Early Christian Community in the Acts and the Monastic Community
(A Paper Presented at the ISBF General Body Meeting at Sree Lanka)
The early Christian community, as presented by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, is a model for Christian communities of all times. If that is so, a fortiori, it is a model for any monastic community. A proper understanding of the life of the early Christian community or communities in the Acts, gained through an honest and impartial reading of the book of Acts, will convince one that there can be no genuine reform within the church in general, and within monastic circles in particular, without a return to the values found in the life of the early Christian community in the Acts.
In the following pages an attempt is made to have a look first at the various aspects of the life of the early Christian community and then at the monastic community envisaged by the Rule of St. Benedict.
Part I – Life of the Early Christian community in the Acts
Luke’s understanding of the early Christian community is summarily, but clearly, expressed in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayers”. According to this text, there are four elements that constituted the daily life of the believers, namely, the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread and the prayers. Strictly speaking these four can be reduced to three, because breaking of bread and prayers go together. Thus the three elements are: teaching of the apostles, fellowship and worship or prayer. Along with this, one also finds in the Acts several other aspects of the life of the early Church.
1. Community of believers
The church was a community of believers; it was made up of people who believed. This is stated several times in the book of Acts. In 2:44 one reads: “all who believed where together”; in 4:32: “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and mind”; in 5:14: “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women”; in 11:21: “a great number became believers and turned to the Lord” and in 14:1: “a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers.” After Paul’s speech at Athens some of those who listened to him “joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (17: 34). Thus all along it is question of people coming to faith, people becoming believers.
The process by which a person becomes a believer can also be found in the Acts. This process has several constitutive elements: listening to the preaching of the apostles, who proclaimed the gospel message; conversion; baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. All or most of these elements are found in a number of texts in the Acts.
In Acts 2 there is a long speech of Peter in vv 14-36, where he presents very convincingly the gospel message about Jesus. Listening to this message people are “cut to the heart” (v 37), indicating repentance and conversion. They approach the apostles with the question: “brothers what should we do?” which is exactly the same question put to John the Baptist by some of those who came to be baptized by him (Lk 3:10, 12, 14). Peter exhorts them to repent, to be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins may be forgiven and they may receive the Holy Spirit (v 38). Verse 41 rounds off the narrative by stating that “those who welcomed his message were baptized.” Though not explicitly mentioned, one may rightly conclude that they received forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit as promised by Peter in v 38.
Another good example is Acts 10, which deals with the conversion of Cornelius and his family. Peter speaks to all in the house of Cornelius in vv 34-43. This is followed by the report in v 44: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” Peter’s speaking necessarily implies the audience listening to the word of God proclaimed by him. One may even say that it is the word proclaimed by Peter and eagerly listened to by Cornelius and all in his family that communicates the Holy Spirit to them. At the end v 48 reports that Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” One may rightly presume that listening to the word of God led the people to genuine conversion. This in turn brought the Spirit upon them. One finds here also all the basic elements that make up the process of coming to faith: the proclamation of the Word, listening to the Word, conversion, receiving of the Holy Spirit and baptism.
A third example is found in Acts 19:1-7. At Ephesus Paul comes across “some disciples” (v 1). They had not even heard that there was a Holy Spirit (v 2); they had been baptized only with the baptism of John which was a baptism of repentance (v 4). Paul offers them a brief explanation of the baptism of John and the nature of Christian baptism. It is most likely that Paul must have spoken to them at some length explaining to them the Christian message. He, then, has them baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v 5). When Paul lays his hands on them they experience an outpouring of the Spirit. Thus here too one can distinguish the various elements that make up the process of coming to faith: preaching of the word of God, listening to it; repentance, baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
2. A community of disciples
The term “disciple” is found 28 times in the Acts (6:1, 2, 7; 9:1, 10, 19, 25, 26 - twice), 38; 11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20, 22, 28; 15:10; 16:1; 18:23, 27; 19:1, 9, 30; 20:1, 30; 21:4, 16 - twice). It is used almost always in the plural; 9:10; 16:1 and 21:16 are the only exceptions. In no text is there any specification as to whose disciples either the individuals or the groups of people were. Here too there is an exception, namely 9:25, where it is question of Paul’s disciples who helped him to escape from Damascus by lowering him in a basket through an opening in the wall of the city.
In the gospels the term “disciple” is generally applied to the Twelve. The gospels present Jesus primarily as a teacher and the twelve who followed him are his “disciples”. Jesus does the teaching and the disciples keep learning from him. In Mathew 28:18-20 Jesus imparts this teaching ministry to the twelve. According to this text, the twelve are to continue Jesus’ teaching ministry and by their teaching they are to “make disciples of all nations”; they are to turn them all into disciples of Jesus. One can notice that already in this text of Mathew the term disciple has a new shade of meaning. It no more refers to the twelve but to those who will become believers through their teaching. That makes the use of the terms “disciples” and “believers” almost synonymous. And that exactly is the position in the Acts.
The term “disciple” is never applied to the Twelve in the Acts, they are systematically given the title “apostles”, which is found 28 times in the Acts (1:2, 26; 2:37, 42, 43; 4:33, 35, 36, 37; 5:2, 12, 18, 29, 40; 6:6; 8:1, 14, 18; 9:27; 11:1; 14:4, 14; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4). It must be mentioned that the term “apostles” generally referred to the original Twelve and the Twelve reconstituted with the election of Mathias in Acts 1: 12-26. The only exceptions are 14:4, 14 where Paul and Barnabas are also given the title “apostles”. Thus the Twelve in the gospels are the “apostles” in the Acts; the “disciples” in the Acts are those who have listened to the teaching of the apostles and have welcomed the Christian message and still go on listening to the teaching of the apostles; they are the believers.
That makes it more than clear that the term “disciples” applied to the believers has two meanings. Firstly, the believers are disciples of Jesus. By listening to the preaching and teaching of the apostles, they become disciples of Jesus, because the teaching of the apostles is the teaching of Jesus and when they listen to the apostles, they actually listen to Jesus himself. Secondly, they are also disciples of the apostles. The apostles have inherited the teaching ministry from Jesus. They teach and the believers learn from them and become disciples of Jesus and of the apostles. The believers become disciples of Jesus by becoming disciples of the apostles.
If believers are disciples, and they have to keep learning all the time, there must be people to teach them. Initial preaching leading to baptism alone will not suffice; there must be ongoing teaching with which the believers are accompanied. Although we do find others like Stephen, Philip and Apollos also engaged in teaching, teaching was primarily the ministry of the apostles. Teaching led to the deepening and strengthening of the faith of the believers. Increase in numbers and the deepening of their faith together brought about the growth of the church. Luke almost seems to be saying that there can be no church, no proper growth in the church, without teaching ministry. And that is certainly the reason why in listing the four basic elements that constituted the life of the early church Luke gives first place to the teaching of the Apostles (Acts 2:42). It was acceptance of the teaching of Jesus that constituted the twelve as disciples of Jesus (Jn 6:60-66); it was acceptance of the teaching of the apostles that turned the believers into “disciples”.
The apostles were deeply convinced that teaching the word was their primary responsibility. This awareness of theirs is illustrated in 6:2-4. In v 2 Peter assets: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Hence Peter’s suggestion to elect seven deacons to be entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the material needs of the community. Peter repeats his stand in v 4: “we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” The book of Acts reports many speeches delivered by the apostles on various occasions to different audiences. All these constituted their Ministry of the word. But these speeches were only samples of their teaching; there must have been much more of teaching than what is found in these speeches.
If the early Christian community was a community of disciples, it means that they were, and they had to be, eager to learn from the apostles just as the apostles themselves had learnt from Jesus. One finds a very good example of such an eager person in 18:24-26. Luke speaks very enthusiastically about Apollos: “he was an eloquent man” (v 24); “well versed in the scriptures” (v 24); “instructed in the way of the Lord” (v 25); “he spoke with burning enthusiasm” (v 25); “he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (v 25). All these compliments indicate that Apollos was already an accomplished teacher. But in verse 26 it is said that he was taken aside and was given further instructions by the ordinary couple Aquila and Priscilla. That shows that Apollos was ready to learn mor from people who were in many ways inferior to himself. This also implies that in the Christian understanding of things there is no time when one can stop learning. This must have been by and large the mentality of all believers in the early Church.
3. A sharing community
In the summary presentation of the life of the early Christian community in 2:42 there is the word “fellowship”, which conveyes the idea of life in common. On a deeper level this conveyed the idea of the unity that existed in the community. One can distinguish unity on two levels in the life of the early Christian community. There was unity on the interior level, unity of heart and mind; and there was unity on the outside, which was the external manifestation of the inner unity; and it was expressed in the sharing of goods.
The most important text that conveys the idea of internal unity is 4:32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” The two terms “heart” and “soul” signify the two central elements that constitute and sum up the human being. Unity on the level of the heart and the soul means unity on the level of love and unity on the level of all the activities of the Christian community. Apart from that one often reads in the Acts that those believed were “together” (1:15; 2:1, 44, 46). By these descriptions Luke makes it clear that there was almost perfect unity and harmony within the early Christian community in Jerusalem. This presentation of the early church by Luke seems to convey an idea that is found in the Old Testament. To express the idea of unity or togetherness one would say that the people of Israel did something or other “like one man” (Num 14:15; Judg 6:16; 20:1, 8, 11; 1 Sam 11:7). In the same way the Christian community in Jerusalem also lived and functioned almost like a single individual.
There is, then, the external expression of that internal unity. That aspect of the term “fellowship” comes out clearly in 2:44-45: the believers possess all things in common; “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The same point is further explained in 4:34-35: “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (v 32). In vv 34-35 one reads further: “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold...and it was distributed to each as any had need.” There was no private ownership; everything was held in common. People, who possessed anything, on becoming believers, sold their property and brought the money to the apostles. This was distributed to the members of the community according to each one’s needs, presumably under the supervision of the apostles.
In 4:36-37 Barnabas is presented as an exemplary believer, because he practised this idea of sharing with absolute honesty: “he sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (v 37). This is followed by the account of the dishonest behaviour of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Theirs was a bad example, because they practised fraud (5:1-11): “Ananias with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (vv 1-2). Later Peter speaks of their action as lying to the Holy Spirit (v 3), as lying to God (v 4) and finally as putting “the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (v 9). Sharing one’s possessions with the less privileged in the community meant being honest towards the needy, honest towards the apostles, honest towards the Spirit of God and honest towards God..
When several communities came into existence in different regions and the number of believers increased, this ideal situation became less and less practicable; or rather, it had to be practised taking into account the changing situation of the church. This gave rise to a new way of sharing. Communities started sharing among themselves. Communities that were well off came forward to help those that were less privileged. The practice seems to have been the brainchild of Paul and the first initiative in that line seems to have been taken by the church in Antioch, where Paul was active and influential. This new way of sharing is well illustrated in 11:27-30; 12:25: during a severe famine the community of Antioch sends relief to the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
This ministry of mutual help was an essential element in Paul’s thinking. He always made a point of raising funds from the communities that he founded in order to help the Christian communities in Judea who seem to have been economically deprived. Paul speaks often about such sharing (Rom 15:25-32; 2 Cor 8, 9). Thus, for Luke and Paul this sharing was an essential aspect of the life of the church. This is the way the church reflects God’s sharing with humanity. This is the way the church reflects Jesus’ self-emptying, by which he divested himself of his glory as God (Phil 2:2-3) and became poor in order to enrich the poor human race (2 Cor.8:9).
However, gradually one notices serious threats to unity within the church. There is trouble in the Jerusalem community already in 6:1, where one reads: “The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” The apostles took this complaint about discrimination seriously and made necessary arrangements in order to check it (6:2-6). This incident was just the beginning of the strain in the relationship between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians. It is seen in Peter’s reluctance to set out on his way to baptize Cornelius and his family (10: 9-29). It is seen in the sharp criticism to which Peter was exposed on his return to Jerusalem after accepting Cornelius and his family into the Christian fold (11:1-3). It is seen most sharply in the contention that took place in Antioch (15:1-2) between Paul and Barnabas, on the one hand, and the protagonists of the Law among Jewish Christians, on the other. It was this situation that led to the gathering of the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem, which concluded with an amicable settlement. In all of this Paul stands out as the great champion of unity within the church.
One can notice serious disunity and disagreement even among the great leaders of the church. The initiative to take the gospel to the gentile nations was officially taken by the church in Antioch (13:1-3). Paul and Barnabas were entrusted with this noble mission. Both worked together during the first missionary journey (13:4-14:28). When the time came for them to launch on a second missionary journey, there arose serious disagreement between them about taking John Mark with them again (15:36-40). Barnabas was keen on taking John Mark in the company; Paul, however, took the stern stand that he should not be taken. Both of them had their reasons. The probable reason why Barnabas was keen on taking John Mark was that he was his cousin (Col 4:10). To Paul such considerations mattered little; John Mark had proved to be unreliable because, meeting with some difficulties or other in the course of the first missionary journey, he left the company and returned to Jerusalem (13:13). This disagreement led to the parting company of the two great apostles.
An objective examination of all such texts clearly shows that it was the selfishness of certain individuals or groups that undermined the unity of the early church. Selfishness has been the root cause of all division within the church down the centuries; it remains so even today.
Finally, it must be said that fellowship in the sense of sharing is a necessary expression of internal unity. The two aspects are so intimately related that one cannot exist without the other.
4. A praying community
Luke is known to be the evangelist of prayer. His interest in prayer can be seen as much in the Acts as in the third Gospel. The early Christian community was a praying community, consisting of individuals who prayed. That made the early Christian community a continuation of the community of the people of God in the Old Testament, on the one hand, and of the gospel-community on the other. References to prayer abound in the book of Acts.
Firstly, the community is presented as gathered together in prayer right at the beginning of its existence. In 1:14 it is said that the eleven apostles together with certain women, the mother of Jesus and his brothers, devoted themselves to prayer. 2:1 must be seen as a continuation of 1:14. All the believers were together in one place, presumably praying, in preparation for the receiving of the Holy Spirit. According to Luke the church comes into existence by the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit comes upon the community in answer to its prayer (Lk 11:13) and the church is born in the context of prayer. Later, all important steps in the growth of the church are taken in the context of prayer. It is remarkable that at the end of his missionary journeys Paul bids farewell to the communities that he had founded in the context of prayer. After his long farewell speech at Miletus to the elders of the church of Ephesus, it is said: “when he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed.” After spending seven days with the community at Tyre, Paul resumed his journey to Jerusalem. In 21:5-6 Luke reports how the local Christian communities saw Paul and his company off: “and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another.”
There are texts where the community is presented as continuing the Jewish usage of praying at different hours of the day either in the temple or elsewhere. In 2:42 it is said that the believers devoted themselves to “the prayers”. In 2:46 one finds a kind of explanation of this: “Day by day they spent much time together in the temple…praising God.” In 3:1 Peter and John are said to go up to the temple “at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon”. In 5:12 it is said that the believers “were all together in Solomon’s Portico”; they gather in the temple for prayer. In 10:3 Cornelius is said to have had a vision “at about three o’clock”. In 10:30 Cornelius makes it clear that he had the vision at three o’clock as he was praying in his house. There can be no doubt that Cornelius maintained this usage of praying at set hours of the day even after his conversion to the Christian faith. In the same story Peter has a similar experience while he was praying on the roof of his house at noon (10:9; 11:5). The report in 16:25 that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” must also be understood in the same way. To these texts from the Acts one may add what is found in Lk 24:53: “and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
In Luke’s presentation of the prayer life of the early Christian community there is an element, which distinguished it from the Jewish community. It was the “breaking of bread” (2:42). The expression, obviously, refers to the celebration of the Eucharist in the early church – incidentally, the same expression “breaking of bread” is found also in Lk 24:35. For an ordinary Jew the celebration of the Eucharist had little in common with the Jewish worship. Thus, not only could it not be understood and accepted by non-believing Jews, but they could also view it with suspicion and hostility. That may be the reason why the breaking of bread took place “at home” (2:46). The breaking of bread must have been celebrated in private homes that were spacious and convenient enough for the purpose. The house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, in 12:12 must have been one such house. The breaking of bread referred to in 20:7 must also have been held in one such private house.
When exposed to persecution the community comes together to pray for courage. The best example is 4:23-31. It is in chapter 4 that the early church experiences persecution for the first time: Peter and John are arrested, put in prison, threatened and finally released with the strict injunction that they should not speak in the name of Jesus. In their prayer the believers ask for the grace “to speak your word with all boldness” (v 29). As a result of their prayer they are strengthened by the mighty coming of the Holy Spirit upon them and “spoke the word of God with boldness” (v 31). Another example is found in chapter 12. In v 5 it is said: “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.” This is further confirmed by what is said in v 12. After his miraculous deliverance from prison, Peter comes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, in Jerusalem. Many had gathered together in that house and were praying, obviously, for Peter.
The community gathered together to pray on the occasion of choosing important leaders within the church or entrusting great responsibilities to them. There is mention of prayer on the occasion of the election of Mathias (1:15-26). Once the community has put forward two candidates (v 23) all pray together to God asking him to show which of the two was his choice (v 24-25). There is mention of prayer on the occasion of the appointment of the seven deacons in 6:1-6. The seven men are presented before the apostles “who prayed and laid their hands on them” (v 6). In 13:1-3 the community of believers at Antioch gathers together on the occasion of the official commissioning of Paul and Barnabas to the preaching of the gospel among the gentiles. There is a twofold mention of prayer in this context. According to v 2 it was “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting” that the Holy Spirit intervened to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the mission to the Gentiles. Again in v 3 it is said that it was “after fasting and praying (that) they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” It is remarkable that it was prayer and fasting (mentioned twice) and the laying on of hands that constituted the “celebration” of the most important “Ordination” or “Consecration” in the history of the church!
5. A democratic community
One can find in the early Christian community the basic elements that constitute a democratic ordering. That is true not only of the community in Jerusalem, but also of the community at Antioch; and it must have been the same in other communities as well. One finds in these communities a basically democratic spirit. One finds in these communities a proper understanding of, and approach to, authority, implying sharing of responsibilities. One finds in these communities healthy consultations and discussions leading to important decisions. One finds in these communities no one claiming exclusive authority.
In Mt 28:18 Jesus says that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He says the same in Jn 17:2: Jesus has been given authority over all flesh. He shares that authority with the twelve (Mt 10:1; Mk 6:7; Lk 9:1). The apostles, as found in Acts, do appear to be people who shared in this authority and power of Jesus. But this did not make them in any way arrogant and haughty. They consider their authority basically as a responsibility, a mission, to preach the gospel to all and to make them all disciples of Jesus.
There are many instances in the Acts where this democratic spirit and procedure come out clearly.
The first example is the election of Mathias (1:15-26). It is Peter, the leader of the group, who puts forward the proposal that one should be chosen to take the place of Judas (1:15-22). In vv 15-19 he explains the need to find a substitute. In vv 21-22 he enumerates the credentials required of the candidate. Peter’s speech is followed by Luke’s statement: “So, they proposed two, Barsabas who was also known as Justus and Matthias.” By the term “they” is to be understood the entire community of “brothers”, the “crowd” of about hundred and twenty persons, already found in 1:15. The crowd of believers have proposed two names, both of whom were worthy of the post. But only one is needed. That one is chosen by the casting of lots (v 26) after prayer (vv 24-25). A democratic procedure thus concluded with an action of sheer trust in divine providence. That is the kind of democracy found throughout the book of Acts, a democracy almost verging on theocracy.
At least two important points stand out in this election. Firstly, bringing the number of the apostles back to the original twelve meant sharing the responsibility of the eleven with one more. Humanly speaking, sharing authority and responsibilities with more people implies reducing the portion of each individual. The eleven could have begrudged that; but they did not. Secondly, it is obvious that the eleven apostles could have discussed the matter together and come to a sort of consensus about a candidate. They could have appointed him to fill the place of Judas; and it is most unlikely that anyone from the community would have raised a finger in protest. However, they chose to follow a more democratic procedure, taking the entire community into confidence.
The same spirit of democracy is found also in the choice of the seven deacons in 6:1-6. Here the initiative is taken by the “twelve”. This presupposes that the apostles have already discussed the matter together and have come to an agreement as to how to address the sensitive situation described in 6:1. In v 2 it is said: “the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples.” After explaining the need to choose seven deacons, they tell the gathering of the disciples: “select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (vv 3-4). What is said at the beginning of v 5 is remarkable: “what they said pleased the whole community”, which is a clear indication that the entire community is involved in the election of the seven deacons. The community follows the instruction of the apostles and choose seven men (v 5).
The cordial relationship between the apostles and the community is evidenced once again in v 6. On the one hand, the apostles do not reject any of the seven proposed by the community and on the other, the community presents the seven candidates before the apostles to be officially appointed or “ordained”, as one would say today, by them. The apostles lay their hands on them, pray over them and entrust to them the duty of “the daily distribution of food” (v 1) and probably some other responsibilities as well. It is remarkable that later on at least two of them, namely Stephen and Philip, are found sharing in the apostles’ main task of preaching the gospel (6:8 – 7:53; 8:5-13, 26-40). That may be the reason why in the list of the seven deacons in 6:6 the name of Stephen is found first and that of Philip second. Moreover it must be added here that the evangelization of Samaria by Philip was accepted and respected by the apostles in Jerusalem. That is borne out clearly by their sending to Samaria the great apostles Peter and John to complete the work done by Philip (8:14-17).
A third example is found in 11:27-30. The incident takes place at Antioch. A prophet named Agabaus, who had hailed from Judea, “predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world (v 28). This prophecy of Agabus is taken seriously by the entire community, by the leaders as well as by the believers. Appropriate action is taken. They use the occasion to affirm their solidarity with the poor believers in Jerusalem. A collection is made, each one contributing according to his ability (v 29). A prophecy by an individual leads to a collective action. And finally the amount so collected is sent to Judea by the hand of Barnabas and Paul. Obviously, they must have been delegated by the entire community at Antioch.
Another important example is found in Acts 13:1-3. There is a gathering of the entire community of Antioch. In the course of a prayer-gathering (v 2), the Holy Spirit puts forward a new proposal. This must have been done probably through a prophet, very similar to what happens in 11:28. The proposal was to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) to preach the Gospel among the gentiles. The community could have ignored this new idea since it was put forward by an individual. They could have claimed the right to elect the missionaries, or at least to propose the names of probable candidates. Instead, they welcome the proposal put forward by the individual recognizing in it the action of the Holy Spirit and the will of God. Strictly speaking this procedure may not be considered democratic, at least not in the way democracy is understood and practised today. But such a procedure giving primacy to the will of God and to the good of the community is an essential aspect of the kind of democracy found in the book of Acts.
Yet another text is 15:1-4. This incident too takes place at Antioch. According to v 1 “certain individuals who came down from Judea” insisted that the believers in Antioch, who were predominantly gentile, had to observe the Law of Moses and had to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. This gave rise to no small disturbance in the community, a fact that even the Jerusalem apostles accept later (v 24). Perceiving the seriousness of the danger involved, Paul and Barnabas confronted the intruders. When all discussion and debate produced no result, the community decided on an important course of action. There may have been the possibility that these people came to Antioch at least with the silent approval of the Jerusalem apostles. Over and above that there was the feeling that Jerusalem was the mother church and that it was the duty of the church in Antioch to consult the Jerusalem church on important issues, which seemed to threaten the unity of the church.
Another point to be noted is that v 2 states that “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.” One would have expected that, since Paul and Barnabas were engaged in heated dispute with the emissaries from Judea, the two of them would have decided to go to Jerusalem on their own. It is likely that the suggestion came from them. None the less they and a few others were “appointed” by the community in Antioch to go to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and the elders there. It is as delegates of the community in Antioch that they go to Jerusalem.
The best example of this particular system of proceeding is the council in Jerusalem (15:6-29). The most serious problem that threatened to split the church into two factions, a Jewish faction and a gentile faction, has been brought up for discussion and the final decision taken will have far-reaching consequences. The decision cannot be the decision of Peter or of James or of Paul or of Barabbas. It has to be, on the one hand, the decision of the Holy Spirit who was guiding the destinies of the church; and on the other, it had to be the decision of the entire church.
But how was the will of the Holy Spirit to be discerned in the course of the gathering? How could one ensure that the final stand will be that of the entire church? We do not find any particular prophet speaking out in the name of the Holy Spirit as in 11:27-28. Instead, we have prolonged discussions, or “much debate” as is expressed in v 7. All concerned are given a chance to say what they had to say. It is remarkable that there is an informal meeting of Paul and his companions with “the church and the apostles and the elders” in Jerusalem. This already gives them an opportunity to enlighten the Jerusalem church, leaders and the community, on how the Spirit of God was at work among the gentiles, apart from the Law.
When it comes to the official meeting, it is Peter who speaks first (vv 7-11). The next opportunity to speak is given to “Barnabas and Paul” (one may notice how Luke tactfully changes the order of the two here!). Their speech is not reported; Luke simply says that “they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the gentiles” (v 12). Next was the turn of James (vv 13-21). His speech is longer than that of Peter. Both Peter and James are of the opinion that the yoke of the Law should not be imposed on the gentile converts. From the fact that Luke mentions only the speeches of Peter, James, Barnabas and Paul, one should not conclude that only they spoke. Probably many others also spoke out on the occasion, which is implied by the expression “much debate” in v 7.
Following prolonged discussion a final stance is taken by the gathering and that position must have been approved by all concerned and all present. That certainly is the implication of v 22 where it is said: “then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” The delegates sent to deliver the decision of the assembly to the church in Antioch are “chosen”, obviously from among the entire gathering; v 25 is even more emphatic: they have been chosen “unanimously”. How this choice was made is not specified. Paul and Barnabas are also in the group. No one in the assembly had the strange idea of excluding these two men, who had championed the freedom of the gentiles, in order to teach them a lesson in humility, in order not to give them the feeling that they had triumphed! The practical decisions taken by the assembly are gathered in the form of a letter (vv 23-29). These decisions are qualified as “what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. The “us” in the text refers to all who had assembled in Jerusalem and not only to the apostles and the elders. Luke seems to be hinting that what the community of believers consider necessary and useful for its good future is approved as good also by the Holy Spirit.
The most important element in the procedure found in the main texts seen above is the involvement of the entire community. There is involvement of the entire community because the leaders take the community into confidence. There is thus basically a sharing of responsibility. The community stands together. Within that common concern individuals are given consideration; even their personal proposals are taken into account and acted upon. No leader claims the exclusive right to decide on what is good for the community. There are always discussions on different levels: discussion among the leaders themselves, discussion among the members of the community and discussions among the leaders and the community together. But the entire exercise takes place in a spirit of prayer and faith. Importance is given to the will of God. Importance is given to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Importance is given to the community praying together to discern God’s will. Everything is done to assure the common good and the good future of the community. The democratic setup that is evidenced here consists in the common seeking of the will of God taking into account the views and opinions of all concerned, arriving at length at a decision which is welcomed by all as the will of God.
6. A growing community
The growth of the church can be understood on two different levels. It can be growth in space. The church kept spreading out into new regions all the time. This type of growth is already hinted at in 1:8, where the apostles are given the mission to bear witness to Jesus “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The entire book of Acts shows how this happened. The church originated in Jerusalem, grew strong there and then it spread out into Judea and Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth. However this growth of the church and the spread of the Word in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth did not take place all at once. It took place and continues to take place in time. Time is an important factor in the growth of the church and in the spread of the Word. The story of the spread of the Word begins on the “day of Pentecost” (2:1) and it will go on till the last day, the day, which God “has fixed...on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (17:31). It is this growth of the church in space and in time that constitutes the history of the church.
Luke gives great importance also to the growth of the church in numbers. In Acts 1:13-14 the community in Jerusalem consisted of the eleven disciples of Jesus (Judas is no more and Matthias is not yet), “certain women including Mary, as well as his brothers.” In 1:15 one finds a precise number: the gathering of believers “numbered about hundred and twenty persons.” The Pentecost experience brings about a sudden increase in the number of believers. Those who listened to Peter and were baptized that day were “about three thousand persons” (2:41). The next mention of growth in numbers is in 4:4. Many who listened to the preaching of Peter and John believed, “and they numbered about five thousand.” There is a very enthusiastic statement in 5:14: “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.” In 6:1 one finds the general report that “the disciples were increasing in number.” According to 11:21 the work of the Christian missionaries at Antioch was very fruitful: “the hand of the lord was with them, great number became believers” Acts 16:5 states that the growth of the church in numbers was steady: “the church was strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily”.
Special mention must be made of Acts 6:7, which reads: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” In this text Luke brings the spread of the Word and the numerical increase of the believers together. By this he means to say that the two things go together; that they must go together. Growth merely on the level of numbers is not enough; real growth must be on the level of the word of God. The growth of the church should consist in the increase in the number of those who listen to the word of God and who live according to the word of God.
The church experienced periods of severe persecution and at least short spells of peace. According to 8:1, there was “severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem”. After the conversion of Paul there emerges a period of comparative peace and tranquillity and then “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria, had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (9:31). The church was persecuted by Herod (12:1-5). After his miserable death (12:20-23) there emerged a similar period of peace, during which “the word of the Lord continued to advance and gain adherents” (12:24).
Periods of persecution as well as periods of peace contributed to the growth of the church. Relentless persecution as well as undisturbed peace could only undermine the growth of the church. The two factors that helped the growth of the church, even numerically, in all circumstances, are mentioned in 9:31. They are: “living in the fear of the Lord” and “comfort of the Holy Spirit”. If one were to be more precise “living in the fear of the Lord” is what is particularly required in times of peace; and the “comfort of the Holy Spirit” is what is required in times of persecution.
According to Luke the growth of the church should have all these four elements namely growth in space, growth in time, growth in number and growth of the word of God. By the growth of the word of God Luke means not only the preaching of the Word far and wide by Christian missionaries, but even more, the word taking root in the hearts of men and women of all times; the word of God guiding their day-to-day lives. The believers should keep becoming stronger in faith (16:5) by their deeper understanding of the word of God and by their strong adherence to it in their daily life. The growth of the church can never be identified merely with the increase in numbers: the number of dioceses or parishes; the number of religious Orders and Congregations; the number of Christian Institutions, the number of bishops, priests and religious; the number of baptized Christians. The growth of the word of God is what matters most. But that is something that can never be presumed; something that can never be taken for granted.
Part II - The monastic community
There are interesting points of contact between Luke’s presentation of the early Christian community in the Acts and Benedict’s presentation of the monastic community in the RB. Almost all aspects that were characteristic of the life of the early Christian community are found in the RB’s presentation of the life of the monastic community.
1. A community of believers
Benedict presents monastic life as a life of faith. According to Prol 49 growing up in monastic life means growing up in faith. The faith that a monk has in his heart and mind must be concretely manifested in his day to day life. He should believe that God is present everywhere (7:23; 19:1), especially when he prays (19:1), either with his community or alone. He has to believe that the Abbot holds the place of Christ in the monastery (2:2; 63:13). He should believe that Christ is present also in his brethren; it is this faith that enables him to serve his brethren (35:6) and to obey them (71:1). He has to see Christ in the sick brethren (36:1-4); in all the guests who come to the monastery (53:1, 7); especially in the poor (53:15). Seeing Christ in others, especially in the poor and the sick and the strangers, is a matter of faith; it is possible only if one has faith.
Another important demand of this life of faith is implied in 1:7 where, speaking about the Sarabaites, Benedict says: “in their works they still keep faith with the world so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.” Keeping faith with the world, that is, compromise with the ways of the world, is incompatible with keeping faith with God. Keeping faith with the world is a denial of one’s faith in God. Benedict repeats the same point in 4:20, where he wants his monks “to become strange to the ways of the world.”
In the Acts there is a process of becoming a believer. One who embraces the monastic way of life has already gone through part of that process. Of that process, baptism, which is the most important, is not repeated. There is, however, the traditional view that monastic profession is a sort of second baptism. Though monastic profession is not a second baptism – there can be no second baptism – looking at it that way seems to makes sense. By monastic profession one is born into the monastic family, into the monastic community. One was prepared for this second baptism by participation in all the main aspects of the life of the monastic community. During the year of novitiate, there is much reading and listening; there is experience of conversion at least in its initial stage; one already experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit within oneself (Prol 11; 2:3; 7:70; 20:4).
After one has make the profession one has to keep making further progress in the life of faith. The Rule shows how one should do that. Prayer is the most important exercise of faith. Lectio divina gives one the opportunity for listening to the word of God, which is meant to nourish one’s life of faith. Community life offers one ample opportunities to experience the presence of Christ, and to serve him, in others. The desert ideal cherished in the monastic way of life enables one not to keep faith with the ways of the world.
A monastic community has to be a community of believers. A true monastic community can be made up only of people who believe. The presence within the community of even one person who does not really believe can upset and disturb the whole community; it can be as disturbing as the presence of Jonah in the ship (Jon 1:4-15)! One may note here the wording of 28:6 where Benedict deals with the dismissal of an incorrigible member: “if the unfaithful (unbeliever) departs, let him depart” (1 Cor 7:15). One turns out to be, one proves to be, an unbeliever, by being incorrigible and stubborn.
2. A community of disciples
The monastic community is also a community of disciples; it has to be a community of disciples. The term “disciple” is found in thirteen texts in the RB (2:5, 6, 11, 12, 13; 3:6; 5:9, 16, 17; 6:3, 6, 8; 36:10). It is remarkable that these occurrences are mainly found in three chapters: in chapters 2, which deals with the abbot; in chapter 5, which deals with obedience and in chapter 6, which deals with silence. Going through the texts one does get the impression that by the term “disciple” Benedict means disciple of the abbot. This idea is further supported by the fact that the RB, especially chapters 2 and 64, presents the abbot primarily as a teacher. In the gospels, Jesus was a teacher and the Twelve, who followed him and kept listening to his teaching, were his disciples. In the Acts the apostles were teachers and the believers, who kept listening to heir teaching, were their disciples. The abbot in the RB is primarily a teacher and the monks, who listen to his teaching, are his disciples.
In the Acts the believers are disciples also in the sense that they are disciples of Jesus. The apostles have, who were disciples of Jesus were given the charge by Jesus to continue his ministry of teaching (Mt 28:18). The abbot has inherited the commission to teach from Jesus through the apostles. This is implied in the fact that in 5:6, 15 Benedict applies to the teaching ministry of the abbot the words of Jesus: “whoever listens to you, listens to me”, which were originally said to the Twelve (Lk 10:16). By his teaching the abbot turns his monks, helps them to become, disciples of Jesus. Understood that way, the term “disciple” in the RB applied to the monk, does mean that, the monk is first and foremost a disciple of Jesus. And that leads to another conclusion: the monk becomes a disciple of Jesus by accepting his abbot as his teacher, just as the believers in the Acts became disciples of Jesus by becoming disciples of the apostles, by listening to their teaching.
In the Acts a believer remains a disciple all his life. The teaching ministry of the apostles does not stop with the baptism of a person. There is teaching preceding baptism; this teaching was meant to prepare one for baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. There is ample evidence in the Acts that there was teaching even after baptism - what call one calls on-going formation now-a-days. That was the way the believers continued to be disciples. The same must be said about the teaching ministry of the abbot and the discipleship of the monk in the RB. Teaching is something that should go on all the time in a monastic community. The monk should feel the need of teaching; feel the need of on-going formation, all his life. The feeling that once one has made one’s profession, once one has been ordained, one no more stands in need of any further teaching or studies, is a foolish and dangerous presumption. One cannot remain a disciple unless one is open to teaching, open to on-going formation.
3. A sharing community
Benedict has written his Rule for the “Cenobites” (1:2, 13), that is, for “those who live in communities; for those who live a common life. By common life Benedict means the kind of life lived by the early Christian community in Jerusalem. In his Rule Benedict makes many explicit references to the life of fellowship lived by the early Christian community in the Acts.
The RB sets aside two full chapters to deal with the idea of common life. Benedict does not tolerate private ownership; everything is to be held in common. In 33:1 Benedict considers private ownership as a “vice” (“vitium”); and in 33:7 it is spoken of as the “most wicked vice” (“nequissimum vitium”). So, it has to “be cut out of the monastery by the roots” (33:1). A monk is not allowed to have anything as his own (33:3-5); he is not allowed to give anything away to anyone, because he does not possess anything (33:2). When Benedict says “let all things be common to all, as it is written”, he has in mind Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). In 34:1 Benedict quotes another important text from the Acts: “distribution was made to each one according to his needs.” In chapter 54 Benedict insists that a monk should not accept any gifts, even from his parents, without due permission. He cannot accept gifts, because he is not allowed to possess anything. However, along with such stringent rules about private ownership, Benedict also insists that all one’s legitimate needs must be met by the monastery (33:5), where he lives and for which he works.
This common life of the monastic community should be the external manifestation of the unity of heart and mind within the community. Benedict insists on unity in chapter 65, which deals with the appointment of the Prior. If the Prior happens to be a person elated with pride, considering himself equal to the abbot, almost a second abbot, the outcome is disastrous. There is serious strain and tension in the relationship between the abbot and the prior. This leads to a situation where the community is divided into two factions, one group siding with the abbot and the other siding with the prior. This state of affairs endangers both the spiritual and the material well-being of the monastery.
It is when there is no real unity within the community that individual monks begin to acquire things for themselves. In a divided community everyone feels insecure about his future and private ownership is seen, wrongly of course, as a means of ensuring some security.
4. A Praying Community
The community envisaged by the RB is also a praying community. It consists of people who pray individually and as a community. There are many elements that bring out the great importance Benedict attaches to Prayer. The monastery is the “house of God” (31:19; 53:22; 64:5). It is remarkable that the expression “house of God” which the Bible uses to refer to the temple in Jerusalem (Jer 7:2, 11; Is 56:7; Mt 21:13) is applied by Benedict to the entire monastery. That is his way of saying that prayer should be the main concern and occupation of those who live in a monastery. The monastery is the “school of the Lord’s service” – “dominici schola servitii” (Prol 45), meaning that the monastery is the place when the monks learn and practice the art of serving the Lord, meaning also the art of worshipping him through a life of prayer. One finds three kinds of prayer in the RB: Community prayer, personal prayer and intercessory prayer.
Community prayer, which is also spoken of as the “work of God” – “opus Dei” (7:63; 22: 6, 8; 43t, 3, 6, 10; 44:1, 7; 47t, 1; 50:3; 52:2, 5; 58:7; 67: 2,3) and “divine office” - “offium divinum” (8t; 16:2). Benedict sets aside 13 entire chapters of the Rule (8 – 20) to speak about prayer. He wants his monks to pray seven times in the day (16:1-3) as well as in the night (16:4), following the Jewish and the early Christian practice. In order to make sure that the Divine Office is performed at appropriate hours, Benedict wants the abbot himself to give the signal for it or entrust the duty to a “careful brother” (47:1). In 42:3 Benedict lays down the golden principle about community prayer: “indeed nothing is to be preferred to the work of God”. The similarity in the wording of this principle and of the other equally important principle: “to prefer nothing to the love of Christ” (4:21: 5:2; 72:11) is revealing. It implies that the monk should manifest his preferential love for Christ by putting nothing before the Work of God. It means that, if the monk loves Christ more than anybody else and anything else, he should love the Divine Office more than anything else. Benedict wants his monks to consider praying the Divine Office as an obligation (16:2; 18:24; 50:4), which they should not neglect even when they are working far away from the monastery or happen to be on a journey (50:3-4).
The Rule also speaks about personal prayer. One should always begin a good work with prayer (Prol 4). One should pray especially when one feels weighed down by one’s weak human nature (Prol 41). One should pray when one is beset with severe temptations or evil thoughts (Prol 28; 4:50). One should pray for strength when one is asked to do things, which, one feels, are far beyond one’s capacities (68:4-5). Moreover, whenever one feels like praying personally, one should “simply go in (to the oratory) and pray” (52:4). Benedict seems to be of the view that fruitful participation in the Divine Office is possible only for those who are used to praying personally.
A monastic community has to be also a community of people who pray for each other. The entire community is to pray for a monk excommunicated, or is at least severely punished for some grave offence (27:4). Prayer both of the abbot and of the community is the most important and effective remedy to heal a monk who is spiritually sick (28:4-5). The whole community is to pray for those who are entering on their weekly services, such as serving at table (35:15-18) and table reading (38:2-4). According to RB 67, the same is to be done for those who are sent on a journey: before setting out on the journey (v 1); while they are away (v 2) and on their return (vv 3-4).
Though one does not find any chapter in the RB speaking exclusively about the celebration of the Eucharist, there are texts in the RB that seem indicate that there was daily celebration of the Eucharist or at least daily distribution of Holy Communion. It is “after Mass and Communion” that the weekly reader is to request the prayers of the whole community for him (38:2). He is allowed to have “some diluted wine before he begins to read, on account of the Holy Communion” (