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Thoroughly Biblical Church

by Beresford Job

What are the irreducible minimum requirements for a church in order for it to be said to be biblical? It was argued earlier in this book that the practices passed on by the apostles have the force of biblical command, and this is true be they, for instance, concerning people working and providing for themselves and not being idle, or the manner in which churches functioned (such as what they did when they met together.) From the New Testament as a whole we can piece together a clear picture of just what this apostolically commanded church practice actually was. I would consequently list the following:

  • Believers met as churches on the first day of the week. (It is instructive to note at this point that this is the only apostolic practice that the Early Church Fathers didn't mess around with and change. And of course the reason for this is that it doesn't in any way touch on the actual nature of what a church is, and therefore didn't affect the wrong teachings and changes to church practice they introduced one way or the other. They therefore left this one thing unchanged and it remained as the apostles had originally established.)

  • When churches came together they met in houses.

  • When they came together in their houses their corporate worship and sharing together was completely open and spontaneous (I Corinthians 14v26 describes the proceedings as, "...each one has..."), with no one leading from the front. The early believers didn’t have anything that even approximated a church service.

  • As part of these proceedings they ate the Lord's Supper as a full meal, indeed as their main meal of the day, commonly referring to it as the love-feast.

  • They understood each church to be an extended family unit (the idea of churches being institutions or organizations would have been totally alien to them), and practiced non-hierarchical plural male leadership that had arisen from within the church they would subsequently lead. This indigenous eldership (elder, pastor/ shepherd, bishop/overseer being synonymous terms in the New Testament) sought to lead consensually wherever possible, and was understood to be purely functional and not in any way positional.

Now that is what the Bible clearly reveals as to how the apostles, who were the recipients of Jesus’ full revelation and teachings, established churches to operate and function. But the question before us is this: How much of their blueprint can be changed whilst leaving a church being still fundamentally biblical in its nature and functioning. (I use this phrase because nature and functioning are interrelated, being actually different sides of the same coin. As in the rest of life, form follows function and is just the way things unalterably are! Parents and children, for instance, function together differently than colleagues at the work place, and it's the difference in nature that makes the difference in function so important. A family where parents and children relate together more like workmates than blood relatives would be an example not of a normal family, but a dysfunctional one. So likewise, churches that function as institutions or organizations, rather than extended families of the Lord's people, are examples of dysfunctional churches and not, biblically speaking, normal ones.) So let us proceed in earnest to the answering of the question we posed, and see what parts of the apostolic blueprint, if any, are non-essential in maintaining both the nature and functioning of a biblical church. And we’ll start with the issue of which day churches ought to meet.

Now as far as nature and function are concerned this is indeed entirely neutral, and as I pointed out formerly, the Early Church Fathers realized this and so saw no need to make changes. They knew that you could alter the functioning and nature of churches without reference to the day on which they met, and so in that regard left things as apostolic status quo. Conversely, a biblical church could change the day on which it met yet remain everything it already was, and continue to practice and function in the same manner in every other respect. And I would be the first to say that being (nature) and doing (function) church biblically is more important than the day on which you meet in order to so be and do, and would rather be part of a church that was biblical in practice and function but which met midweek, than one that met on Sundays but which wasn't biblical according to our earlier definition. But here is my question:

When even the early church fathers themselves chose not to change the day of the gathering of believers, on what basis, and for what possible reason, ought we? I repeat though that I do accept without reservation that a church meeting on a different day of the week to Sunday can be otherwise fully biblical. Further, if it ever became illegal to meet on Sundays, but not Thursday, then I would probably, under such circumstances, be quite happy to make the necessary changes. But outside of such extenuating circumstances, and I shall be back to that thought later, why change the day on which the early church, under the guidance and care of the apostles, met?

At this point let me just answer the legitimate point that in the world of the New Testament the Jews started a new day in the evening, which means that the first day of the week for them started on our Saturday evening. Therefore, if any church met on Saturday evenings specifically for that reason, then I would accept it as a biblical thing to do. However, it must still be said that this would seem to be illogical in countries where each day is reckoned to commence in the morning. For most of us the first day of the week is the time period from when we get up on Sunday morning until we go to bed again, so I would still maintain that meeting as churches on Sundays remains the biblical norm as far as we are concerned. Further, the verse in Acts 20 which gives us the information about the churches meeting on the first day of the week is written by a Gentile (Luke) concerning a Gentile situation (Troas), and it is unlikely that he would therefore be thinking in terms of the Jewish way of reckoning a day. But let's move on now to the question of meeting in houses.

That the early church did meet in houses no-one with an ounce of scriptural sense or Bible knowledge is going to deny, and the nature and functioning of the meetings they had when believers came together as a church simply meant that there was never any need for them to do otherwise. Numbers in each church were, by definition, supposed to be small; and their interactive gatherings, with no one leading from the front (the New Testament church didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling a church service), and with a meal thrown in for good measure, were just perfect for a house setting. After all, what better place could there possibly be? And so once again we see form following function, as it always does in the New Testament. (The eventual move from houses into specially sanctified religious buildings was, as with all the other changes we are considering, down to the Early Church Fathers. It is interesting to note as well that this was the final change they made to the apostolic blueprint, and that meeting in houses was actually the original apostolic practice that survived their reinvention of the Christian church the longest.)

But let us now consider the plight of twenty Eskimos in a village somewhere near the North Pole who have just become Christians, and who therefore want to become a church, but whose largest igloo can only fit eight people in it. Now if they therefore decided to hire a slightly larger igloo with the express purpose of using it for their gatherings as a church, then assuming they still meet as the Bible describes, and don’t therefore change the nature of what their gathering together ought to be, then I would see no problem. Indeed, I would rather be part of a biblical church that met outside of homes for their main gathering - assuming though that the other biblical practices were in place - than part of a church that met in homes but which was unbiblical in every other respect. You can, if you really have to, maintain the nature and functioning of a church whilst meeting somewhere other than in a home. Indeed, the church of which I am a part used to sometimes utilize a rented hall for the bit of our gathering together that included the singing, this being out of love for neighbors when we heard of their complaints about the noise. But we sat in a circle, just as if in a home, and what we did in that hall was completely open with everyone free to spontaneously take part, and without anyone leading from the front. And when we were done we returned to one of our houses for the love-feast. (Owing to now having more houses to rotate around this is no longer a problem and it is some years since we have needed to utilize a hall.) But let me underline what I just said about if you really have to; because we must make sure that we don't let deviations from the biblical norm, permissible only because of extenuating circumstances, actually become the norm. Let me illustrate what I mean by this from what the Bible teaches about baptism.

Biblical baptism, like apostolic tradition concerning the way a church functions, is a command from the Lord. And although its actual mode isn't anywhere commanded in the pages of scripture, we know from the way the early church did it (apostolic tradition again) that it was to be done upon conversion, with no time lapse, and in water. (And of course the immersion bit we get from the simple fact that the actual word baptism in English is simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo which literally means to dip, dunk or immerse.) And many of us would be greatly concerned at any idea that we are free to make changes to this, whether regarding who is to be baptized, the mode of their baptism or it's timing; and remain painfully aware of how the church at large has massacred baptism in each of these ways for far too long. So our position would be that, in order to comply with the teaching of the Word of God, a person should be baptized upon profession of faith in Jesus, as soon as possible, and by full immersion in water.

But let us now address an instance of someone coming to the Lord who is bedridden because of disability. Baptism, as biblically commanded and exampled in the New Testament, is clearly out of the question as far as they are concerned, so would not coming up with some other more appropriate mode (sprinkling???) therefore be incumbent upon us? And of course we would respond to this in the affirmative! In such a circumstance one would technically be out of step with the teaching of scripture as to the mode of baptism, yet still be in complete harmony with its intent and spirit. But here is the vital point: Nothing of what I have just said could possibly apply to the conversion of an able bodied person, and the normal mode would need to be employed in order for things to be as the Lord wants. And neither could anyone argue for baptism for someone who hadn't responded to Jesus by faith, because that would attack the very nature of baptism, even though its external mode might still in accordance with the scripture.

This is what I mean when I say we must not make biblically permitted deviations, necessitated because of extenuating circumstances, become the norm. If the church of which I am a part had access to the size of houses that similar churches have, for instance, in America, then we would never even have thought of using a hall for part of our gathering together. (The neighbors obviously wouldn’t hear the singing from a detached house separated from next door by a large piece of land and so the need to appease them would never have arisen.) And if we return for one moment to our postulated brothers and sisters at the North Pole, should it turn out that they do have igloos big enough to fit a good number of people in after all, then what possible need would they have of hiring a large public building-type igloo for their church gatherings?

And of course the truth of the matter is that any process of negotiating away any of these factors, which together make a church biblical, is usually a lead up to attempts at smuggling in alternatives to the other three things I listed:

  • Open worship and sharing with no one leading from the front

  • The Lord's Supper as a full meal

  • Non-hierarchical plural male indigenous leadership

And let me make it quite clear that with what we have said about meeting in houses, plus the above three things, we are indeed now looking at the non-negotiable and irreducible bare minimum requirements for a church to be said to be biblical.

But let me make it clear as well that I do not by this mean that everything has to be in place from the word go. There is often, and frequently, the need for instruction, development and spiritual growth first. Yet it still remains the case that these things must be at least where a church is heading for, it’s destination so to speak, even if it has not yet arrived there. Of course the Lord's Supper as a full meal ought to be in place from the very start as there is just no possible reason for such not to be the case, but eldership, for example, would normatively arise much later. And it is often the case as well that someone might take an initial lead in the corporate weekly gatherings until the others learn how to begin playing their part. But the thing to grasp is that it should nevertheless be quite clear where the church was heading in regards to how it functions and goes about things.

The issue here is ultimately that anything that touches on these things does indeed impact on the very nature of what a church is. Change things here and you cause a church to begin functioning in a way that is not only different from what the New Testament reveals, but completely alien to it. Indeed, virtually it's opposite! To return to our example of baptism, we might say that here we have an equivalent to baptizing an unbeliever. The very nature of the thing is changed and the Lord’s intention for it made void and cancelled out. Indeed, it is virtually done away with! And it boils down to this: Why would anyone who understands these last three parts of the blueprint want to play around with the first two (meeting on Sundays in houses) in any case, unless there were the most pressing of extenuating circumstances forcing them into it? The issue is not so much why we should do things the same way the apostles did, but rather, why would we want to do anything differently?

I rather think that says it all!

 

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