Given K. Rex Butts’ comment on a previous post, I offer this slightly edited section from my book, co-authored with Bobby Valentine, entitled Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (pp. 75-77). The concern Rex expressed early in the 21st century is the same concern James A. Harding had about congregations at the turn of the 20th century.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Acts 2:42 (NIV)
Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conceptions of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.
James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February1887), 88
As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as an influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition but it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others continued that perspective into the early twentieth century, especially in Texas. Harding, however, believed these “four duties” were listed “in the order of their importance” (“The Habits that Save,” The Way 4 [5 February 1903], 356).
Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table, and (4) habitual prayer. Sometimes Harding identified all of these activities with the Lord’s day, but generally understood Bible study, ministering to the poor, and prayers as daily spiritual disciplines. [I would suggest they are all daily activities among Jerusalem believers, including “breaking bread” as per Acts 2:46.] Believers should read their Bibles daily, “do good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon and evening.
But these are no mere “duties.” Rather, they are “four great means of grace”—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in and through his people (Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 [17 July 1902], 123). They are not avenues of human self-reliance but modes of divine transformation through which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines by which God conforms his people to the image of Christ.
Harding emphasized that the “life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ” (“Scraps,” The Way 5 [23 July 1903], 735). To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s greatest desire (“Scraps,” The Way 5 [15 October 1903], 945). In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a large number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” [getting saved for the afterlife!] as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord” [discipleship as a lifestyle]. As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ” (“About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 [14 September 1887], 588).
Harding’s antidote was to recommend the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and individual piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure” (“Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader & the Way 23 [18 May 1909], 8). But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are God’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not [sic] be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines (The Way 4 [26 February 1903], 401-2).
The divine dynamic is graciously active through these communal and individual faith-practices by the power of the Holy Spirit. God actively transforms his people into his own image and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience that transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.
Ultimately, the kingdom is about discipleship–following Jesus–rather then a self-interested notion of “getting to heaven.” Christianity is about particpating in the creation of heaven on earth rather than inheriting of a Platonic mansion in the sky.