Tuesday, May 26, 2009

James Dunn on the Appeal of the Early Church

In chapter 30 of Christianity in the Making, James Dunn tackles the issue of Paul and his churches. Specifically, he seeks to indentify how people in the first century would have categorized this new group called a "church" compared to the existing social groups of the time. Dunn compares the church to associations, cults, schools, and synagogues and concludes that the church had similarities and differences to all of these groups.

At the end of the chapter, Dunn has a great section on what would have drawn people to the church as opposed to other contemporary groups. He lists nine reasons people would have been drawn to the early church:

1. The transformative power of Paul's message. People's lives were being changed as a result of their encounter with God in the early church.

2. Striking experiences of the Spirit and of power. God was at work in new and amazing ways in the early church. People were getting healed, demons were being exorcized, and the poor were being provided for.

3. The promise of eternal life. The Christian hope is one of resurrection from the dead.

4. The draw of union with a man who conquered death. Jesus stood out as unique among men.

5. Religious devotion. People are always looking for a serious religion. Christianity provided this without demanding judaizing.

6. The completeness of the religion. Christianity is a sound faith that adequately answers many of mankind's most difficult philosophical and religious questions.

7. Good food. Many of the early Christians were poor and would have looked forward to the communal meals.

8. Community. Then as now, people struggled with loneliness and anxiety. The church provided them with a sense of belonging.

9. Openness to members of varying social status. The church was a place where Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor could all eat and fellowship together.

These are great insights from Dunn. How many of these could be said of our churches today?


eyes wide open said...

Unfortunately not many. I am intrigued. What is your purpose, where is your heart relative to what has become traditional, and how do you fellowship?

I have been on a very interesting road for the past 4 years. I am not where I am destined but doing "church" has taken on a whole new meaning for me and my little body/Church.

Perhaps I can engage you further?

In Jesus the great God and King.

Matt said...

Good questions.

I am a big fan of all things traditional. Sadly, much of what goes in American evangelical churches can't be tied to tradition going back more than about 100 years.

My interests are in recapturing what has been called Christian over the centuries and then contextualizing that to 21st century America. Books like Dunn's on first century Christianity are of particular interest to me.

Right now, my interests are in the transformative effect of the Gospel and the sociological impact of the church. I want to get out of "church as [only] a club of those who affirm a particular creed" to "church as a transformed community of Christ's disciples." I would also like to see the church as a model of the new humanity in which people of all races, ages, and walks of life can gather together to worship God.

My church may be accused by some of being too conservative. But the upside of that is that we have done a great job of clinging to what is Christian without chasing after what is trendy.

Rob Dilfer said...

10. Good coffee.

Seriously though, I might add that there was a sense of a common mission. Reading the book of Acts and studying the first century church, you might say that being Christian was synonymous with being a missionary. I think that having a common mission draws people together in a powerful way.

I've also been drawn to the subject of the early church, and of the shift in Christianity near the beginning of the 20th century. There was a huge change in the expression of Christianity both during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and coming into the 20th century. It's pretty startling to realize that Christianity was done much differently for 2000 years before us.