The Four Basic Pillars of the Christian Life

On Sunday we read from the Acts of the Apostles and we do well to look back at the opening verse of that passage (Acts 2:42). There we discover a four-point plan that describes the Christian life. Of the life of the early Christians it is said,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Here then are the four pillars of the Christian life. Before looking at them in detail, recall the context of this verse. Peter has just preached a sermon in which he warns his listeners to repent and believe the Good News. He says to them,

“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:40-41).

Now they are baptized and in the Church of the Living of God. (Notice that the verse does not say that they said the “sinners’ prayer” to be saved; it just says that they were baptized.) Unlike some of our Protestant brethren, who hold a kind of “once saved, always saved” mentality, we see that the text does not stop there. These new disciples now have a life to lead that will prepare them to meet God and help them to set their house in order. And this brings us back to our verse:

So here is our “four-point plan” for setting our house in order once we have come to faith. There are four components listed, four pillars if you will. Note that the text says that they devoted themselves to these four pillars of the Christian life. They did not merely do them occasionally, or when they felt like it, or when the time seemed right. They were consistent; they were devoted to these four pillars.

Pillar I. The Apostles’ Teaching – This first pillar of the Christian life is fascinating, not only for what it says, but for what it does not say. When we think of the “Apostles’ teaching” we think first of the four Gospels and the New Testament Epistles. These would surely be components of the Apostles’ teaching for modern Christians, but notice that the text does not say that they devoted themselves to Scripture, but rather to the Apostles’ teaching.

For a Catholic, the Apostolic teaching consists not only of the New Testament Scriptures, but also of Sacred Tradition, which comes to us from the Apostles and has been understood and articulated by the living Magisterium of the Church. Protestants would largely interpret this first pillar as an exhortation to read the Bible every day and base our lives on it. This is a true understanding, but only a partial one. The early Christians did not have the New Testament in its final form from day one and thus could not have lived this text in such a way. The Bible as we now have it was not yet completed, edited, or canonized. Yet they had received the Apostolic teaching, because it had been preached to them by the Apostles and their deputed representatives: the bishops, priests, and deacons.

St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess 2:15). Therefore, the Catholic application of this first pillar is truer and fuller in that we are devoted to the Apostles’ teaching not in Scripture alone, but also in Sacred Tradition as passed down and interpreted by the living Magisterium of the Church.

To live this first pillar with devotion means to set our house in order by diligently studying what the Apostles have handed down to us. We do this by the daily, devoted reading of Scripture and/or the diligent study of the faith through the Catechism or other approved manuals. We should make it a daily habit to read Scripture and study the faith, attempting to grow in our knowledge of what God has revealed through His prophets and Apostles, and then basing our life on what we learn and repenting of what is not in line with the revealed truth.

Pillar II. The FellowshipThe word fellowship may be a little weak here as a translation of the Greek τῇ κοινωνίᾳ (te koinonia). Most people who hear the word fellowship think of coffee and doughnuts after Mass, but the more theological way of translating this word is probably “a communion.” The sacred gathering of the faithful is better termed a “communion,” or in Latin “communion.” It is a gathering of the members of Christ’s Body the Church into one, a communion of Christ with His Bride the Church. True communio is to be in a rich relationship with others who instruct in the faith, encourage us, hold us accountable, and help when we are struggling. True communio is also to devote ourselves to helping others to salvation and perseverance.

According to this text, the early Christians devoted themselves to this communal gathering, surely on Sundays but also at other important times. Hence, the second pillar of the Christian life, through which we are helped to set our house in order, is “fellowship,” or even better, “communio.”

Keeping fellowship and meeting together in the Lord is rooted in this commandment: Keep holy the Sabbath. It doesn’t make sense to think that we can disregard one of the Ten Commandments and then claim that our house is in order. Some argue that this commandment does not explicitly say that we must be in Church on Sunday, but Leviticus 23:3 says regarding this commandment, You shall do no work and you shall keep sacred assembly, it is the Sabbath of the Lord.

Sacred assembly means “Church.” It is the fellowship, the koinonia, the communio. There is no way around it. God expects us to be in His house on our Sabbath, which is Sunday. The Book of Hebrews also says, And let us not neglect to meet together regularly and to encourage one another, all the more since the Day draws near. See here how the last “Day” and being prepared for it is linked to “meeting together regularly.”

So the second pillar of the Christian life is to set our house in order by going to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. In the Mass, we encourage others and are encouraged by them. We also receive instruction in the Word of God by the anointed and deputed ministers of that Word: the bishops, priests, and deacons.

Pillar III. The Breaking of the BreadThe phrase “the breaking of the bread” in the New Testament usually meant the reception of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

The worthy reception of Holy Communion is directly connected to having our house in order, for there are wonderful promises made to those who are faithful in this regard. Jesus makes this promise: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40). That’s quite a promise in terms of being ready! Jesus is saying that frequent reception of the Eucharist is essential preparation for the Last Day. Jesus also warns us not to stay away from “the breaking of the bread” or Holy Communion. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you (Jn 6:53).

Without Holy Communion, we’re not going to make it. You have to receive regularly in order to be ready. We cannot claim that our house is in order if we willfully stay away from Holy Communion.

By extension, we must allow this reference to one sacrament (Holy Communion) to be a reference to all the sacraments. Clearly, a Catholic approach to this third pillar of preparation would include being baptized and confirmed. It would also include weekly reception of Holy Communion, regular confession, anointing of the sick when necessary, and where possible the reception of Holy Matrimony or Holy Orders.

The sacraments are our spiritual medicine. We have a bad condition called concupiscence (a strong inclination to sin). It is like spiritual high blood pressure or diabetes. Hence, we must take our medicine and be properly nourished. As our medicine, the sacraments help us to avoid dying from our sinful condition. So the third pillar of the Christian life is to set our house in order by receiving Holy Communion worthily every Sunday and the other sacraments at appropriate times.

Pillar IV.Prayer This final pillar requires more of us than just saying our prayers in a perfunctory way. The Greek word here is προσευχαῖς (Proseuchais), and is best translated just as we have it here: “prayers.” However, the Greek root proseuche is from pros (toward or immediately before) + euchomai (to pray or vow). The prefix pros conveys the sense of being immediately before Him, and hence the ideas of adoration, devotion, and worship are included.

Thus prayer is understood as more than simply “saying one’s prayers.” What is called for is worshipful, attentive, and adoring prayer. Prayer is experiencing God’s presence. Jesus says of prayer that it is necessary for us lest we fall. Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Hence, the fourth pillar is prayer, through which we put our house in order through regular, worshipful, attentive, and adoring prayer of God. This serves as a kind of medicine lest we fall deeply into temptation.

So here are four basic pillars of preparation for the Day of Judgment. Follow them and then even if Jesus “hits like an atom bomb,” you’ll be able to look up and be ready, knowing that your redemption is at hand.

Enjoy this video. Observe in it all the preparations for the atomic bomb that those who are older may remember. In a way, all the preparations you see in the video are a little silly, since ducking under a desk wouldn’t help much if an atom bomb really hit! But the preparations I have mentioned above really are helpful because God gives them to us. The people in this video were trying to get ready using measures that probably wouldn’t help much. How much more important it is for us to do so, who do stand a chance, because God Himself has instructed us. Set your house in order!