Ethnic and social diversity in the early church

A good deal of contemporary debate about the nature of the church, and the challenges to reverse decline in church attendance in the West, focussed on sociological questions of reaching different groups, defined by culture, ethnicity and social status. So, for example, in contemporary discussion in the Church of England, we talk about outer estates, the support of lower income communities, the role of UKME people in leadership, the failure to engage with working class—and so on.

At one level, this is just a natural reflection of the way we view the world from an analytical point of view. But it is also a reflection of a long legacy of Western views of social elites (so that there is a deep-seated assumption about who is fit to govern us), and the recent rapid social changes arising from migration and globalisation that followed a long period of social stability.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had been given a description of the early Jesus communities, categorising under the headings that we now use, so that we could compare the social-economic profile of those communities and use them as a template to evaluate our own? There would be multiple problems in such an exercise, since the categories you use reflect your wider understanding of society, and of course the socio-economic profile of wider society in the ancient world is quite different from our post-industrial and non-agrarian context.

The New Testament doesn’t deal in these terms, but there are two windows we are given into these questions, in which we find lists of names that give clues to the composition of the Jesus communities through the lens of their leadership. The first, shorter, list comes in Acts 13, a text which was key for me in hearing God’s call into ordained ministry:

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul (Acts 13.1, TNIV).
It is interesting that Luke here brackets the list with Barnabas and Saul, who are the main focus of the narrative that follows, as the Spirit calls the church to set them aside for what becomes Paul’s so-called ‘first missionary journey’. Although both were Jews, they come from different groupings in Judaism. Barnabas is from a priestly family in the Diaspora (Acts 4.36) appears to be of some wealth since he is able to sell land he owns and contribute the proceeds to the apostles (Acts 4.37). By contrast Paul is a Pharisee, and had close associations with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As was not uncommon, he engaged in manual labour to maintain himself and would have been comparatively poor.

What’s going on with 1 Cor 14?

When an rather obscure argument about a finer point of textual criticism (the study of differences in early manuscripts of the NT) makes it into the mainstream media, then you might be forgiven for thinking that something odd or rather interesting is going on. That’s what happened last week; in Thought for the Day on … Continue Reading

Evangelical responses to the ‘Nashville Statement’

The ‘Nashville Statement‘ is a ‘manifesto’ comment on the issues around same-sex relations, transgender and the debate on sexual identity issued by the so-called Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which argues that God intends that men should have authority over women in all spheres of life. It provoked a wide range of reactions, some … Continue Reading

Can we fix Bible translation?

The translation committee of the English Standard Version has announced that there will be no more revisions to the text, which now becomes the Permanent Text. The ESV is not one of the ‘big hitters’ in translation like the NIV (it is used by around 8% of American Bible readers) but it has been the preferred … Continue Reading