it. But just as you are about to turn around, you spot the sign that says, ‘Yes you can—millions of others have.’ That’s all the encouragement most people need” (p. 95). The example of others having “made it” gives us the perspective that we need to walk God’s way in our own day.
The Characteristics of Church Unity The early church exhibited at least six traits of unity.
1. They Were One in Worship The early church demonstrated their unity in corporate, temple worship. “They continued daily with one accord in the temple . . . praising God” (vv. 46, 47). The main components of their corporate worship will be highlighted below. But it is worth noting that their solidarity in worship not only sets a pattern for congregations but also for families.
This is evident in the regularity of their worship. The Christian community continued in daily worship (vs. 46). Now in their case they went to the temple. We no longer have an earthly temple, nor is it practical for us to meet for worship at church every day. But this does not mean that God’s expectation of daily worship has ceased. It simply means that daily worship has become the prerogative of the family.
The nineteenth century Scottish Pastor, James Hamilton, aptly entitled a pamphlet on family worship, The Church in the House.1 Each of us has a church in our home, whether it is a church of one or two or many more people. Hamilton gives several practical suggestions for conducting family worship, but the most basic element is a daily opening of the Word of God. Our own church (and family) has found it helpful to use a daily reading calendar to assist us in our family worship. The unifying benefits of such an approach are delineated by Robert Murray M’Cheyne (the organizer of the calendar we use). First, “ . . . Friends . . . when they meet, will have a subject for profitable conversation in the portions read that day.” As you meet, you can rejoice over the plainer passages and mutually wrestle with the more difficult ones. Second, “The pastor will know in what part of the pasture the flock is feeding.” He will thus be enabled to speak more suitably to them both on the Lord’s Day and in house visitation. Third, “The sweet bond of Christian love and unity will be strengthened.” As you read through the Bible together you will be led to think of the others who are reading the same passages with you. “We shall pray . . . over the same promises, mourn over the same confessions, praise God in the same songs, and be nourished by the same words of eternal life.”2
The early church calls us to worship (both congregationally and familial). Unless there are weighty and justifiable reasons that prevent us, we should be careful not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some. . . .” (Hebrews 10:25).
The example of the apostolic church not only demands a regularity of worship but also a devoted manner of worship. They were devoted to worship. Worship ought to define us at least as much as some of the other things we are passionate about.
2. They Were Devoted to Doctrine (v. 42) Here is an ingredient you do not often find in recipes for church unity. No doubt you have heard the common assertion that “doctrine divides.” But here we learn that doctrine united. This small group of saints knew that they were united only on the basis of the “one faith” spoken of in Ephesians 4. The first Christians did not demonstrate their devotion to doctrine by simply sending their children to catechism class. Rather, they all devoted themselves to plumbing the depths of the Word of God upon which they stood together. Doctrine unites.
The doctrinal standards of the Dutch reformed churches are appropriately called The Three Forms of Unity. We are united upon the truth of the Word of God summarized for us in our confessions. We, too, recognize that our doctrine unites us. It is doubtful though, whether we always use our forms in this way. Too often our doctrinal standards are merely used as fodder for accusation and division. It may be a bad sign of our spiritual health when we use our precious doctrines in this way.
Of course, in a very real sense doctrine does divide. It divides truth from error. The doctrine that the believers devoted themselves to was none other than that of the apostles. It was the clear and indisputable doctrine which God himself gave to the apostles (cf. Jude 3). Many churches today have abandoned apostolic Christianity. For this reason we do not recognize the Roman Catholic establishment as a true church because they have abandoned apostolic Christianity. I hope you sense the irony here. They claim to have a continuous apostolic presence through the Pope, but they have abandoned the teaching of the apostles! Many of their central doctrines were invented long after the apostles’ deaths. Purgatory was invented in 593. The title of “Pope” was first given in 607. Praying with the rosary was not instituted until 1090. The Apocryphal books were officially added in 1546. The infallibility of the Pope was proclaimed only in 1870. Finally, Roman Catholics codified the bodily ascension of Mary in 1950.3 I mention this because Protestants are given the impression that we have abandoned apostolic doctrine. Not at all. The Protestant Reformation was a recovery of apostolic doctrine.
3. They Were Given to Generosity (vv. 44,45) Giving is a free and joyful act of worship that promotes unity. This passage has often been used to “prove” forced sharing or communism. But the fact is, those who were able shared with others “as every man had need.” The giving of the early church was a need-based giving. Of course, given the tithing precedent laid down in the Old Testament and the fact that there is always a need, generous giving is a mandate for every Christian.
One hardly has to imagine how this generous giving promotes unity. The giver and the receiver are united in a bond of loving inter-dependency. The effectiveness of a church often goes hand-in-hand with its generosity.
4. They Participated in Prayer (v. 42) If we hope to achieve meaningful unity in our churches it is imperative that we pray with other believers. That is what the early Christians believed. “They continued steadfastly . . . in prayer.” Something intimate happens when believers pray together. In prayer, there is a mutual opening of our souls before the God who sees through our skin.
The early church teaches us three things about unifying prayer. First, we must pray together in all seasons. That is to say, many of us need to break out of the rut of only praying at standard times. “They continued steadfastly . . .” Second, we should pray in such a way that those who listen (both God and others) realize that we are baring our souls before a loving Savior. In our prayers we are modeling prayer to others. We must do away with unfeeling, unvarying and apparently irrelevant prayers. Third, we should allow others to pray. They, that is all of the believers continued in prayer. We should be careful of restricting prayer to the “experts,” whether the pastor in the church or the father in the home. Despite their expected “flaws,” we should also encourage our children and others when they do take the initiative to pray aloud.
5. They Celebrated the Sacraments Baptism is mentioned in verse 41 and the Lord’s Supper is alluded to in verse 42. Both sacraments are eminently unifying phenomena. Baptism is an initiatory event that visibly unites covenant members of Christ’s church to one another. The Lord’s Supper is a continuous event that unites confessing members of Christ’s church to one another. Your church will have both biblical and practical requirements for participation in these sacraments. But if you are not presently experiencing the unifying (and other) benefits of the sacraments you should be pursuing those requirements as God enables.
6. They Focused on Fellowship The word for fellowship in verse 42 is the familiar koinonia. This word denotes a close relationship or intimacy. Importantly, it is used to describe the intimate fellowship that believers have with the triune God himself (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9 and the Son; 2 Cor. 13:14 and the Spirit; 1 John 1:3 and the Father). In applying the word koinonia to the early church, Luke was explaining that the believers were intentional about group gatherings; they were not just together in the same room. They were truly fellowshipping. Recent cultural trends have confused the meaning of fellowship. True fellowship means not simply being connected or accessible, it means sharing in personal and meaningful ways. To promote unity, take the initiative to do things with others that promote thought sharing, require vulnerability and create interdependency. The fleeting time that God has given us with others is precious and should be used well. Some suggestions: When you break bread with others (v. 46) make sure you actually converse about meaningful things. Do something out of the ordinary. Plan a picnic. Take a hike. Turn off the TV and read good literature together. Use these fluctuations from the ordinary to move beyond the superficial to real personal involvement.
The Consequences of Church Unity
Even if you were not familiar with Acts 2 you would expect that such expressions of unity would make a significant impact on the surrounding culture. And of course, they did.
1. Fear Came upon Every Soul (v. 43) The “every soul” here probably refers to those outside of the church. God was working powerfully among them. There was something so shocking about this work that onlookers were afraid. We may not exactly be working to build scary congregations, but this fear was a means that God used to protect the church.
We should desire a little more fear of the church today. As Christians we tend to feel funny if people are intimidated by us. But if God is really working powerfully among us unbelievers will be a bit uncomfortable around the church. The church will serve as an unsettling reminder that they are living ungodly in God’s world.
2. They Had Favor with All the People (v. 47) The church had a good reputation. Does this surprise you? Acts 4:34 says, “No one lacked a thing.” Do you think that went unnoticed in a society where much of the population lived in poverty? In addition, the members of the church enjoyed each other. If there is one thing that unbelievers will notice about you it will be your fellowship.
It is true that we should beware when all men speak well of us (Luke 6:26). But it is also true that we should strive, as individuals and as churches, to have a good reputation among those who are outside (1 Tim. 3:7).
3. The Lord Added to their Number (v. 47) Notice how God blessed this unity as he promised he would in Psalm 133. This church was fertile soil for gospel growth because it was unified. “For there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore” (v. 3). People wanted to have what the Christians had. One of the ways that the church reaches out to others is by making them jealous. Conversely, says Calvin, “When the church loses numbers it is due to our laziness and wickedness” (Commentary, Acts 2:47).
Unity is a difficult calling. This is exactly what we are taught in Scripture; fulfilling our calling requires effort. We should be “ . . . not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. . . .” (Romans 12:11). Be diligent; be serious in working hard for unity.
Despite the challenges, there is hope in the gospel. The good news is that the gospel changes people. This may not sound like good news, because we often do not want to change. But it is good news first, because we need to change, and second, because union with Christ actually changes us. In Christ we are saved from the punishment due our sins. We are also being renewed in harmony with God and others.
One final encouragement: The work of unification of the church is the prerogative of our sovereign God (Acts 2:47). In the history of the world we can see two decisive points at which mankind deteriorated from unity to disunity. At both points God provided a solution.
In the fall, two people who had dwelt together in unity from the day they met began to argue. But God promised a reversal of the curse of sin. This promise was realized in Christ who is our peace. He “came and preached peace . . .” (Ephesians 2:14, 17). And he made peace by breaking down the barrier between us and God and us and others.
On the Plain of Shinar a once-unified people was scattered by God to the point they could not even finish a construction project. This linguistic division persisted until the events recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost was the anti-Babel. Here the Spirit spoke to every believer that was gathered in Jerusalem that day in his own language. The church, then, became a reversal of the divisiveness that had characterized the world since Babel.
Heaven is the grand illustration and reality of God’s work of unification. We have the encouragement that, for the Christian, when this life ends an eternity of unity begins. God is working among us to unify us. This will not be perfected until we end this life. But it must begin in this life. Our prayer is that God would begin to make this a reality in our lives and churches.
1. Request this free pamphlet on the “Free Books” page of LifeReformation.org.
2. A printable PDF of M’Cheyne’s calendar can be found at: http://www.chapellibrary.org/literature/ mccheynes-daily-bible-readings.php 3. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism, pp. 7,8
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, PA, and author of Life Lessons from a Calloused Christian: A Practical Study of Jonah with Questions, available from Reformed Fellowship.