What does community look like?

Sep 22, 2017

It is very apparent that Paul was an advocate of community but he wasn’t into cloning. The communities he founded were unlike the first Jerusalem church in its structure but the root of the vision was the same. What did these church communities look like?


Paul leaves us with many instructions on how Christians must work out their new life together but we do not know a huge amount about the structure of the communities he founded or inputted. In certain ways, we know more about the structure of the early Jerusalem church.

Paul was a man deeply involved in the progress he wanted these church communities to make. He wrote most of his letters to address the situations different churches were in, and the difficulties they encountered. We have to ascertain from these letters as much as we can of the nature of these early communities.

When visiting a new place, Paul would first visit the synagogue to bring the good news. Very often, these soon became closed to him and the newly founded churches would meet in houses, often belonging to wealthier members. Most fairly well-to-do people of the time would have had a room big enough for 30 people (45 at a push). This arrangement must have been beneficial as it would lend a family atmosphere to the gatherings. Gaius of Corinth had a home large enough to let him be not only Paul’s host but the host to all of the churches of Corinth (Rom 16:23). A church met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, too, a couple employed in the trade of tent-making (Acts 18:1-3). Philemon, a slave owner, had a church that met in his home (Philemon 1:2). Nympha (probably a widow) from Laodicea also had a church in her house (Colossians 4:15).

Was this a residential arrangement or does this refer to church meetings? Certainly, often several or all members of a household became Christians at the same time. The embryonic community would often begin from a core of people who were already socially connected: we see this in Philippi when both the first convert, Lydia, and, later, the city jailor, were baptised along with their household. And in Corinth:

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people.” (1 Corinthians 16:15).

HospitalityHospitality was clearly important in the early churches – and Paul leant heavily on it to fulfil his ministry.

The churches were autonomous, having no organisational framework joining them together though there were affinities between churches in the same province (Col 4:15-16; 1 Thess 4:10). There is no hint at provincial church governance under a bishop – this was to come in the generation following. Relationships were not institutional but rather loosely organised by the exchange of letters, visits, sending of financial aid, praying for one another, passing greetings and so on.

JerusalemIn this way, no church had superiority over the others although all acknowledged Jerusalem as the source of spiritual blessing and the collection for the saints there from the mainly Gentile churches was a token of this acknowledgement. Paul was keen to both get the support of the Jerusalem church and, in turn, to support them.

Differences of church government, forms of ministry, ways of ‘doing church’ were probably greater than we would at first think. All were expected to submit to Paul in matters of faith – hence his letters.

Paul advocated sharing (a natural outflow from his great theme of love) but this was not in an organised fashion like the Jerusalem church described in Acts 2. Paul instructed the Galatians and Corinthians to individually set aside a sum of money in keeping with their income in order to help with the relief of the Jerusalem church. Of the churches in Macedonia he writes:

“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4).

The Philippians in particular had supported Paul financially, something he was very grateful for. Paul writes to Timothy at Ephesus to

“Command them [the wealthier members of the congregation] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:18).

LettersOn Paul’s first missionary journey, he appointed leaders on his return visit to the young churches; perhaps he waited ‘til he saw signs of maturity and obvious leadership gifts. Clearly, good leadership qualities were of great importance to him (see the pastoral letters). However, unlike Judaism, Paul’s churches did not have a distinction between priest and laity. There are no signs of a graded membership or a hierarchy of priesthood or leadership. This, too, is unlike the religious groups of the time.

There is no spiritual aristocracy. In one spirit all believers have equal access to God (Ephesians 2:18).  The same spirit dwells in them all and all participate in the gifts of ministry that the spirit distributes (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).  Members are to share each other’s burdens and have the same care for one another. All are saints – none are the elite. Our custom to refer to Saint Paul is ironic – he wouldn’t have believed in it!

The Corinthians had set their leaders on pedestals; some preferred Apollos, some Peter, and some Paul. Paul corrects this:

“What then is Apollos? And what is Paul?” Servants [diakonoi]* through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” (1 Corinthians 3:5).

He continues: “This is how one should regard us, as servants (hypēretas) of Christ and stewards (oikonomous) of the mysteries of God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1)

The word ‘hyperetes’ was sometimes used for a slave who was seated under the deck of a ship – one of the rowers. The word ‘oikonomos’, rendered ‘steward’, also referred to a slave, but one given a higher authority, under his master.

Paul’s view on leadership strongly echoes the words of Jesus: The greatest among you shall be your servant”. (Matt 23:11)

Paul addresses his letters to churches to everyone (including the women!) rather than to any authorities within them. Paul addresses the Philippians:

“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).

For Paul, all belonging to the community shared responsibility for the common life – including the outworking of the instructions in his letters. All the community are involved in teaching and admonishing. (Colossians 3: 16). The health of the church is a corporate affair. Yes, there are references to particular roles like teacher, prophet, apostle, within his letters but his emphasis, in his general letters, is on the responsibility of all.

UnityThe Roman world was full of class, education, and race distinctions: citizens and non-citizens, slaves and freedmen; the social elite; women were largely second-class citizens. Paul believed that, starting with Jesus, His work on the cross, His resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, these divisions are broken down – all equally partake of Christ and are one in the Spirit.

Clearly, there are some of higher social status than others in the churches: e. g. Philemon was a slave owner. However, social privilege was an occasion to serve. Paul’s instruction about having special regard to the least members (1 Corinthians 12: 22-24) is unlike any other organisations of that time.

Paul was not a systematic theologian; neither was he a systematic organiser. He wasn’t an advocate of structure and organization in a big way – unlike later generation churches. After all, where is his code of conduct? His long and many liturgies? His rituals and principles to be shared with the churches he oversaw? However, he did foster order (see 1 Corinthians!) right belief and conduct and, at times, he uses the weight of his apostolic authority to set church affairs aright.

Above all, Paul’s way was to love, to serve, to get alongside his converts and fellow believers:

“Even if you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me… ” (1 Corinthians 4:16).


*‘Diakonos is a common term for servant, which, in on a few occasions in the New Testament, refers to the office of deacon.


Robert J. Banks: Paul’s Idea of Community, Baker Academic,1994, USA
New Bible Dictionary, Church, IVP
A Dictionary of Paul and his letters, Man and Woman, IVP,
Follow the Leader () https://bible.org/book/export/html/787

For further study:

1 Corinthians 3:1-23; 1 Corinthians 4:1
Galatians 3:27,28