What is a church? | Frequently asked questions

A Fascinating Debate


The following is an actual exchange between our website and someone who wrote in to us. The questions and subject matter seem so relevant and helpful that we are reproducing it virtually unchanged:

Correspondent: Before I begin, when I asked for references for your claims about the nature of the early church, I wasn't looking for scholarly support. Finding a scholar that agrees with you is not all that hard, since academia believes just about everything there is to believe. I was looking for source documents dating to the first century, or even the second century, that describe the church as you describe it. I don't think you can use the NT alone and come up with the church as you have pictured it, for others use only the NT and come up with answers that are quite different.

CCF Response: We haven’t just quoted from the New Testament. Our web site contains various articles which quote widely from the actual writings of the Early Church Fathers regarding the practices and teachings that they introduced and which we maintain were unbiblical error.

Correspondent: First, the suggestion that the early church at large did not possess the entire NT is simply false. It is true that the first extant canonical list does not appear until 367AD with Athanasius. But the first canonical list is in the late second century, about 170AD. We currently possess a bound edition of Paul's letters and Hebrews that dates from before 200AD. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, quotes from 11 of the 13 Pauline epistles in 108AD. Ignatius alludes to most of the Pauline epistles in his letters, and he died in 108AD, so he wrote some time before that. Clement, who knew Paul personally (check the dates: Clement could have easily been as old as 50 when Paul died, and see Philippians 4:3) alludes to much Pauline material. Marcion, later excommunicated for heresy, makes reference to almost the entire NT, even though he does exclude parts of it. Furthermore, the apostolic commands to both share and acquire epistles with churches, when combined with your own emphasis upon the importance of keeping and obeying apostolic commands, makes it exceedingly unlikely that the Early Church Fathers could have made as radical a departure from apostolic teaching as you claim has been made. In my opinion, the fact that you quote from men who either knew the apostles themselves, or knew someone who knew them, and then oppose their teachings as contradictory to the apostolic ministry, does not ring true. Instead of proving how quickly things went wrong, could this not instead prove that this is really the continuation of the apostolic ministry? It makes more sense to me that the apostolic fathers knew how strongly the apostles expected their teachings to be kept, and therefore did so, producing the church of the first few centuries AD, till everything went haywire in the Middle Ages.

CCF Response: We nowhere suggest that the entire NT was not completed at the dawn of church history when the Fathers first appeared, but it is nevertheless completely true to say that it was at least a couple of centuries before the average church, or individual believer, could actually get their hands on it in it’s entirety. The point is that, unlike us today, as the Fathers introduced teachings and practices that differed from apostolic traditions, those being taught by them couldn’t just open their New Testaments and test it all against the whole Word of God themselves.

Also, your assumption that the Early Church Fathers couldn’t have got things wrong because of some kind of closeness to the apostles and their teachings seems a bit of an odd thing to say. After all, how much closer to the apostles’ teaching do you actually want to get than to simply open the New Testament? Yet even so, churches today continue to go against it wholesale. So why should it have been any different with the Fathers? And is it not the case anyway that the only way to ascertain if something is, or is not in accordance with apostolic teaching is to precisely test it by scripture? I therefore refer you back to the writings of the Fathers. They taught, for example, that churches should be led by a priestly caste; that the Bishop is in the position of God Himself as far as the churches under his authority are concerned; that a convert was born again not when he believed on Jesus, but when he was baptised, and that this was because water, at the invocation of the Priest, was imbued with power when the Holy Spirit came on it, and caused the rebirth of the convert as they are touched by it. Further, baptism could only be granted with the permission of the Bishops. Such a belief obviously soon found it logical to just start baptizing babies and get people born again from infancy. Indeed, all the above teachings were in place and practiced by the end of the second century, and you still want to maintain that things didn’t go haywire until the Middle Ages?

Your argument thus far is simply this: the Early Church Fathers couldn’t have been significantly wrong about anything because they just couldn’t have been; and if what they taught or practiced seems to go against what the apostles taught and practised then, “Could this not instead prove that this is really the continuation of the apostolic ministry?” You are arguing that they must have been right because they just must have been.

Correspondent: Second, about the nature of the "worship service," I agree that worship is not to be a kind of spectator event, where only the presbyters/bishops participate, such as has happened in the Roman church. But I think that there is a large middle ground between compete passivity and utter spontaneity. Worship is to be dialogical, to be sure, but consider my church. The entire service is set up thus: God calls His people to worship; God's people respond with a hymn of praise. There is responsive reading of the Word. God calls His people to confess their sins; God's people confess their sins with one heart and voice. God assures His people of their forgiveness; God's people give thanks for their forgiveness with a hymn. God calls His people to cast their cares upon Him; God's people respond by bringing their prayers and petitions before the throne of grace. God speaks to His children through His Word; God's people respond by bringing their tithes and offerings. God feeds His people at the table and God's people give thanks for the gift of the Body and Blood. God blesses His children. All of this is planned out, and the structure is the same every week, though we alternate every week between morning and evening services in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The entire order of worship, for the morning service anyway, is laid out in the bulletin. This is most certainly not a service where the presbyter does and says everything and the congregation watches. Granted, we still have a sermon, and a sizable one at that, but it seems fitting that God has more to say to us than we could ever have to say to Him, and that we would benefit far more from listening than speaking. A service need not be unplanned for it to be "interactive."

CCF Response: The point here is that regardless of what type of church service you have, and in what type of public building you have it, it is simply not what churches uniformly did when the apostles, and they alone, held sway. All anyone has to do is to simply read their New Testament and ask the following question: “What did churches do when they came together on the first day of the week, as revealed in the pages of scripture?” And of course the answer is a purely factual one having nothing whatsoever to do with personal opinion or differing interpretations. Indeed, the only reason we quote so voluminously from biblical scholars concerning this is to simply demonstrate that this is precisely not our own personal and subjective opinion or interpretation: it is something that is patently and self-evidently clear.

When we say, for instance, that an aeroplane has wings, we are simply describing a particular thing, and are doing so within the verbal and semantic parameters as defined by all who use such language to simply mean what it means and to be referring, in that instance, to the wings that aeroplanes have. We are further assuming that when such terminology regarding aeronautical design is used then those employing it are free of any kind of hidden agenda based, for instance, on some prejudice such as not actually wanting aeroplanes to have wings. So to say that aeroplanes have wings is nothing whatsoever to do with personal opinion or subjective interpretation, and simply states a patently obvious and self evident truth.

And so it is when we enquire as to what the New Testament church was like whilst solely under apostolic teaching and practice and free of other influences. It is not a matter of subjective interpretation, neither of mere opinion, it is simply deduction based on the pure and undisputed observation of what the New Testament text actually says. And what we see in that text is that churches were house based, that they knew nothing of religious ‘services’ but rather just shared together in each others living rooms as each was led and with no one officiating or leading ‘from the front, under the simple understanding that, “…when you come together each one has…”. They would further eat a meal together with bread and wine as being a part of what they ate and drank, and which they had been taught by Paul, and others, to be the Lord’s Meal (or Supper), at which He was the unseen guest of honour.

And the reason we quote scholars on these points so voluminously is because people are usually so amazed, and find it a bit unbelievable to discover that virtually their entire church experience is based on something other than the teaching of scripture. Have you ever, for instance, seen the look of amazement on the average Anglican’s face when it has been demonstrated to them that having a priestly leadership caste in the church, and baptizing infants, and other such things as they practice, don’t actually come from the Bible at all? You see, people just assume that such things must be right and true and biblical if only because it’s what so many churches do. But of course such logic is fatally flawed, and of course all these aberrations we are looking at come from the Early Church Fathers and not from the New Testament at all.

To return to the point about churches services I must again emphasise that the issue here is not the variations on a theme one can come up with; and whether or not one can have a degree of interaction in a ‘worship service’ in a ‘religious building’ just isn’t the point. One can have all sorts of things, and all kinds of different religious services and practices, and in all manner of different religious or public buildings too. Indeed, one could have an interactive gathering every third Tuesday of the month, led by women (but only those who were over five feet tall), where the men folk weren’t permitted to be in leadership or to do anything other than speak in tongues, and where children prophesied standing on their heads whilst being taught by one of the ladies that it’s alright for them to disobey their parents, and with each person present then eating a whole loaf of bread and consuming an entire bottle of wine - but could such a gathering still be said to be biblical? And of course that is the one and only thing we should be interested in: What the Bible teaches! What the practices and teachings that the apostles taught people to observe, and to believe and adhere to, were! You can make all the variations under the sun and modify and change what they taught to your hearts content; indeed, that is precisely what the Fathers did, but what you cannot then claim is to be doing what the apostles, as recorded in the pages of the New Testament, originally taught and practiced. Let me ask you this; on what possible basis can you maintain that your church’s ‘services’ are just fine and dandy, but that there are other churches that have different types of ‘services’ which are not?

One other thing: in 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul outlines the principles and instructions for the gathering of a church (on the first day of the week), and one of his main emphases is precisely that all gathered are to be free to take part, and that no one person should in any way dominate or play a main leadership role. His thrust is that each part of the body present (individual believers) must be free to move. It is that those who feel they have nothing to offer should be encouraged to come to the fore, whilst those who are more able in the public arena should take more of a back seat and not do too much lest they be even further hindering the quieter ones coming forward by saying too much and by ‘taking the floor’. So I further ask; where on earth do we find in scripture permission for something like the Sunday sermon, or for someone to be so dominant at the weekly church gathering that they are actually leading it? These are not merely issues of ‘variations on a theme’, or of having some legitimate alternative as to how we ‘do’ church, they are to do with whether or not we are going against the clear teaching of scripture.

Correspondent: Third, the suggestion that the early church did not meet in a formal worship service also strikes me as doubtful. Acts 2:42-47 speaks of meeting together in the temple courts, and of "prayer."  "Prayer" is NT parlance for the entire worship event. For example, in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector it says that they had gone to the temple to pray. This most likely describes their attendance at the daily sacrifices. Why should "prayer" in Acts, both here and elsewhere, speak of something other than a formal worship meeting? Peter went to "pray" several times in Acts. Tying this into my second point, since the entire worship service is supposed to be a dialogue between God and His people, calling the entire thing prayer makes perfect sense. Also, the fact that the church stopped going to the temple has little to do with not meeting formally for worship: they were thrown out by the Jews. This does not prove that the church ceased formal worship, only that they ceased attendance at Jewish houses of worship, both the temple and synagogues.

CCF Response: If it is the case, as you suggest, that Acts 2, when it speaks of ‘prayer’, is actually meaning ‘formal worship services’ in the Christian churches, then why is it that whenever the rest of the New Testament touches on this we see the exact opposite? I must admit that the idea that ‘prayer’ is some sort of New Testament parlance for “the entire worship event” strikes me as being a bit untenable. Do you never gather with friends just to pray? At the church of which I am a part we meet together on Friday evenings for prayer, and when we have finished we chat together and socialise and drink coffee, but we don’t sing to the Lord, or teach each other, or have a meal together or do other things that are appropriate for when we gather on the Lord’s Day; we basically just meet for prayer. It is far from being an “entire worship event” (just whatever that means anyhow), it is a prayer evening. Further, if ‘prayer’ really is a New Testament synonym for ‘formal church services’, then when it comes to Paul’s admonition that we, “…pray without ceasing…”, then I put it to you that we would be well and truly up a gum tree. I mean to say, when would you go to work and how could you live a normal life?

No, if we actually saw the New Testament church having such ‘formal worship services’, then your contention concerning this might stand up a bit more if stated in a different form, but the whole point is that not only do we not see the New Testament church having ‘formal worship services’, we actually see them practicing the virtual opposite. In complete contrast to having a ‘formal worship service’ in a religious building, led from the front by the ‘leader’, or Pastor, or Priest, or Minister (or whatever your particular variation is), we see them gathering informally in each others houses for open sharing and teaching and worship together, and with no one leading from the front in any way. We also see them eating their main meal of the day together and calling it ‘the Lord’s meal’. For another instance, someone who wanted to maintain that the biblical concept of a bishop/overseer implies a priestly caste would come pretty well unstuck precisely at the discovery that, when you look at what the New Testament in its entirety means by those words, then any such idea is seen to be utterly without biblical warrant. Indeed, when used in the New Testament those same words refer to virtually the exact opposite of some ‘bigwig’ at the top of  a ‘priestly’ or ‘ministerial’ pyramid in an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

You are doubtless aware what eisegesis, as opposed to exegesis, means. Exegesis seeks to simply ascertain what information and conclusions can be derived from a given passage (and of course here we mean of scripture), whereas eisegesis makes the mistake of reading things back into what is written, but which aren’t actually there, thereby imposing upon the plain meaning of what is written considerations which originate from other sources entirely. Indeed, I have already just alluded to the classic example in the words bishop or overseer. Many believers use the simple fact that the word occurs in scripture to give credence to an idea utterly foreign to the writers who used the words in the first place. Nothing could have been further from the minds of the New Testament writers than some idea of a priestly hierarchical leadership of the church, yet throughout history there have been those who take a system of practice developed since the writers of scripture penned it’s truth, and then, often unwittingly and in ignorance, admittedly, try to impose it on the scriptures. And this they do by homing in on, and highlighting, the simple co-incidence, for that’s what it is, of certain terminology, and then taking it out of context and twisting what it actually and patently and self evidently means. Another example is the strange idea that the New Testament churches partook of the Lord’s Supper as a ‘bread and wine service’. Indeed, the very Greek word translated supper is deipnon, and it means a full meal. Neither in biblical nor general Greek usage is it ever employed in any other way.

I cannot for the life of me remember whether it was Tweedledum or Tweedledee, or Humpty-Dumpty, who said, “A word means what I want it to mean! No more or no less!”, but what I do know for sure is that when it comes to what the scholars refer to as ecclesiology (church government, structure and practice), then that does indeed seem to be the basis on which most believers try to establish, and protect, completely erroneous and anti-biblical practices.

So, since the Early Church Fathers came on the scene; and in complete contrast to what we see in scripture, we have the following:

  • The Lord’s Supper (deipnon), the Lord’s Table, the love feast, breaking bread (all biblical designations for the same activity) means a ‘bread and wine service’, and you have your meal when you get home afterwards when the whole church isn’t present. (Just how did those Corinthians manage to overeat and get drunk at a ‘bread and wine service’ anyway?)
  • “…when you come together each one has…”  and “…you may all prophecy one by one…” actually mean that someone leads from the front and that you may or may not be able to take part (and probably not; and then if so, not very much either) depending upon various factors such as numbers, your particular church practice, or the whim of the service leader.
  • “Repent and be baptised…” means either that you can’t get baptised again because you’ve already supposedly been ‘done’ as a baby, or that you have to wait until you’ve been put through baptism classes by whatever church you are part of, and when the leadership is happy that you are ready.

I could go on and on ad nauseum, of course, but I’m sure you are getting the point!   

Correspondent: Fourth, the fact that you quite self-consciously deny just about every tradition of the church dating from the end of the first century onward is really, really troubling. It was one thing for the Reformers to say, "Hey, we've drifted a bit in the last few centuries and we need to go back a bit." It's something else again to say, "The church has never gotten this right since the apostles died." Errors always plague the church. Granted, some of them last for centuries - witness the persistence of both the Gnostic and Arminian heresies - but it will take more Scriptural evidence than I have seen so far to convince me to abandon some of the most basic traditions of the church that have existed for, even by your reckoning, about 1930 years. Also, the Reformers could lean back upon the likes of Augustine and the apostolic fathers for support of their thesis that the church had strayed from where it had once been. I don't see you doing this.

CCF Response: I must yet again return to the single most important point I have made in the whole of this exchange, and it is that in order to establish truth or error, whether pertaining to doctrine, ethics or church practice, or anything else, then the only way to do so is by scripture! Are you really saying that belief in baptismal-regeneration, or the practice of infant baptism, must be just fine and dandy simply because the Christian church has embraced them for over 1800 years? Tell me, what more other than the Word of God do we actually need in this regard? We surely need any help we can get in establishing just what it does teach, but we are not here discussing things that are matters of interpretation, or of differing subjective understandings. The Reformers may well have had the likes of Augustine to fall back on regarding issues of Election and Chosenness, but am I not correct in thinking that the whole lost idea of justification through faith in Jesus alone actually came from the Bible? Indeed, their very cry was: Sola scriptura! The scriptures alone! And is not that the very point I am making? Yet they nevertheless still missed the gifts of the Spirit (and why not, no one gets everything right), and retrieving them came much later with the advent of Pentecostalism. Now there are those of us who are simply drawing attention to the fact that, what I refer to as biblical church, is next on the list and is, arguably, the final piece of the jigsaw.

As believers we should instinctively shy away from anything that suggests the Bible is not sufficient as the means whereby we are able to establish truth. And the problem is always (I repeat), it is always (once more just for emphasis), it is always the case that you then end up with your final authority in all matters pertaining to the Christian life, whether concerning church practice or whatever, being the Word of God plus something else! And of course that something else is always (I’ll repeat this too), is always, is always the traditions, teachings and practices of mere men as opposed to the expressly declared will and desire of the Lord Himself. It is establishing doctrine and/or practice on the basis of the experts, or on just your own personal opinions and preferences, rather than by Almighty God. Jesus reacted rather strongly to those who made His Word void by going with the traditions of mere men instead, yet this is precisely what the Christian Church has been guilty of since the time of the Early Church Fathers. We have gone with their teachings and practices even where they contradict the teachings and practices enjoined on us by scripture! God’s Word alone is our final authority, the straight edge against which anything bent is revealed and exposed for the error it is.

Correspondent: Lastly, and almost incidentally, the point made that the early church commonly met in homes strikes me as something of a non-issue. The church met in homes for two reasons.  First, it was a first generation church and there were no church buildings yet. There couldn't have been. The Pauline epistles were written to churches that had been existence for a maximum of a decade. Some had only been around a few months. Where else was it to meet? Second, the church at that time was a persecuted church. Holding public meetings in public places was asking to be arrested. This is precisely the same reason there were no ecumenical councils till the fourth century AD - gathering all the bishops in one place was too dangerous a possibility to be even considered. The Romans would just bring out the lions and have done with it. With these things in mind, it doesn't seem to me that meeting exclusively in each others homes was necessarily what the apostles had in mind for an enduring practice.

CCF Response: Every known religion at the time of the early church centred round religious buildings as, of course, did Judaism itself. The most natural thing in the world for every believer during the time of the apostles, and indeed for the apostles themselves, would have been to proceed to build religious buildings. Whether Jew or Gentile, every believer had been converted from a background of attending ‘religious services’ of some kind surrounding specially consecrated premises. Why, then, did the early church make no attempt whatsoever to erect buildings? Certainly not because of persecution! Persecution against believers during the days of the apostles was sporadic to say the least, and even when there wasn’t any at all, and where there was quite sufficient time for the utilisation of public buildings, the New Testament churches nevertheless did no such thing. It wasn’t even the case that meeting in houses did protect believers from persecution. When Paul wanted to destroy churches he just went from house to house getting on with the job. Even as an unbeliever he knew that churches were supposed to meet in houses, and could quite easily find out which particular houses as well. No protection worth speaking of there then.

No, none of this is anything whatsoever to do with it. The reason the New Testament believers had no public buildings in which to meet as churches was because they just didn’t need them. Church gatherings were designed with houses in mind for the simple reason that a church was seen to be an extended family of believers. The very nature of their gatherings meant that numerical smallness and intimacy was the order of the day, and meeting in each others homes was just perfect for what Jesus had intentioned. Open sharing with all participating not only implies, and it positively demands low numbers, and the fact that they always ate a meal together too (the Lord’s Supper) further indicates that any idea of designating a public building for the coming together of a church would have just seemed downright daft to them. After all, for what possible reason could they have wanted anything of the kind? Remember, unlike us they didn’t want numerically large churches, they wanted instead lots and lots of numerically small ones. Imagine how unnecessary it would be for us as nuclear families to either build, or hire, public halls just so we can together with the wider family for Sunday dinner. Yet not only is it unnecessary, it actually militates against the atmosphere you are actually wanting, against the relevant feel of the gathering which is simply that of informal family time. So it is with biblical churches. Families do not, except in exceptional and unusual circumstances, meet formally. And neither do New Testament-type churches.

And I think too that declaring the New Testament church meeting in houses to be some kind of non-issue is just falling back yet again into the trap of not putting scripture first. When we see in the New Testament that, when it comes to the question of where churches met, that without exception every such specifically mentioned example is located in someone’s house; and when we then put that together with the simple fact that when they did meet they did so in such a way as to be completely inappropriate for a large public building, then I think we must give scripture the benefit of the doubt such might just be of some significance. Indeed, it might just be important.

And of course any suggestion that such a state of affairs was purely because the church was first generation is to imply the potential for an evolutionary process of some kind that is nowhere taught, or even hinted at, in scripture. Once you go down that road then the lid is off and Pandora’s Box is opened - as indeed it was by the Early Church Fathers! You can then say that the Christian Church was meant to develop into just about anything you like, and of course you are then free to do exactly what you want, irrespective of anything the New Testament may or not say! Yet if you do go down that road then you must make sure that you never again make any corrective comments about any churches, or any church practice, ever again; because there is simply then no objective basis for saying that any one thing is right as opposed to something else being wrong. And of course by the same mistaken logic you might just as well say that Adam and Eve were first generation and that marriage doesn’t therefore necessarily apply to us now, but was only for them; a kind of primitive and temporary arrangement due to eventually develop into something else completely different. Of course in answer to that I hear you object, “But we know that marriage wasn’t just for them back then. It couldn’t possibly be the case that it was merely a temporary thing and just applied to them because they were first generation humanity, but isn’t for those who came later on. Marriage was meant to be a permanent institution, and of course we know this because we have the witness of the rest of scripture!

And there, as they say, I rest my case. Concerning what churches ought to be like, how they function and go about things, I put it to you that I have proven the argument. In the same way a court of law has its witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I have here simply represented the witness of the Word of God, the whole Word of God and nothing but the Word of God.

Correspondent: All this being said, let me point out a few things that I've read that I've really appreciated. First, it is quite refreshing to see anyone so passionate about the church and her health and purity. Apathy is the order of the day, and any departure from this norm is fantastic. Second, I've come to agree with your method of choosing church leaders almost completely. It makes no sense at all to take a 25 year old, just out of seminary, and make him a shepherd. He simply hasn't the experience, and no amount of academic instruction will provide that. As one currently considering seminary as a possibility for the future, this is definitely an important thought. Finally, and this is what impresses me most, is that you seem to be willing to say, "This is what we believe the Bible says, and we'll obey. God can take care of results and numbers." Even if I believe that you are significantly wrong on many counts, it is only this spirit that will ever bring any renewal to the church. We need to stop our programs, committees, and extra-biblical pseudo-scientific psychological nonsense, and ask ourselves what the Bible says.

CCF Response: Well, thank you for such kind words. We wish you every blessing in your own enquiries and struggles concerning these things.

Correspondent: Again, thank you for your time. This has turned into quite a sizable email. For that I apologize. Respond as you have time, in parts if you feel the need.


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