The New Testament concept of the kingdom of God challenged the inherited divisions of Near East society in the first century. The moves away from a strictly Jewish Christianity towards one which could accommodate any variety of human cultural form are carefully documented by the non-Jew Luke.
In Acts, Luke is particular about highlighting the involvement of ‘the Twelve’ in authenticating or ratifying the shift from Jewish to universal concerns. Thus it’s contrived that representatives of the Twelve are present to authenticate both shifts in the understanding of the word ‘brother’ – now to include Samaritans and Gentiles.
Later, in the expansion of the church, Paul learns to translate the Messianic message into language appropriate to Gentile milieu, shown especially in his speech on Mars Hill outside Athens. Eventually John specifically restates the ministry of Jesus in concepts accessible to the constructs of the Greek mind.
To a large extent, by the end of the first century, the ‘middle wall of partition’ between Jew and Gentile had been broken down ‘in Christ’ in practice as well as in theory. The process had been carefully monitored by the Twelve, promoted by Paul and Barnabas and accelerated by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon non-Jews.
Somewhat addressed during this period was the problem of freedom and slavery, part of the socio-economic reality of the Roman Empire. Paul’s general exhortations to slaves, however, require their continuing obedience to their human masters, in the understanding that in Christ they are already, essentially, ‘free’.
Least attended to, in the New Testament corpus at least, was the perception and place of women in both Jewish and Roman worldviews. The practical implications of ‘kingdom’ and ‘brotherhood’ for the male-dominated worlds of Jesus and Paul were there, however, and the evidence of the charismatic days of Jesus’ public ministry and the first flowering of Christianity suggests that women were happily included in both discipleship and leadership.
The dynamics of brotherhood/rivalry are critical with regard to the building up of the body of Christ among believers from a Muslim background. An understanding of the reality of these dynamics in many current Muslim cultures will perhaps take the sting out of incipient church situations where vying for power or negotiating for position seem to occur alongside the wonder of mutual fellowship as brothers and sisters in Christ.
If Western Christians prove practically that ‘brotherhood’ is only reserved for church services or pre-arranged meetings, it is not surprising that rivalry issues come up in the church groups for which they are responsible. Can we learn to see ‘church’ as a vital mix of daily interaction between believers and not ‘meetings’ we ‘go to’?
In Christ the possibility that the spiritual reality of unity can become increasingly our experience here on earth in the nitty-gritty of relating as Christians across cultures. Such were hard and long lessons to learn when the early Christians’ expectation was that the other party (Gentile, slave, woman) needed to do all the converting.
Is the Holy Spirit asking us to hold lightly some of the dynamics of ‘church’ a-la-Western-mode and allow Him time to bring to birth fellowships with a different face? Perhaps, on His agenda, the brotherhood/rivalry issue will not be the first priority for transformation.