A while back I did a quick overview of what were the elements of New Testament (NT) liturgy, that is, if you went attended church in the apostolic era, what would happen during the service. The final point I raised was charity. Nowadays when the word charity is used it often refers to some non-governmental organization or used in a derogatory way for undeserved handouts. The use of the word to refer to the virtue of kindness and generosity, which is what I meant by it in early Christian liturgy, is not so common. Of course I could have used those other synonyms and it would have conveyed what I was trying to get across much better but there were other reasons for choosing such an archaic term.
When you look in the Authorized Version, the most popular English translation of the Bible, it sometimes translates love as charity. That is what it does for 1 Corinthians 13, the most well-known passage on love in the entire Bible. There are a couple of reasons why translators chose charity when love was an available word which conveyed the same meaning. First of all, charity was a synonym of love back then so it was a valid choice. The other reason for certain word choices is due to how Bibles are translated. If you turn to the preface of your Bible you will learn there are multiple translation teams who work on different books or sets of books of the Bible. So one particular translation team will have its own distinctive style even with a single translation project. It is for the same reason why in the King James we have Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost, differentiation styles of different translation teams and viable word options at the time. Language does evolve over time. Now when you look at the etymology of the word charity and that particular period you understand how charity could ever mean love.
In the 17th century Latin was still a very important language in Europe used in government, the academy and the church. Charity is from the Latin caritas which means “dear.” Throughout the medieval period, the dominant Bible translation was the Latin Vulgate, until the Greek Textus Receptus (TR) began to take over in the 16th century. In the TR a Greek word for love agape, which was specially used by the NT church and is found in 1 Corinthians 13, is translated as caritas in the Vulgate. So out of the Latin word origin came the English charity and because of those roots it was uniquely associated with scripture in translating a special Christian word for love. Even though the TR was the manuscript basis for the KJV, the continued use of Latin and the long dominance of the Vulgate meant it was perfectly natural, even historically more appropriate, translation choice.
Over the years as language changes charity changed in meaning to how to mean something different from love today. However, I chose to describe an element of early Christian liturgy as charity knowing it’s history and the Christian definition and expression of love. Agape, divine love, is ultimately revealed through the Jesus the Son of God reaching its pinnacle on Calvary. It is this divine love the community of believers has received in Jesus. It is by definition a cross-shaped common sharing, liberal giving and self-sacrifice. We read in Acts how this was a defining feature of the early Jerusalem church.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. – Acts 4:32-35 ESV
When the Gospel spread beyond Roman Palestine this pattern continued.
…when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:9-10 ESV
Now this mindset and praxis, as I have already mentioned, came from Jesus himself. Though it’s zenith was the cross, this was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry in both his teaching and his actions. Forever connected with the cross was a meal. Table fellowship was an important and regular feature of Jesus’ ministry. Now offering to share a meal with someone means inviting them into your home, thereby offering them food and shelter for at least that period, two of the most basic human needs. That is a very intimate act of giving. Now something even more personal, the ultimate act of giving, came with Jesus. He illustrated his impending sacrifice for them with one bread and one cup which they were to share. Not only did this act memorialize his sacrifice it symbolized the intimate communion they had in him. If they shared the same sustenance, what else of theirs could they not share with one another? They were one body and one bread. As I learnt from Making a Meal of It by Ben Witherington III, an excellent book on the meaning and history of the communion, the Lord’s supper was part of a larger meal. So apart from the Lord’s Supper being an actual meal, it was part of a feast where all were invited. Eating a common meal with generosity was institutionalised, so to speak, in the early church. It was in the DNA of one of their most sacred ceremonies to begin with. So sharing in the church began with sharing something as simple yet necessary as food and naturally advanced from there, all of it being ultimately informed by the cross.
While reading Prof Witherington’s book, it really struck me how domestic early Christianity was, even more so than I had realised. Initially the Jerusalem church was more centralized, having a centralised meeting place in the temple precinct, domestic, sub-communal life remained vital, especially as the church became trans-local. There were no hard distinctions between church and home. Church was home. This was not just true in a logistical sense but that was the part of the very ethos of church. In the Messiah Jesus we now belong to the one family of God, brothers and sisters who share a common inheritance from the Father. Within the home setting you could really practice being a part of a family, sharing everything in common. After centuries of Western individualism influencing our Christian experience and values, it is admittedly a very daunting prospect to open our homes to fellow believers. Just the thought of giving something directly to a brother or a sister, without going through the church’s welfare system which is very good but depersonalizes the act of giving, can be terrifying.
Now I am not saying we should exactly replicate the 1st century house church model. We do not have enough details to pull it off precisely neither is it necessary as far as scripture itself is concerned. What it does require of us is to be inspired and learn from them, adapting to new challenges and scenarios just as they did. For example, when there was the problem of unfair food distribution in the early Jerusalem church they innovated. They created the new position of deacon, which in Greek simply means a table waiter, to allow other ministerial activities, namely teaching and prayer to go on. Since there was discrimination, they appointed people of high character who were universally acknowledged as such by the church, and only those from the marginalized to ensure there was fair treatment. In the large Roman world, they created a trans-local welfare network to send relief to churches in difficult times across the empire. When those churches gained full reprieve, they in turn supported their counterparts when they too were in dire need (2 Corinthians 8:13-14.) Mind you this was not to ‘Pauline’ churches alone, but which ever sister church had need. This ecumenical giving challenges our strident denominationalism.
I am inspired and also deeply challenged by the New Testament example. Not that they got everything right, they clearly struggled and they did not hide it, but they sincerely pursued it with tenacity and creativity to practice most importantly genuine, cross-motivated, Spirit-energised love. I leave you with the words of Paul,
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 ESV