All too often in discussions of the church, the conversation centers on the form of the meeting. Meet "this way" and you are right, meet "that way" and you are wrong. Lots of groups fall into this trap. House church advocates can fall into the erroneous assumption that you must meet in a house to have a Biblical meeting. Plymouth Brethren assume that they are meeting in the most Biblical way but can easily fall into empty traditions. High liturgy groups, especially some Lutherans, see their meeting as the only faithful expression. I have already made my position clear on churches that crow about the Regulative Principle of worship. So many discussions and dogmatic positions center around the form of the church meeting: when and where we meet and what we do and who does it. I think that is presenting a solution to the wrong question.
Ultimately what we should be focusing on is not the form of the church meeting. That is not to say the form is unimportant but I am saying that the form question is a distant second to the question of how the local church body functions. Form is irrelevant outside of how it either supports or hampers Biblical community and that is partly the reason that so many conversations (i.e. arguments) about the church gathering go absolutely nowhere.
My biggest complaint about the institutional church is that it hampers and retards Biblical community. My big concern with the house/simple church movement is that it sees the form as the end all and be all. Neither is correct.
It is not about house church or simple church or institutional church. It is all about the way the church lives and gathers together and how that impacts our ministry to one another. Does the way we view the church enhance or impede the way we minister to one another, edify one another and equip one another? The Bible spends far more time talking about the way we should relate to one another in community and how our fellowship should edify us than it does about the order we should meet in on Sunday morning.
Have you ever wondered why God reveals so little in the way of explicit detail and instruction about the church meeting in Scripture? The church is clearly very important in God’s plan for His people. It would be so much easier if the Bible said: meet this day in this sort of building and wear these types of clothing and sing these types of songs with/without musical accompaniment. When you get there this is what you must do and this is the order you must do it in. As it happens, those explicit directions are absent and that may be inconvenient to us but the absence is for a good reason.
What did God’s people do with explicit, step by step instructions regarding worship? They perverted it. In the Bible study I am facilitating at work we are looking next week at the account of Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2 and I think that has important lessons for us today. The men in the temple selling oxen and sheep and pigeons and the money-changers were just providing a service. You apparently could just show up at the temple, exchange your coins for appropriate currency, buy an animal and have it sacrificed and do on your way. Following the exact letter of the law, you were doing what you were supposed to do but is that what God is after? God is not interested in our mechanical adherence to systems and traditions, He is has claimed our entire life. I see an important similarity between the way the church traditionally functions and the activities in the temple that Jesus was so incensed over. The traditional church, like temple worship in this time, was a “get in and get out” thing, fulfilling your obligation with as little fuss and trouble as possible. Why minister to people when I can drop some money in the plate and hire someone else to minister? Why drag an animal all the way to Jerusalem when I can show up and buy one right there?
So in place of explicit directions, we find ourselves with tidbits that we glean from Scripture in the form of a few direct commandments but more in the form of general principles that govern the church. It strikes me that in place of explicit directions we have overarching themes: Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest and He and He alone rules over the church. Christians are to minister to one another, all Christians and not just a select few. The church is a family, not just in theory but in reality, and should interact and relate to one another in that way. These are some of the principles we see in Scripture. I believe we also see some boundaries drawn. Worship should not be a free for all. There are specific ways that the different genders relate and function in the church. When the church gathers, it is a time for all Christians to bring something. Outside of these and a few other specifics, we don’t have much to go on. That leaves redeemed sinners in a pickle. We can choose to function under those general principles or we can try to help God out and fill in the blanks. I think the disastrous results of trying to fill in the blanks is apparent all around us but unfortunately when many people see the problems in the church, they assume it is because we didn’t fill in the right blanks or that we didn’t fill them in correctly instead of asking if we should try to speak where God is silent.
We all need to focus less on the form of the Sunday morning meeting and more on the community of believers of which the Sunday morning meeting is just a small part. I don’t think that we should deemphasize the more formal gatherings of the church, rather I think we need to give much greater emphasis to how the church functions (or frankly doesn’t function) both during and outside of the scheduled meeting times. Until we get the functioning of the church right and recognize the community of believers is more important that the “local church” organization, it won’t matter how much we fuss and feud over the forms. We will never even get close to “getting it right” because we are arguing about the wrong questions in the first place.