As Christian leaders, we tend to assume we already know what thriving communities are; we then simply go looking for instances in Scripture that confirm our knowledge and agenda. Over time, we cease learning from Scripture how to think and instead use it as a tool to back up our cherished beliefs.
But the scriptural texts are not inert matter, words on the page simply waiting for verbal activation, or “ideas” asking for our intellectual assent. Scripture, so Christians confess, has the ability to effect change in the reader for the sake of the kingdom of God, to exert directive pressure upon our thinking by means of a fundamental transformation of life.
Indeed, the possibility for transformation is finally why we continue to return to the Bible: again and again, we sense that our resources, taken alone, are not enough for the magnitude of the task, that we need more than a new set of tools or a different theory under which to conceptualize our work. What we need in order to create and nurture communities that thrive as foretastes of the kingdom of God is a deep and abiding direction. Inasmuch as it actively orders and reorders our thought—continually tutors us in how to think—Scripture’s pressure is this deep and abiding direction from God.
The Acts of the Apostles is a particularly rich scriptural source for the kinds of questions we need to ask. Acts is the only biblical text that narrates the formation of early Christian communities in their earliest days. It corresponds, therefore, to the theological shape of God’s work in establishing communities that were meant to thrive. Acts offers us six features of a pattern of life in thriving communities—not a “to-do” list, but a picture of what the church needs to continue being the church. To put it like this is to emphasize the fact that we cannot pick or choose which of the six features we like: according to the narrative of Acts, all six have to be there for the church to be the church (which is but another way of saying that the narrative of Acts is close to unimaginable without all six features).
Networks and networking
Some Christians do not like the thought of networking. To them it feels disingenuous, and they worry, often rightly, about a kind of schmoozing that is in bad taste. But socially embarrassing or morally questionable schmoozing is hardly what we see in Acts, and there is no better name for the activity of the early Christians in establishingrelationships between the churches than networking.
Networking as a feature of early Christian existence emerges most clearly in the mission to the gentiles. If one reads Acts while consulting a detailed map of the Mediterranean world in the first century, it is easy to see that the predominant strategy of the first Christians was to build their communities in major urban centers where the resources were plentiful: personnel, main roads, letter carriers, boats, travelers, trade, and so on. Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica—these and many others were all ports or cities that lay along major roads in the Roman Empire. The early Christians used the advantages of such places to develop communities that could have easy contact with one another and could become, by means of their communication and interconnection, “brothers and sisters” in Christ. The distinctive Christian familial language, that is, has the social reality of networking as its presupposition.
Reading Acts carefully will disclose a remarkable level of interconnection between the various Christian communities in terms of both personnel and communication by letter and/or messenger. The Jerusalem council assumes its letter will reach the Christian communities scattered around the rim of the Mediterranean. And tracing
Paul’s travel through his various journeys is an exercise in visiting and revisiting churches in virtually all parts east of Rome. In this way, the narrative of Acts helps to make concrete and intelligible the numerous greetings and personal instructions we see, for example, in Paul’s letters. According to Acts, the early Christians were fully networked.
Excerpted from Leading Christian Communities by C. Kavin Rowe ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
C. Kavin Rowe is the George Washington Ivey Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Vice Dean for Faculty at Duke Divinity School. His previous books include Early Narrative Christology, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, and Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope.