The 1st Century Church in the 20th

by Victor Paul Wierwille

The first century Church had tremendous power because Christians believed that when they were saved they received the power from the Holy Spirit, and thus could operate the nine manifestations of the spirit.  Besides having such internal power, the early believers studied the Word of God and acted on it as being the will of God.

The first century Church, as the record in the book of Acts indicates, made tremendous progress.  It moved with an anointing such as we have never seen.  The fact that they progressed beyond the point which the current Church has achieved cannot be accredited to God because God has not changed.  When some people talk about God pouring out a special anointing in these last days, it simply is not true.  The Word says He sent His gift on the day of Pentecost.  His gift is here.  The early Church obviously was more alive and dynamic, not because God was more powerful, but because it operated more effectively.

The early Church, the Body, as recorded in the book of Acts and the Church Epistles, developed a pattern for its growth in various localities:

  1. Each person was responsible to witness with boldness to the Word of God.  When a person accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, "older" Christians continued to nurture and shepherd him until the new Christian was grounded well enough to stand and walk alone on that Word.
  2. Small supervised meetings, called churches, were held in private homes with a head elder or pastor overseeing each home unit.
  3. Personal revisits and written communications were kept up with each group, each church, by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
  4. Christians were not to be side-tracked by material possessions.  Thus they sold their unneeded possessions in order to further the work of the ministry.

The early Church was born into a society which was just as indoctrinated and hardened as any society has been at any time.  The Romans were governmentally in control and paganism was rampant.  Yet the firstcentury Christian Church turned the world upsidedown -- which means they turned it right side up.  They had the potential spiritual ability which became kinetic in a most wonderful and dynamic way.  Within one generation the early believers changed the whole spiritual and moral climate of that part of the world.  We do not know how many Christians really walked on the Word of God in the first century and witnessed to the then-known world, but we do know that according to Acts 19:10, in two years and three months "... all ... Asia [currently known as Asia Minor] heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks."

This feat certainly could not have been accomplished, and was not accomplished, by one man.  But under Paul's ministry and teaching the original "... about twelve ..." (Acts 19:7) men (households) were inspired and learned to walk on the Word of God and share it with others.  All Asia Minor heard this wonderful Word of God as it spread out from Ephesus because each believer endeavored to win one, and nurtured that one until the new-born Christian was strong enough to stand and walk on the Word of God, operating the manifestations of the spirit.  All this was accomplished without the modern aids of radio, television and printed matter.

One of the earliest accounts of a believer winning a friend is found in John 1:40 and 41.  This is the record in which Andrew first found his brother Peter and brought him to the Lord.

As in our day, not everyone in the first century believed and was saved when a Christian witnessed.  When you preach the Word of God and share it with an individual or with a group, you will discover that the response will be as in Acts 28:24, "And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not."

In the unbelieving group, of course, were those who according to Acts 17:32, when they heard the Word of God regarding the resurrection of the dead, "... some mocked:  and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter."

The early Church leaders, including Peter and the other apostles, were very bold in the presentation of the Word of God; and because of their boldness, multitudes of both men and women were added to the Church as Acts 5:14 tells, "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women..."  However as the record in Acts 5 continues, the high priest and the Sadducees laid their hands on the apostles and put them in prison.  Yet as soon as the Christians were released, God told them, "Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life..."  So they went back into the Temple to teach.

The high priest soon came also to the Temple and called the Sanhedrin together to bring the prisoners before it; but the apostles were not in the prison.  When the high priest, the captain of the Temple and the chief priests (according to Acts 5:24) heard what God was doing and how He had released these men from prison, they were disturbed.  They did not want the growth of this new movement.  It took great courage on the part of the apostles to go into the Temple again and teach the people, knowing ahead of time there would be trouble when they spoke the true Word of God.  According to verse 29, "... Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men."

After they had been ruthlessly interrogated, the apostles were beaten and commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus.  Yet the apostles persevered, for Acts 5:42 says, "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ."

Those in the synagogues could not tolerate them, even as the true believers on the Word of God in many places cannot be tolerated in the organized and established churches today.  This necessitated the second point in this study, namely, small supervised meetings, called churches, in the homes.  I will give you the Scriptures I have noted so you can read exactly what is written in the Word of God concerning such meetings.

In Acts 5 we read that the apostles went from house to house talking to the people about the Word of the Lord.  This is the first record demonstrating how the apostles declared the Word of God very early in the age of the Church to which you and I belong.

Later, in Acts 8:3 we read that Paul (whose Hebrew name was Saul), before being saved, entered " ... into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison..."  It was necessary to go into the houses to find the Christians since these were their meeting places.

Acts 10 is the first record of a Gentile household coming into the experience of the new birth and receiving the power from the Holy Spirit into manifestation.

Acts 10:2

A devout man [Cornelius], and one that feared God with all his house...

This meeting, again in a house, was characteristic of the early Church.

Acts 16 tells of Paul's and Silas' ministering in a house immediately after God had released them from prison.  The keeper of the prison spoke in Acts 16:30, " ... Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

Acts 16:31,32

And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.

This is a significant verse of Scripture in that the precedent is set for witnessing to entire households at one time.  We are not to attempt to win just one person out of a household for the Lord Jesus Christ, but we should endeavor to win the whole house:  father, mother and all the children.

The culture of the East differs from the culture in America, but we can at least apply the principles of The Word.  If we can convince father and mother, I feel confident that the younger children can be won, especially if the father and mother are taught the accuracy of the Word of God concerning their responsibility toward God and their families.

Acts 18:8

And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.

The head of the house was converted; he was taught the accuracy of the Word of God, and in turn the entire household was brought into the household of faith, receiving the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Another example of a house as a meeting place is recorded in Acts 21.

Acts 21:8

And the next day we that were of Paul's company departed, and came unto Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist...

Philip's house had become a meeting place for the believers.  Paul's lodging place in Rome also became a meeting place for the extension of the Word of God and the teaching of it in the early days of the Christian Church.

Acts 28:23, 30, 31

And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him,

Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.

This is the record of the early Church in the book of Acts, which is the historical presentation of the founding and growth of the Christian Church.

Turn to Romans 16:3 and 5 and note that Paul sent word to the Romans saying, "Greet Priscilla and Aquila ... greet the church [the local Christian group] that is in their house..."

I Corinthians 1:11

For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.

I Corinthians and Colossians give other examples of local Christian groups meeting in a house.

I Corinthians 16:19

The churches of Asia salute you.  Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.

Colossians 4:15

Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.

A verse in I Timothy ought to be read very carefully.

I Timothy 3:15

But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

The homes in which the churches met were called houses of God.  These homes were the pillars of the Church for these fellowships were built on the foundation of truth.

Philemon, verse 2

And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house.

Since these verses which I have shared with you are the Word of God concerning the early churches meeting in houses under proper supervision, this must be God's method of winning men and women to the Church and sustaining them.  If you say the times have changed, then I would like to say the Word of God has not changed.  When the churches met in the homes, the small groups made possible participation by everyone, as well as the giving of attention and help to the individual.

Inside the home or church group there must be leadership.  The work of the Lord cannot be done haphazardly.  I believe we could meet in homes, in groups of six to possibly twenty people or so, depending on the size of the room.  Then we could take care of the believers in every particular area.  No one would need to drive very far and yet the people would hear the wonderful Word of God.  Our children could meet in a separate room with an adult teaching them the Word of God, or they could sit with the adults.  Hearing the Word of God properly explained and the manifestations operated would be the greatest thing that could be done for them.  Remember, it is the churches, the fellowships of believers, that we are concerned about; nothing that man has built will suffice.

Regarding elders or pastors for each unit, let us look at Paul's example in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 20.  Paul calls the elders of the Ephesian church together to admonish them.

Acts 20:28, 29

Take heed therefore unto yourselves [which is the first requirement of any leader], and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.

The "overseer" refers to an elder who was the ruler, the leader, the supervisor in the house, the church.  These elders were pastors for the local units, sometimes called bishops.  The overseers must be very, very careful as to what goes on in the house where the church, the fellowship, is meeting.

Acts 20:30

Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.

In other words, Satan would trick some from among the overseers themselves.  There would be splits in the churches which were held in the homes because people were full of pride and wanted to draw away disciples after themselves and not after the Word of God.  Therefore strong, accurate leadership was essential.

And this leadership was not determined by chance.  The overseer was chosen by the man of God who was led by the Holy Spirit.

Titus 1:5

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.

The elders were told how to behave in I Peter.

I Peter 5:2, 3

Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;

Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.

Now, regarding the revisits by the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, the book of Acts constantly tells of Paul's starting fellowships at various places and then revisiting them.  We see other men - Timothy, Titus, Sylvanus and others - revisiting churches, fellowships.  As we study the missionary journeys, we note that Derbe, Caesarea, Antioch of Pisidia, Tarsus, Iconium, Pessinus, Ephesus, Troas, Neapolis, Philippi, Amphipolis, Apollonia, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth were among places revisited.

In Acts 20 we have the record of Paul's return visit to Ephesus where he called the elders of the church together.  The reason there were elders (plural) in the church is that there were many houses where the people met, each house being under the supervision of an elder.  Paul is speaking in the following verse to the elders in Ephesus.

Acts 20:20

I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly [that is, in group meetings in large houses] , and from house to house.

The Apostle Paul not only went from house to house to teach the wonderful Word of God, he also wrote letters to the scattered churches, local fellowships, which made up the Church, the Body.  These letters were then read in the various homes where the Christians were meeting.  This is how the early Church received instruction and grew.  You will note that I and II Timothy specify the entire procedure and conduct for the leaders in relation to the Church.  We cannot read these epistles too carefully because in them we find the truth which we need to know to accurately manifest the greatness of God's Word.

The fourth point in accounting for the rapid growth of the early Church was that Christians gave all material possessions which they did not need to the furthering of the Christian ministry.  But before looking at this specific point, let us build up to it in Acts 4 to see the other "growth elements" which came before Christians gave up their excess material possessions.

According to Acts 4 Peter and John had just ministered healing to a man who was more than forty years old, for which deed they were imprisoned and charged not to speak at all and not to teach in the name of Jesus.* Upon their release from prison, however, Peter and John immediately began preaching The Word again.

* Acts 4:18: "And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus."

Acts 4:29

And now, Lord, behold their [the synagogue leaders'] threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word.

Isn't that a wonderful prayer? This is the first recorded prayer of the early Church.  The apostles had been incarcerated, humiliated, hurt and threatened for their teaching and for the way in which they ministered healing.  Yet, when Peter and John returned to the group of believers - instead of asking for a vacation - instead of asking for an easier place to serve - they prayed, "Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word."  Speaking The Word got them in trouble to begin with, but only their perseverance would further their mission.

The early Church always preached The Word and nothing but The Word - no private opinions.  They spoke The Word with boldness; and often when they spoke The Word, they got into trouble; the question is, are we teaching The Word?

When we really present the Word of God and walk in the light of the Word of God, we may get persecution here and there.  But this should not deter us.  We should simply say, "Well, if Satan is trying so hard to obstruct our efforts, we must be doing something worthwhile.  If our goals weren't worth anything, Satan wouldn't bother to intrude.  He fights because we are battling him."

Notice that the disciples prayed, "...Grant unto thy servants".  These men were sons of God in their heavenly relationship; but in their earthly responsibilities, they were to serve God, and thus they were called servants.

Acts 4:31, 32

And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost [pneuma hagion], and they spake the word of God with boldness.

And the multitude of them [The text is "every one of them."] that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

Think of this in the early Church!  All persons who were born again of God's Spirit and filled with power from the Holy Spirit were of one heart and of one soul.  They had The Word and they agreed on The Word.  This is what gave the early Church power.

In studying "they had all things common", there are three words translated "common" from the critical Greek texts.  The word used here in verse 32, means "to the end that in their believing and in their action they were commonly united...".  None of the things - the plurality - which a person possessed were really his own.  The plurality that he possessed was common as far as need was concerned.

When the early Church began to move, all plurality that the members possessed was common among them.  If a member had a need, the plurality was used to meet that need.

Acts 4:33-35

And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace [divine favor] was upon them all.

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors [plural] of lands [plural] or houses [plural] sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,

And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Notice that the last word in Acts 4:35 is not "greed", but "need".  There were people in the Church who had more than they needed of food, clothing and shelter.  Therefore, they sold their plurality - that which they did not need - to help someone else in the Church who had a need.  Suppose there was a young couple in the Church dedicated to the Lord, who loved His Word and wanted to start farming; they had a need.  The Church was to help the couple get started.

In verse 34 carefully note the words "as many as were possessors".  When these people who were possessors oflands (plural) and houses (plural) were born again, what did they do?  They sold their plurality.  They sold that which they did not need.  Plurality is greed, not need.  If we want the Church to move under the anointing of the power from the Holy Spirit as the early Church moved, we must be obedient to the Word of God and conquer our greed.  Excesses weight us down and Christians are not to be bogged down with matters of this world.

God never asked a man at any place in the Bible to sell or dispose of that which he needed for his livelihood.  They sold that which they did not need, their plurality, and brought the money to the apostles who distributed according to the need of the individual believer.  One man's need may be more than another.  Every person must determine his need within himself, according to the renewing of his own mind after being born again.

You may ask, "Well, who would you trust with the collected possessions?"  Whom did the early Church trust with it?  The apostles.  If you as a Christian do not trust the person or the group or the organization to use your gift properly, you ought to give it somewhere else - to something and to someone whom you will trust to use it as it is supposed to be used.  The apostles distributed the goods.

Acts 4:36, 37

And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,

Having land [singular], sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

We just read that the early Christians sold only their plurality.  Yet, here is a man who sold his land, a singular possession.  Why?  He was a Levite.  According to the Old Testament a Levite should not own any property.  Joses whose name was Barnabas from Cyprus, understanding and believing the teaching, was converted and saved.  Therefore he sold his singular property which he should never have owned, and he brought the money therefrom and laid it at the apostles' feet.

Now we have in a nutshell some idea of how the first century Church operated and, thereby, prospered so that many were won to the Lord Jesus Christ and manifested His power.  Time and again we see these principles:

  1. Each person was responsible to witness with boldness about the Word of God and then stand by those new-born Christians until they could walk forth and, in turn, witness on their own.
  2. The Church prospered when small groups (churches, fellowships) gathered in homes and ministered under the supervision of capable overseers.
  3. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers kept in continual contact with each group by revisitations and written communications.
  4. Christians contributed to the welfare of the Church and its members by giving to the common need, in contributing the plurality of their material possessions.

By reading Acts and the Pauline Epistles, one quickly notes the numerical growth and spiritual prosperity of the first century Church.  The twentieth century Church obviously doesn't compare in its vitality.  Thus we have everything to gain by following the early Church's example.  God hasn't changed.  And since we still have His power, we can surely adapt the techniques of the early Church and couple it with the power of God within each of us as Christians.  We are the ones who must apply these principles and this power and the apostles' boldness to make the twentieth century Church stronger and more vital than the Christian Church has ever been.  This is our opportunity and challenge.  Herein we must stand fast.