In its expansion throughout the ancient world Christianity adapted itself to exist within the institutions and governmental lifestyle of Roman society. During this transformational period believers formed Christian communities, referred to as house churches, under the authority of a bishop. Worship within early Christian house churches were probably centered around the dinner table. Typically in the family gathering room and the center of activity was the fellowship meal or communal meal as dinning is one of the hallmarks of the early Christian church. The Eucharist became the center of Christian life and the rejection of Gnosticism became the major doctrinal achievement of the early Church. As we investigate the early Christian community we recognize the fact they were structured to flourish in a hostile Roman led environment. As we probe the social and cultural texture of scripture we must explore the social and cultural ‘location’ of the text and the language it evokes. We must also consider the conversionist view that the world is corrupt because people are corrupt and if people can be changed, the world will be changed (Robbins). From the resurrection of Christ to the Day of Pentecost the world would be profoundly changed forever.
The Early Christian Communities
From the beginning the internal structure of the early Christian communities was hierarchical. The bishop (head of the local church) was assisted by clergy, whose higher ranks (priests and deacons) were considered of a divine institution. In Acts 2:41-47 we discover those who gladly received Peter’s word as an act of obedience by passing through the waters of baptism. It was an act of joy. The believers were united together. Persons of one mine, one belief. It was a natural response to their belief in Christ and it felt right. These early Christian communities were made up of all sorts of people, without any class recognition or other kind of distinction. From Apostolic times, the Church was open to Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, free men and slaves. But most came from humble conditions and the vast majority of the faithful were converted to the faith and not children of Christian parents.
In the early Christian community the members called themselves brethren, they spent much time in prayer and worship, they retained their Jewish manner of life, and as many as were so disposed sold their goods and shared the proceeds with their poorer friends, they broke bread together in memory of their fellowship with Jesus, and they recalled the final words of his earthly career (Case). Paul expected the early Christian communities to participate in some kind of mission work in an attempt to convert non-Christians to the Christian faith (Plummer).
Early Christian communities were unified in mind and purpose. Their unity extended to treating their goods as common property, making them a community of friends of the highest order. These early Christian communities were not a sect that cut themselves off from the welfare of others but they extended their generosity to the larger society (DeSilva). They had favor toward all people (Acts 2:47). Moreover, Christians were not a subversive group, nor a perceived danger to the Roman government. The challenges that Christ-followers faced as they sought to respond to the Gospel were challenges posed by the conflict between the call of God and the demands ( and opportunities) of the society and the culture around them as they allowed the inward transformation of their own beliefs of a savior, whom they followed, rather than the Roman government. The Apostles’ visions for their congregations took shape with reference to and in response toward the local settings in which Christians were called to witness to the one true God and Christ. The Christians were not respectful toward ancestral pagan customs, and their preaching of a new king sounded like revolution. They were considered heretics.
Due to the informal and anti-personality-driven nature of the Roman justice system the Christian community was mocked for spreading the Gospel throughout every sector of society. Given to the lack of guidance in governmental discernment nothing “other than a prosecutor, placing a charge of Christianity upon the believers, was required to bring a legal case against this heretical group of citizens.” This persecution (often harsh) occurred during the ministry of Jesus and continued intermittently over a period of about three centuries. Such occult driven persecution of the Christians reflected a governing official’s personal reasons for persecuting Christians in his jurisdiction. When a governor was sent to a province, he was charged with the task of keeping it settled and orderly. His primary interest was to keep the populace happy, thus when unrest against the Christians arose in his jurisdiction, he was inclined to appease the Roman citizens (De Ste Croix). The Roman government supported public cults and protected the influence of superstition and the occults which practiced within the communities under their rule. The Roman disdain for Christianity rose because they felt it was bad for society (unrest and heretical) undermining the Roman rule. They passed judgment against the Christian community as the ruling Governors made decisions solely based on their instincts and knowledge (Barnes). The level of persecution experienced by any given community of early Christians still depended upon how threatening the local governing official deemed this new threat to the control of the Roman citizenry to be. The Christian beliefs would not endear themselves to many governmental officials: they worshiped a convicted criminal, refused to swear to the emperor’s genius, harshly criticized Rome in the early Christian writings, and suspiciously conducted their rites in private. In the early third century one magistrate told Christians, “I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion (Brown).”
The primary source for the Great Persecution are the writings of church historians Eusebius and Lactantius and hagiographic literature (Oulton). The vast majority of the trials of Christians, which we know about in detail, end in conviction and a death sentence (Luijendijl). During this process the early church community found itself attempting to find its place within the Roman hierarchy in terms of its strategy. Christianity was born and it was in the cities it formed local churches. Their surroundings were pagan and hostile-which led to a greater sense of internal cohesion- and increased solidarity among its members. Without agitation from the public, the Roman government would have little motivation to persecute local Christians.
At the heart of this transformational process we discover, from a social and cultural texture, a conversionist response to the persecution and Roman disdain of the Christian movement. A conversionist perspective sees the culture as an important part of society. It is a process that alters one’s lifestyle, purpose, and future. Transformation is a picture of personal salvation in the life of the believer. On this premise the church must see the Roman oppression and persecution, not as the enemy, but as the reason Jesus came. Lives will not be changed in time, yet lives will only be changed when one’s thinking changes. The problem is that man was creating a culture that was corrupted and self centered. While the fallen nature of man is destructive and intrinsically evil, God said there is something redeemable in man. Redemption is fixing what is broken. The Christian community saw it for what is was, a corrupt society worshipping idols and other Gods. Such a response believes the world itself will not change, but the presence of a new subjective orientation to it will itself be salvation (Robbins). Such competition (persecution) during the growth of the early church drove Christians either into hiding or spread them in all directions from Jerusalem (DeSilva, 2004). Yet as the early church grew they began to establish a transformational design to their work moving from a centralized hierarchal strategy to a more decentralized organization to overcome, grow in numbers, and improve their posture against the Roman persecution.
Organizations, like all living systems, can survive only to the extent they maintain harmony with their external environment. This includes being sensitive to the evolving needs and perceptions of their followers, recognizing and understanding change, knowing their adversaries, as well as the legal, social, and political climate where they exist. Most organizations die because they fail to maintain a positive attitude toward their environment and fail to understand the motivation of those opposed to their strategic mission. Thus a clear organizational strategy will help transform an organization or movement from a normal place in society to one that inspires people. Such a strategy became manifested in the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Viewing Current Organizations as a Transformational Process
The transformational process is about adding value. Modern organizations must draw upon the tacit input from their environment, resources, and history to produce a new set of outputs (Nadler & Tushman). For an organization to be successful they must recognize four key components; the work, the people who are called to perform the work, the formal structure or direction of their work, and the informal arrangements, often referred to as ‘culture’, that reflects their values, beliefs, and behaviors. In order to understand the Transformational Process any organization (much like the Christian community) must understand and apply the components necessary to reach its strategic goals:
The Work: This is the basic and inherent activity engaged by the organization and its units in furtherance of the organizational strategy. This work ( calling, purpose, or resolve) is the primary reason for the organizations existence. Any design perspective has to start with an understanding of the tasks to be performed, the skills necessary to accomplish the strategic goals, and the applicable stress involved in the assignment. In Acts 2:43 we find the Christian community “…devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” Continuing in Acts 2:46 scripture states, “…they devoted themselves to meeting together.”
The People: From the perspective of organizational ‘fit’, the key feature is identifying the important characteristics of the people responsible for the tasks required for the core work. The components of any organization exists together in various stages of balance and consistency in what is referred to as ‘fit’. This congruence model of organizational behavior states ‘the higher the degree of fit (or congruence) among the various components, the more effective the organization’. We discover in Acts 2:44 that, “…all the believers were together and had everything in common.” Thus, the fit (and harmony) necessary to achieve organizational goals.
Formal Organizational Arrangements: This is a reference to the necessary workforce structures, processes, systems, and procedures developed to organize work and to guide individuals in their performance of duties. In Acts 2:46 states, “…and every day they devoted themselves to meeting together.” Harmony appears to be the key word in influencing people with the same frame of interest toward a common goal. Thus, in the Christian community, the goal is people uniting together to propagate the gospel in their community.
The Informal Organization: Referred to as organizational culture and operating environment, the formal organization encompasses a pattern of processes, practices, and political relationships that embodies the values, beliefs, and accepted behavioral norms of the individuals who work for the organization. There must be a common bond to associate individuals toward strategic goals.
The informal organization is revealed in Acts 2:46b where the believers, “…broke bread from house to house, praising God (v 47) and having favor with all people.”
By viewing scripture from a Social and Cultural Texture modern organizations can benefit from the organizational design developed through the early Christian communities. Thus by reexamining their current strategy any organization can modify their culture through new structures, processes, patterns of activities, reward systems as well as increasing the peoples capacity to perform the tasks necessary to reach organizational goals.
Barnes, T.D., Legislation against the Christians, The Journal of Roman Studies, 58, p 35.
Brown, P. (1971). The World of Late Antiquity, Thames and Hudson. P 17.
Case, S. (1909). The First Christian Community, The Biblical World, 33(1) pp 54-64.
DeSilva, D. (2004). An introduction to the New Testament. Madison, WI: InterVarsity Press, p 355.
De Ste Croix, G. (1963). Why were the early Christians persecuted? Past & Present, 26, p 123,
Luijendijk, Annemarie (2008). Papyri from the great persecution: Roman and Christian perspectives. Journal of Christian Studies, John Hopkins University Press.16(3), pp 341-369
Nadler, D., Tushman, M. (1997). Competing by Design: The power of organizational
architecture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Oulton, J.E.L. (1994). Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press. Lacantius, De mortibus persecution, text and translation Alfons Stadele: Laktanz, FDe mortibus persecutorum.
Plummer, R. (2006) Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission: Did the apostle Paul expect early Christian communities to evangelize? The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69(4).
Robbins, V. (1996). Exploring the texture of texts: a guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
About the author: Dr. Michael B. Russell, MA, MBA, DSL, MLIS is a 30 year Licensed Consulting Agent in the Religious and Non-Profit sector conducting seminars and workshops on current liability issues facing these sectors. He holds a Masters in Communication and Research from the Fullbright College, University of Arkansas; an MBA from the School of Business and Technology, Webster University, St. Louis; and holds an earned Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com or 479-268-4471
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