2. CONGREGATIONS IN ACTS
It may be argued that Acts gives us three models of congregational life:
• Antioch; and
• The model described in Paul’s address to the elders of Ephesus.
None of these models are depicted as a normative structure in itself for the church – being faithful witnesses of Jesus is what is important.
Paul and his co-workers followed an established pattern in founding new congregations:
• They visited the local synagogue, proclaiming that Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s promises about the Messiah. At these events the God-fearing proselytes were also reached, and of the first believers came from this group.
• Those coming to faith were baptised and formed a new community, although they did not severe the link to the synagogue completely.
• The new congregation met regularly and were taught the faith tradition about Jesus over a period of time.
• Leaders (presbyters) were appointed in each congregation.
• The congregations were visited again at a later stage.
The house church was the predominant structure in the life of the local faith community. The house church replaced the temple and the synagogue. In this way the gospel could really be enculturated in the local culture, transforming it in the process. Jesus was indeed formed in the lives of the local communities of those who followed him.
Leadership was important in the first congregations. Acts gives us glimpses of the following offices:
• Apostles – a select group of those who were eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, but also including Paul and Barnabas.
• Elders: They took responsibility for leadership and oversight in congregations (ch 20);
• Prophets: making the will of God known and interpreted contemporary events (11:27);
• “Deacons”: taking care of those in need.
Women played a role in leadership.
Congregations also took care of one another (11:29)
3. DYNAMICS OF CONGREGATIONAL LIFE AND MISSION
3.1 The living Jesus and the witness of Jesus as foundation of congregational identity
Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and presence at the right hand of the Father confirm his legitimacy as Redeemer and Lord. Through his work on earth Jesus brought the Kingdom of God near, and the church continues this work in the new era with the assurance that Jesus is guarding over them from his position of authority. Their work is to be witnesses of Jesus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The noun “witness(es)” occurs 13 times in Acts. It is the story of how uncomprehending eyewitnesses were made witnesses of the risen Christ and bearers of the good news of forgiveness in his name to all nations.
The terms witness is applied to the apostles, but also includes others, such as Paul (22:!5; 26:16) and Stephen (22:20), and even more “others”.
The content of the witness is the church’s proclamation of the gospel. The gospel is the witness of the resurrection of Jesus and its significance:
• Peter says that the new apostle’s task would be “to become with us a witness to his resurrection” (1:22);
• Elsewhere the witness includes not only Jesus’ resurrection, but his whole earthly life and ministry (13:31);
• Jesus himself proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God, and this is what the witnesses also do (8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). The good news of the reign of God is Jesus Christ, incarnated, crucified and risen, and what he has accomplished.
Congregations are depicted as people of the Way – people living within the dynamics of the Kingdom of God, personified by Jesus, journeying together in obedience to the risen Christ.
3.2 Being led by the Holy Spirit
Luke deals theologically with the fact that history went on and that Christ did not immediately return. This is no reason for despair, since it is through the Spirit that the risen Christ is present in the faith community.
The ministry of the earthly Jesus is already portrayed in terms of the initiative and guidance of the Spirit. Far more comprehensively the Spirit leads the disciples into mission. They will turn into Jesus’ witnesses as soon as they are clothed with power from on high (1:8). The Spirit is the catalyst, the guiding and driving force of mission. At every point the church’s mission is both inspired and confirmed by manifestations of the Spirit.
Jesus was baptised by the spirit, and now – in Jerusalem, and later in Caesarea, the Spirit descends for a second “baptism”. The gift of the Spirit is the gift of becoming involved in mission. Luke’s pneumatology excludes the possibility of a missionary command – it implies, rather, a promise that the disciples will get involved in mission. The Spirit not only initiates mission, but also guides the mission of the faith community:
• The church do not execute its own plans but wait on the guidance of the Spirit; (ch 1)
• Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is through the agency of the Spirit (ch 8);
• Cornelius, the gentile, is accepted into the faith community without circumcision when the Spirit is poured out and Pentecost re-enacted (ch 10).
• The Spirit sets Paul and Barnabas apart for a special task. (ch 13)
• The Spirit prevents Paul from going deeper into Asia, but sends him, through a vision in Troas, to Europe (ch 16).
The Spirit indeed is the guide, and inspirer towards mission.
The Spirit also empowers the mission – changing timid fisherman into dynamic and bold witnesses.
David Bosch emphasises that the link between pneumatology and mission is distinctly Luke’s contribution to the early church’s missionary paradigm. It was forgotten over many centuries, and only rediscovered in 20th century missiology through Luke’s writings.
The witness about Jesus and the Kingdom of God is indeed entrusted to very fallible human beings who can do nothing in their own power, but are continuously dependant on empowerment by the Holy Spirit. But also, they are not really called to accomplish anything, only to point to what God has done and is doing, to give testimony to what they have seen and heard and touched.
3.3 Engaging culture in a pattern of expansion across all kinds of boundaries
Much has been written about the relationship between Jew and Gentile in the new dispensation after Pentecost. According to Luke those Jews who accept Christ is part of the true Israel, and believing Gentiles are also incorporated in the true Israel.
The gospel therefore engages all cultures, is open to everyone, the faith community is inclusive. But the gospel also confronts culture and renews people by teaching them a new way, making them part of a new community, the true Israel.
Acts describes how the process of enculturation developed. A few examples:
• The apostles will be witnesses to all nations (1:8)
• At Pentecost everyone hear the good news in their own language
• Seven helpers are chosen to take care of all members of the faith community;
• The Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius are baptised (8 and 10);
• The gospel is shared with the whole community in Antioch (13).
The Acts narrative emphasises how the witness accommodates itself to the culture and customs of various groupings – healings, prophesy, the decision of the council to accommodate certain Jewish practices (15), religious convictions (Athens, 17), even Jewish customs (e.g. when Paul visits the temple).
The gospel also confronts culture. The new community is open to all, shares its resources with everybody, and lives with integrity, seeking the welfare of others.
3.4 Antioch: open and inclusive communities, being good news to all and hospitable to everyone
3.4.1 Life in a Greek-Roman City
Greek-Roman cities was geographically and numerically small in terms of modern standards. Antioch occupied an area 1,5 x 3km, which was occupied by 150,000 people. That means its population density was 8 times that of modern day Chicago.
Most people lived in small rooms in buildings 4 to 5 stories high. One room accommodated the whole family, with no privacy possible. No chimneys meant smoke filled the room. Streets were narrow and filled with animals.
Spare a thought about the lack of sanitation. People used pots which were emptied by night on the streets. Soap was not yet available. Waters was carried in buckets, meaning that the washing of clothes and bodies was not a daily activity. Filth, stench, insects, parasites, illnesses and infections were all part of daily life.
Mortality was high. The population could only be maintained by an ongoing migration from rural areas. Life expectancy at birth was less than 30 years. A continuous stream of newcomers into the city meant that crime and a lack of order ruled the day. Due to cultural diversity the Greek-Roman cities were divided into sectors, in the case of Antioch a Syrian and Greek sector. Antioch also had a growing Jewish population. These phenomena made social integration difficult, and explains the frequent uprisings and unruly behaviour in Greek-Roma cities.
Natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes (Asia-Minor!) often demolished whole cities. Antioch was conquered 11 times and plundered at five of those opportunities. The city was complete devastated by fire 4 times, were struck 10 times by earthquakes, and had to endure devastating epidemics 3 times.
3.4.2 Hope for salvation
In the midst of hate, anxiety, ethnicity, ill health, death of children, murder, death and disaster, it is not strange that people hoped for salvation.
Now think of the Christian church and what were are told in the Acts-narrative. The Christian message was really good news: it brought new norms for relationships, and created social networks between former enemies which could handle the urban problems. Those without means to survive received mercy, and regained hope. Cities filled with newcomers and strang
ers received a basis for social integration. Widows and orphans were integrated into a new family. Care-giving supported one during epidemic, fire and earthquakes.
Bosch, D 1993. Transforming mission. New York: Orbis.
Burger, C & I Nell 2002. Draers van die waarheid. Stellenbosch: Buvton
Combrinck, H et al 1985. Handleiding by die NT Band IV. Pretoria: NGKB
Stark, R 1997. The Rise of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper Collins.