The Simplicity Of The Gospel
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
—2 Corinthians 11:3
By Carl Hagensick
Although the meaning of the word translated simplicity can be challenged, there is no question that the organization of the early church was a model of simplicity.
The harmony and activity of the core of the early church—the 3,000 who accepted the message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) is beautifully expressed in verse 42 of the same chapter: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
In this short text are set forth four functions which their assemblages served: (1) doctrine; (2) fellowship; (3) breaking of bread; and (4) prayers.
The teachings of Jesus, while not contradictory to the laws of Moses, were at a sufficient tangent from orthodox Jewry as to bring upon the early church the charge of heresy. “But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.”—Acts 24:14
New doctrinal concepts included not only the removal of circumcision as a rite and the rejection of the Law Covenant as a vehicle to obtain life, but touched personal life styles as well—the meats they would eat, their fellowship with gentiles and even the concept of personal sacrifice.
The clash of Christianity with Judaism produced many conflicts. The controversies between Paul and Apollos concerning baptism of the spirit, and between Paul and Peter (and others from James) concerning the full acceptance of the gentiles serve as worthy examples.
Despite the heat of such theological battles—Paul withstanding Peter to the face—there remained a great respect between them. Paul and Peter mutually commend each other to the church despite their differences (2 Peter 3:15, 16). Paul recommends that the church at Corinth entertain Apollos (1 Cor. 16:12). John’s condemnation of Diotrephes for not permitting other brethren to come serves as a negative example (3 John 9, 10).
Dialog and discussion on the debatable issues of the day were the methods used in the early church concerning matters of doctrinal difference. The endeavor was to have each individual fully persuaded in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). The assurance was that in matters of difference God would reveal the correct thoughts to the sincere Christian (Phil. 3:15).
The Greek word here translated “fellowship,” koinonia, is far broader than merely the sharing of a conversation. The word denotes a partnership of action as well as words. Such partnership is based on meaningful communication.
Regular gatherings of the saints were promoted in the primitive church as a means of fostering this interchange of thought, and for the purpose also of permitting cooperative service in the Lord’s work.
Representatives sent by one congregation were regularly accepted by other congregations. This is evidenced by the missionary journeys of Paul and the ready hearing given to Apollos of Alexandria in the churches of Greece and Asia Minor.
A common feature of gatherings in the church at that time was sharing a common meal. This may have been particularly true on Sundays, in memory of Jesus sharing bread with the disciples in Emmaus. These meals, however, served a deeper need, that is a relaxed period of time to exchange Christian experiences and thoughts.
The Apostle Paul included these gatherings in his admonition to the Jewish Christians to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” (Heb. 10:25).
Breaking of Bread
While including these common meals, the meaning of this phrase is probably deeper, including two additional activities. One was the regular visitation of Christians with each other to share their newfound faith. This appears to be the thought in verse 46 of Acts 2, where the Christians were said to be breaking bread from house to house.
A still deeper meaning may be implied by this term to the Jewish mind familiar with the word of Isaiah 58:7: “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?:
An active concern for the poor and needy in their midst was an integral part of the primitive church. Brethren laid aside portions of money and supplies for those less fortunate financially. Examples of this can be seen in the collections for the brethren in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4) and the support of Paul by the brethren in Thessalonica.
“But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”—1 John 3:17
The concern for the needs of another were not limited to financial means but, more importantly, centered on an active prayer life. The burdens of these prayers was not merely personal needs, but frequently cultivated an intense interest in the spiritual lives of one another.
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”—James 5:16
The prayer meeting that was being held when Peter was in prison served as a good example of this concern for each other. Evidently they were not praying for his release from prison, but for his being strengthened to endure whatever his experience would hold. This appears to be the reason for their peculiar reaction when he appeared at the gate to the young maiden, Rhoda.
“And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel” [messenger, Strong’s Concordance].—Acts 12:15
The early church was congregational in church government, with each assembly being free and independent of each other. The missionary outreach of one would establish new congregations in nearby areas, but seek soon to bring them to a level where they could conduct their own affairs independently.
An important part of this work of outreach was the selection of local leadership. The Apostle Paul addresses this matter in his pastoral letter to Titus. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). Notice the same concept in Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
The method of ordination in the early church is implied by the word translated “ordained” in Acts 14:23. The Greek word cheirotoneo literally means “to stretch forth the hand.” This definition by itself is inconclusive for one may stretch forth his hands in many ways: (1) palm down to endorse or put a blessing on; (2) with pointed finger to select or name one; (3) to meet another hand as in a handshake or gesture of acceptance; or (4) stretched upright as in the casting of a vote.
Strong’s Concordance suggests that it is “to be a hand-reacher or voter.” This method of church government, with ultimate authority resting in the congregation, is endorsed by the noted historian J. L. Mosheim in his Ecclesiastical History, page 21: “The people were, undoubtedly, the first in authority; for the apostles showed, by their own example, that nothing of moment was to be carried on or determined without the consent of the assembly; and such a method of proceeding was both prudent and necessary in those critical times. It was therefore, the assembly of the people, which chose rulers and teachers, or received them by a free and authoritative consent, when recommended by others. The same people rejected or confirmed, by their suffrages, the laws that were proposed by their leaders to the assembly; excommunicated profligate and unworthy members of the church; restored the penitent to their forfeited privileges; passed judgment upon the different subjects of controversy and dissension that arose in their community; examined and decided the disputes which happened between the elders and deacons; and, in a word, exercised all that authority which belongs to such as are invested with sovereign power.”
In the very beginning of the Christian church a communal society was formed. “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”—Acts 2:44, 45
This soon did not prove feasible, but the spirit of the concept was continued by an active concern of each Christian for the financial needs of fellow Christians. These collections, however, were to be quietly provided with no drives to raise funds (see 1 Cor. 16:1-4). There is no record of funds being collected for church buildings, expenses of the Lord’s work or the support of the missionaries (though Paul accepted funds when voluntarily proffered.)
Simplicity appears to have been the guideline in all they attempted to do. With meager means and under conditions of severe persecution, they nevertheless continued to grow—on at least two occasions adding 3,000 and 4,000 members respectively.
It is this pattern of a simple organization, ruled from the bottom and not by an hierarchy from the top, that became a hallmark of the Bible Student movement when it was organized in the last quarter of the 19th century.