Outline

I. The most obvious and visible way religious experience organizes life around itself is in the formation of a community: Christianity was a social movement from the beginning.

A. The earliest evidence suggests that the expansion of Christianity in the first generation took place less by the conversion of individuals than by the formation of "churches" (ekklesia) that gathered in "households"

B. The first Christian communities shared certain characteristics with other groups in the environment.

1. The Hellenistic household provided relational language (in a sort of fictive kinship—early Christians called one another "brother" and "sister"), a pattern of ethics ("tables" of household ethics), and a rich set of metaphors.

2. The Greco-Roman club and cult contributed the basic pattern of administration through a board of elders.

3. The Hellenistic synagogue shared the pattern of administration and contributed the basic set of activities: engaging in worship, teaching, settling disputes, and supporting the needy.

C. These structural dimensions were often in tension with other more radical aspects of Christian experience.

1. The patriarchal structure of society was threatened by the ideal of egalitarianism: In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28).

2. The conventional patterns of authority were challenged by charismatic leadership based on divine call (apostles, prophets) or religious experience (visions, tongues).

3. The stability of institutions was placed in question by eschatological convictions ("the frame of this world is passing away").

D. A major challenge to early Christian communities was establishing clear boundaries between themselves and other groups.

1. A clear distance is established between the church ("the saints") and the perceived immorality of Greco-Roman culture. Aspects of Greek philosophy are adopted, but Greco-Roman religion is demonized.

2. The distinction from Judaism is made by the rejection of circumcision and the observance of ritual laws, while continuity is established through the maintenance of Jewish religious convictions (Torah) and moral standards (the Decalogue).

II. Although Christian communities were spread across a vast territory and developed in relative independence—thus, the diversity in the New Testament literature—they also maintained an implicit fellowship (koinonia) through a variety of means.

A. The New Testament literature itself shows how rapidly the movement expressed itself in writing and developed a literary interdependence.

B. Despite some conflicts among leaders, the movement also manifested a fellowship of personal cooperation and communication.

1. A complex network of personal communication was established very early, as indicated in lists of names in various letters.

2. Further evidence of communication between Christian leaders is found in the early and crucial decision to allow Gentiles into the community without circumcision—the most important and decisive decision made in Christian history. This decision was made at a conference in Jerusalem that took place around 49.

C. Communities established and maintained ties of fellowship through the sharing of material possessions. The outstanding example is the collection that Paul took up for the church in Jerusalem.

D. The New Testament writings are diverse in genre, theme, and perspective, but they also share a common set of religious convictions (e.g., there is one Lord Jesus Christ) and moral standards (the Ten Commandments and the law of love).

III. Four metaphors used of the church in the New Testament writings point to different dimensions of its self-understanding.

A. The metaphor of "the people of God" (Acts 15:4; Rom. 9:25; 1 Cor. 10:7; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 13:12; 1 Pet. 2:910; Rev. 18:4; 21:3) on one side stresses continuity with Judaism, but on the other makes an exclusive claim to embody "the people."

B. The metaphor of "the household of God" also reapplies the ancient title of "Household of Israel/Jacob" (Acts 2:36; 7:42) and echoes the link to the social structure of the Hellenistic household (see 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 3:3, 6; 10:21; 1 Pet. 4:17; 2 Tim. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:1).

C. The metaphor of "the temple of God" (1 Cor. 3:9, 16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:1; 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 4:12; Rev. 3:12; 7:15; 21:22) again appropriates a central symbol of Judaism for the community itself—as did the Qumran community—with a special emphasis on the presence of God (through the Holy Spirit).

D. The metaphor of "the Body of Christ" is exclusively Pauline (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 6:15; 10:16-17; 12:1227; Eph. 1:23; 2:16; 4:4-16; Col. 1:18, 24) and stresses the presence, through the Holy Spirit, of the risen Christ within the community as the source of its life.

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