Episode 49: Exploring Church History (3) Organisation
Laurence and Stephen conclude this 3 part series looking into aspects of early church history. This time they explore how people became members of a church and the significance of sharing the bread and cup of wine to remember Jesus. As in previous episodes, there are some similarities with churches today, but also some differences that are worth reflecting upon.
Stephen and Laurence introduce the conversation by discussing the reasons why followers of Jesus formed communities which regularly met together, now known as churches. They comment on how the regular assembly, (that’s what the word ‘church’ really means), was meant to strengthen each other’s faith, or ‘build each other up’ as 1 Corinthians 14:26 describes it.
Organisation around the breaking of bread
Churches in the first century were organised around a very important weekly meal of remembrance – one particular time when the members of a church assembled together. Laurence and Stephen talk about how this practice began extremely early, and that it can be seen as an important part of the New Testament Christian organisation, (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:26).
Historian Henry Chadwick writes about the breaking of bread as follows:
Each Sunday they [the early Christians] met for their ‘thanksgiving’ in which the baptized ate bread and drank wine in a sacred meal which they spoke of as ‘eating the body’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of Christ. To share in this sacred meal was…deeply felt to be the essential expression of membership of the society…H. Chadwick, The Early Church (London, 1993), p32-33
As with baptism, (discussed in part one), the sharing of bread and wine together formed the basis of church organisation. Those who were baptised took part because they had committed to being a follower of Christ.
Church organisation and later history
The breaking of bread meal, known as the Eucharist, (the Greek word for thanksgiving), is discussed in the Didache, an early Christian writing from the late first century or early second century AD, (and mentioned in our church history primer episode). The Didache outlines rules or guidelines for various things, including who should and shouldn’t partake in the Eucharist. Stephen shows how the Didache emphasised that the breaking of bread was for Christians who had been baptised.
They continue to discuss further restrictions on sharing the Eucharist, including how the Corinthian church was urged by the apostle Paul to exercise some form of discipline against members who had behaved in extremely inappropriate ways, and who were in need of moral correction. This seems overly harsh and discriminatory even, yet they stress that the reason for this action, according to Paul, was to try and generate repentance from the individual concerned, so that they turn back to following the teachings of Jesus.
More to discuss and conclusions
Laurence and Stephen conclude by recognising that there are many more topics that could be considered as part of the organisation within a church, not least the various roles and responsibilities that are mentioned within the New Testament such as Overseers, Elders and Deacons.
They also summarise the overall message of the series. Christianity is generally very different today from its original and authentic expression. Beliefs and practices have changed over time and many of these changes have been in a direction that is further away from core Christianity found in the teaching of Jesus and the practice of his very first followers. Being a disciple of Jesus means caring deeply about what he said and what he did, so it’s important to get to know what happened in the early church and the reasons why.
Stephen and Laurence reflect on their own church community, the Christadelphians, and how it represents at least one attempt to get back to the original authentic Christianity.