For nineteen hundred years the Christian Church has been largely based on teachings and practices from sources other than the Word of God, and this has left us with a legacy of various things that desperately need to be corrected as far as church practice is concerned. Part of that legacy is that we have drastically departed from the way Bible teaching and corporate instruction was done in the early church, and by far the most serious departure in this regard is the virtually universal practice of revolving the gathering of the church on the Lord’s Day around preaching and teaching, usually as done by one person.
In the New Testament, however, we see something rather different. What we find there is churches meeting in people’s houses and with a twofold purpose. Firstly, they had completely open, participatory and spontaneous sharing together and worship which, by definition, wasn’t led from the front in any way. Secondly, they ate the Lord’s Supper together as their main meal of the day. Given such a set up, and it is indeed how the apostles universally set churches up to be like, then certain things would subsequently, and quite logically, find no place.
For instance, in such a set up there is not the slightest need for religious or sacred buildings, and so it will come as no surprise that we therefore find the churches in the New Testament meeting exclusively in people’s homes. And something else you won’t find in the New Testament either is a Sunday service, led from the front, with those attending sitting audience style in rows and participating only in singing and, maybe, a bit of open prayer and the like. Neither will you find in the New Testament anything that even faintly resembles a sermon. And of course the reason is that such a practice would have gone completely against what the very essence of a church gathering on Sundays was seen to be. The apostles set churches up in such a way that when they came together on the Lord’s Day the rule was strictly, “…each one has… for you may all prophesy one by one…” (1 Corinthians 14v26, 31) They set churches up in such a way that would positively encourage all those gathered to participate, and therefore brought about a situation where the Lord would be free to move by His Spirit through each part of His body. Any idea of the Lord’s Day gathering of the church revolving around the ministry of any one individual flies completely in the face of scripture and contradicts it outright.
This is not to say, however, that there isn’t a place for the type of teaching amongst God’s people whereby one person predominates in giving it. The Lord does indeed provide people in churches who are gifted in this very thing, and the New Testament makes it clear that teaching is a calling and gift of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in the church of which I am a part we meet for Bible Study midweek, and we work very hard at furthering our understanding of God‘s Word. But in the New Testament the coming together of a church on Sundays was not the time when such gifts were exercised in that particular way, and the push was always for mutual participation, for lots of people to share something, including a short teaching, rather than for one person to dominate or lead in any way.
And this helps us to at last take the emphasis away from leadership and our wretched inclination to just revolve around those who are gifted in teaching and public speaking ability and to consequently make big men of them. It helps to keep us safe from the evil of the whole clergy/laity divide, that is, the completely unbiblical two-tier system of leaders and led which creates hierarchy. Hierarchy is something no church should ever have, and the only hierarchy found in the pages of the New Testament, pertaining to church life, is simply Jesus and everyone else. Even elders – for that is what a biblically based church will either have, or be moving towards; a plurality of co-equal, male elders who have been raised up from among those they serve – are strictly in the everyone else category.
Moreover, the biblical way of doing things that we are seeing here creates a set up in which people feel free to question whatever is being taught in order to test it themselves and therefore understand it more fully. It also makes those who teach realise that the onus is on them to do so in such a way as to persuade people that what they are saying is actually biblical rather than to just expect them to unquestioningly accept it. It helps minimise the danger whereby those who are taught are just expected to accept what their leaders teach as ‘accepted church policy’, or something like that. It brings about a situation in which people are much more likely to actively and questioningly understand things for themselves rather than just passively accepting leadership dictates and just agreeing with whatever is said or taught. It creates, in short, what many leaders in many churches fear most, people with open Bibles and free-thinking minds who don’t accept things merely on the authority of a leader’s say-so, but who question and challenge until they are persuaded whether or not something is or isn’t biblical. It further releases the corporate insight and wisdom of all in the church, and engenders an atmosphere of humility and willingness for everyone to learn from anyone. It recognises the vitally important fact that the Lord is in all His people, and can therefore speak through any of those in the church and not just some chosen, and verbally gifted, elite.
But I must deal now with what might, in some people’s minds, be perceived as a real and biblically based objection to what I’m saying here. So let’s turn to the Acts of the Apostles and take a look at a particular Sunday that Paul the apostle spent with the church in Troas. Let’s have a look at a verse as translated from the New International Version: (Yes, I confess to being NIV positive and am using the Nearly Inspired Version!)
“On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” (Acts 20v7)
Here we have the believers in Troas coming together for their main weekly gathering, and we can note certain things. (By the way, no Bible scholar would disagree with any of the following observations I am going to make. They are a matter of simple textual fact:
1) The church is gathering on the first day of the week, on Sunday.
2) They were gathering together in someone’s house.
3) The Greek text here conveys that the main purpose given for their coming together was for the breaking of bread.
4) The phrase breaking of bread refers to eating a full meal, here referring to the Lord’s Supper.
Now the thing I want to home in on here is that the New International Version says that Paul, “…spoke to the people…” and,“…kept on talking until midnight.” And that certainly makes it sound as if Paul is doing the talking and that everyone else is just listening. So if that is the case then there isn’t much open, un-led participatory stuff going on here as we might expect to see, assuming of course that what I‘ve written so far isn‘t complete nonsense. But there’s worse to come, because in some translations of the Bible this verse actually reads, “…Paul preached unto them…and continued his speech until midnight.”
Oh dear! That doesn’t just sound like a Sunday sermon, that sounds like the very mother and father of all Sunday sermons whether before or since! Paul, if this verse is to believed, not only preached to the church, but continued to do so until midnight. What on earth can I say to that in the light of the burden of this article? Well, it’s actually very simple, because what we have here is an example of bad translation. The original Greek doesn’t say here quite what the translators would have you believe, and Luke doesn’t use any of the various Greek words for preach at all. He rather describes what Paul was doing here until midnight with the word dialogemai. And dialogemai, as any Greek scholar will tell you, means to converse, to discuss, to reason or dispute with. It denotes a two-way verbal trafficking between different parties and is actually the Greek word from which we get the English word dialogue.
Preaching is a monologue, and in certain settings of church life that may well be fine. Midweek Bible studies, for example, may very well be conducted at times by one person doing a monologue followed by questions. But in the New Testament, when the Lord’s people come together on Sundays as a church, it’s strictly dialogue that goes on, and this is precisely what Paul is doing here. He is most certainly teaching the church, and it goes on most of the night because they wanted to learn all they could from him, but it was a discussion-type format and not a monologue of some kind. It was participatory and interactive, and therefore completely in keeping with the way the apostles set up Sunday gatherings of churches to be like. In short, Paul was simply conversing with them. It was a dialogue, and he and the assembled church were reasoning together. It was two-way mutual communication. It was question and answer, point and counter-point, objection and explanation! Paul isn’t here standing on some raised platform with everyone sitting silently just listening to him speaking to them. No, he is rather sitting on the sofa in the lounge talking with them.
There is of course a time, as I have already said, for something of a more formal lecture type format, but even then let it be clear that whoever is teaching must be completely and fully open to questions concerning their subject matter. I don’t by that necessarily mean in the middle of the teaching, but when the speaker has finished then let the questions and comeback flow. Let it be clear as well that whoever does do teaching, and the more brothers amongst whom this task is shared out the better, is just one of the brothers and is not special or spiritually elevated just because they are gifted in a particular way. (At our midweek Bible Studies at the church of which I am a part we do lots of discussion and interactive type teaching sessions as well, and the monologue-type format is just one of the various approaches we take.)
Let me end by making clear that I am not in the slightest downplaying Bible teaching in the life of Christian churches. Far from it! Indeed, none of us would be going on about any of these things in the first place were it not for the fact we are into good solid Bible teaching ourselves, and keen to both receive it and to pass it on to others. No, we are simply saying that we should all be doing things biblically. We must in this regard, as with everything else, get back in line with what the Word of God teaches rather than going by completely unbiblical traditions.
Churches need ongoing teaching, of that there can be no doubt. But they need other things too! To do some biblical things at the expense of other equally biblical things is, believe me, a big mistake. The apostles expected that, when believers met in their respective churches on the Lord’s Day, it would be a case of, “When you come together each one has…” (1 Corinthians 14v26) That, then, is the way it should be! Nothing more and nothing less!
Got it? Good! It’s pretty simple really, isn’t it? After all, whose ideas and ways of doing things have got to be the best: Jesus and His apostles, or someone else’s?