To launch Dave Black's new book, Christian Archy, Energion Publications is sponsoring a blogging contest. The question at hand: What should a congregation following Jesus Christ in ministry look like? Here are my thoughts...
The question of what the life of the New Testament church should look like is a complicated one. In modern church life, circa 2009, we carry around an enormous amount of baggage in the form of preconceived notions about “church” that stem from centuries of tradition. That tradition may not have the Biblical record on its side but it has the advantages of presumption, money and inertia. On the other hand, I don’t know of anyone who is satisfied with the state of the church. Recognizing that in and of itself is not sufficient. It is far easier to point out how the church should not look than it is to describe how it should look.
First and foremost, the ministry of the church needs to focus on a central fact: we are, as God’s adopted people, a people chosen by God for His purpose and His glory. He chose us, He bought us, He gave us new life and He commands us to gather together. That central truth needs to override anything else. We are not a voluntary assembly or a bunch of autonomous organisms. We who were not a people are now a people, we who were condemned now stand redeemed (1 Peter 2:10), His people chosen as a remnant before the foundation of the world (Eph 1: 3-6). That fact overrides every other consideration and preference of men. When we choose to declare some people off-limits for fellowship because of a doctrinal dispute, it is not them we are rejecting. It is Christ. Each and every believer was bought with the blood of Christ, so who are we to reject those who are no different than us where it really matters? This is so vital: we don’t choose who to “go to church” with, the membership of the church has already been decided. It is up to us to live in community together. We are also not free to “make it up” when it comes to living and worshiping as a people as we go. The purpose and practice of our worship was not left to chance. The purpose is to glorify God and the practice is shown to us in the Scripture. That is where I will start and as importantly where I will stop as I explore the question at hand.
My focus on the New Testament church life returns again and again to a pivotal passage in Acts and this is where I will focus my response to the question of how a congregation following Jesus Christ should look:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
This passage really gets to the heart and purpose of the church precisely because it is the earliest glimpse we get into the life and the focus of the nascent church under the direct leadership of men like Peter and James. These men were eyewitnesses of Christ and closer perhaps than anyone else to our Savior during His earthly ministry. If we want to know what the church should look like, we should look here before we turn to modern church manuals or even the giants of the faith in the Reformation era. What could be a better source than the men who were filled with the Holy Spirit, men who wrote much of the New Testament, men who were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ?
(As an aside, if there was ever a time when we would see a heavily hierarchical church with clear division between “leaders” and “followers”, it would be here. After all, who wouldn’t submit to the leadership of an apostle? This should be the birth of the hierarchical system. I don’t see that in these passages. What I see is something completely different. I see a vision of community among the family of God’s people.)
To answer the question being posed, I want to break down the four elements of Acts 2:42 and look at them in more detail.
“they devoted themselves to…the fellowship”
That is a kind of vague idea in a vacuum. My understanding is that the Greek word for fellowship, koinōnia, implies “participation, sharing”. That doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) lead us to a compartmentalized, segmented mode of church life where we elect this hour on this day as our time for “worship” and this hour one Sunday afternoon each quarter as “fellowship”. Acts 2:42 and the subsequent passages describing the church reveal a life of community, one lived out in joy and on a daily basis. Believers in Jesus Christ form a community within a community, a redeemed remnant among a largely pagan world. Community sounds great but what does it mean? I would hazard a guess that virtually every church would consider themselves to be a community, from the smallest country church to the largest megachurch. For that answer we look to the verses immediately following the key verse in Acts 2:42:
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 43-47)
Does that sound like a “twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday” type of church community? A basic principle that goes along with a life in community is that the life of a New Testament congregation following Christ is not a compartmentalized life. The clear, sharp dividing lines we traditionally have between aspects of Christian life are not in view in the New Testament. This is when we worship, this is when we have fellowship, this is when we are edified. No. We are to live life in community continually and the sub-functions we think of are outgrowths of that community of believers. We gather together as a loving community and because we gather we are edified, encouraged, uplifted. A congregation following Jesus Christ sees fellowship in community as the focal point of the Christian life. Not preaching. Not "worship services". Lives lived out in love and service to one another.
“they devoted themselves to…the breaking of bread”
One of the areas that I have really changed my stance on is the breaking of bread. I used to be a “fence the table” guy, keep the unworthy away. I loved the story of John Calvin blocking the table of the bread and wine with his own body to keep heretics away. That was then. I have concluded now that the Lord’s Supper should be a unifier instead of a divider, a common cup and loaf where we celebrate our common salvation and declare our Savior’s death, resurrection and pending return (1 Cor 11: )
When you deny someone the Lord’s Supper, you in essence are declaring them unfit for fellowship. I think it is disingenuous to say that you consider someone a brother but refuse to share the Supper with them unless they meet your approval on secondary matters of doctrine or on church practice. Who should we not break bread with? Scripture gives us this answer as well:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5: 9-13)
Is it too great a leap to suggest that if we as the church deny the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper to someone, we in essence are labeling them a sinner unfit to even eat with? I don’t think that is intentional but I think if we strip away the layers of tradition and ritual that surround the Supper we find that this is the net result. I don’t see the Supper as a doctrinal club but rather a joyous shared meal, a meal mind you and not a little emblem that represents a meal. The Lord’s Supper seems to describe a meal in the New Testament, so why should the church in 2009 accept a trivialized, ritualistic and infrequent substitute? We are to live in community with one another and what is more intimate, more communal than sharing a meal with one another? The congregation following Jesus Christ is one that lives in community and fellowship with one another, in “church”, in our homes and in the sharing of a meal with our brothers and sisters.
“they devoted themselves to…the prayers”
Prayer is one of the greatest areas of glaring weakness in the church (as well as in my own personal life). Saying we need to be a praying church is easy, explaining what that means can be harder. Prayer cannot be a rote repetition. Reading back a prayer someone else wrote strikes me as contrary to the spirit of prayer in the New Testament church. Listening to someone else pray for everyone else also seems to be a cheap substitute. Prayer is simultaneously an intensely personal act as well as something that clearly is a corporate act. Look at this account in Acts 1.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1: 12-14)
Here we find the church immediately after the ascension of Christ and the first thing that the church was doing was gathering in prayer. What do we see here? First we see everyone gathered together and “all of these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”. It strikes me as inconsistent to think that one of the men prayed and everyone else listened. A more natural reading was that they were all praying. Prayer is a personal and familial act with a God who restored our standing with Him. At the cross when Christ breathed His last, the veil was torn asunder (Mark 15:38) and opened the way of grace and mercy that allows us to pray with Christ as our advocate (1 John 2:1)and intercessor (Heb 4:16). Why would you let someone else stand in between you and the Savior? Prayer is the privilege and responsibility of the entire body of Christ and a congregation following Jesus Christ will exhibit prayer among the people as something to be desired for all, not reserved to the few.
“they devoted themselves to…the apostles’ teachings”
This is one that seems to get lost in the search for community and fellowship. Perhaps because doctrinal precision is often (perhaps rightly) linked with legalism and religious formalism. Nevertheless this is a non-negotiable. The danger of an emphasis on community is that we can lose sight of our common confession. I have zero interest in an assembly if we abandon the core truths of the Gospel in return for pseudo-fellowship. The church consists of God’s people in unity but that unity has a foundation. We are unified in our common salvation and our common confession. Let me be clear: there can be no genuine Christian fellowship where the Gospel message is altered, watered down or subsumed. The doctrines of the Gospel ought to unify us, not divide us. Where we see doctrine dividing brothers, we have a problem. Having said that, there are many passages which speak to the seriousness of doctrine. Space and brevity prohibit a full listing but even a cursory examination of the Scriptures demonstrates the level of concern that the writers of the New Testament for doctrine.
The congregation that follows Christ loves Him, loves His Word and finds itself searching the Scriptures as individuals and as an assembly. How can we love someone we know nothing about? How can we say we love Him if we don’t seek Him in His Word?
There is neither need nor room for speculation about what the gathering of the church is supposed to look like. We have been left a series of examples and commands that give us an adequate framework for the life of the community of redeemed believers. The Scriptures don’t contain set prayers or liturgies or church bulletins so why do we find them so vital to our church life? The congregation that follows Christ is one where simple community and fellowship, united by a common confession under the Gospel, has as their focus the only worthy object of worship, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our struggle is not to create whole cloth a worship system. Our struggle is instead to avoid the sort of traditions and rituals that humans have infected the worship of God with since the beginning. Scripture does not lay out a specific, liturgical schedule of events to govern the lives of believers nor is one desirable. All too often we have tried to push Scripture aside when it comes to the gathering of the New Covenant people as the church and replaced it with our own pragmatic solutions, rituals and traditions which may bring us comfort and a sense of being religious but bring little glory to God. Isn’t bringing glory to God what the gathering of the church is supposed to be about?