Over the past few months, I have been doing a deep dive into the first-century church. I wanted to know how they operated and study the way the church was formed. I got deep into this because I truly believe the best way for us to learn what the church should be is to look back and make the original church successful. As I began this process, I centered on Peter and Paul’s ministry, who were the two most influential leaders of the early movement. Peter was the charismatic leader that everyone in the church world knew. He would be the guy that every church wanted to get to come and preach and the hottest speaker on the camp meeting circuit. Then there was Paul, the theologian, and to many the outsider. He always had to defend his leadership and his right to speak for God. As we look back, we see Paul’s outstanding achievements, but in the early church, they did not see him as we do today.
As I begin to study these two men and what God was doing with them, a theme came to light, which I believe is at the center of the entire New Testament. Paul believed, taught, and even fought (not literally) so that people would come to understand that when Jesus died and arose that He created a brand-new community. He did not simply upgrade the old community, but rather he started something new. This new community was not bound by nationality, ethnicity, gender, or standing, but the only requirement was faith in Jesus. Now the word faith in Greek is pistis, and it means faith, but it also means faithful, and loyal. Paul realized that this new community was something different than the world has ever seen. You see, up to this point in time, people were very segregated. Other than business dealing, groups did not socialize with other groups very much, and they sure did not worship with one another. But as the gospel broke away from Jerusalem and came to Antioch, that all changed. The Jesus followers were coming together, both Jews and Gentiles, and all barriers were being destroyed. Something brand new was being formed, a community that was based on a relationship with Jesus.
Now back to the theme that we were talking about. As the church started forming this new community, there were some that did not like the change. They believed that the Gentiles should become full Jews and go by the old ways. In Acts 15, this comes to a climax when the Church leadership meets in Jerusalem for the young church’s first council meeting. In this meeting, Paul shares what has been happening in Galatia among the Gentiles and sits and listens as Peter stands to share the message that Jesus had given him about taking the message to the Gentiles. Finally, James, the brother of Jesus and now the leader of the church in Jerusalem, stands and declares that the Gentiles do not have to adhere to the law in order to be saved and apart of the church. Now here is what we find, all of the leaders of the early church saw the need for unity. Unity is one of the major themes in the New Testament and in the early church. Unity means that we are one body, one community, and yes, one church. No matter if we are slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile. Unity does not care what our skin color is; as we see throughout the New Testament, there are men and women from all over that are preaching the gospel. Unity is about only one thing: does a person have faith in Jesus Christ. The early church leaders saw the importance of making sure that the church was one body and that everyone was in unity. There is little doubt that the church would have split if the Jerusalem Council had not followed the Holy Spirit’s leading and sought-after unity over conformity.
As I thought about this, I look at the church today and realize that the thing that Paul fought so hard against seems to be the thing that the church has fallen into today. We, like the world, have broken up into our little groups and shut everyone else out. We cut people off if we disagree with one issue or if they think differently than we do. We have lost the art of discussing issues without becoming irate if the person we are talking to does not agree as firmly as we do. If we are not careful, we lose what the early church leaders fought so hard for us to have, and that is unity. Unity does not mean that we agree on everything, but rather it means that we have one purpose, and that is to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not have to agree on every method and every way to accomplish this task, but we should be working together and at the very least not working against one another. James spends most of his time, if not all of it, ministering to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, but he realized that the church had to be global and that the things in Jerusalem would not work in Galatia and other Gentile cities. As the church leader, he saw what God was doing in those cities and realized that God could move in many different ways. The only thing that matters for unity is that we share a common faith in Jesus Christ.
Today in a world that seems to be so divided, the church should always seek unity. The Holy Spirit works through unity, and the early church taught us that we do not all have to be the same to have unity.