If a curious stranger asked one of us what it was that Christians believed, some of us would stumble our way through the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”). Others might think of John 3:16 (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”). Those are great answers: the Creed lists the major points of belief Christians have affirmed down through the centuries. John 3:16 isn’t as detailed, but it captures the essence of our faith better than perhaps any other Scripture.
But suppose that instead of asking about Christianity, the stranger asked you about church. How would you answer that? John 3:16’s no help: it doesn’t even mention the church. The Apostles’ Creed affirms a belief in the “holy catholic church” it doesn’t explain what that is, or the role it plays in a believer’s life.
In the gospels, Jesus himself barely mentions the church, although the two places he does are pretty important. In Matthew 16:18 he says that not even the gates of Hell will prevail against the church. In Matthew 18:17 he explains how to handle conflict in the church. (According to his command, it’s the only way to deal with conflict, so you might want to check if you’ve been doing it right.)
Jesus says a lot more to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, but the best place to get an understanding of the church is from the early church itself: from its history in Acts, and from the Epistles that Paul and other leaders wrote to the those early churches.
That’s still a lot of reading, though. Suppose your stranger was impatient, and you didn’t have a copy of the New Testament handy. What could you tell them?
When I think what Scripture might serve the same “quick explanation” function for the Church that John 3:16 does for Christianity, what comes to mind for me is this:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.—Acts 2:44-47
That’s a wonderful picture of the church. Theologians sometimes call it “the provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, it’s not exactly what things will be like in the Resurrection, but it’s as close as anybody will get until then.
Now, we may raise our eyebrows at “having things in common” and “selling possessions” and “distributing to all.” I think most of us tend to read it as “you have to give up your stuff.” But that’s not what it says. It says when there was a need, people were quick to help each other. Don’t confuse the church with redistributionist political schemes.
Have you ever had a “refrigerator friend?” That’s the name Craig Groeschel gives to the kind of friend who can get things out of your refrigerator without asking. You don’t want friends asking, “Is it okay with you if I get some cream to put in my coffee?” If they’re still asking permission, they aren’t refrigerator friends, just acquaintances.
The picture in Acts is a community of refrigerator friends. They worship together (“they spent much time together in the temple”) but they did other things together too (“they broke bread at home”).
Of course, not every church does things as well as they did in Acts 2. In fact, even the early church wasn’t always that kind of church: just a couple of chapters later, we find out the church had to deal with greedy people and squabbling. But the picture in Acts 2 is the ideal. It’s what God wants the church to be like.
How do we compare to that ideal? Has the church helped you find some “refrigerator friends?” What could we do to help people build those kind of relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts!