Apocalyptic Community

by William Barcley

William Barcley taught Greek and Hebrew at Gordon College in Massachusetts.
This article is reprinted from VOICES magazine, May, 1989.

   "A new breeze is blowing" our new President said in his inaugural address. When he spoke those words, I instinctively conjured up an image from my childhood. In those days in St. Petersburg, any breeze was welcome--especially a northern breeze which could make the hot Florida days bearable. To the north, however, was the city dump. It had an unfriendly way of welcoming northern visitors to our fine city. At certain times of the year, when the dump was especially ripe, its odor also had a way of working itself into the nice, cool northern breeze. So, while the breeze itself was welcome, the odor it sometimes brought with it was certainly not. How ironic, I thought to myself, that the same breeze can bring both relief and misery.

   Yet as I pondered this, I thought of another breeze which is blowing in our world today, the breeze of church renewal taking place all over the world. For some, this breeze brings relief--a cooling, refreshing wind in the midst of a spiritual drought. For others, this breeze has stirred up the garbage. It has brought division and turmoil. Many are left questioning the purpose of the church and the essence of their faith.

   Don't misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with stirring up the garbage. The smell of the dump also meant that cooling was on the way. The church is in constant need of questioning, of reexamination. This painful process must take place for genuine renewal to come about. Here the seemingly contradictory statements in the Gospels come to mind: Jesus brings peace, and yet brings "not peace, but a sword."

   The breeze blowing in the church is necessary and good. The church today needs renewal. Our churches have grown stagnant and cold; most fail to meet the real needs of their members.

   But in many places this renewal lacks identity. It lacks a vision of what it's about and where it's going. Many of the "breeze-makers" have a sense of their vision: a church that is relationship-oriented, non-institutional, and non-hierarchical. Yet the vision is not clear because they lack a clearly articulated model.

   Many think they have found a model for their vision in a vague notion of "the New Testament church." In fact, I have heard many people express that we need a "return to the New Testament church." My response to such statements is, "Which New Testament church?"

   The problem with trying to return to the New Testament church is that there is no single "New Testament church." There are several different New Testament churches. The New Testament portrays several different early Christian communities, each with its own distinct make-up and way of being the church. The earliest Christian communities, as the New Testament portrays them, were less structured, less hierarchical than later communities. They lived with the vision that the world as they knew it would soon come to an end. As the first century went on, however, we see the Christian communities begin to develop a more institutional nature and adopt more institutionalized forms. The later "pastoral epistles" (First and Second Timothy, and Titus) are a good example of this. These letters show a distinct move toward more institutional structure and hierarchical forms of leadership.

The problem with trying to return to the New Testament church is that there is no single "New Testament church." There are several different New Testament churches.

   So where does this leave us? It seems we are even more vision-less and model-less than when we started. But we still need a model. This model must connect the church with its past while at the same time giving it a vision for its future. Most importantly, this model must be relevant for its time. We cannot simply accept the institutions and traditions which have been handed down to us. We must use what is necessary or helpful from the past, while moving on in an attempt to discover what it means to be the church here, now.

   One model which meets these criteria is "the church as apocalyptic community." The earliest Christian communities that we have record of saw themselves as apocalyptic communities. They include both the churches Paul started and the communities to which the Gospels of Mark and Luke were directed. These communities were not identical, yet they tended to share many features. They were inclusive and non-hierarchical. They were concerned more with their community relationships than with a rules-oriented, institutional structure. Closely related to this is their lack of concern for creating an institution which would live on through the centuries. The primary reason for this is that they believed the world as they knew it would soon come to an end. Thus they were concerned primarily with what it meant to live as the people of God in the present.

   This model has a number of strengths, not least of which is that it is a biblical model. It is not the biblical model, but it is, nonetheless, biblical. Yet it is not a good model simply for that reason. As I have said, there are other biblical models. Yet the model of the earliest apocalyptic communities has a number of features which serve the church today very well. First, it captures the spirit of reform which characterized the early church. One of the main themes of Jesus' teaching is the need for change within the religious structures of the day. This comes across clearly in his repeated condemnation of the established religious leaders. (Look at the "woes" to the Pharisees and Scribes, the teachers of the law, in Matthew 23.) This impetus for change spurred on the early church as well. Thus, it is the early Christian "apocalyptic communities" which serve us as a better model for renewal than the later, more institutionalized forms.

   Understanding church as apocalyptic community also has important implications for being the church in a nuclear age. The ancient apocalyptic communities saw their world teetering on the edge of destruction. What could be a better description of our world, a world which sits on the brink of nuclear holocaust?

   What are some of the features of the New Testament apocalyptic communities? First, they provided individuals with a sense of belonging which they lacked in their larger individualistic society. One astounding similarity between our world and the New Testament's is that both are characterized by a dominant individualism.

   The Greco-Roman world was a cosmopolitan world. Earlier in history, life had revolved around small, community-oriented, autonomous "city-states." But by the first century, this community-oriented life was long gone. Travel increased. People began to move around more in an attempt to find work and to make their fortunes. As a result, an individualistic mind-set began to take hold. This individualism was supported by philosophers: the idea of "autarchy" (that is, "self-rule," or "self-sufficiency") became a central idea for them. Individuals began to feel more displaced and marginalized. "Wandering" became a dominant metaphor for life in the ancient world. Luke gives us a good example of this in the three "lost" parables in Luke 15. In each parable, the point is clear: the wandering individual has worth and can find a home and a welcome reception within the Christian community.

   A second aspect of the apocalyptic communities, closely related to the first, is that they were inclusive communities. Obviously, they were not absolutely inclusive, so we see Paul tell the Philippians, "Beware of the dogs" (Phil. 3:2). But the requirements of the early Christian communities were such that those who were marginalized and alienated in the larger society were accepted in the Christian communities. These included women, the poor, the outcasts, and those who were considered "sinners" by the religious standards of their day. The complaint against Jesus, time and again, is that he "eats with tax-collectors and sinners." Paul sums up this inclusive nature when he insists, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Perhaps an important question for the church in the twentieth century is what groups we might add to this list so that we might truly be an inclusive community for our time.

   The early Christian communities were non-institutional and non-hierarchical. The writings associated with these apocalyptic communities show no concern for institutional structures. Instead, their emphasis was antistructural. The early churches met in homes, so they had no specialized buildings. The communities also show an implicit disdain for hierarchy.

   "Brothers," an explicitly non-hierarchical term, became the most frequent way in which the early Christians addressed each other For Paul, status distinctions were contrary to the very nature of the Christian community (see especially iCor. 10-13). Also in the Gospels, Jesus takes a child as the model for what it means to be a member of the Christian community (Mark 9:33-37). These references are hardly an accident. And we should not attempt to spiritualize them. The earliest Christian communities simply viewed hierarchy and institutional structure as contrary to the very nature of the church of God.

   Another feature of the early apocalyptic communities is that their moral teaching was largely a community-oriented ethic. Their concern was not so much with what an individual does per se, but with how the actions of the individual affect the community. The clearest statement of this comes in First Corinthians. Four times Paul repeats the phrase, "All things are lawful" (6:12 and 10:23). Yet in each case he goes on to qualify his statement. In 10:23, the communal concern behind this qualification is clear: "All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up." The primary consideration is how the individual's actions build up, or fail to build up, the community.

   A final characteristic of the earliest Christian communities is that most were non-isolationist. In spite of their belief that their world would soon be transformed, they actively engaged the world. In fact, we can even say, because of their belief that the world would soon be transformed, they actively engaged the world. The earliest Christian writings reflect an urgency. For them, the time was short. They felt an urgent need to proclaim an important message to the world, a message of renewal, of change, of repentance.

   This non-isolationism primarily took the form of missionary activity. Yet their message had implications that challenged the social and political structures of their day--and the ruling powers were threatened by this new movement. Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a subversive. Many early Christians were martyred for the same reason. By the same token, the church in the twentieth century must challenge, even threaten, the ruling institutions of the day. When it fails to do so, it fails to live up to its calling as the church. Or has the world gotten so good that it no longer needs to be challenged?

The ancient apocalyptic communities saw their world teetering on the edge of destruction. What could be a better description of our world, a world which sits on the brink of nuclear holocaust?

   What implications does the model of "church as apocalyptic community" have for a nuclear age? As we have already seen, apocalyptic communities saw their world as teetering on the edge of destruction. This is a fitting description of our world today. In fact, it is a better description of our age than of any previous age. Today we live with the knowledge of how to destroy ourselves and most other forms of life. This is a frightening thought. For the most part we choose not to think about it--or at least not to talk about it. Yet study after study shows that most school children believe that a nuclear holocaust will occur during their lifetime.

   Christians have tended to treat the subject in one of two ways (if they don't simply ignore it): by thinking God would never allow such a catastrophe to happen, or by believing that God will use nuclear weapons as the instrument of judgment upon the earth. Each of these reflects an escapist attitude that the church must repent of. Yet an equally destructive and irresponsible extreme is the idea of the church as God's army. In fact, one of the major weaknesses of the model of '~church as apocalyptic community" is that it has a tendency to lead to one of these extremes.

   Many apocalyptic communities throughout history have been escapist. This escapism has been in the form either of a retreat to the hills (or to the desert), or of a passive attitude toward world affairs. If the church is to be an instrument of renewal, we must reject this escapist attitude. We need to take hold of the urgency of our time, actively engaging the world and calling the powers that be to repentance.

   At the same time, we must equally reject militarism. While some apocalyptic communities have been escapist, others have been militaristic. Iran is a good modern day example of a militaristic apocalyptic nation. The church must reject the notion that we are God's warriors who fight the battle to usher in the kingdom of God. By the same token, we must reject the idea that nuclear weapons are good because they will be used to serve God's purposes. Those who think this have not seriously taken into account human freedom and responsibility. History clearly shows humanity's destructive capabilities. The Jewish holocaust stands as a haunting memorial of human ability to destroy life in devastating measure.

   The apocalyptic community model has other weaknesses as well. Throughout history, Christendom has seen come and go a tremendous number of '~prophets" who have prophesied that the church is living in the ~~end times." A recent example of this is the book Eighty-eight Reasons why the Rapture will Be in Eighty-eight. I sit in eighty-nine wondering when this nonsense will come to an end. Yet the nature of our world requires a sense of urgency in the church. The nature of this urgency must be that of seeking change both in the church and in the world.

   Another problem with this model is that the early church took a passive attitude toward world affairs. It engaged the world through missionary activity, but it did not attempt to change social structures. There are two primary reasons for this. One is that the early church faced severe persecution from the Roman Empire. For the sake of survival, it needed to present itself as not being a political threat. Yet, at the same time (and this is the second reason), the church's belief in the imminent return of the Lord caused it to see social and political change as futile and unnecessary.

   The nature of our situation today is vastly different than that of the early church. The end which the early church looked to was a positive transformation of this world into the Kingdom of God. While the church today can also embrace this hope, we face the potential of a different sort of end. The possibility of a nuclear holocaust demands that we engage the world and seek to change those social and political structures which need to be changed. With the early church, we too can and should hope for the return of Christ. But our activity in the world must be directed to working toward peaceful and just social structures which live on and give life to humanity, not take it away.

The writings associated with these apocalyptic communities show no concern for institutional structures. Instead, their emphasis was antistructural. The early churches met in homes, so they had no specialized buildings. They also show an implicit disdain for hierarchy.

   We live in urgent times. This should instill urgency into the church. Both church and world need transformation. For this reason, the spirit of the church must be a spirit of renewal.

   Now more than ever the church should be at work challenging the social order. We can not tolerate a passivity, or a "head to the hills and wait" mentality. The church must actively engage the world around it.

   To do this effectively, however, will require change within the church. This is not the time to "build bigger barns." Nor is it the time to improve our institutional structures. On the contrary, this is the time we must recapture the spirit of the apocalyptic communities, a spirit which shook the Roman empire. In many churches, this spirit has been rediscovered. A strong wind is beginning to blow. We have just begun to see its effects. But we have yet to feel its potential.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005