People who are newly saved are often faced with a great difficulty. Which group of believers in the area should they join? There are many sects and denominations around, so the task of deciding is not easy. To attend the nearest ‘place of worship’ is no answer. It could have a modernist preacher who would wreck your faith. To look around for nice people with an exciting form of worship could lead to something remote from the teaching of scripture. To search for a good preacher is no safe course of action. His term of ministry may be relatively brief, and then what?
Are there any guidelines for the perplexed believer who is seeking a spiritual home? There are, and they are contained in the unerring Word of God. As in every other area of our Christian lives, the Bible is our only safe source of guidance.
The purpose of this booklet is to list at least some of the features of churches as they were in New Testament times. This is done with the conviction that every effort should be made to imitate the biblical pattern, for God’s principles never change with the passing of the years. Read the booklet prayerfully. Check its contents with the inspired scriptures. If what it says tallies, seek out a company of believers who endeavour to follow the New Testament pattern and associate with them in their witness for God.
WHAT IS A CHURCH?
Many people refer to a religious building as a church, but in the New Testament, buildings were never called churches. In fact, there are verses which show that buildings accommodated churches, so obviously, the building itself was not the church. For example, churches met in the homes of Philemon, and Aquila, Philemon v. 2; Romans 16. 5. The church was the congregation of people who met in these homes, so the church was made up of people. It has ears, so it must be people! Acts 11. 22. “Tell it unto the church”, said the Lord Jesus, Matthew 18. 17. You don’t speak to buildings! The church has emotions, Acts 5.11. The church prays, Acts 12.5. These and other references demonstrate that New Testament churches comprised of people, and not of wood, brick or stone.
Others speak of a countrywide religious organisation as a church. There are denominations called the Church of England and the Church of Scotland etc. In Bible times there were no such ‘national churches’. When the New Testament refers to the church in a country or region, the word ‘church’ is always plural. Thus we read of the churches of Galatia, and not the Church of Galatia, Galatians 1. 2, the churches of Asia, and not the Church of Asia, 1 Corinthians 16. 19, the churches of God in Judaea, and not the Church of Judaea, 1 Thessalonians 2. 14. There were independent churches scattered throughout these regions, and no equivalent of the modern day national ecclesiastical organisation.
So then, in the first century, a church in a locality was the group of believers in that district who gathered for worship, prayer, teaching and service. Probably, the word ‘assembly’ would better express the sense of the Greek word ekklesia which is normally translated ‘church’ in the King James Version, the old English translation of the Bible. Consider some of the features of these New Testament churches or assemblies.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES HAD NO SECTARIAN TITLE.
In our day, each of the sects and denominations of Christendom bears a title to distinguish it from other groups. Some take their name from a founder, and so there are Wesleyans and Lutherans etc. Others are identified by their form of church government, and so there are Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Some are known by a particular doctrine or practice that they hold, and so there are Baptists and Pentecostals. To willingly take any name that does not include all believers is to be guilty of the sin of sectarianism that is condemned in 1 Corinthians 1. 10-16. New Testament assemblies did not gather under the patronage of any sect or denomination, but they did gather in association with the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The relevant scripture is Matthew 18. 20. Said the Saviour, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.
At least two things are suggested by the phrase ‘gathered in (or unto) my name’. First, Identification with the Lord Jesus. That is, the believer abandons all man-made ecclesiastical systems, and is identified with the rejected Christ. The epistle to the Hebrews urges this upon us all. “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach”, ch. 13. 13. ‘The camp’ in that day was Judaism, and its modern equivalent is Christendom into which many of the features of Judaism have been absorbed. The believer is called upon to break his links with that, and be associated alone with the Man who is ‘outside the camp’, as one gathered to His name. Second, Subjection to Christ. When the Saviour is seen in relation to the local church, the name most frequently used by the Spirit of God is that of the LORD Jesus Christ. Most of 1 Corinthians relates to assembly matters, and in that letter there are constant references to Him by that title. So, gathering to His Name implies the acknowledgement of His authority as THE LORD Jesus. It is true that His lordship ought to affect every department of our lives, but don’t neglect it in your church life, by gathering to His Name, owning no authority but His, and no other rule-book but His Word.
So then, early Christians took no denominational title, but were happy to be known as those who were linked to Him, thus experiencing the deep joy that His presence brought.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES HAD NO HEADQUARTERS ON EARTH.
Modern ecclesiastical bodies consist of a central authority with numerous congregations responsible to that central office. The format differs from group to group, but there are general assemblies, synods of bishops, central oversights and so on. This concept of a headquarters on earth is alien to the Word of God. New Testament churches were churches of God, 1 Corinthians 1. 2, and each one was responsible to God alone. This is demonstrated in the seven letters that the Lord dictated to the churches in Asia, Revelation 2 and 3. There is no hint that these churches were responsible to each other, or to any central authority, but to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who walked among the golden lampstands, Revelation. 1. 12-13.
The autonomous character of local assemblies is a safeguard against false teaching. Error affecting one assembly need not corrupt another. If a central authority exists, and the devil infiltrates it, false teaching will then be pushed out to every congregation in the group to become the compulsory creed for all. So then, every local church should stand independent of each other, and responsible to the Lord alone. This does not mean that there should be no fellowship between assemblies. Scripture allows for this as can be seen, for example, in Acts chapter 11. Barnabas came from Jerusalem to Antioch to teach and encourage the new assembly there. At the end of the chapter, the believers at Antioch sent a monetary gift to the needy Christians in Judaea. Thus there was both spiritual and material fellowship between these two communities of God’s people.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES WERE RESTRICTED TO CHRISTIAN MEMBERSHIP.
One sad feature of the present day is that many of the Lord’s dear people are connected to religious systems in which believers and unbelievers are linked. That situation was never the norm in New Testament times. In 1 Corinthians 1. 2, Paul described the composition of the church of God at Corinth like this, “them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. Thus each member was a genuine believer for it is our faith in Christ that sanctifies us, Acts 26. 18. He also spoke of assemblies in general as “churches of the saints”, 1 Corinthians 14. 33, another indication that there should be an exclusively believing membership.
Believers who are members of a mixed religious society often argue like this, “If I withdraw my light from this situation, the darkness will be all the greater”. They see their unsaved fellow members as a mission field. In actual fact, the Bible shows that light and darkness are incompatible, and so light should be withdrawn. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers…Come out from among them, and be ye separate”, 2 Corinthians 6. 14-18.
It should be noted that not all believers qualify for the privilege of fellowship in a New Testament assembly. Sin disqualifies, 1 Corinthians 5. 11, and to hold erroneous doctrine that would create a faction is another factor that debars, Titus 3. 10. Both moral and doctrinal evil corrupts the whole assembly, for “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump”, 1 Corinthians 5. 6, Galatians 5. 9. There is the need to maintain the purity of the assembly both morally and doctrinally.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES WERE GUIDED BY OVERSEERS.
The responsibility for leadership in New Testament assemblies devolved upon overseers, (often translated ‘bishop’ in the King James Version). These men are also described as being elders, that is, men of a mature spiritual experience, 1 Timothy 3. 6. They were not elected by the congregation, but appointed by the sovereign choice of the Holy Spirit, Acts 20. 28. Certain qualifications had to be met, and these are outlined in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and Titus chapter 1. The responsibilities of overseers were varied, but are summarised in both the teaching of Paul and Peter, “feed (shepherd) the church of God”: “feed the flock of God”, Acts 20. 28, 1 Peter 5. 2. The duty of overseers is to attend to every aspect of the spiritual needs of the believers under their care. That is why the metaphor of a shepherd is used to describe them, Ephesians 4. 11. (The word is translated ‘pastor’ in the King James Version but is just the normal Greek word for ‘shepherd’. The modern concept of one ‘pastor’ caring for the flock is not founded on the teaching of scripture). Observe that there were a number of bishops (overseers) in one church, Acts 20. 17, 28; Philippians 1. 1, and not one bishop over a number of churches as is current under some forms of church government today.
NEW TESTAMANT CHURCHES WERE INSTRUCTED BY A NUMBER OF PREACHERS.
In Christendom, a system has developed that we call the clerical system, in which one man has almost the sole responsibility of preaching to a congregation week by week. That practice is not based on the teaching of the Bible. In New Testament times, in each local church, a number of men had responsibility for ministering to God’s people. Indeed, every believer had some part to play, for the assembly is likened to a human body with each member playing a vital role. Every believer has been endowed with a spiritual gift that has to be employed for the good of the whole body. To pay one man to bear almost the whole responsibility of helping God’s people is a contradiction of the ‘body of Christ’ aspect of the local church, 1 Corinthians 12. 27.
The word ‘minister’ in the King James Version, e.g. Colossians 1. 7, is a translation of the Greek word diakonos. Elsewhere it is rendered ‘deacon’, just an anglicised form of the Greek word. It simply means a ‘servant’. Some of these men preached the Gospel, Colossians 1. 23, and others were teachers of God’s people, 1 Timothy 4. 6, but there was always a number of them in each local church, Philippians 1. 1. In the church at Antioch there were five preachers, Acts 13. 1. This number increased, so that later there were ‘many’, Acts 15. 35. There is no hint that these men wore distinctive clothes, as do the clergy today. That practice is a relic of Judaism in which the priesthood was distinct from the people, their very appearance making the distinction obvious. In Christianity, every blood-washed believer forms part of the priesthood, 1 Peter 2. 5, 9; Revelation 1. 5-6. As far as the teaching and preaching were concerned then, in each assembly a number of appropriately gifted men shared that responsibility. They had no formal college training for the task, but simply used the spiritual gift that God had given them.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES HAD NO AUDIBLE FEMALE PARTICIPATION.
A reading of the New Testament will demonstrate that Christian women played a crucial role in the ongoing work of God. Such sisters as Priscilla, Phebe and Eunice are but examples of the noble band of women-folks whose contribution to assembly life was invaluable. However, teaching the Word is vocal participation in the gatherings and is for the men only. That may sound strange in an age of equal opportunities in politics and business, but it is the clear teaching of scripture. The general statement that covers the point is, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”, 1 Corinthians 14. 34. The immediate context shows that the prohibition extends even to asking a question in a public gathering. Elsewhere, it takes in public praying, in that the men (Greek word meaning males) should pray, 1 Timothy 2. 8, and it certainly forbids public teaching on the part of the sisters, 1 Timothy 2. 12.
The difference between the genders should be seen not only in functions, but also in appearance. The first half of 1 Corinthians 11 shows, that in the gatherings, the men, with short hair, should have their heads uncovered, and that the women, with long hair, should have their heads covered. Among other things, these are visible tokens of the man acknowledging Christ’s headship, and the woman acknowledging the God appointed headship of the man.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES CELEBRATED THE LORD’S SUPPER WEEKLY.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by the Lord Himself on the eve of His crucifixion. In the loaf and cup He was giving tangible emblems of His body and blood, and His command to His disciples was to perpetuate this ordinance in remembrance of Himself. The practice of the early believers in the book of Acts gives guidance regarding the ‘breaking of bread’. A quick glance at the end of chapter two will reveal that the participants were people who had been saved by responding to Peter’s preaching. Subsequently, they were baptised, and then, among other things, they continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread, v42. That scriptural sequence should not be disturbed. The Lord’s Supper should never be seen as a ‘means of grace’ on the part of an unsaved person, and an unbaptised believer who participates has failed to appreciate the importance of the order of Scripture.
The Lord Jesus commanded baptism for His disciples, Matthew 28. 19, and there are constant references in the Acts of the Apostles to people being baptised immediately after conversion. They were baptised as believers and not as infants; there is no precedent for infant baptism in the Bible. They were baptised by immersion in water. The Greek word baptizo means ‘to dip’, and the record of Acts 8. 38-39 where both Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water shows that this was the mode of baptism. The spiritual symbolism of baptism, that is, burial and resurrection, serves to emphasise this point, Romans 6. 1-11. So then, the converts of Acts 2, having been saved and baptised, shared the fellowship of the local church of which the Lord’s Supper was a part.
In Acts 20. 7, guidance is given regarding when the breaking of bread should be, “upon the first day of the week”. Despite being keen to make progress on his journey v. 16, Paul deliberately waited at Troas to be with the disciples to break bread. He had no thought of celebrating the supper on another day, or even on board ship as he travelled. The words ‘oft’ and ‘often’ in 1 Corinthians 11. 25-26 imply a not infrequent remembrance of Christ.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES MET FOR COLLECTIVE PRAYER.
Collective prayer was an important function of the early churches, Acts 2. 42, 4. 23-24, 12. 5, and the prayer meeting should still be a priority for every assembly. On some occasions in the Acts, these were impromptu gatherings in emergency conditions, but it is clear that meetings for prayer were a regular feature of the early churches.
The doctrinal part of the Word that regulates the conduct of prayer meetings is 1 Timothy chapter 2. The first two verses show how we should pray, blending supplications, intercessions and thanksgivings. They show for whom we should pray, and why, and really, the command to pray for ‘all men’ provides wide scope for our public prayers. As has been observed already, verse 8 indicates who should do the public praying, the men.
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES WERE CENTRES FROM WHICH THE GOSPEL RADIATED.
It was said of the Thessalonian assembly, “From you sounded out the word of the Lord”, 1 Thessalonians 1. 8. This should be a characteristic of every local church. Indeed, its continued existence depends on an energetic successful gospel outreach. This is the only method by which sinners are won to Christ and added to the company of believers bearing collective testimony for Him. A metaphor of the assembly in scripture is that of a golden lampstand, Revelation 1 – 3. The point of the illustration is that the witness of every local church should be such, that the light of the Gospel penetrates the dense moral and spiritual darkness that pervades our communities. New Testament churches were not just respectable, religious social clubs, but they comprised of people who had a burden to reach their neighbours and friends with the life-changing gospel. Their commitment to that goal was unquestioning.
As stated in the introduction, this booklet has been framed with the newly saved person in mind, but we all have to take stock of our ecclesiastical position. Ask the question, “does the group I am linked with match the New Testament pattern?” If not, you have a responsibility to respond to the teaching of Scripture and to meet with believers whose principles of gathering correspond to that biblical pattern.
Obviously this study has not been exhaustive, but be like the people of Berea, who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so”, Acts 17. 11.