The Experience of Unity in the Early Church
This quarter’s lessons were first scheduled to be published and studied, by church members, during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. However, because of concern about the ecumenical push for unity between Catholicism and Protestantism during that anniversary year, editors and writers of the Sabbath School Quarterly scrambled to put another set of lessons together for the time of the Reformation anniversary. And so, it came to pass that we are studying it this quarter. The Sabbath School lesson entitled “That All May be One” was taught at the General Conference Autumn Council in Battle Creek. That Sabbath, the lesson that was studied at Autumn Council was the promotion of unity in the Church. Some felt the change from the Reformation anniversary to this quarter and the presentation that Sabbath was providential.
Moving on to this week’s lesson which is about the Experience of Unity in the Early Church where the Memory Text is a good place to begin. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
This verse is a witness to doctrine—the power of God’s Word— as well as to prayer, to steadfast fellowship and to eating together, all of which were essential to unity among God’s people back then and indispensable for harmony today. Doctrine must be truth as it is “in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). Doctrine is dry, dead and destructive, disconnected from Jesus. But as it is in Him it will lead to fellowship with Him as well as with others.
The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, is the One who brings fellowship and unity within the church in every age. This unity and fellowship continued in the early Church after Pentecost. Not only did Jewish believers have this experience, the Holy Spirit brought it specifically to Peter and to Gentiles as recorded in Acts 10:13-28 where Peter addressed the Holy Spirit as “Lord”, “God” and “Spirit” (verses 14, 15, 19 and 28). It was through the ministry of this Person of the Godhead that this unity occurred in the Early Church.
Today the Holy Spirit continues to take the words and character of Jesus pressing them into our minds, hearts and consciences just as He did at Pentecost. Pentecost was one of the outstanding events in the history of the Church. The Holy Spirit came from heaven and descended upon the disciples as they sat together in their assembly room in Jerusalem (Acts 2:2). Each member was humbled by this experience. Each thought of others better than his/herself. What they gave in testimony and in financial support to the Church was from the heart. But a change came to some of the people, as outlined in Wednesday’s lesson.
Wednesday’s lesson is about Generosity and Greed. Examples used are Barnabas in contrast with Ananias and Sapphira. Both parties were land owners, which may imply a considerable amount of wealth. Both sold property for the cause of the Gospel. Evidently Barnabas (as did others) sold all he had (Acts 4:32–37). Ananias and Sapphira, moved by the Spirit of God, pledged a sizable sum of money based on the sale of some of their property. However, they later changed the amount of their commitment (Acts 5:1–11) and evidently thought to deceive the apostles. But Peter, under inspiration of God, charged Ananias with lying to the “Holy Spirit” in verses 3 and 4 where he charged Ananias with lying “to God”. Peter recognized the Holy Spirt both as a Person and as God. The consequence of Ananias’ lie was his summary execution by the judgment of God. The same happened to Sapphira.
We learn from this that the Holy Spirit Who brought comfort, peace, assurance of salvation and unity to the Church also separated those two who, while fully conscious and with willful intent, planned and thought to deceive the apostles. Had this selfishness and greed been permitted it would have brought division in the early Church. Their sin of covetousness, lies hidden in the heart. It is a violation of the first commandment as well as the tenth in that it is called idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5).
If Ananias and Saphira had submitted themselves to the Holy Spirit, instead of lying to Him, He would have delivered them in a nanosecond. Instead of an eternal separation, they would have been brought into unity with God and with believers that could have lasted into eternity.
Paul confirmed this same work of salvation, by the third Person of the Godhead, in his letter to the Corinthian church of which some had been covetous, among other sins, but they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit, first in justification’s freedom and which continued in sanctification: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
The evidence of unity in the early church was manifest in prayer, corporate worship, fellowship, a common vision, and by the study of God’s Word. But when the believers lost their vision they gradually drifted into something that became unrecognizable as God’s Church. This lesson is for us today.
Today we learn of religious institutions which because of a conscious or an unconscious drift by subsequent leadership who lost both the vision and mission of the founders. Those leaders went with the flow of the drift. One such example is Harvard. Established in 1636 it was named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard. Today it is an Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. However, they lost their vision, mission and motto. The present motto of Harvard, in Latin, is Veritas meaning Truth. But the university's original motto was Christo et Ecclesiae (“For Christ and Church”). This was changed when they drifted from their original vision and mission which was to train clergy for the preaching of the Gospel. Many Puritan ministers were trained there.
A 1643 publication gave the school's purpose “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust” (Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies (2002) p. 116).
However, in time its administration, mission, curriculum and student body were gradually secularized in the 18th century. By the 19th century, Harvard had emerged as the central cultural and nonspiritual establishment among Boston elites. Today it continues its drift from its original mission. Many believe it will never return to its original purpose.
Yale University, another religious institution, was started in New Haven, Connecticut in 1701. It too was established by clergy to educate ministers. Why was it founded? A rift formed at Harvard between its sixth president, Increase Mather, and the rest of the Harvard clergy, who Mather viewed as increasingly liberal, ecclesiastically lax, and overly broad in Church polity. The feud caused Mather to champion the success of what became known as Yale in the hope that it would maintain religious values in a way that Harvard had not (see “Increase Mather”, Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Encyclopædia Britannica).
Yale’s coat of arms reads in the Hebrew script Urim and Thummim inscribed upon it along with the Latin words as its official motto, Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth”). Originally restricted to theology and sacred languages, the curriculum began to incorporate humanities and sciences by the time of the American Revolution. However, the drift in vision and in mission has been occurring at Yale as with Harvard, but not to the same extent. Yet leadership has not taken the official stand to change directions as Harvard did. But they have drifted away from what they once were.
YMCA is another organization that gradually drifted from its Christian purpose. A conscious decision was formally made to change its name from Young Men’s Christian Association to simply “the Y”. Kate Coleman, the organization’s senior VP and chief marketing officer said, “It’s a way of being warmer, more genuine, more welcoming, when you call yourself what everyone else calls you.” What she does not say is the fact that this organization has undergone a major branding and a denuding of Christianity from its name, vision and mission.
A new name, according to branding experts, makes sense when an organization changes its original purpose and mission or goes “beyond what its name describes.” “I’m advising a client right now to do just this,” said Larry Checco, president of Checco Communications and author of “Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization.” (“The New York Times,” July 11, 2010).
What’s the lesson for us? Shall we drift? Some within the Church are drifting. Some are pushing for a rebranding and change of vision, mission and message to a more social gospel, thus replacing the “everlasting” one with its dire warning by the three angels of Revelation 14.
My wife received an email from a church member and friend the day after the Autumn Council’s vote on unity and church authority. That friend felt that she was going to leave the church because the vote went against her wishes.
Today, if the unconscious drift within the Church in general and in individual members in particular continues, it will end in disaster. The only way to not be drifting is to be aware of it and then to resist it in our own lives, family, church or even as a committee.
Doctor Kellogg was one who unconsciously drifted until he openly defied the prophet, church authority and unity. Mrs. White was concerned for him and she wrote, “I am much worried about Dr. Kellogg. In many respects, his course is not pleasing the Lord. It seems to be so easy for him to drift away from foundation principles. He is in great danger of not holding the beginning of his confidence steadfast unto the end. (Pamphlet PH117, Battle Creek Letters (1902) p. 59).
Just a few years later she wrote for us as well as for others, “Unless we continue to lay hold of the hope set before us in the gospel, we shall drift, -- drift away from the truth on the tide of skepticism and infidelity” (Emphasis original) (RH, August 1, 1907).
Not only is there conscious and unconscious drift occurring in things religious, in the secular world there is a determined effort to make of non-effect the law of God and the American Declaration of Independence and its consequence – the Constitution.
The second sentence of the Declaration has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” (Stephen E. Lucas, “Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document”, in Thomas W. Benson, ed., American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism, Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, p. 85). This sentence contains “the most potent and consequential words in American history” (Ellis, American Creation, 55–56).
The sentence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those who are engaged in anarchy had both the Declaration and the Constitution which is the law of the land. We have entered into the time of anarchy which was predicted by the prophet: “the world-wide dissemination of the same teachings that led to the French Revolution--all are tending to involve the whole world in a struggle similar to that which convulsed France… anarchy is seeking to sweep away all law, not only divine, but human” (Education, 228).
Let’s not make the same mistake of drifting, whether consciously or unconsciously as is happening in the world and to a lesser degree among us. There is a way to prevent it. Evidence of unity in the early church was manifested in doctrine, prayer, corporate worship, fellowship, a common vision, mission and the study of God’s Word.
Even if we have been drifting down the river of no return, we yet can be recovered by the power of the Holy Spirit. He will bring about the unifying factors of the Early Church into God’s last day Church of the Advent Movement. This unity comes through the power of the Holy Spirit in directing our thoughts to Christ our Righteousness. By beholding Him, and submitting to Him, we will be drawn closer to Him and to one another. As this takes place “The Experience of Unity in the Early Church” will become the experience of the seventh and last of the church of the ages – the Remnant.
This unity will come about first of all by “the shaking” caused by the “counsel of the true Witness.” This testimony will work in the heart of all who will believe it. They, with heartfelt appreciation for this message, will proclaim a “straight testimony” of transforming power which will reach the heart of others who, in turn, will either accept or reject it. What comes next? Those who although “mightily shaken” but not out of the Advent Movement will move “in exact order, like a company of soldiers.” What will cause this? “It is the latter rain, the refreshing from the presence of the Lord, the loud cry of the third angel.” (See Early Writings, pp. 269-272).
Again, as it was in the Early Church – doctrine, prayer, corporate worship, fellowship, a common vision, mission with the study of God’s Word and by the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Experience of Unity in the Early Church will come to the last day Church.
~Pastor Jerry Finneman