The next time you read through the books of Acts, underline every time you find the word “believe.” At the same time, circle every time you find a mention of the Scriptures, the word, or preaching. What you will soon discover is how radically committed the New Testament church was to proclaiming the Word of God and calling for belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Everywhere the apostles went they proclaimed the Word. Empowered by the Spirit, they were called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). Indeed, filled with the Spirit they fulfilled their calling of proclaiming the Word (Acts 4:31). As a result, in just a few short decades churches were planted all over the Mediterranean. And within three centuries, the early church would become the dominant world religion.
The Priority of the Word in Acts
In looking directly at the early church, it is interesting to compare their tactics for outreach with our own. I have heard many say that we grow through fellowship, relationships, and social connections. Certainly, there is value in each of these, but how often do Bible-believing Christians lean on the efforts of their friendliness more than the power of the Gospel?
By comparison, when we look at the church in Acts we find a distinctive difference, a church unswervingly committed to preaching and gospel confrontation. What is missing in the first church are programs for making people feel comfortable in the church. Consider a few examples.
- When Paul went into Thessalonica, he didn’t set up a picnic, a potluck, or a pitch in. He proclaimed Jesus Christ—crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness of sins.
- In Athens, he did not look to befriend the Athenians, he reasoned in the synagogue (17:17) and debated with the philosophers. He listened intently to Greco-Roman prophets, and then he asserted the rule of Christ and the possibility of redemption in his name.
- In Corinth, Paul stayed eighteen months proclaiming the gospel and in Ephesus he taught daily in the hall of Tyrannus. Acts 20 recalls how Paul taught from house to house (v. 20), but it doesn’t emphasize “fellowship” the way that moderns do. The church grew and united brothers and sisters in unity by means of faith, fasting, prayer, and mutual evangelistic labors.
On this priority of the Word, we do well to learn from Paul (and Peter and John and every other disciple). They did not first aim at belonging; they called for belief.
Fellowship: Then and Now
There is a great movement today (and it’s really not new) to make people feel comfortable first, then to make them a part of the church; to help them have fun or feel important, before calling them to faith. Yet, this reverses the pattern found in the New Testament. For instance, when the Philippian jailer asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul did not say in prison, “You should come spend time with us, get to know how much fun it is to follow God.” He said, ““Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Confirming the biblical pattern in Acts: believing preceded belonging.
Today, we in Christ’s church are called not to simply gather for fellowship and food. We are called to encourage one another to believe (Heb 3:13). Of course, this doesn’t ignore or downplay the place of membership or belonging. But it does mean that fellowship is not primary; faith is. True fellowship involves common belief in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And the way to increase fellowship, unity, and belonging is by focusing on “Word work.”
As Paul explains of his relationship with the Philippians church (not just the overseers and deacons), he enjoyed partnership with them on the basis of their mutual efforts in the gospel. Fellowship, according to Philippians 1:5, is not based on recreating together. It is a partnership in the work of the gospel. It is this kind of fellowship that conjoined Paul with his closest friends, and it is this kind of belonging that should grip the hearts of Christ’s people—fellowship predicated on a common faith (Titus 1:4), not just affinities for common activities. Ball games, barbeques, and bake sales are great, but they do not create true fellowship.
In the end, the argument is not either/or—belief or belonging. But it is an argument that says belief is more fundamental to our fellowship than mere belonging. Belief precedes and creates belonging. Thus churches that are going to have enduring unity, must focus on the faith once for all delivered to saints and cooperative evangelistic efforts. This shouldn’t cause one to question or cancel next weekend’s barbeque, but it should remind us that only the fellowship that lasts depends on the Word of God and mutual service to the King.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds