We need a better imagination of church: some thoughts and an explanation of my use of "scattered" church
“And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1b, NASB).
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Peter 1:1-2, NASB).
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Imagine. If you can. You are a small gathering of Christians in the first century. The new born church that we meet in Acts, now scattered throughout the Gentile world. A very minority church in the Roman Empire up to about 150 C.E. By now, most of Christian fellowship, instruction, and worship was done in homes, catacombs (underground cemeteries), workshops (that were also apartments) or hidden away, or above the streets, in tenement-styled, stacked row building apartments.
The “gathering together,” what we could have called “a church,” is still illegal, at least not recognized as religio licita, a permitted cult or religion in the Empire.
That fourth and final cup after the meal was over (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), still treasonous, lifted, now not to Caesar, but to honor Jesus, risen and Lord.
Gathering together was still very dangerous.
A non-domestic building, set aside for Christians to gather for worship, was still many decades off, probably 200+ years in the future. The earliest separate building devoted to Christian use was in eastern Roman Syria at Dura Europos on the Euphrates River. Originally a house that had come into a Christian's possession and was remodeled for church gatherings in the 240s CE. But still, it wasn’t like church buildings were popping up all over the place after Dura Europos. It would still be another century before non-domestic buildings would more readily (and permitted to) be built or designated specifically for gatherings of believers to function as a “church building.” And, still, even around 350 CE, there won’t be a boom of church buildings going up everywhere.
We, too often, work backward from our building-experienced-church to the New Testament, imagining the church we read of in Acts (and Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, et al.) or read of the first century church as being all made up of these small groups of somewhat organized believers that gather (albeit) in homes as if they are free to do so often, let alone, weekly. Yes, of course this happened. Just not as neatly as we imagine. The church of Acts and the early (first century) church is far more scattered, less free to meet, than we imagine. A clandestine church is more likely a better way of thinking “church” for the first 150 years or so.
We simply do not have an imagination of the church as revealed in the New Testament. Why is this important?
First, it, that is, the house-church, is how God choose to reveal what He meant by church, a gathered-church. Yes, the difference between “form” and “element” is important; but form develops habits that sneak in to determine element. The form of the New Testament house-church developed habits that taught something about the nature of church as do separated buildings teaches something about church. And, secondly—and to the point in this piece—churches in the New Testament and in the early church didn’t have the privilege of a legal means of or a culturally acceptable means to gather once a week on a day that is (like our Sunday) a “day off” in what would be, more than a millennia off—something come to be called a “weekend.”
Today, with this COVID-19 crisis, what we have is a very non-ordinary time. For us, here in America, at least. For quite some time, we have been pretty much guaranteed the freedom to gather together as churches. And boy do we. All types of church. Big. Medium. Small. In all types of buildings. While there are some home-church movements, most church congregations meet in separately addressed, non-domestic buildings of some kind. Yet, still, even now, there are many churches throughout the world that do not have the freedom to gather together—some because they are oppressed; some because they must hide; some because there is no such thing as a weekend; and, some are simply too poor and exist in under-developed or third world nations (or, even, neighborhoods).[§] These churches are much closer to the young church than we can imagine.
But, we are beginning to imagine.
Still, it is hard to imagine a church as a “scattered church.” However, I believe we need to have this imagination now.
We also need to understand that these “scattered” would not have had “churches” to move into, or established fellowships to embrace, and no places into which they’d be welcomed as “churches.” They were indeed “scattered” without (at least immediate) access to the Apostles (who stayed in Jerusalem, Acts 8:1)—which would have meant no communion (as we know it), no qualified preaching or instruction from the Word and/or Words of Jesus, et al. Indeed, they were scattered.
In the 1 Peter passage, we have a church that is described as geographically “scattered” throughout Asia Minor. And, of course, this “scattered” are small household-churches, gathered together, but still, we need to embrace the term “scattered.” This text, also, tells us that nothing is lacking in this “scattered” church. Though “scattered,” these household-churches were chosen (aka, the elect); all are completely caught up in the sanctifying work of the Spirit; all are charged to obey Messiah Jesus; all fully sprinkled by His blood (i.e., made pure). This spiritual equity is also pointed to in the blessing that Peter immediately brings in his address: “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1:2d).
The whole of Peter’s first letter describes a church in crisis, amidst culturally formed suffering: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). This affirms that a “scattered” church is a church responding to crisis, under some form of suffering, threat, and/or pressure beyond its control that disrupts everything for them.
Of course the word “scattered” is a pun on the Jewish Diaspora (i.e., the scattered ten tribes of Israel). Yet, this pun works because the young church (or better, young churches, plural) existed in a hostile environment, one of (at least local) persecutions, where their neighbors, families, and whom they commerced with, all hold to a polytheistic worldview, and in a surrounding culture that is all about legality (i.e., being considered a legal citizen with standing before the law), blood legitimacy, and social standing (i.e., honor). What is interesting, this pun, being called “scattered” is indeed like the Jewish Diaspora, which had no temple and living as aliens in strange lands (i.e., the idea behind “resident aliens” of 1 Peter 1:1b). This is “scattered” church.
This last description is important, for scattered Israel in and throughout the Greek-Roman world had to learn to be God’s people in a time and in a land not formed by their religious values and habits. In a foreign, strange, alien world. In a land where they had little to no control or power over their religious habits. Prayer and the Word became very central to scattered Israel. Even non-Diaspora Jews (what we mostly meet in the Gospels) were, as well, not in control of their religious habits. Sure, they had the temple, but it was tolerated and governed and watched over by pagans (aka, outsiders, polytheists, Caesars, haters), who only tolerated the people of Israel (not who accepted them as equals).
I don’t think we could have imaged, even three months ago—or even for that matter, ever—that we’d be “ordered” (or pressured) to not gather as churches. To be cut off from our buildings that offer take-for-granted habits we interpret as biblical and essential to understanding “church.” To be separated from other members of our own congregations that plays tricks on our assumed biblical concept of “church.”
This is a time for our imagination of church to include being “scattered.”
This imagination will prepare us for the (real) trials to come. And you need to understand, this is not the trial, but only a preview of what is to come. Someday.
Three months ago, we would not have thought it possible to be at this place, being his “scattered” people, a church not in control, regulated by outside pressures and forces, unable to freely meet together.
It is of note, especially with regard to the “scattered” nature of the church in 1 Peter, that, as a “scattered” church, the test or trial is not solely one of individualized faith. As a “scattered” church, what is being tested at this time is loyalty (the actual meaning of the word “faith,” πίστις, pistis). Are we loyal to Jesus and are we loyal to his body? And, by “his body” (aka “the body of Christ”), I do not, as I believe the New Testament writers do not, mean some notion of a universal, invisible church, but loyal to a local body of Christ, consisting of actually flesh and blood fellow believers.
An imagination of “scattered church” will help us to learn new habits that build the body, that strengthen our fellowship of believers, and, very importantly, habits that proclaim in Word and deed that we are followers of Jesus, so that, publicly, others will know that we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). We are, local and in all locales, a church in crisis. Right now. And, this makes us “scattered” churches. We endure, although scattered, yet together in Christ, so that perhaps, through our suffering, God’s elect [wherever our “scattered church” exists--for us, the Hill] may obtain the salvation that is in Messiah Jesus (2 Timothy 2:10).
Let us remember, as “scattered church,” we are no less church. We are the full-body of Christ, though scattered. We do not lack anything from God as a scattered church. Even now as scattered church, the blessings of Peter is completely ours in Christ: “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.”
[§] A Third World country is a developing nation characterized by poverty and a low standard of living for much of its population.
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Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.