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The Importance of Unity in a Church -- Acts 2:41-47

Which reflects Jesus: a unified church or a dysfunctional church?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 2:41-47

The early church devoted themselves to Bible study, true fellowship, and prayer. And lives were changed as God blessed their commitment and faithfulness to Him and one another. We can emphasize those things in our class and our church!

And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. Acts 2:47

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About


Teamwork

It’s basketball season, so I’ll end up going down this road for my icebreaker, but you will see that you could use any number of examples that would best speak to your class and their interests. What makes a great team? Chemistry, shared vision, strong work ethic, trust, and a clear structure. This works in sports, business, everywhere. In the NBA, there are some obvious examples. There are two teams going down as two of the greatest of all time, the Spurs and the Warriors. Their commitment to “team” is already as legendary as it is hard to quantify. There are two teams who are underachieving something fierce (even if one of them is still really good), the Cavs and the Kings, because their entire organization seems pretty dysfunctional. Coaches and GMs get hired and fired quickly, meaning there is no long-term plan being executed, players are selected without looking to chemistry, which means that talent does not complement itself, leaving the whole to be less than the sum of its parts.


You can see examples of this all over professional sports. In the NFL, you can see it in the difference between very strong and well-run organizations such as the Broncos and the Patriots and dumpster-fire organizations such as the Browns or the Dolphins. Two of those organizations routinely make deep runs in the playoffs. Two of them . . . don’t. Switching to MLB, I’m sure you could get a rise if you start talking about the difference between the Braves of the 90’s and the Braves of this decade.


It’s a little bit harder to identify in the business world, but I’m sure you could ask your folks what jobs they enjoyed most and find a correlation between those jobs and the people they worked with. It is certainly true in my life that good co-workers made a job fantastic. And a terrible job was often at least partially caused by terrible co-workers (and by “terrible” I mean—not committed to the business, not interested in relationships, not possessing the same work ethic or respect for authority).


In the sports world, this is an easy discussion to have because we see it reflected in a win/loss record at the end of the year. But this is just as important in church where we may have to dig a little deeper to see evidence of “team chemistry” . . .


The Importance of Being in Church

Let’s be honest—I get tired of talking about “the good old days.” But here’s the value in it: ask your class what things were like when they felt like church/spiritual life was at its best. I would want to know exactly what it was about those times that make them stand out. Then make sure to point out that we can’t control what may have changed in other people, but we can control what happens in ourselves. Are we still doing everything we can to be a part of making the church a positive place? Over and over in this lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of being committed to our fellowship, to getting together, to supporting one another. Are we still doing that?

 

This Week's Big Idea: Believers' Baptism

If you guys know me, you know that I am very committed to my Christian identity as a “Baptist.” These few verses are one of the main reasons why: Luke describes what the early church looked like, and it looked an awful lot like what a Baptist church is supposed to look like. Here, I want to focus on baptism.


We live in a bizarre community in which people switch back and forth between a Methodist church and a Baptist church. I really don’t understand that at all; the difference in beliefs about baptism alone are foundational to a church. They’re the sort of belief you don’t just change willy-nilly.

Here’s the difference between “infant baptism” (which churches like the Methodists and Presbyterians practice) and “believers’ baptism” (which is what groups like Baptists and the various Pentecostals practice). Water baptism is represented by the dotted circle. In a Baptist church, a person is saved, they he is baptized, then he is admitted as a member of the local church. The phrase “true church” represents true Christians. If the pastor and membership committee have prayerfully done their job, only people with a credible salvation testimony will be members of that church (which is the best we can to do identify a true Christian).


In an infant baptism model, however, people are intentionally baptized before they are saved. Everybody is admitted into the local church, and then they hope that most of those people will eventually be saved. (Some of the more responsible of those churches at least have multiple levels of membership so that you don’t have non-Christians becoming deacons and the like.) Bring everybody into the church and then share the gospel with them. At least, that’s the theory.


The problem is that that’s not how they did it in the book of Acts. There is an extremely clear pattern all throughout Acts: people heard the gospel, they repented and were saved, they were baptized, then they were brought into the local church. It’s so clear, in fact, that no one really tries to make a biblical defense of infant baptism any more—they make an argument based on a slanted understanding of covenant theology and a louder argument based on society. Thanks, but I’ll stick with the book of Acts and believers’ baptism.

 

The Context of Acts

So—last week we learned that the Holy Spirit came and empowered the disciples, a large crowd gathered to see what was going on, and Peter took the opportunity to stand up and preach the gospel to them. And boy did it work! Peter told them to repent, and they repented. Peter told them to be baptized, and they were baptized. Peter pleaded with them to be saved, and more than 3,000 were. Yeah!


One comment about v. 39: Peter says that this is “for you and your children” which some churches take to be a defense of infant baptism. Yikes, that’s lazy. What is the promise? That those who repent and believe in the name of Jesus will be saved and given the Holy Spirit. Is that true of our children? Yes. Is that true of everyone? Yes. Peter’s point is that God has made this promise to all, not just to those who were present at Pentecost. It has nothing to do with infant baptism.

 

Part 1: Devoted (Acts 2:41-42)

So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.

This is such a great passage because it is so easy to explain and apply. The people who believed were baptized (that’s why we call it “believers’ baptism”; what a great baptism service that must have been!). They didn’t have to be baptized to be saved; they were baptized in order to publicly identify themselves with this new church and that church’s Lord Jesus. And what did they focus on?


(1) The apostles’ teaching. We have that in the Bible and nowhere else. That’s why we study the Bible. They devoted themselves to it. The word means a persistent and faithful engagement. These new believers didn’t just come and go, they came and committed. And the most important thing they could “learn” (which is still true of us today) is the teaching of God. Those apostles had walked with Jesus- they only passed on what He had taught them. That’s what we have in the Bible.


(2) The fellowship. This is that word koinonia I have in the sidebar. Yes, being physically present together in social settings is good, but that’s not the kind of fellowship Luke is talking about. They had common commitments (in Jesus). They worked together in meaningful tasks. They were open and honest with one another, caring for one another.


(3) The breaking of bread. I have on the next sidebar why I think this is more than just eating together but also sharing the Lord’s Supper, but in these early days, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t some kind of stand-alone ceremony, but something they remembered every chance they could. Every meal was an opportunity to reflect on their spiritual blessings and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We need to get together regularly, and when we do to remember what Jesus has done for us. Make Jesus front and center of our gatherings, and they will become more than get-togethers but spiritual times of building!


(4) The prayers. Jews in that day had a regular schedule of daily and seasonal prayers, and that could very well be what Luke had in mind. But the “apostles’ teaching” would have included everything Jesus said about prayer. That’s why I think of this as prayers that the apostles would have taught the people to pray, even if they were more simple guidelines than rote prayers. Their power source was the Holy Spirit, and they knew well enough to stay plugged into Him.

Ask about “friends.” Who are your acquaintances, who are your friends, and what’s the difference? I would spend some good time on that. Let’s be honest—we’ll never be close friends with everybody in our church, that’s physically impossible. Our interests are all over the map. I like to do nerdy things, and that would drive some folks crazy around here. But we should be able to be more than acquaintances with everyone here. Name someone in the church you think you could never be friends with. Why not? What can you do to change that?


So how do we do these things? How do we create this bond? I know of two surefire ways, and only two. Everything else takes a very, very long time. (1) Do external ministry together, and (2) do crisis together. The people with whom I have built the fastest relationships here are those I have gone on mission trips with or done major ministry projects with, and those I have been around in times of personal crisis (theirs or mine). That’s how deep relationships get forged. So—when you’re in trouble, call on someone to help you. Don’t be proud. And when someone calls on you, be there for them! And second, put together a ministry project or go on a mission trip with your class members. Do it! Finally, make your gatherings about Jesus, even the “fun” ones. If every time you get together you talk about Jesus, I promise God will bless your relationships.

 

Aside: Fellowship, koinonia

This is an important word. Your leader guide points out a number of verses you can look up which use this word (as “fellowship,” “partnership,” “participating,” and “sharing”), so here are some other things to consider. Koinonia was Paul’s favorite term to describe our relationship with Jesus; through Jesus, we “participate” in the power of the gospel. It’s also the word he used to describe our relationship with the Holy Spirit which creates the bond of unity in a church.


Paul spoke of us “sharing” the Lord’s Supper (the body and blood of Christ), which is why some call it Communion. He earnestly believed that Communion brought us closer to Jesus and to one another. That’s why he said that Christians should not join in a religious meal to a false god, and why he said that Christians should take it so seriously.


Beyond that, Paul also said that Christians need to “share” with one another physically in the sense of material assistance. Church “fellowship” isn’t just spiritual but also tangible. He called the offering they took up for the Jerusalem church a koinonia.


Finally, Paul also used this term to talk about “agreement” in major, controversial issues. After church leaders had debated a matter and come to a conclusion, they gave “the right hand of fellowship” to indicate their new unity.


In other words, this idea of “fellowship” is thorough and fundamental to the entire Christian existence. When we have fellowship (koinonia) with one another, it’s not just spending some time together, it’s about a spiritual and material support for one another and deep unity of purpose.


Bonus Aside: The Breaking of Bread

In 2:42, Luke mentions “the breaking of bread” as one of the main actions of the early church. Your leader guide says that it refers to the practice of group dinner which may have occasionally included the Lord’s Supper. And that’s fine—there’s no question that table fellowship is a very, very important aspect of relationship-building. But I want to argue that this more likely refers to the Lord’s Supper than a group meal. Luke uses the phrase both ways (Luke 22:19 vs maybe Acts 20:11), but it seems strange that Luke would inject a common action in between something so charged as “fellowship” (see above) and “prayer.”


Here’s my take on this. To most Jews, a shared family meal was a sacred experience that offered lots of opportunity for spiritual teaching. The early Christians would have inherited that plus a knowledge of what Jesus said and did at His last supper with the disciples. My guess is that every time they shared a meal together that involved bread and wine (i.e. just about always), someone brought up the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Therefore, their normal meals together had a deep spiritual application. (This is what in later years came to be called a “love feast” as the church didn’t gather together quite so often.) But then as some church members failed to recognize the meaning and purpose of the meal/Communion, Paul wrote it down. Then, as church members gathered more infrequently, Communion became a thing they did only occasionally.


So anyway, I believe this reference is to the Lord’s Supper as highlighting the spiritual side of their personal relationships.

 

Part 2: Together (Acts 2:43-47a)

Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people.

If you’re feeling adventurous, have some fun with this. Do some magic tricks. Here’s a website with some simple ones. Or show something else amazing. Whatever. But make sure you make this point: “How amazing was that, really? Not very!” It’s quite possible for a church to put on a fancy light show or some impressive presentations and draw a crowd. But are those the “signs and wonders” Luke is talking about here? Of course not. People weren’t being impressed by the apostles, they were being astonished by the power of God. The word for “wonders and signs” is the same used of the miracles Jesus performed in the Gospels. That could mean anything, from medical miracles to speaking in tongues to anything. We’ve seen miracles happen in FBC; God used those miracles to validate the ministry and the people. And we are in awe of God when those things happen, just as these early disciples were. (This is the sense that “fear” means “respect” or “reverence”; awe.) God was doing amazing things among them, and their lives were changed.


For our purposes, we focus on the idea of together. What did these new believers do? They spent time together. Lots of it. Why? Because that’s where they wanted to be. Those were the people who understood what they had experienced. Having things “in common” is that word koinonia again. On the back, I talk about those who have wrongly interpreted this to mean that Christians should be Communists. It means that the early Christians truly thought of each other as family. Ask this question: “What have you given to or sacrificed for family members?” My guess is that we’ve all done a lot for them, and we did it willingly. That’s what we’re talking about here. And I think the leader guide makes a great point: this kind of love isn’t terribly evident in a lot of churches today. What’s our reputation for unity and togetherness in Thomson?


This is why it’s important for you to organize fellowship activities for your class. Put things on the calendar for everyone to do together! But don’t leave it there—encourage your class members to get together on their own. The early believers spent time together. They made a commitment to that, and it made a huge difference. But your leader guide gives you a great quote from Tozer: “One hundred worshipers each looking to Christ are nearer in heart to each other than they possibly could be if they became ‘unity’ conscious and began to focus on fellowship.” That’s why we always keep the emphasis on Jesus. We can have friends, or in Jesus we can have brothers and sisters for eternity. The early church made a commitment to each other; they demonstrated it through sacrificial care, time, and sharing. Isn’t that what kids want from parents? Spouses from each other? Isn’t that what we tend to consider “love”? Well, let’s show it in our families and in our church family! Talk about ways you guys can do it in your Sunday School class.

 

Part 3: Growing (Acts 2:47b)

And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.

This is one of the reasons why we pay for Sunday School material—they believed it important to highlight this part of the verse, and I think they’re right. We don’t want to overlook this. It is healthy for a church to grow. Numerical growth isn’t everything. People can get too caught up in numbers. Numerical growth without spiritual growth is not what God desires. But even spiritual growth should manifest itself in some numbers as people become more committed to attendance and inviting friends. Here’s what I take away from this verse: God is the One adding to their numbers. As Paul would say, “God made it grow.” But why? Because the church was being faithful to ministry, fellowship, discipleship, and evangelism. I think we can almost say that God rewarded their faithfulness. Why do some churches grow and others decline? Why does God “bless” some churches and not others? I think this gives us at least part of the answer: some churches remain committed to being and doing the things God has called us to. Do a self-evaluation (of yourself as an individual or as a class).

  • What are you as an individual contributing to the health and unity of your class and our church?

  • What are you as a class contributing to the health and unity of our church?

Pray for us as a church, pray for your class, pray for the individuals—what would God have us do to bring positive change in our church and in Thomson? What would God have us do to be part of revival here? Pray!

 

Aside: US Church Attendance Statistics

David has talked about some discouraging trends in US-wide church attendance. There was once a time when committed church members were in church 3 times a week; now, the new norm is that people who call themselves committed church members are in church less than 3 times a month. There are lots of reasons for that, and there’s no sense going into them here. But let me give you some background perspective here:


From 1965 to 2014, the United Church of Christ has declined by 52%, the Episcopal Church by 49%, the PCUSA Church by 47%, and the United Methodist Church by 33%. On the other hand, the Assemblies of God has increased by 430%, the Southern Baptist Convention by 46%, and the AME Church by 114%. But overall, while the number supported the idea that 40% of Americans regularly attended church in the 60’s, that number is now less than 20%. And worst of all, only 6% of churches are now growing faster than their population.


But digging deeper, we see that things might actually be worse. For example, Southern Baptist numbers have dropped each year since our “peak” in 2003. The biggest drops in attendance have been in mid-sized churches (a few hundred) while the biggest gains have been in megachurches. And many of those churches happen to be non-denominational. It’s pretty easy to connect those dots. Most of the churches that are “growing” are doing so at the expense of other churches and thus not making headway in our country. So in summary, people are attending church less, people are moving to larger churches where their down attendance will be less noticeable, and churches aren’t keeping up with population growth. That’s a pretty bleak picture, and it’s actually worse in other parts of the country than here in Thomson. Lord, have mercy.

 

Closing Thoughts: Christian Socialism ("Compounds")

Based on Acts 2, there are a number of Christian communities that have actually tried to practice socialism in the sense that they think they read it in the Bible. Socialism is the idea that there should be no private property (people’s desire for someone else’s private property is the cause of most sin). A number of Anabaptists in the 1500s/1600s formed compounds based on fully shared property. Other examples of this include the Oneida Community in New York (1848) which took it as far as shared wives and communal child care. The Buderhof Communities are another, as are groups like The Family and the Branch-Davidians. Among the many problems with those approaches is that someone ultimately took power and molded the group after his own interests. I have not found an example throughout history of a group that effectively practiced Acts 2 socialism.


And that’s because Acts doesn’t promote socialism. At most, we would say that it promotes a kind of communalism, one in which people still have private property, but they can contribute as much of that as they want to the community. And the community doesn’t withdraw from society but lives in it and engages it. You see, the early Christians freely and willingly gave of their own goods to the needs of the church; in a socialism model there are no choices to do so. There is no discipleship in this matter, only control and command. In Acts, those who had been successful and built up great wealth were able to use that wealth for others. Such is not an option socialist or compound approach. As a Christian church, we contribute to the needs of the church community (we call it our “budget”) and we contribute to the needs of the outside community (through “benevolence” or “missions”). This is not so different than the early church—what is different is the extent of our own operation (buildings, bills, etc.) that the early church didn’t have to worry about.

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