We will see now in practical terms what a biblical church is like, or what I earlier referred to as the nuts and bolts of the matter! (I prefer the term biblical church over house church for the simple reason that meeting in a home, as we shall shortly see, is but one aspect of the Lord’s design. A church might well meet in a house and yet be unbiblical in every other regard.) The question is therefore: what would be required in order for any given church to be said to be based on apostolic tradition, and therefore a biblical church? Or to put it another way, what are the various facets of the diamond that need to be present in order to make up the complete package of a church based entirely and solely on New Testament practice?
We have seen already from Paul’s writings that the practices passed on by the apostles have the force of biblical command, and this is the case whether concerning personal behavior or how a church functions when it meets. And we have seen too that such apostolic commands derive their authority directly from Jesus Himself, and are therefore to be obeyed by every believer. The commands concerning what churches ought to be like are not, therefore, as most believers seem to think, mere options amongst which we are free to pick and choose. We shall now piece together from the New Testament a clear picture of just what apostolic church practice actually was:
- The New Testament churches met once a week for their plenary gathering to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and it was on the first day of each week; that is, on Sundays.
- When churches came together they met in houses.
- When they gathered their corporate worship and sharing was completely open and participatory and spontaneous, with no one leading from the front. The format is outlined by Paul in I Corinthians 14v26 and is strictly “…each one has…” Amazingly, New Testament 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 male leadership that had arisen from within each church. This indigenous eldership(elder, pastor/ shepherd, bishop/overseer are synonymous terms in the New Testament) led each church on the basis of consensual andcollective decision-making and was understood to be purely functional and not in any way positional.
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! That 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. 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 to the answering of that question 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 earlier, the Early Church Fathers realized this and saw no need to make changes. They were perfectly aware that they could alter the functioning and nature of churches without reference to the day on which they met, and so in that regard, but only in that regard, didn’t mess with the apostolic status quo. Conversely, a biblical church could change the day on which it met whilst remaining as it was in every other respect and thus continue in biblical practice and function. I would certainly be the first to say that being (nature) and doing (function) church biblically is more important than the day on which one meets in order to do so, and I would rather be part of a church that was biblical in practice and function but which met on a day other than Sunday than one that did meet on Sundays but which wasn’t biblical in its function and practice. But here is my question: When even the Early Church Fathers chose not to change the day of the gathering of believers as churches, then on what basis, and for what possible reason, ought we?
At this point let me answer the point often made 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 would have started on our Gentile Saturday evening. It is, of course, Acts 20v7 that tells us that the New Testament churches met on the first day of the week, and whereas the Greek is not very clearly translated in our English Bibles, any Greek scholar will confirm that the original language has Luke making it abundantly clear that the first day of the week was the habitual and established time at which churches met. And given that Luke is the only Gentile writer of scripture, and that he is writing at that point of a purely Gentile situation, it would be bizarre in the extreme to assume that he was thinking in terms of the Jewish calendar. No! He, like any Gentile of the time, would have been thinking in terms of the Roman calendar, and that, just like our calendar today in the West, has each day beginning at midnight and not early evening. So whereas I have said that I would rather be part of a biblical church that met on a day other than Sunday than an unbiblical one which did, I nevertheless maintain that meeting on Sundays is established apostolic practice as far as the New Testament is concerned. But let’s move on now to the question of meeting in houses.
That the New Testament churches met exclusively in believers’ homes for their weekly plenary gatherings is something no-one with even a modicum of Bible knowledge is going to deny. Indeed, the very nature and format of their gatherings when believers did come together as a particular and specific church meant that there was no possible need for them to do otherwise. Numbers in each church were, by definition, small and interactive gatherings with no one leading, and with a full meal thrown in for good measure, were just perfect for a house setting. What better venue could there possibly be? Once again, we see form following function in the New Testament, as it always does. (The eventual move from houses into specially sanctified religious buildings was, as with all the changes we are considering, down to the teachings of Early Church Fathers, but couldn’t be realized until the supposed conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine. Interesting, too, is the fact that this was the final change made to the apostolic blueprint, and that meeting in houses was the part of it that survived the Fathers’ reinvention of the Christian church the longest.)
But let us now consider the plight of twenty Eskimos 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. 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 that they still meet as that church as the Bible describes, and don’t therefore change the nature of what their gathering together ought to be, then such would not be a problem, even though they are not actually meeting in their homes. Again, 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 other respects. You can, if you really have to, still maintain the nature and functioning of a church even though meeting somewhere other than in peoples homes. Indeed, there was a time when the church of which I am a part sometimes utilized a rented hall for the part of our gathering that included our worship and singing, this being out of love for some neighbors who at the time complained about the noise. But we still sat in a circle, just as if we were in someone’s home, and the worship and sharing remained completely open and participatory with everyone being free to spontaneously take part, and without anyone leading from the front. And once we had concluded that part of the gathering we returned to one of our homes to eat the love-feast together because that didn’t involve there being any noise the neighbors were unhappy about. But let me underline that we did this because we had to, out of love, at the time, for our neighbors, and that as soon as the concession was no longer relevant needed we changed back to having the whole gathering in our homes. We must always ensure 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 for 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 it does seem to me, and most others, that the New Testament believers did it (apostolic tradition again) upon conversion, with no time lapse, and by immersing the convert in water. (And of course the immersion bit we get from the 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 I 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 I remain painfully aware of just how the Christian church at large has massacred baptism in each of these ways for far too long. So my 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 consider an instance of someone coming to the Lord who is bedridden because of illness. 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, such as sprinkling, 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.
And of course 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 not in a million years have even thought of using a hall for part of our gathering together. And if we return for one moment to our postulated brothers and sisters at the North Pole, then 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 now indeed looking at the non-negotiable and irreducible 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, 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, whereas biblical eldership 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 even then it should nevertheless be quite clear where the church is heading in regards to how it functions and goes about things, and that in that regard the aim is open and participatory worship and sharing together, without anyone leading the proceedings, as soon as possible.
The issue here is that, ultimately, anything that touches on these things impacts on the very nature of what a church is and turns it into something it was never intended by the Lord to be. Change things in regards to practice and format and you cause a church to begin functioning in a way that is not only different from what the New Testament teaches, but completely alien to it. Indeed, virtually it’s opposite! To return to our example of baptism, we might say that what you then have is the 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, virtually done away with! It simply 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), unless there were the most pressing of extenuating circumstances forcing them into it? The question isn’t why would we want do things the same way as the apostles did, but rather why would we want to do anything different?
I rather think that says it all!