Unity, Community, and Spirituality

Dr. Brian Allison

You probably have heard the amusing story of the Christian who was looking for the 'perfect' Church; and his friend advised him that if he found the perfect Church that he should not join it because then it would not be so. Different Christians are looking for the perfect Church, and that is a commendable ambition; but perhaps it is a misplaced desire because there ain't no perfect Church. There ain't no perfect Church because the Church, wherever you find it, consists of imperfect people. As one pastor friend preached, "Where you have people, you will have problems." That fact is a given. But though there is no perfect Church (this side of glory), there are many good Churches; and if you are looking for a good Church, then you have an attainable goal.

The early Church in Jerusalem was a good Church, and I think that we can learn important truths from considering the life and behaviour of it. Acts 2:44-47, the passage in which our motto text for 1999 is found, reads, "And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved."

The early church was united

There are a number of characteristics which, according to this account, characterized the early Church in Jerusalem, and which, in general, characterizes a good Church. The first characteristic was the fact and sense of unity. Perhaps there is no other characteristic which should be more highly esteemed, or more highly valued, with respect to the Church of Christ, than that of unity. In the New Testament, we find this particular characteristic emphasized again and again. And, of course, when we think of unity, we must remember that its roots are that of love and peace. Consider Acts 2:44a, "And all those who had believed were together." Now, the togetherness which is referred to here is primarily a physical one. So, notice how this second chapter begins, "And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place" (2:1). Physical unity of the Church is important. We ought neither to minimize, nor disparage, this truth of the necessity of coming together physically as a Church. Hebrews 10:24,25 supports, "And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near."

So, the early Church was characterized by a physical unity; and I trust that when you have the opportunity to get together physically with your Christian brothers and sisters, that you readily take that opportunity (and I recognize that there may be extenuating circumstances that prevent you from connecting with fellow believers). We are exhorted in the Word to get together physically that we might have the opportunity to encourage and spiritually build up one another. Physical unity presupposes a heart unity. If you are not one in heart with your Christian brothers and sisters, then you will not want to get together with them physically. Acts 1:15 implies this heart unity, "And at this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together)." This heart unity is explicitly stated in Acts 4:32a, "And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul."

Notice Acts 2:44 again, "And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common." There was not only a heart and physical unity, but also a material unity. Many of the early Christians pooled their funds and resources together. The early Church was characterized by love, which engendered heart unity; and arising out of this heart unity was the desire, even the compulsion, to get together physically; and in getting together physically, and getting to know one another's needs, there resulted a material unity. Not only was there a material unity, but there was also a spiritual unity – "And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple" (2:46a). They were one in mind, one in spirit, worshipping the Lord. Clearly then, unity on different levels characterized the early Church. Unity characterizes a healthy Church, a good Church; and I trust that as we, as a congregation, launch out into 1999, unity will characterize our fellowship, a unity on different levels because that is God's will and desire.

The early church was a community

The second characteristic of this early Church was that there was the fact and sense of community. There is an obvious connection between unity and community. If there really is a oneness, if there really is a harmony; if the people of God are characterized by unity of heart (because of love), then naturally, and of necessity, there will be an intersecting of lives; there will be a mutual sharing, a sense of fellowship, a desire to minister to each other, thinking of the good and welfare of the other. Unity provides for, and is the basis of, true community. Again, Acts 2:44 reads, "And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common [Now, the following verse provides an explanation, a development, of this final phrase in verse 44]. In what sense did these Christians have all things in common? How did that come about?] – "and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need" (2:45). Those who owned real estate, those who possessed substantial equity, sold it off, and they brought the proceeds of the sales to the apostles; and those proceeds became part of a common pool of funds, from which the various needs of believers were addressed. Think about this. Just imagine how it was in the early Church. Now, I am not suggesting you immediately follow this practice; but let me ask you, what must their frame of mind have been to do this? How intense must their love and commitment have been? How great would their concern for one another have to be that they would willingly and joyfully sell off their property, their lands, their homes, and put the proceeds of the sales into a common pool of funds?

You who own homes, you who have large equities, what would it take to motivate you to sell your home and property, for the good and welfare of others? Would you even do it? Many would not because they do not want to sacrifice their security and comfort. What would the circumstances have to be for you to demonstrate such a display of love? To be sure, you may consider such a sacrifice if your family needed help; but would you consider such a sacrifice if your fellow believers needed help? Now, I put these questions to you so that you may appreciate the love and commitment of the early Church; and I suggest that such love is to be the norm, not the exception. We have become content with, and used to, mediocrity. Some well-meaning Christian may read this account of the early Church and conclude that life is much more complicated now, and that such a practice cannot be reasonably entertained today. But we are called to the same kind and level of love and commitment as the early Church. I am not saying that every Christian should sell off all, or even some, of his or her property (see below); but what is the clear demonstration of your love and commitment? Would you even be willing to sell off your property to serve the Lord in a distant country, ministering to the poor? Life's circumstances may have changed, but the kind and level of love and commitment to which the Lord calls us has not. We are creatures of self-justification and excuse. Again, we enjoy our security and comfort too much. We are not prepared, nor even willing, to suffer want for the benefit and good of another.

Now, do not think that this early Church practice promoted a communistic system; we are not looking at communism, neither politically nor economically. Nor do we have in view an forced communal lifestyle. What is presented here is a corporate expression of love, care, and giving. This practice of altruism was not a necessary one in the early Church. These people voluntarily sold their lands, their properties, and their homes. It was a free will offering; they were under no compulsion to sell. They were not told, "If you are a Christian, you had better sell your home and property, and give the proceeds of the sale to the Church to distribute as we see fit." No, it would not be love then; they freely relinquished their possessions. Hence, we read the words of the apostle Peter to Ananias (who sold a piece of his property, and kept back some of the price for himself), "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God" (Acts 5:44).

Furthermore, this practice of altruism was not a generally normative one in the early Church. It was not to be a way of life for all Christians at all times. No, these Christians were responding to a needy situation. There were pressing financial and material needs in Jerusalem. Many early Christians were poor people; and the materially well-off Christians, characterized by love, responded to this situation as Jesus would – "And they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need" (v. 45). We are not Biblically required to sell off all, or even some, of our possessions and put the proceeds of the sales into as common pool of funds. We are not duty bound at this point, but love may at times demand such sacrificial action. I suggest to you, my Christian brothers and sisters, that the time may come when we, the Church, may face a similar situation in which many fellow-believers find themselves in incredibly dire need. At that time the measure of our love and commitment will be tested; and thus we will be challenged to seriously think about selling off our property, our goods, our lands in order to address the needs of our less fortunate brethren.

There have been times of emergency and exigency in the history of the Church, as was the case in the early Church; and the question that I put to you (and to myself) is this: If we were to be confronted with a similar situation in which our brothers and sisters were in incredibly dire need 'in our own back yard', would you sell off your home, your land, your property? Would you do that? The early Church did. That is what Biblical love demands. Acts 4:32,34,35 reads, "And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own ["my home is not mine," "my car is not mine", etc.]; but all things were common property to them...And there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sale, and lay them at the apostles' feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need." The early Church was a community. They ministered to those who had need.

So, first we see here a community with respect to physical needs; but second, we see a community with respect to their personal lives – "...breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together" (2:46b). In the early Church, there was a social intersecting of the lives of God's people. They were eating together. No doubt, they were inviting different ones over to their homes to share their material bounty (and perhaps their scarcity, in some cases); and I would think that the poor, in particular, were enjoying this hospitality. Sharing a meal together, according to the Scriptures, is a sign and a demonstration of fellowship. The early Christians did not live isolated lives, 'doing their own thing'. Believers characterized by love do not do that. The lifestyle of isolation is unBiblical, for it counters and undermines the body concept and teaching of the New Testament.

It is challenging, and inspiring, to realize how the early Church lived. Think about it. It was a good, healthy Church. Notice that they were taking their meals together "with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God" (vv. 46b,47a). They were not getting together out of compulsion or mere duty. They were getting together because they wanted to. The social times together were enjoyable, friendly, and uplifting. We, as a Church, should similarly desire and look forward to the various social times that are planned. But further, we should open our homes to each other, allowing our lives to intersect, enjoying meals to together as the body of Christ. And we should do this with "gladness and sincerity of heart," as the early Church did, which traits point to spirituality.

The early church was marked by spirituality

The third characteristic of this early Church was that there was the fact and sense of spirituality. Spirituality forms the bedrock of unity and community. Because the early Church was marked by depth of spirituality, there was thus a clear, demonstrable unity that gave way to the reality of community. Again we read verse 46b,47a, "...together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God." The early Christians had been encountered by the living God. They knew God. They had experienced the reality of God; and thus their lives had been radically transformed. You cannot sell off your property, your homes, etc. 'at the drop of a hat' unless your heart has been radically transformed, unless you have entered into a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, so that nothing else but Christ and His kingdom ultimately matters. For the believer who has received the Spirit of Christ, the only thing that ultimately matters is pleasing God and doing what is right in His sight. The allurements and pleasures of this world become inconsequential and meaningless.

These early Christians had a real, profound, life-transforming experience with Jesus Christ; and that is why they had gladness and sincerity of heart. I am suggesting that it was not simply getting together with other Christians that brought about the gladness of heart, and promoted that gladness. I am suggesting that it was in their encounter with the living God, and with their lives being radically changed, that they experienced an honesty and joy of heart, which, in turn, characterized their fellowship with other Christians. This primary joy of knowing God simply spilled over into their fellowship. Unless we know that gladness of heart in knowing God, we will not know that gladness of heart in being with God's people. We won't want our lives to intersect, but we will be content in living isolated, alienated lives, which particular state is an indictment against us and a judgement on the reality of our faith and the depth of our experience of God. We, as Christians, are called to do two basic things: to love God and to love our fellow person. You cannot love God without also loving your fellow person.

So, the early Church was characterized by gladness and sincerity of heart. Sincerity of heart is a high virtue. In other words, these early Christians were very open, very frank, not 'putting on the dog'. There was not an air of suspicion and mistrust. They apparently entertained pure motives, not wearing a facade, not putting on a mask, not endeavouring to be polite for mere duty's sake; they were genuine in deportment. Another way that we may translate the original Greek is 'simplicity of heart'. That is, these Christians were 'down to earth', not concerned about image and appearance; not concerned about what others thought about them. In this sense, sincerity and simplicity essentially mean the same thing.

Now, the spiritual blanket that covered all of the early Christians' behaviour and action was that of 'praising God'. Praising God is the height of true spirituality. The early Church was constantly praising God, not simply when they gathered together, but throughout the day. It did not matter what they were enduring, it did not matter what they were suffering, it did not matter what challenges they faced, they were constantly praising God. Are you constantly praising God? Does praising God characterize your live? Is your heart a Bethel, day in and day out? If your heart is filled with gladness and joy in knowing God, you cannot help but praise Him. Worship will naturally flow.

God blesses the good, healthy church

Thus, the early Church was characterized by love, and the fruit of that love was unity. Show me a Church in a state of disunity and disharmony, and I will show you a Church that lacks love, and is in disarray. The unity of the early Church gave way to community. Now, as a result of such a state, the Lord was pleased to bless. We must recognize that there is a connection between the blessing of God and a Church characterized by love, unity, and community – this early Church was "having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (2:47).

First, the Lord blessed the early Church by giving it favour with all the people. Now, this connection between a healthy state and divine blessing is not automatically the case; God may be pleased to bring suffering into our lives, and bring us into a state of persecution, even if we are evidencing brotherly unity and community. That is God's prerogative, according to the mystery of His will. And yet, on the other hand, God is often pleased to bless our unity and community by giving us favour in the eyes of unbelievers. For instance, Proverbs 16:7 reads, "When a man's ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him." Maybe you have different ones 'breathing down your neck' and people attacking you from all sides simply because your ways are not pleasing to God. I know that this is a general principle, but it is a principle nonetheless, which necessarily works itself out in our lives as God has ordained.

Second, the Lord blessed the early Church by increasing its numbers – "And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (v. 47b). God is pleased (and this is important for a Church which is endeavouring to reach out to the neighbourhood) to grow His Church when it is characterized by unity and community. We may be 'spinning our wheels' and 'knocking our heads up against the wall' with our plans and great ideas for evangelism if there is mayhem, confusion, and disharmony in the body of Christ. Psalm 133:1,3b reads, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!...For there the LORD commanded the blessing – life forever."

What I am suggesting, brothers and sisters, is that if we want to see numerical growth (and I believe that God is pleased when the Church grows numerically, as well as when it grows spiritually), we need to be a body characterized by unity, community, and spirituality. That is my challenge to you as we launch out into a new year. I encourage you to examine your heart (as I examine mine). Do you believe that there is unity, community, and spirituality here at Unionville Baptist Church? Do you really believe that we, as a leadership, as a congregation, are on the 'same page', that we have the same objectives, the same goals, that we are moving 'shoulder to shoulder', that we are showing mutual support, mutual caring, and mutual giving? Do you really believe that? Is that what your spirit is bearing witness to? If not, is it any wonder that we are struggling with growth? It is the Lord who adds to the fellowship such as He is pleased to save, and He is pleased to add to a Church characterized by genuine togetherness. So, this is our motto text for 1999 (and I think it highlights the main emphases that this passage communicates): "...together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God."